Update on the Work of the Special Committee of the Board of Trustees

To: The W&L Community
From: Rector Mike McAlevey ’86
Date: August 21, 2020
Re: Update on the Work of the Special Committee of the Board of Trustees

Let me begin with an expression of hope that you, your families and loved ones are healthy and safe during these unsettled times. This is surely one of the most challenging academic years in W&L’s history. In addition to the uncertainties of COVID-19, we have been asked to consider important issues relating to diversity and inclusion on campus, including the university’s name, and how to sustain and enhance our excellence as a liberal arts institution and a law school of distinction.

This letter serves as an update on the special board committee formed in July to review these issues. The committee’s work has begun. I thank its members who, like all trustees, are volunteering their time for this work with tremendous energy and dedication.

We know from listening sessions conducted with key stakeholders and from the many messages that we have received so far that there is great interest in the composition and responsibilities of the committee and the process by which a final decision on the university’s name will be made. Some of these issues are addressed in this message, and I encourage you to access the FAQ on the board’s website for more details.

As we begin this important and challenging assignment, I want to make it clear that we would not put the university through this process if any outcomes were viewed as inevitable. The trustees recognize that, for the sake of securing the best possible future for the university, we must re-examine fundamental questions. We intend to do so thoughtfully and thoroughly, with respect for the qualities that define Washington and Lee and make it distinct from other institutions.

The full board will make a considered decision about our name and symbols, and every trustee will be deeply engaged in the process. They will be supported by the special committee, which will gather, assess and synthesize information and insights on the board’s behalf. 

We have heard from several thousand individuals already. Everyone will be invited to share their thoughts as part of the board’s process, which will include a survey of our entire community. I will share more specific information on the board’s plans for this outreach in September. We value the arguments and insights from our talented students, who have historically been afforded greater voice and responsibility than at other institutions; from our faculty and staff, who are at the heart of our students’ experience; and from our passionate alumni, whose support makes us the envy of our peers.

The board will make its judgment by balancing a mix of considerations including the views of our community. Given the scope of this assignment and the unpredictable impact of COVID-19, it would be unwise to commit to an exact timeline. Even prioritizing these issues, I expect it may take six months or more before the process is complete. We will keep you updated on our progress.

I want to close by acknowledging that the issue of our name stirs powerful emotions, not only because of our affection for the university, but also because it is a proxy for broader debates in society about America’s history and its bearing on our nation’s future. Opinions differ about the best path forward. There are no easy answers to the questions before us. Whatever the outcome, some of us will be disappointed. As we move forward, please approach this process — and each other — with respect and an open mind.

We have a 271-year history. We have overcome many challenges and disagreements to arrive here today, united by our commitment to this institution. Our continued success depends on that shared commitment and our ability to realize the ambitious goals in our Strategic Plan. The university community has voiced strong support for our plan, and I am optimistic that we will emerge a stronger institution by keeping these goals in mind throughout this process.

Committee co-chairs Craig Owens ’76, William Toles ’92, ’95L and I will do our best to lead a process that meets your expectations. We ask for your patience as we take the time to do this right.