Washington and Lee can’t find a new name, so it’s sticking with this one

Virginia’s Washington and Lee University announced Friday that its Board of Trustees had voted in favor of keeping its name, which honors the first U.S. president, George Washington, and a famed traitor, Robert E. Lee. The preservation of the name came as something of a surprise to some, as many institutions are dropping Confederate names (including Washington and Lee, which is renaming the Lee Chapel, which we’ll discuss in a bit). But changing names isn’t as easy as the flick of a pen.

Back in the 1970s, the eccentric inventor-lawyer Robert Rines, taking a break from his search for the Loch Ness Monster, founded a law school in New Hampshire. As an inventor, Rines was interested in patent law and intellectual property. He named the school Franklin Pierce, after the only president to come from the Granite State, and it became a well-known school for intellectual property law. The school became a public institution in 2010 under the less exciting name “University of New Hampshire School of Law,” with no link to Franklin Pierce.

As Gene Quinn wrote for IP Watchdog in 2020, after the name was dropped “Alumni openly and mockingly joked that they “attended the school formerly known as Franklin Pierce”, and student resumes made obvious notations to make sure employers knew that the University of New Hampshire was really the old Franklin Pierce Law Center. Why? Because the name Franklin Pierce had become synonymous with excellence in the field of intellectual property…” It was restored in 2017 but, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, the college considered dropping Franklin Pierce a second time (Pierce was not a particularly good president and lest we think this is historical revisionism his death was announced in the New York Herald with an obituary that said he “possessed… none of the attributes of greatness”). This time, though, it decided against it, with University of New Hampshire President James W. Dean writing in an email to students, “the name Franklin Pierce – almost completely independent of the man himself – has considerable brand value for school both national and internationally.”

In other words, the University of New Hampshire felt that “Franklin Pierce” had become more recognizable as the name of its law school than as the name of a former president. And they’re probably not wrong; only slightly better than half of Americans in a 2016 study identified that Franklin Pierce was the name of a former president.

In keeping its name but not the name of the Lee Chapel, Washington and Lee is making the same case. The Lee Chapel is quite literally the burial place of Robert E. Lee and yet will lose its name because there’s no way to divorce the name from the man. On the broader level, the university hopes that it can make the case that “Washington and Lee” just means “this university in Lexington, Virginia” and doesn’t have any strong attachments to the men it’s named for.

This is a little bit garbage, because:

  1. Robert E. Lee is still buried on the grounds of Washington & Lee University, so the same argument about divorcing man and name should apply to the whole university, and;
  2. No one looks at a college in the south called “Washington & Lee” and thinks, “huh, maybe that’s named for Denzel and Spike.”

But Washington & Lee’s real problem is that it would need a new name and conjuring a new name from thin air can be hard. Just as UNH discovered that it couldn’t rename its law school without injuring the school’s brand awareness, so too Washington & Lee knows that it can’t simply rebrand and expect to be recognized as the same 272-year-old institution. There’s already a George Washington University, a Washington University, a Washington College, a University of Washington, and, for good measure, a Washington State University, so you can’t just drop Lee’s name from the school.

At Jacksonville, Florida’s Robert E. Lee High School, efforts to rename the school ran up against opposition from alumni who remember the school fondly (the school has becoming increasingly diverse over the years, so many alumni are white while the majority of current students are not). Despite the fact that the school could be renamed for its former gym teacher, Leonard Skinner, whose name probably sounds a lot like a band you might have heard of, changing the name is an awful lot for locals who fear a detachment from where they grew up.

And then there’s the botched attempt to rename dozens of schools in San Francisco. That plan was, essentially, to strip all the city’s schools of white names, using whatever justification could be cobbled together (including confusing the Penobscot River in Maine with the Penobscot people, which sounds kind of like a racism). The city backtracked because the cost of renaming schools was high, particularly given the need to fund the COVID-19 response. But it added fuel for people resisting name changes in other communities. Remember San Francisco? Remember how they wanted to rename Alamo Elementary School because they thought it was named for the Texas battle and not the poplar trees that are native to San Francisco, a city whose name is – like the world “alamo” – Spanish? Yes, we do remember that. It was very silly.

Is that a justification to keep Robert E. Lee’s name on everything? Absolutely not. But San Francisco’s needless fight over school names makes it harder to wage that fight in the places where it needs to happen. The weight that names carry can be unrelated to the origin of the name – like Franklin Pierce – or it can be central to the origin of the name – like Washington and Lee, funded by a gift from George Washington and the final resting place of Lee and his family. As schools and institutions grapple with the legacies that have been thrust upon them, they must contend with the certainty that perpetuating the name of an unpopular president – or even a popular and problematic one, like Washington – is far different that perpetuating the name of a man whose name was made in the defense of slavery and the death of American soldiers.