In June of 1905, Washington and Lee University's Board of Trustees passed a resolution to organize a School of Commerce, with the intention of preparing students for careers in law, business, banking, journalism, and public service. H. Parker Willis was named the school's first dean.
According to documents written at the time of the school's establishment, the Commerce School, as originally conceived, had three objectives:
- To provide instruction so arranged and co-ordinated as to form a good preparation for young men who do not propose to engage in scientific or professional pursuits, but who wish to acquire a suitable preparation for business.
- To encourage young men to complete a course of preparation for the study of law, such preparations being designed to fit them for dealing with business questions and practices, the knowledge of which is advantageous for the lawyer.
- The instruction in the advanced courses in economics and politics will, as heretofore, aim to prepare young men for sound citizenship, and for further prosecution of higher studies along similar lines.
The university already boasted strong programs in economics and politics, but to bolster its offerings, the faculty approved the addition of four new courses to the curriculum:
- Commerce 1: History and Methods of Industry
- Commerce 2: Foreign Trade
- Commerce 3: Finance and Banking
- Commerce 4: Statistics and Accounting
In May 1995, the Board of Trustees renamed the School the Williams School of Commerce, Economics, and Politics to honor alumnus Ernest Williams II, '38, for his devoted service and generosity to the University. Ernest Williams, better known as Ernie, came to Washington and Lee from his hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia in 1934. As a student, he was active in a number of organizations, including Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, the Glee Club, the Ring-tum Phi student newspaper, and the University's first lacrosse team. At that time, the Board also established an endowment in Williams' name, intended to strengthen faculty development, faculty research, and technological support.
In October 2004, Huntley Hall was named for Robert Edward Royall Huntley, Jr. '50, '57L. A native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Robert Huntley joined Washington and Lee University's law faculty in 1958 and was named dean in 1967. The following year, in 1968, he accepted the position of president of the university, becoming the only law dean to lead the university. Huntley served 15 years as president, displaying marketed leadership in times of financial peril and social upheaval.
Under the leadership of Larry Peppers--the university's longest serving dean with 29 years of service--the Williams School grew considerably. In 2007, the university renovated Holekamp Hall, allowing the school to expand into a second building, and by the time Peppers retired in 2015, the School boasted 60 faculty, four departments, several interdisciplinary programs, and more than 400 majors. After serving for 12 years as associate dean of the Williams School, Robert Straughan began his tenure as Crawford Family Dean on July 1, 2015.