Washington and Lee Survey on School Name Change Garners More Than 14,000 Responses

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A survey distributed by Washington and Lee University (W&L) last month designed to give the board of trustees’ community feedback and to help decide whether or not to remove Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s name from the school received more than 14,000 responses.

The survey, which opened on September 16th and closed on October 15th, was sent to undergraduate and law students, faculty and staff, alumni and even parents.

As part of the boards of trustees’ ongoing examination on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion on campus, they formed a special committee back in July tasked with assisting that effort and gathering data from the W&L community.

“While it is still early, it is evident that these issues evoke strong emotions, particularly in this historical moment, and that our community is deeply divided about the university’s name,” Mike McAlevey, rector of the board of trustees’, wrote in an update message last Thursday.

Those 14,000 plus responses on the survey represented an overall response rate of 44 percent, McAlevey wrote.

Specifically, there were responses from 46 percent of alumni, 47 percent of undergraduate students, 61 percent of law students, 51 percent of faculty and staff and 35 percent of parents, according to the email.

The survey asked respondents a number of questions relating to associations with the school’s name, how important the name is and what the name represented to them. It also asked if respondents would continue to donate money and feel pride in the university were the name to be changed, and vice versa, according to a W&L alumna who filled out the survey.

“I’ve gone back and forth on this quite a bit because I do think there are important points on both sides. The thing that worries me about the whole name change and this discussion is I feel like it overshadows larger problems,” the alumna said in an interview with The Virginia Star. “I think [W&L] should be focusing [more] on the environment of the school, the course offerings and even the rhetoric surrounding the name. My fear is that if they did or did not go through with the name change, that would be the focus instead of being on the systemic issues with the school.”

Another W&L alumna who graduated from the school in 2016 also offered their opinion on the potential renaming.

“My stance on it is if changing the name [is just] to tick a box without any tangible or reasonable goals in mind and purely as a superficial move, I wouldn’t recommend it,” She told The Star. “Because it would only serve as a cultural pawn instead of an actually thoughtful and fully-fledged acknowledgement of what is going on in the world, and an actual step toward making real progress.”

The alumna added: “I think it’s great to hear from the community by doing surveys and because it’s a part of their past that they want to feel like they have ownership of and a say in, but if we are trying to be more inclusive of people of different races, ethnicities, genders, orientations or anything under the sun, the people who are actually living those experiences need to be the ones who are a part of the policy and decision making process at the end of the day.”

The survey is just one part of the board’s considerations, however. The committee has also scheduled 13 listening sessions involving students, faculty, staff and alumni, and have read “thousands of communications” on the subject, according to McAlevey

Another aspect that may be under consideration is the fact that Lee is buried on W&L’s campus.

Currently, there is no time table for when the board of trustees’ final decision might come, Drewry Sackett, associate director of communications and public affairs for W&L, said in an email.

“We are making progress, but our process is not yet complete,” McAlevey wrote.

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Jacob Taylor is a reporter at The Virginia Star and the Star News Digital Network. Follow Jacob on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected]
Photo “Washington & Lee” by Rex Hammock CC BY-SA 2.0.

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