Privileged law school students at a prestigious Virginia university circulated a petition asking for the option to have portraits of the school’s namesakes — George Washington and Robert E. Lee — removed from diplomas. They have apparently decided to fight a perceived injustice, beginning with their own campus.
Despite having privilege and accommodation far beyond that of their less fortunate peers, students at Washington and Lee University have unofficially declared themselves the arbiters of equality — at least on their own campus. However, the kickoff of their lucrative law careers doesn’t seem to be focused on striving for fairness in the justice system but perceived symbolic racism on neatly decorated slips of paper.
Students at the Virginia law school are demanding that college officials remove two historical figures, who are also the school’s namesakes, from their diplomas. The Daily Mail reports that student activists filed a petition to convince the school to either permanently ban the busts of President George Washington and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from their prestigious sheepskins or allow graduates to “opt-out” of having the portraits.
Many who support the petition assert that Washington and Lee are symbols of white supremacy and systematic racism, as both owned slaves during their lifetime. The document itself labels the pair as “controversial” and “offensive” figures who should not be honored in such a way.
And the petition’s statement reads, “Given the aftermath of the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville and the heightened awareness of making Washington & Lee an inclusive and compassionate environment to all students, we believe this request provides alumni the ability to honor their alma mater without the presence of the portraits that some may find controversial or offensive.”
In response to the petition, The Generals Redoubt (TGR), an organization that seeks to prevent the removal of historical symbols, spoke out against the protesters. The group fears that the move to “dismantle the traditions, values, and history of Washington and Lee,” leads to history being misrepresented or forgotten.
“The Generals Redoubt is very concerned with this action which is seemingly supported by several employees of W&L and is concerned that the member of the careers services program does not see the harm in supporting such a petition and apparently failed to advise against such action,” the group replied. “In the interim support the TGR, financially and through volunteer efforts, as the best method to save the important traditions, values and history of Washington and Lee University, an important part of our country since 1749.”
Of course, this isn’t the first move to sanitize historical controversies from the campus. In 2014, the university removed Confederate flags from Lee Chapel, where the general is buried. The decision came in response to student protests across campus for the symbols to be taken down.
Some of the students believe that the portrayal of Washington and Lee on diplomas may trigger graduates or make them hesitant to display their accomplishments. However, the school still bears the surnames of the historical figures, which could foreseeably spark another movement in the future to change the school’s name altogether.
Hundreds of students, alumni, and even some staff members signed the petition to remove Washington and Lee’s portraits from diplomas. However, university officials have yet to respond to the petition or its opposition.
Considering that the school has already caved before to the demands of a minority of its student body, it is likely that it will appease their most recent request. Of course, it probably won’t be long before their plea to “opt-out” of having Washington and Lee’s portraits on their diplomas turns into a demand to ban anyone else from opting in.