A Message to the Community President Ruscio's Message to the Community on April 16

To: Members of the Washington and Lee Community

From: Kenneth P. Ruscio, President

Date: April 16, 2014

Last week, some members of the Board of Trustees and I received a letter from 12 Law School students expressing concerns about the climate for students of color at Washington and Lee.

In their letter, the law students issued the following four demands:

  • That the University fully recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day on the undergraduate campus.
  • That the University stop allowing neo-Confederates to march on campus with Confederate flags on Lee-Jackson Day and to stop allowing these groups to hold programs in Lee Chapel.
  • That the University immediately remove all Confederate flags from its property, including those flags located within Lee Chapel.
  • That the University issue an official apology for the University's participation in chattel slavery and a denunciation of Robert E. Lee's participation in slavery.

In recent days, reports about the students' demands have appeared in several media outlets, and additional media attention will likely be forthcoming.

I first want to assure the community that we take these students' concerns seriously. The issues they have raised are important, and we intend to address them.

Upon receipt of their letter, I immediately responded to the students and asked that, as a first step, a meeting take place with them and members of the University Committee on Inclusiveness and Campus Climate (UCICC). That committee, chaired by Marc Conner, associate provost, consists of students (both law and undergraduate) and members of the faculty, staff and administration. We created UCICC in 2008 as "an institutional platform to address issues of inclusiveness and diversity, in response to concerns within the campus community." Throughout this year, UCICC and the Office of Student Affairs have been holding focus groups with students to discuss some of the very issues that the law students are raising.

I also asked Provost Daniel Wubah to schedule a meeting with the law students.

As we consider these questions as a community, I think it is important to state several key facts as background for the discussions.

First, as you undoubtedly are aware, Washington and Lee does recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day each year with a University-wide MLK Legacy Week, which features a prominent guest speaker. This year, Donna Brazile spoke in Lee Chapel, on Jan. 26. Other recent speakers have included Terrence Roberts, Andrew J. Young and Julian Bond. In addition, we make available the panels, symposia and programs that we organize not only to the University community, but also to the Lexington-Rockbridge County community.
The Law School participates in the observance by holding its own programs and by cancelling classes on King Day.

We hold undergraduate classes on King Day. In accordance with the University's governing process, the faculty approves academic calendars and any adjustments to the class schedule. The law faculty controls the calendar in the Law School; the undergraduate faculty controls the undergraduate calendar. These two calendars are different in many respects, not just in terms of King Day.

Lee Chapel displays replicas of eight battle flags that represented different armies of the Confederate States of America, at the back of the chapel's main floor, near the statue called "The Recumbent Lee." These replicas are designed for historical and educational purposes. I am aware of no similar flags displayed anywhere else on our campus.

Based on Lee Chapel's policies for the use of the facility by non-University groups, a private group has reserved the chapel for a lecture on Civil War history as part of Lexington's community-wide events commemorating the Commonwealth of Virginia's holiday, Lee-Jackson Day. This is not a University-sponsored event, and W&L does not observe Lee-Jackson Day.

Finally, last year I impaneled a special committee to explore the history of African Americans at Washington and Lee and to provide a report to me and to the community. Elizabeth Knapp, senior assistant to the president, is convening that group. While we are aware of some of that history, I believe we should have a thorough, candid examination. That group has to date met in only a preliminary manner.

Let me conclude by reiterating that the students have raised important questions that relate to ongoing discussions at the University. I welcome their contributions and those of all members of the University community. I am certain we can address these matters in a manner that is both respectful and productive.

I welcome your thoughts on these issues.