Washington and Lee University Considers Potential Name Change

June 29, 2020 Updated: June 29, 2020

Faculty members at Washington and Lee University (WLU) are considering taking “Lee” out of the university’s name because of the association with the Confederacy.

Located in Lexington, Virginia, the WLU was named for George Washington, whose donation ensured the school’s survival, and Robert E. Lee, who turned the school into a modernized research university following his military career in the Confederate Army.

More than 100 undergraduate and law school professors who attended a virtual meeting Wednesday are expected to send a formal request to the university’s president and the board of trustees by the end of the month, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“Everyone who was in that conversation feels that the best thing for our institution is to drop our affiliation with Lee,” the associate professor who organized the discussion told the newspaper. “Of course there were people who did not participate in the conversation, but for those who did, there was not one voice suggesting that this was not the right thing to do.”

In a letter to the campus community, WLU President Will Dudley said that while he is aware of the effort to drop Lee’s name, the fact that the Confederate commander made transformational contributions to the university complicates the matter.

“Many of you have called for decisive action in accordance with our values. You have asked me what we have done. And you have asked me what more we will do. I welcome these questions—which I ask myself every day,” Dudley said. He promised a host of measures to promote “diversity and inclusion,” including expanding enrollment of low-income students by 33 percent, making Juneteenth a university holiday, and establishing a George Floyd Endowment.

The WLU was established in 1749 as Augusta Academy, according to its website. The small classical school was renamed Liberty Hall in 1776 in support of the patriot cause. In 1796, George Washington donated $20,000 worth of James River Canal stock to solve the school’s financial crisis. The board of trustees promptly changed the name of the school to Washington Academy to express their gratitude.

In 1865, Robert E. Lee, who had long looked on George Washington as his role model, turned down many job offers from other schools to accept the post of president of Washington Academy. After Lee’s death in 1870, the trustees voted to change the name to Washington and Lee University to commemorate the significant changes the former Confederate commander brought to the school. Lee and many of his family members are buried in the Lee Chapel on campus.