The proposal, which is supported by more than half of students at the Washington and Lee law school and has sparked intense backlash from alumni, comes amid a national reckoning over the legacy of historical figures.
That debate is deeply felt on the campus of this private university in Lexington, Virginia: The school was named for Washington, an early benefactor, and Lee, an influential president of the university, who is buried in a chapel at the heart of campus. A commission examining how history shapes Washington and Lee suggested numerous changes last year but stopped short of recommending renaming the school.
Students who organized the petition say Lee's role as a Confederate leader has made him a symbol of white supremacy for many - especially after violence erupted in nearby Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 amid debate over a statue of the general. For that reason, and because Washington enslaved people working on his estate, they argue that the prominence of the portraits does not reflect the university's values in 2019.
Some alumni support the idea. Others oppose it for a host of reasons: Some admire Washington and Lee and their contributions to the school and the nation. Some argue that the debate oversimplifies the lives and complex legacies of the men. Some object to the idea of eliminating images that might offend, as though that could erase history.
Tom Rideout, a 1963 graduate of the university who helped form the Generals Redoubt nonprofit group to fight pressure to change the school, said many of the alumni have a simple question about the students who support the petition: "Why are they there, if they don't like these two people?"
The petition has backing from a variety of campus chapters, including the Black Law Student Society, the Federalist Society, Women Law Students Organization, the Christian Legal Society, the International Law Society and the American Constitution Society.
"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," organizers wrote in the petition. "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."
Adenike Miles-Sorinmade, a law student from Boston who is one of the organizers of the effort, said that as an African American, she has been bothered by the school glorifying its namesakes.
Chandler Gray, another organizer, said: "I'm white, I'm from the South, and it still makes me uncomfortable." She would never hang a portrait of Lee in her office, she said. Displaying a diploma with his likeness might make a client feel uneasy, she said. "That's the opposite of what we want to do as lawyers," Gray said.
They're not trying to force the change on anyone, Gray said - their proposal would give students the option of a diploma with or without the portraits.
Some of the responses to the idea - mockery, insults, slurs - startled and scared Miles-Sorinmade. "We are literally just asking for an option," she said, "exercising our individual freedom - and being shot down for that."
In response to the petition posted online, the Generals Redoubt, the group formed to protect the university's traditions and "to honor the magnificent contributions of its Founders," wrote that many alumni who have supported the law school with financial gifts and with jobs for graduates are disturbed by the effort.
"The petition is a symptom of strong undercurrents within the University to dismantle the traditions, values and history of Washington and Lee," the group wrote. "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."
If the petition were to succeed, Rideout said, it would add momentum to what his group thinks is the longer-term goal of some at the school: "To have both Washington and Lee removed from the university." That is driven by national forces, he said, pushing to redefine historical figures using today's values.
Rideout said he would forever be grateful for his education at Washington and Lee. "I have one of those diplomas," he said. "It's one of my more cherished possessions."
The petition has not been delivered, but Washington and Lee President Will Dudley and law school Dean Brant Hellwig wrote to the law school saying they support the right of all members of the community to express their opinions. "Free and critical thinking, and civility, are fundamental to our community," they wrote. "They are integral to the mission of the university and the law school."
They also wrote that any decision about diplomas would rest with university trustees.
Student organizers hope to formally present the petition before the end of the fall semester, Gray said.
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