Students at Washington and Lee University want the option of receiving a diploma without the portraits of the university’s namesakes: George Washington and Robert E. Lee.
A petition is gaining support among law students there, and now, a great-nephew of the Confederate general is joining them.
“It’s always been coming, we’re just finally dealing with the past,” the Rev. Rob W. Lee IV told CNN. “If we don’t do that now, it will continue to fester as a wound on our nation.”
The school was named after Washington, an early benefactor of the institution. Lee was the school’s president starting after the Civil War in 1865 to his death in 1870.
After Lee’s death, the trustees voted to change the name from Washington College to Washington and Lee University. Lee is buried in a chapel on the private university’s campus in Lexington, Virginia.
Petition organizers want the university to be an “inclusive and compassionate environment” for its students and having an option to opt-out of the portraits will be a step in the right direction, they say.
“The goal of establishing this option is to create a diploma that alumni are proud to prominently display in their homes and places of work,” the organizers write.
University Dean Brant Hellwig and President Will Dudley responded to the petition in November, supporting its students for expressing their opinions.
“Free and critical thinking, and civility, are fundamental to our community,” they said in the statement.
But not everyone is in favor.
A group of alumni strongly oppose the petition, and they’re urging the university’s leadership to reject it.
“The petition is a symptom of strong undercurrents within the University to dismantle the traditions, values and history of Washington and Lee,” the group known as The General Redoubt said in a statement.
“The removal of the likeness of George Washington and Robert E. Lee, which adorns the offices and homes of many of our alumni, is a severe affront to the generous and loyal alumni who respect the character and values of our namesakes.”
The university is waiting for the petition to be formally delivered. Any decision made on the petition will be done by the university’s board of trustees, according to Dudley and Hellwig’s statement.