Fall Semester Opens at Washington and Lee

As the fall semester opened at Washington and Lee University, President Kenneth Ruscio took the time at the university’s opening convocation to sound themes that would inform the coming academic year. You can read the full text here.

As to this summer’s controversy … which is fast dwindling into a kerfuffle … Ruscio had this to say:

I’m referring, of course, to our decisions to remove the decorative, replica Confederate battle flags from the statue chamber in Lee Chapel’s public space and thereby return that area to the way it was envisioned originally by Lee’s family and Lee’s friends and the way it stood for its first 60 years; to restore some original flags and display them in the Lee Chapel Museum, which is the appropriate way for an educational institution to treat genuine historic artifacts; to examine our history straightforwardly and accurately, with all the respect history deserves, including the contributions of enslaved African-Americans from 1826 to 1850; to honor our traditions reverently, but not blindly; to behave, in short, as an academic institution ought to behave, especially one mindful of its future as well as its past.

And I’m referring to protests against those steps by groups and individuals who have no connection to the University, who are not part of our community, and whose purposes diverge sharply from ours. They have every right to voice their disagreement. We have an equal right to say that these matters are for Washington and Lee to decide, and that we do not exist as a platform for them to assert their views.

This is not a response to them. We do not wish them ill. They are who they are; we are who we are. And we can’t be distracted by those who object to one piece of what we have done, while we are consumed, as we should be, with the nobler purpose of defining the kind of community we wish to be.

You would think that people who talk all the time about self-determination would have no problem with this statement.

Ruscio returned to this theme of community and purpose at the end of his remarks:

I want to return to where I began, which is why the events of this summer were at least one reason for me to consider these deeper questions. In the midst of some of the criticisms we have received from those outside the community, and a few from within, it has been tempting to respond directly. But we have refrained for a variety of reasons, sometimes because we have a university to run, and sometimes because we would have to engage on terms that have little to do with how a university operates. We have a different position because of the values and ideals we hold, and we have a different way of expressing that position, also because of the ideals and values we hold.

In the end, though, we are interested in how we build a community of respect and trust for all who belong to it, where cooperation prevails over confrontation, and thoughtful consideration of diverse views is seen not as a weakness, but as a strength.

With that in mind, from all the letters I have received this summer, let me share with you portions of some that capture that spirit — and captured my attention.

Such as the one from the father of an incoming student who found the University’s position so “thoughtful, rational, even-keeled, as to make me realize once again just how fortunate we are that our son will be matriculating next month.”

The mother of a current student whose ancestry traces back to graduates of what was then Washington College, and whose relatives fought in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy, who applauded the University’s ability to look deeply at its own history and the nation’s.

The black alumnus who viewed our steps as advancing the dialogue over history-as he said, not “their” history only, but also “my history.”

And then there is this letter, from an alumnus of the Class of 1949:

Dear President Ruscio:
I have been following the issues…. I write to offer my unqualified endorsement of your response to those issues — especially your forceful support of my great-grandfather’s presidency of Washington College and your plans for the Confederate battle flags…

I believe that the five years he spent as Washington College’s president were as important to him as they were to the college. His passion for using his position there to help heal the wounds of war was apparent through both his words and deeds.

Based on everything I have heard or read, it is clear to me that President Lee would wholeheartedly support your goals of making Washington and Lee a welcoming environment for all students who choose to come there today. As a proud alumnus, I, too, support those goals.

In my view, removing the flags from the statuary chamber is overdue…. At the same time, we should not simply ignore the flags and their undeniable historical significance. Your plan of returning the actual battle flags to the Lee Chapel Museum is the ideal way to study and care for these important artifacts.

I am proud of my alma mater. I am certain that my great-grandfather would be proud of the institution he once led. And I know he would appreciate the civil manner in which you have approached what must be emotional discussions. But most important of all, I trust that today’s students will be reminded of just how important the University’s core values are. In my opinion, the qualities of honor, responsibility, civility, service and leadership that Washington and Lee instills in each generation of students are just as important as the exceptional education it provides.

Please know that you have my full support and my best wishes.

Signed: Robert E. Lee IV

These discussions are significant for us. They are about what Washington and Lee has been in the past, what it is today, and what it will be in the future. No matter the differences across time and across generations and across the many individuals who live here today, a common unifying thread binds us all. This is a community based on trust and respect, one that seeks common ground and celebrates our differences, one that seeks, in Giamatti’s wonderful phrase, to become a “free and ordered space,” one where freedom is coupled with responsibility, where individuality is coupled with a commitment to a common good. A place, in other words, that prepares our students for lives as responsible citizens in a democracy.

This is what any university should do, but especially this one. In the months ahead, in the years ahead, we should not shy away from these matters, mindful of our past, mindful of our future, and mindful of our responsibilities today to preserve and enhance this community of trust and respect.