Demand Accountability from Washington and Lee University

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In the wake of racist violence on behalf of police forces across America, members of the Washington and Lee University community have received two communications from President Will Dudley: one on May 31 to students, faculty, and staff, and another on June 4 to alumni and parents. Many of us find ourselves disheartened, though not entirely surprised, by the statements at hand. These statements comprise a pattern of University inaction regarding practices of inequity in academia, student life, and beyond, as well as asking students of color to bear the brunt of campus activist work themselves.

As students, alumni, faculty, staff, and other invested parties, we ask for commitments, not empty platitudes. A call for civility in the classroom simply upholds the status quo, and the events of recent weeks reflect the violent inadequacy of the sociopolitical circumstances that we see today. Civility will not do. As critical thinkers and lifelong learners, we need to engage with the centuries-long history of racist harm that has led us to this moment. Without an explicit commitment to antiracist action, an institution such as ours with direct ties to a Confederate general and the perpetuation of the Lost Cause narrative remains complicit in violence against people of color. As a predominantly white institution, Washington and Lee’s propensity to tolerate the beatification of Robert E. Lee is not passive; it flies in the face of progress, actively stymieing efforts to bring inclusivity to the table.

We pride ourselves on being a top tier liberal arts college with a strong sense of community. Many alumni dissatisfied with the statements issued by President Dudley over the past weeks still value the education we received and the relationships we nurtured in Lexington. Washington and Lee has an opportunity to lead this national conversation regarding the continuing impact of racism and other inequities in higher education, and instead we shy away from it. This legacy of hesitation is, frankly, embarrassing. In order to remain “not unmindful of the future,” as we claim the University to be, we must reject white supremacy and declare support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

In his second statement, President Dudley writes that one role of education is to grapple with “difficult and sometimes uncomfortable question[s].” The questions this moment raises may be difficult, but easily enough they have a right answer. If the University truly feels urgency related to a commitment to diversity and inclusivity, administrators will declare more than sympathy and shared feelings. In word and deed, antiracism must form a pillar of life at W&L. The community of trust Washington and Lee supposedly fosters is broken without it.