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Report of The Commission on Institutional History and Community Washington and Lee University

Introduction

Washington and Lee University President Will Dudley formed the Commission on Institutional History and Community in the aftermath of events that occurred in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. In February 2017, the Charlottesville City Council had voted to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from a public park, and Unite the Right members demonstrated against that decision on August 12. Counter-demonstrators marched through Charlottesville in opposition to the beliefs of Unite the Right. One participant was accused of driving a car into a crowd and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. The country was horrified. A national discussion on the use of Confederate symbols and monuments was already in progress after Dylann Roof murdered nine black church members at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015. Photos of Roof posing with the Confederate flag were spread across the internet. Discussion of these events, including the origins of Confederate objects and images and their appropriation by groups today, was a backdrop for President Dudley's appointment of the commission on Aug. 31, 2017.

President Dudley charged the commission "to lead us in an examination of how our history — and the ways that we teach, discuss, and represent it —shapes our community." He directed the commission to examine "how we can best present our physical campus to take full advantage of its educational potential in a manner that is consistent with our core values." He instructed the commission to "create various opportunities to engage in conversation with all corners of the community," and to "meet with existing groups whose ongoing work relates to some of these issues, including the Working Group on the History of African-Americans at W&L, the University Committee on Inclusiveness and Campus Climate, and the University Collections of Art and History Advisory Committee." The president had confidence that the university would "set a national example by demonstrating how the divisive issues confronting us can be addressed thoughtfully and effectively. That is what a university should do, and it is especially what Washington and Lee should do."

The president appointed 12 members, all drawn from faculty, staff, students and alumni:

Chair:

  • Brian C. Murchison, Charles S. Rowe Professor of Law

Faculty:

  • Ted DeLaney '85, Associate Professor of History; 
  • Melissa R. Kerin, Associate Professor of Art History; 
  • Thomas Camden '76, Associate Professor, Head of Special Collections and Archives, University Library.

Students:

  • Elizabeth Mugo '19, Irmo, South Carolina, Executive Committee Vice President (elected Executive Committee President, April 2018); 
  • Heeth Varnedoe '19, Thomasville, Georgia, Junior Class Representative to the Executive Committee; 
  • Daniele San Román ‘19L, Port Jefferson Station, New York, Law Strategic Planning Task Force.

Staff:

  • Mary Main, Executive Director of Human Resources; 
  • Trenya Mason ‘05L, Assistant Dean for Law Student Affairs.

Alumni:

  • Cynthia Cheatham '07, Washington, D.C., Alumni Board Member; 
  • Mike McGarry '87, Charlotte, North Carolina, Alumni Board President; 
  • Phil Norwood '69, Charlotte, North Carolina, Rector Emeritus.

Nine members of the commission are alumni: Ted DeLaney and Tom Camden from the faculty; Trenya Mason from the staff; Elizabeth Mugo, Heeth Varnedoe and Daniele San Román from the student body (one year as a student qualifies a person to be an alumna/alumnus); and the three alumni representatives, Cynthia Cheatham, Mike McGarry and Phil Norwood. For the biographies of all members, see Appendix A.

From September 2017 through May 1, 2018, the commission worked in response to the president's charge. This report is that response. The report is divided into three principal parts, and it includes several appendices. The report's subject matter is necessarily difficult, involving close attention to problematic aspects of the university's history and physical campus. The president asked the commission to think openly and honestly about a range of such issues, and the process has been challenging. The report does not seek to diminish the many features that make W&L unique and well-loved by those who have worked and studied here, but it does seek to offer constructive proposals to make the university an even better, stronger institution.

Part I describes the methodology used by the commission to canvass the views of university constituencies. It offers a broad summary of views that were expressed, although it is important to acknowledge that not every view can be captured in a short summary. Appendix B therefore contains a more detailed inventory of the views that the commission received. Part I demonstrates that the commission engaged a wide number of individuals who are connected to the university and learned much about their views and suggestions for a sound response to the president's charge.

Part II — and its extension in Appendix C — addresses the history of the university. The purpose of this part is to begin gathering facts for a full and accurate understanding of the school's history, including information that is not always included in the telling of the W&L story. Part II does not purport to be a definitive historical account but is a first step in clearing away myths, liberties and exaggerations that, in the commission's view, should be corrected by the university as it charts its future path. The account is necessarily incomplete; as Lee himself wrote, "It is only the ignorant who suppose themselves omniscient." Much room remains for research and discussion carried out with intellectual honesty and humility.

The story of W&L is not simply the 19th-century background of the Civil War and the presidency of Robert E. Lee. The story includes the school's 20th- and 21st- century history, particularly its commitment to the liberal arts, its gradual shaping of a more inclusive mission and environment, and its eventual recognition as a premier American institution of higher learning. Part II makes a number of recommendations to further an accurate understanding of the school's full history.

In Part III, the report turns to the university's visual culture — both physical and virtual. The commission documented the dominant imagery used and displayed in highly visible areas of the campus, and analyzed the messages of the visual vocabularies and display practices. Based on this information, the commission makes a number of recommendations to change the physical and virtual environments of the campus. The goals are to create a more dynamic and inclusive atmosphere to align the school's visual culture more closely with its educational mission.

Finally, in its conclusion, the report reflects further on the president's charge, the work completed this academic year, and the steps that it recommends for the immediate future. Although the commission's recommendations are distributed by subject matter throughout the report, Appendix D brings them together in one list.