(By George Leef)
With the evident failure of their big policy moves to transform America into a collectivist, egalitarian land (such as Obamacare, fair housing regulations, high minimum wages and so on), “progressives” have retreated into complaints about symbolism. Flags, statues, names on buildings, and the like have taken center stage in the leftist campaign for control. Naturally, college campuses have been the most prominent battlegrounds.
Consider the situation of Washington and Lee University. It is located in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and named for two white men who owned slaves, George Washington and Robert E. Lee, commanding general of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and president of the school from 1865 to 1870. The university’s history and campus are steeped in the old South.
Until recently, the students who attended Washington and Lee, overwhelmingly white, but with a small percentage of blacks and other minorities, did so without fretting over whether the university was “inclusive.” They all enrolled to learn what the faculty had to teach. Statues and portraits and building names were rooted in the distant past, but were not thought to mean anything. Reminders that Virginia once permitted slavery and fought with the Confederacy did not prevent students from mastering physics or philosophy.
But today’s “progressives” are desperate for causes to keep themselves busy and have found numerous symbols of people and concepts they dislike to fill their need. Officials at Washington and Lee have, as we read in this Inside Higher Ed story, tried to toe a fine line in appeasing them.
The school created a commission to assess the school’s situation and recommend changes.
First, what about that name? Doesn’t it send the wrong message in this era of diversity and inclusion to call the institution Washington and Lee? Yes, but at least the committee recommended keeping the name. The costs of changing to something that wouldn’t offend anyone would have been huge and wouldn’t really accomplish anything. “The name has been in place for decades and is immediately recognized by many university constituencies,” state the report.
That was sensible, but the rest of the commission’s report was sheer groveling.
The university’s Lee Chapel, a key building for campus events, contained imagery that was, according to the report, part of an effort in the South to make the Confederacy a great but lost cause. That could make some students feel excluded, so the commission recommended that Lee Chapel be converted into a museum and no longer used for important campus events.
Furthermore, the university’s image would, according to the commission, be improved if references to Lee’s military career were effaced, so in the future, he will be referred to as “President Lee” and not “General Lee.” Trying to erase his role in the Civil War – that’s really going to help the school’s image and make all students feel included.
And of course, the commission recommended that all-purpose solvent for allegedly non-inclusive universities – more diversity. The school must make greater efforts at recruiting minority students and hiring minority faculty members; the administration must “work together to promote diversity.” That is somehow expected to help bring in more minority students.
Only 2 percent of the Washington and Lee student body is black, we read, while the figure at Davidson College in North Carolina is 7 percent. Let’s be more like Davidson! But Davidson is near a major city (Charlotte) with a large black population, while Washington and Lee is far out in the white Virginia countryside. It’s likely that location is the main reason why it doesn’t attract many black applicants, not because of its remaining historical ties to the Old South.
No doubt there are improvements that could be made at Washington and Lee to enhance the education its students receive, but trying to appease the unappeasable Left will accomplish nothing.