The Washington and Lee Board of Trustees will announce in June whether the school’s name will be changed.
Whatever the board decides will be controversial for all the usual reasons, so let’s try to put this in context.
First of all, it’s not unusual for schools to change their names. Sometimes, those are modest alterations, such as Hollins College becoming Hollins University or Madison College becoming James Madison University. Neither of those changed the essential part of the name. Other times, though, they are more substantial, and that’s what we’re concerned with here today.
Many of the name changes are so far in the past that we don’t even think about them anymore. Radford University began as State Normal and Industrial School for Women at Radford. What we’re interested in today are substantive name changes that have happened relatively recently. For that, we don’t have to look far. In 1999, Clinch Valley College became the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. In 1977, Lynchburg Baptist College became Liberty Baptist, a way station on the way to simply just Liberty.
As we look around the country, we find at least 36 examples of colleges making substantive name changes since 2000 (not counting others whose names changed when they were merged into a larger institution that kept its original name). With all due respect to these schools, we’ve never heard of most of them, and we doubt you have either.
Many, if not most, of those name changes resulted from a change of mission. In 2001, Ricks College, a two-year school operated by the Church of Latter Day Saints, became a four-year school and changed its name to Brigham Young University-Idaho as a way to extend the Brigham Young brand name. Likewise, in 2011, Atlanta Christian College became Point University to reflect a) a broader curriculum than its original one of training ministers and b) its new location in West Point, Georgia.
Some of the name changes were meant to honor someone. In 2002, Western Maryland College became McDaniel College to honor an important alumnus.
Some of the name changes were made for a combination of reasons. In 2008, Tri-State University in Indiana became Trine University partly because the name Tri-State was so common that the school often didn’t turn up in a Google search. The name Trine was picked to honor an alumnus by that name.
Out of all the changes, though, we could find just one example of a school changing its name because it was embarrassed by its moniker. That was Beaver College in Pennsylvania, where the name became the butt of jokes — and often found itself blocked by internet search filters once they became a thing. In 2001, Beaver College became Arcadia University.
That’s perhaps the most relevant example for W&L: The school in Lexington is considering a name change because some are embarrassed by the “L” in its name (and some might be embarrassed by the “W” as well). Lots of secondary schools have had their names changed — in Roanoke, Stonewall Jackson Middle School became John P. Fishwick Middle School — but changing a university name is a much bigger deal. Public school students don’t have much choice about which school they attend, but universities are very much in the marketing business. A university name is a brand name. And that’s surely part of what the W&L board must be deliberating — what’s the marketing effect of changing its brand name? Companies do that from time to time. Kentucky Fried Chicken became simply KFC. Dunkin’ Donuts became just Dunkin’. Aunt Jemima became Pearl Milling Company. The Washington Redskins became the Washington Football Team, at least for awhile. The Cleveland Indians have said they’ll change their name. What are the financial consequences — pro or con — if W&L becomes something other than Washington and Lee?
Make no mistake: If W&L changes its name, it would become the most famous university to change its name since … well, we don’t know. This is, after all, a school with a $1.7 billion endowment. It would also apparently become the first college to change its name because of a Confederate connection.
That’s part of W&L’s dilemma. Can it pick and choose which part of Robert E. Lee’s legacy it wants to embrace and which part it wants to reject?
On the one side: Lee was the best-known military leader of the secessionist cause. Those who signed up to fight for the South did so for lots of reasons — some simply to defend their home state against what they considered to be an invasion — but the ugly fact remains, if the Confederacy had won slavery would have been perpetuated. There’s no way to get around that. Therefore, we shouldn’t be honoring anyone or anything to do with the Confederacy — the Lost Cause is simply the 19th century Big Lie, a propaganda campaign that still brainwashes people today. White southerners need to wake up and realize they’ve been lied to — and that, yes, great-great-grandpappy who didn’t own any slaves got conned into a plantation masters’ war.
On the other side: After Appomattox, Lee could have led a guerrilla campaign. He didn’t. Instead, he simply told his troops to go home. He himself went to Lexington and saved a school. Shouldn’t that count for something? Is there no room in our public imagination for nuance and even redemption?
Those are the back-and-forth arguments we hear. Here’s one we haven’t heard so much: Has Washington and Lee, through 151 years of using that name, fundamentally changed the meaning of those names? Obviously, not enough for some — yet there are other names we use that we don’t object to even if perhaps we should. We literally fought a war against monarchism, yet Virginia still has multiple counties named after British royalty and assorted nobles. Does anyone think that by having counties named King George and Prince William and all the rest that we’re somehow still bending the knee to the British crown? Or have those place names lost their original meaning over the years and acquired new ones? That seems to be the case, because not even Revolutionary-era Virginians bothered to change those names and not many Virginians today could tell us just which George and which William those names refer to. (King George I and the youngest son of George II if you’re curious). Even fewer could identify Augusta County with Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha or Bedford County with John Russell, the Fourth Duke of Bedford. So when will the “Lee” in Washington and Lee just become the equivalent of background noise? Or will it ever? Guess we’ll find out in June.