Robert E. Lee descendant supports Washington and Lee diplomas without the namesakes’ portraits

A group of law students launched the petition in November.

The+current+Washington+and+Lee+University+diploma%2C+for+both+law+and+undergraduate+students%2C+displays+portraits+of+George+Washington+and+Robert+E.+Lee.+%5BImage+from+online+petition%5D
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Robert E. Lee descendant supports Washington and Lee diplomas without the namesakes’ portraits

The current Washington and Lee University diploma, for both law and undergraduate students, displays portraits of George Washington and Robert E. Lee. [Image from online petition]

The current Washington and Lee University diploma, for both law and undergraduate students, displays portraits of George Washington and Robert E. Lee. [Image from online petition]

The current Washington and Lee University diploma, for both law and undergraduate students, displays portraits of George Washington and Robert E. Lee. [Image from online petition]

The current Washington and Lee University diploma, for both law and undergraduate students, displays portraits of George Washington and Robert E. Lee. [Image from online petition]

Jin Ni

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A petition for Washington and Lee University to offer graduates a diploma option without the portraits of George Washington and Robert E. Lee has been signed by at least 280 law and undergraduate students, alumni and faculty.

[Read the petition here]

And one of the petition’s supporters is a descendant of Robert E. Lee, Rev. Rob W. Lee IV, who spoke at the university law school in March 2019. 

Since the petition was published in November, it’s attracted coverage from publications like the Washington Post, The Hill and Breitbart. Chandler Gray, ‘21L, one of the organizers of the petition, said the petition has two goals: to gauge current law students’ feelings about the portraits and to raise awareness to the rest of the university and enact change.

“I am personally uncomfortable with hanging an item in my professional office that depicts a person who has become a symbol of white supremacy,” Gray said in an email. “I am very proud to be attending W&L, and I want my diploma to reflect the reasons I chose to attend this law school — community, education, our system of honor — rather than simply these two men.”

The decision regarding diplomas rests with the university’s Board of Trustees. But as of January 15, the board had not received the petition to consider it, said Jim Farrar, ‘74, a member of the Board of Trustees, university secretary and President Will Dudley’s senior advisor.

“No petition has been delivered to either the President or the Board of Trustees,” Farrar said in an email. “Any decision regarding a requested change to the diploma would rest with the Board of Trustees, which is charged with the responsibility of granting degrees.”

Gray says the organizers are in the process of gathering more law student input, and hope to submit the petition to President Dudley and the Board of Trustees during their meeting later this semester.

Dudley told the Ring-tum Phi he is aware of the petition and that he supports the right of members of community members to express their opinions and engage in a civil manner.

“Free and critical thinking, and civility, are integral to the mission of the university, and I am committed to upholding those values,” Dudley said in an email. “I encourage all students, faculty, staff, and alumni, especially when engaged in conversations or contested issues, to conduct themselves in a manner consistent with our shared aspirations.”

Lee voiced his support for the new diploma option in a letter to the Board of Trustees dated Dec. 5, 2019.

“It is clear that in times of moral uncertainty, we do not cling to the racism, bigotry, and white supremacy for which the Confederacy and its leaders have always and continue to stand for,” Lee said in the letter. “We look to people like your law students, who are asking for us to behave in a manner worthy of the title of Southerner, of Virginian, of American.”

[Read the full letter here]

The petition reflects a wider discussion on campus of institutional history with the formation of the Commission on Institutional History and Community, which Dudley formed in the aftermath of the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville in 2017. 

The commission’s report didn’t include changes to the diploma, but did recommend changes in regards to the way Lee Chapel memorializes former university president Robert E. Lee as sustaining “the Shrine of the South and the memory of Lee as a commander of the Confederate Army.”  

In October 2018, the Board of Trustees confirmed the following recommendations made by the commission: 

  • rename the buildings formerly known as Lee-Jackson House and Robinson Hall, 
  • exchange the military portraits of Washington and Lee in Lee Chapel for portraits of the figures in civilian attire, 
  • and hire a director of institutional history. 

[University acknowledges trailblazers in controversial renaming of buildings]

Generals’ Redoubt, a group of Washington and Lee alumni that formed in opposition to the Commission on Institutional History and Community’s report and the board’s changes, released a statement in opposition to the diploma option on Nov. 18, 2019. The statement called the petition part of the university’s move “to dismantle the traditions, values and history of Washington and Lee.” 

“The removal of the likeness of George Washington and Robert E. Lee [from the diploma], which adorns the offices and homes of many of our alumni, is a severe affront to the generous and loyal alumni who respect the character and values of our namesakes,” the statement reads.

The petitioners, including the leadership of 22 law school organizations, say they want a diploma from their alma mater they can be proud to hang in their homes and offices.

“Given the aftermath of the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville and the heightened awareness of making Washington & Lee an inclusive and compassionate environment to all students, we believe this request provides alumni the ability to honor their alma mater without the presence of the portraits that some may find controversial or offensive,” the petition reads.

At least 19 law professors have signed the petition, as well as undergraduate professor Melina Bell, university counselor Christy Barongan, and Andrea Hilton, ‘85L, an associate director for the law school’s office of Career Strategy.

David Bruck, a clinical law professor, said he believes no law graduate should be required to hang Lee’s portrait in their office and instead should make the choice for themselves. 

“Robert E. Lee violated his oath of loyalty to the United States in order to command the army of slavery,” Bruck said in an email. “Over the last 150 years, an elaborate counter-narrative about Lee has elevated his supposedly stellar character over the historical record.”

More than 20 undergraduate students, including Amber Morrison, ‘23, also signed the petition. Morrison said she is not arguing for the original diploma to be replaced, but for students to have the freedom to choose.

“As a black student, I shouldn’t be forced to carry the image of Robert E. Lee everywhere,” she said. “Is that not reminiscent of authoritarian leaders forcing citizens to keep pictures of them on the wall? I can respect history without creating a shrine to it. And I pray that Washington and Lee can learn to do the same.”

Gray asked the Executive Committee in a Nov. 18 business meeting to weigh in, but members refused to officially comment on the petition.

“The short answer of whether the EC can do anything is no,” said Daniel Kator, ‘21L, an Executive Committee representative. “That’s just because the EC does not take official stances on issues on campus like that.” 

But Kator said it’s not unprecedented. A display honoring the first African-American graduate of the law school, Leslie Devan Smith, is erected in Sydney Lewis Hall. Kator said the plaque mentions the Executive Committee’s unanimous resolution in 1964 that encouraged the university to admit students of color. 

“It’s not unheard of,” Kator said during the meeting. “But as of right now, it’s not something the E.C. is going to jump onto as an endorsement or say, ‘No, we disagree with it.’”

Gray said if Washington and Lee University makes the move to add another diploma option, it wouldn’t be the first university to do so. In 2016, Harvard Law School accepted a proposal to remove a crest that represented the family of a prominent slaveholder.

“To provide students with an option to change their diploma would not be an example of W&L going against peer institutions, but rather W&L joining with other peer institutions to objectively reconsider how these portraits may be perceived today,” she said.