Washington and Lee University may change its name—well, both of them—in June when the school’s Board of Trustees meets to decide the matter. The renaming controversy has surrounded the school for some time now, with many students and some faculty demanding a change while others wish to keep the current name of one of the oldest colleges in the country.
In 1796, George Washington donated 100 shares of James River Canal Company stock to the school, stock that he had received in recognition to his selfless service to his country. It was one of the largest donations to any educational institution at the time and remains part of the institution’s endowment to this day, contributing to the University's operating budget. Upon bestowing this gift, Washington stated that higher education should prepare students for personal success and public service, while also unifying diverse communities of students and teaching them to live in harmony. That is an admirable goal, but, sadly, the opposite of what colleges see as their mission today.
Four months after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, the school’s board of trustees invited Lee to become president of the college. They did so believing that his dedication to principle and duty would inspire students and faculty alike.
Lee explained his motivation for accepting the presidency in an 1865 letter to his wife: "Life is indeed gliding away and I have nothing good to show for mine that is past. I pray I may be spared to accomplish something for the benefit of mankind and the honour of God." In another letter written the following spring, he noted: "So greatly have [educational] interests been disturbed [in] the South, and so much does its future condition depend upon the rising generation, that I consider the proper education of its youth one of the most important objects now to be attained, and one from which the greatest benefits may be expected."
Lee instituted undergraduate courses in business and journalism, introduced modern languages and applied mathematics, incorporated the law school, and expanded offerings in the natural sciences. In short, he transformed the school into a modern university. He also emphasized the importance of student self-governance by putting the students in charge of the honor system the faculty had previously overseen. He proclaimed: "As a general principle you should not force young men to do their duty but let them do it voluntarily and thereby develop their characters." That principle helped to engender a campus culture that fostered honor, integrity, and civility. (All of which are sorely lacking on today’s campuses, directly because of the incessant leftist indoctrination.)
Upon Lee’s death on Oct. 12, 1870, the college had significantly enhanced its financial footing and grown its enrollment, thanks to Washington’s endowment and Lee’s guidance. At that time, the faculty requested that the trustees rename the college, originally called Augusta Academy and then rechristened Washington Academy, to recognize Lee’s contributions. The trustees agreed, changing the name to Washington and Lee University. Let us hope that the school’s current Board of Trustees respects the contributions of both men, and the scope of history, and leaves the name as is. But don’t count on it.
In today’s climate, the school will likely be renamed “Marx and Engels University.” Possibly “Farrakhan and Sharpton University.” “Schumer and Pelosi University?” “The College of Tlaib & Omar?”
Or, perhaps, in deference to our friends in the LGBTQ Community, “The College of Mary and Mary?”
Postscript: Since this piece was written, the college has decided not to change its name at this time. Hallelujah!