To: The W&L Community
From: President Will Dudley
Date: June 23, 2020
Re: Priorities, Actions, and Next Steps

In my previous message to you, I emphasized that W&L stands with those demanding fundamental changes to systems and practices that perpetuate racial inequality and injustice. This stance is rooted in our personal and institutional values, and in our educational mission, which commits us to diversity and inclusion and obligates us to apply our talents and resources in the service of the public good. We are called to do everything in our collective power to eradicate racism in all its forms, wherever it is found.

I have heard from many of you in recent weeks. Some of you have recounted painful experiences of exclusion and racism during your time as students or employees at W&L. Some of you have stressed the need for a more thorough and candid accounting of our history. And some of you have expressed the conflict you feel between your love of W&L and your concern about our prominent association with Robert E. Lee, whose presidency transformed the university, but who also led the Confederate army in defending slavery and has come to symbolize the defense of racial oppression that we unequivocally reject. 

Many of you have called for decisive action in accordance with our values. You have asked me what we have done. And you have asked me what more we will do. I welcome these questions – which I ask myself every day.

In this message, I want to address our priorities, our recent actions and ongoing commitments, and the next steps we will take together. 

Priorities:  Diversity, Inclusion, and Education

In my inaugural address, delivered one month after white supremacists descended on Charlottesville in 2017, I spoke proudly of the distinctive strengths of W&L, but I also noted that we are the least racially diverse of the top liberal arts institutions. Our relative lack of diversity means that we are missing out on talent, and it prevents us from truly preparing our students to be engaged citizens in a global and diverse society. 

I also made it clear that genuine inclusion of all members of the W&L community requires frank discussion of our institutional history. The ways that slavery, the Civil War, and segregation are understood and memorialized affect the lived experience of students, faculty, and staff at W&L. 

Diversity, inclusion, and historical education are central priorities in the strategic plan adopted by the Board of Trustees in 2018. The plan identifies the objectives toward which we strive and the initiatives that will drive us forward. Among those are ambitious plans to increase our racial and socioeconomic diversity and to ensure that every member of our community is able to thrive at W&L.

Recent Actions and Ongoing Commitments

Plans without actions are empty promises. To advance diversity and inclusion at W&L, determined and sustained effort is required on many fronts – admissions, financial aid, academics, student life, hiring and retention, and alumni engagement. 

The entire university is hard at work to achieve these goals. The scope of our endeavors is conveyed in a detailed accounting of the steps we have taken in the last three years, which I encourage you to read. Here, I want to share just a few highlights and ongoing commitments: 

  • Undergraduate Admissions has increased the number of domestic students of color at W&L by 50% since 2016. The incoming undergraduate class – 20% of whom are domestic students of color – is the most diverse in W&L history and also has the highest median SAT score. Law School Admissions has increased domestic students of color to 22% of the student body while simultaneously improving the median LSAT and GPA of incoming students. We will continue to identify and employ admissions strategies that have proven successful in recruiting outstanding students of color.
  • Financial aid meets 100% of demonstrated need for all undergraduate students without requiring loans. Fewer than 20 schools in the country do this. We have extended the W&L Promise – providing at least a full-tuition grant – to families earning less than $100,000. Approximately half of W&L families receive need-based aid, on which we spend $49 million per year. We will continue raising funds to ensure that no compelling applicant is ever denied admission due to financial circumstances and to make the full range of curricular, co-curricular, and extracurricular opportunities at W&L accessible to every student.
  • Forty-five percent of tenure-track hires over the past four years are faculty of color, and 20% are Black. Underrepresented minorities have been hired in senior administrative positions in both the college and the law school in the last two years. We have established a Professionals of Color Network to engage and connect these members of our community. We will continue to identify and employ successful approaches to recruiting diverse faculty and staff and supporting their success.
  • The undergraduate faculty initiated a review of W&L’s general education requirements. We will continue to develop curricular opportunities for our students to understand racial inequality and injustice and to become agents for change in their personal and professional lives.
  • We offer programs on inclusive teaching and mentoring for faculty and staff through our fall and winter academies. Orientation for all first-year students includes diversity training. The work of the Office of Inclusion and Engagement will be supported by a $1 million endowment established last year by the Class of 1994 in honor of its 25th reunion. We will continue to expand training opportunities for all members of our community in practices that can improve the academic, social, and professional experiences of our students, faculty, and staff.
  • We created a new cabinet-level position – Director of Institutional History and Museums – to offer educational programs, mentor student research, support faculty projects, and develop a museum in which the many stories of W&L can be told. We will continue to engage our community in the exploration of our history and its significant connections to American history, including the lives of African Americans at W&L and the roles Robert E. Lee played as both Confederate general and college president.

Despite all of this very real work and tangible progress, there is still much to be done. The diversity of our community remains unacceptably low, and the experience of many of our students, faculty, staff, and alumni of color is not what it ought to be. We are not satisfied, and we will do more to live up to our aspirations and deliver on our commitments. At this moment, we must ask ourselves:  Are we doing everything we can to prepare our graduates for responsible leadership, service to others, and engaged citizenship in a global and diverse society? We do many things well, but how can we advance our mission even more effectively?

Next Steps

Good ideas come from all corners of the W&L community. Progress begins with listening. In recent days, I have had many conversations with students, faculty, staff, and alumni. I have received many thoughtful letters. I am listening carefully, and I will continue to do so.

The Board of Trustees is listening, too. At the request of the Executive Committee of the Student Body and the faculty of the School of Law, the board has agreed to reconsider the petition to offer graduates a diploma without pictures of our namesakes.  The board is also eager to hear your perspectives on the university, recent national events, and issues of race and their implications for W&L. Trustees will convene conversations with students, faculty, and staff, and the Alumni Board will conduct outreach to gather input from the breadth of our alumni population. You are also invited to submit your thoughts online

In addition to listening and gathering good ideas that will inform our approach to these efforts in the future, we will take a number of steps:

  • Admissions will expand by 33% the number of students we enroll through QuestBridge, a national nonprofit that connects the nation’s most exceptional, low-income youth with leading colleges and universities. We will also add an admissions counselor focused on recruiting first-generation college students and underrepresented minorities.
  • The law faculty will explore the development of a clinic in Civil Rights and Racial Justice. 
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  • Africana Studies will offer a year-long speaker series, “Activism and the Black Experience,” which will explore the content, context, and consequences of black protest. This evening, a related panel discussion, “Perspectives on Black Protest: Comprehending the Current Crisis,” will feature five of our own faculty members. Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to Be an Antiracist,” will give a virtual talk at W&L when classes resume. The library is developing a list of resources for learning more about anti-racism.
  • We will provide additional support for programming by student groups, including expanding the Black Future Leaders Experience (Black FLEX) Conference, sponsored by the Student Association for Black Unity (SABU), where alumni and staff mentor students on how to thrive in white spaces, navigate politics and serve as leaders.
  • We will begin designing the Center for Inclusion and Engagement in Elrod Commons, one of the important facilities projects in our strategic plan, immediately. Construction is expected to start next summer and to be completed in fall 2022. We are currently seeking to hire the Assistant Director of Inclusion and Engagement and will subsequently search for an entry-level professional to complete the office.
  • We will establish the George Floyd Endowment for programming in W&L’s Office of Inclusion and Engagement, thanks to the generosity of trustees Dana J. Bolden ’89 and William Toles ’92 ’95L, who have joined with fellow alumni William Hill ’74 ’77L, Robert Grey ’76L and William Thornton ’88 to raise over $100,000 in hopes of inspiring other Black alumni to support this work. All alumni, parents, and friends are welcome to contribute to this effort. We will also make it possible to support diversity and inclusion initiatives through the Annual Fund.
  • We will create a series of Lifelong Learning programs to engage, educate, and collaborate with alumni on the topics of prejudice, discrimination, and anti-racism.
  • Juneteenth will be a university holiday beginning next year, and we will work with community partners to develop meaningful commemorative events.

The W&L community is united by the desire to be our best selves and to realize our highest ideals on campus, and by doing so, to make the greatest positive difference in the world. This is a collective effort to which each of us must contribute. I invite students to think critically about how they can make their leadership, organizations, and social life truly representative and inclusive of all of their peers. I invite faculty, coaches, and staff to enhance the potential of our academic and extra-curricular programs to prepare our graduates to be responsible leaders in a global and diverse society. And I invite our alumni to envision and plan programs and events that appeal to the full range of fellow alumni in their local chapters. We all have a role in improving the quality of our community, and I look forward to leading the effort in partnership with all of you. Together, we can create a brighter future for W&L and beyond.