Words and Deeds: Washington and Lee University


August 13, 2020

By: Katlyn Riggins 

Since George Floyd’s murder, it has become clear institutional leaders can no longer remain silent on the brutality Black Americans face on a daily basis. Several university leaders have made statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, but all too often these words are not backed up by outcomes. Our latest look at the match focuses on Washington and Lee University in Virginia.

Washington and Lee is no stranger to controversy. It has been rightly criticized in the past by students and faculty members who have urged the school to change their name. The university was named after George Washington and former Confederate Army general and president of the university, Robert E. Lee. The controversy has come up again with recent events and still the school seems adamant on keeping their name due to “historical significance.”

After the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, the president of Washington and Lee University, Will Dudley, issued the following statement:

Tragedies such as the death of George Floyd remind us of our shared humanity but distinctive cultural histories and experiences. This is a terrible moment in our country. It is also a moment that reminds us of the importance of what we do. Education is the best antidote to prejudice and discrimination. We bring young people from all backgrounds together, to live and learn with each other. Students encounter new perspectives, broaden their horizons, and acquire the habit of challenging their own assumptions.

Washington and Lee’s President claims the university brings “young people from all backgrounds together, to live and learn with each other.”

For the past decade, Black students have never even made up 3% of undergraduates at Washington and Lee, even though during this period over 22% of the state’s 18-24-year-olds were African-American.

*Source: Analysis from Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) / ACS: American Community Survey/ United States Census Bureau

But let’s give credit where credit is due. Washington and Lee has an almost non-existent Black-White 6-Year graduation gap. In fact, for half of the last decade Black students had a higher graduation rate than their white peers.

*Source: Analysis from Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS)


The problem is that the university only admits 12 Black freshmen on average when there are over 182,000 Black 18-24 year olds in the state of Virginia. Not to mention, Washington & Lee enrolls students from across the nation with especially heavy enrollment along the East Coast down and across into Texas, so it can recruit from the entire country if it truly wants to “bring young people from all backgrounds together, to live and learn with each other.” 

It’s good to hear Washington and Lee’s president make a renewed commitment to racial justice and diversity, especially when his university has not demonstrated past outcomes or action in keeping with these latest statements. We will believe that commitment is sincere, however, when we see a meaningful commitment to diversity and racial justice on their campuses and beyond. That requires at a minimum admitting, enrolling, and graduating racial minority and low-income students in substantial amounts. 

Words matter. Deeds matter more.