Dear Trustees,

My wife, Libby, and I (she’s retired from Physics &. Engineering; I’m in phased retirement after 17 years in Journalism and Mass Comm) have just come up with an idea for how to resolve the name controversy. Keep the name “W&L,” which is what it’s called in common speech and in all those logos on hats, belts, a lot of documents and in many a loyal heart. But, retaining/reviving its two prior historical names, call it Washington and Liberty University. Of course this won’t satisfy everybody. But it is supported by history, a sense of compromise and a minimizing of the natural shock of change or no-change.

I have thought long and hard about the name-change issue, as have we all in the W&L community. I sit more on the fence than the overwhelming majority of my faculty colleagues throughout the university, and certainly in the journalism department. I have read the emails from the Generals Redoubt, and seen their videos. I am struck by their courtesy and the seriousness of their historical arguments about Lee as president of Washington College. I don’t like what I hear about threats of withheld donations and pledges if the name should change. I do agree with the worries and predictions of students, alumni and others who are concerned about W&L’s future (and present) if we don’t remove “Lee” from the university’s name.

In short, I’m conflicted. But I know we must resolve this, and the sooner the better (at least by this summer). And I have the experience of pushing, perhaps more than I should’ve and at the cost of being disparaged, the name-change of our church from R.E. Lee Memorial to Grace Episcopal. That took more than two horrible years, concluded in late 2017, and now sees us as a vibrant, prospering, unified parish church. (The name-change didn’t cause all the improvement, but was a sine qua non.)

Last summer, I published an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch suggesting the new name should be Rockbridge University. I was surprised at how few brickbats this triggered, and how many alumni messaged me that they agreed. I didn’t really like the name I proposed. I was just trying to get beyond the faculty’s steamroll toward eliminating “Lee” by getting us to think about the difficulty of a new name. That’s a difficulty I didn’t think enough of us were thinking about.

This weekend’s board meeting [before which it was announced that the board needed more time on the issue], and what I’ve heard from colleagues about it, inspired more thinking about what could be our new name. And this feels like a great inspiration. “W&L,” and “Washington and Liberty University.” In no time at all, it would be clear to the world that we’re not any of those other higher ed “Washingtons” and certainly not Liberty U. in Lynchburg. Our “Liberty” goes back to an earlier name, and to the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution, not to that Falwell guy who twisted an Anabaptist idea of soul liberty.

With our church, we were fortunate to have a historic name to go back to – Grace, as it was called when Lee was senior warden. In the process, we resolved to do what we could to rescue the Lee of our church’s history from its embarrassing widespread cultural meanings of Confederacy and Lost Cause. We did that internally. What the world saw was that we changed the name, and I almost wept when an African American from the Diocese came up from Roanoke and got choked up when he expressed how much our name-change meant to his community. (I can’t say he was speaking for all African Americans, but it seemed that way.)

W&L will have a lot of work to do around this. But please consider this proposal for a name change.

Sincerely,

Douglas O. Cumming, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Department of
Journalism & Mass Communications
Washington & Lee University
Lexington, Virginia

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Image Credit: the feature image of Washington & Lee University was taken by the author, Doug Cumming.

Doug Cumming

Doug Cumming

Doug Cumming worked for newspapers and magazines in Raleigh, Providence and Atlanta for 26 years before getting a Ph.D. in mass communication at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2002. Since then, he has taught at Loyola University in New Orleans and Washington & Lee University, where he is now a tenured associate professor of journalism. His first book, "The Southern Press: Literary Legacies and the Challenge of Modernity," has been published by Northwestern University Press.