A Community Conversation

President Rusico's Message to the Community on April 21

To: The University Community

From: Kenneth P. Ruscio, President

Date: April 21, 2014

The events and media coverage of the past couple of weeks compel me to write you once again. These are my individual and personal thoughts. They spring from a devotion to this institution and to the people who compose it. I have consulted several other people in recent days, including a few student leaders—some who are directly involved in the discussions and some who are not—as well as a few administrative and faculty colleagues and trustees. In the end, the comments are mine and mine alone.

The questions that some law students have raised are legitimate. Washington and Lee seeks to establish a climate of learning in which we treat all individuals with respect and trust. If even one person thinks that we have not met our aspiration in that regard, we must listen to them and examine why. We are doing so, and we will continue to do so.

At the same time, these matters require a wider, deeper conversation that includes members of our community whose voices have not been heard in the various media reports. That includes many of our black students and black alumni, who have shared their individual experiences in our ongoing discussions about these issues throughout this academic year.

The phrase "climate of learning" is worth underscoring. Washington and Lee is an educational institution, not a museum and not a historical curiosity. Education—by which I mean education in the deepest sense, with all the foundational features of the liberal arts and sciences, ranging from free and open inquiry, to critical and independent thinking, to a sense of history, philosophy, religion and ethics—is sometimes messy and controversial. It is not the simple transmission of information. It is not indoctrination. It is instead the embrace of received wisdom from the ages, and the exchange of informed views among individuals with different experiences and backgrounds.

We should be clear about the fundamental question we face in the midst of the controversy. It is not only about how to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day, although I have some comments on that. It is not only about the flags in Lee Chapel, although I also offer some thoughts on that. It is not only even whether Robert E. Lee is a saint or a sinner, a question for historians to debate and Providence ultimately to decide, and one that I have addressed in a different way in another context.

(That essay, "Judging Patron Saints," is available here.)

The fundamental question for us is whether people with different backgrounds, different experiences and different opinions can address difficult questions and, if not necessarily agree with one another, at least strive, with mutual respect, to better understand each other and to find common ground. Beyond our campus, there is considerable doubt whether disagreement in a diverse society can lead to anything other than harsh accusations and entrenched positions. I hope it is possible to achieve more. If any community can fulfill that ideal, it is ours.

In the days ahead, I hope we each find that elusive balance between the courage of our own convictions and the humility that enables us to learn from others.

Let me address some of the specific matters that have come up in the discussions and propose a few steps.

First, last fall I asked a campus group to undertake a comprehensive review of the history of African-Americans at Washington and Lee. We already know some of that history. For example, we have the enslaved laborers who built Robinson Hall in 1840. And we have the complex and remarkable story of how we integrated the student body in the 1960s; it will appear in the upcoming modern history of Washington and Lee being written by Blaine Brownell '65. So far, this group has been operating informally and in only a preliminary fashion. The current discussion is an impetus for the group to move forward. In the end, we will assess that institutional history and provide whatever judgment is warranted.

Second, the question of canceling undergraduate classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day is about how to honor Dr. King's legacy, not whether to honor it. I am proud of the array of events we offer during the entire week—both here on campus and throughout the city and county. They include a moving program with our University Singers in a downtown church, a birthday party for local children, a service day, faculty panels on economic and social justice, a prominent guest speaker, and a dinner with commemorating remarks from students, faculty and staff. Many faculty use their time in class to discuss topics related to Dr. King. Whether we should also cancel undergraduate classes is a fair question, one that rests in the hands of the faculty, who determine the academic calendar. Many people are concerned that canceling classes would supplant an eventful week of educational activities with an uneventful three-day weekend. I trust the collective wisdom of our faculty if they wish to take up the question.

Third, although the current language in our diversity statement has not been central to the discussions so far, I will initiate a review of it. I want to be sure that it accurately reflects our commitment to diversity and inclusion and our reasons why. Perhaps we will decide to articulate our commitment differently. Perhaps not. The discussion surrounding such a review, however, will be important and educational for all of us. I firmly believe that inclusion and excellence are inseparable; if we seek excellence, we will necessarily seek inclusion. It is that link between excellence and inclusion that I want to ensure is captured in our current statement.

Fourth, other questions have been raised, including, for example, the display of the battle flags of several Confederate regiments in the back of Lee Chapel around the statue (not the crypt) of Robert E. Lee. Too many individuals assume they know which flags are there, why they are there, and the history of how they got there. I am piecing the story together for myself and will share my findings with all of you.

Fifth, as I mentioned previously, our University Committee on Inclusiveness and Campus Climate, chaired by Associate Provost Marc Conner, will take up other and ongoing questions and help us fashion additional steps. That is the clear purpose of the committee, established in 2008, and we look forward to their continued leadership. In addition, for some time, the Office of Student Affairs and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion have been working intensively with students on issues of campus climate. And last fall, the Roger Mudd Center for Ethics chose the theme "Race and Justice in America" to explore during the 2014-2015 school year; it has already lined up a full schedule of speakers who will appear on campus. Contrary to one reporter's assertion that the University has been "surprised" by these questions, the real story is quite different. I do not mean to suggest we have the answers, but we are not unaware.

Finally, this is a conversation for those of us who belong to this community—primarily our faculty, staff and students, those of us who live here, who interact with each other, who learn from each other. That community also includes our alumni, who remain deeply devoted to this institution and its values, and who benefited in the past from that climate of learning in which we take such pride. We are receiving a great deal of advice from many people outside our community. While we will not simply dismiss that advice, these matters are for us to decide.

As always, I welcome your guidance. I have heard from many of you already in ways that remind me, yet again, that ours is a place that people care about. I feel thankful every day for that simple truth.