A History

When General Robert E. Lee accepted the position of president of Washington College in 1865, he did so with a vision for a college that would both serve the South and restore unity to his divided country.  Hardly the mere figurehead that many expected he would be, Lee proved to be a far-sighted administrator, attuned to new ideas and willing to take risks. The changes he made to the school’s curriculum ultimately helped to change the face of higher education in America.

A believer in the classical education historically offered by the college, Lee was also aware that his students needed practical training in order to improve their personal economic standing and that of the South. He charted a course for a liberal arts education that would incorporate training in law, medicine, journalism, business and science, laying a foundation that set Washington College firmly on the road to becoming a modern university. In fact, it was a vision that was decades ahead of its time, coming to fruition only in the 20th century.

During his five-year tenure, Lee instituted a number of curricular innovations:

A brilliant military commander and strategist, Lee brought to Washington College those skills, as well as his ability to work with and engender respect from a wide assortment of people. Despite his controversial reputation, he won the hearts, minds and financial support of Northern philanthropists for his ideas and plans. Cyrus McCormick, Leander McCormick, George Peabody and William Corcoran are among the many who contributed to Washington College because of Lee’s convictions and winning ways. After Lee's death in 1870, the trustees voted to change the name from Washington College to Washington and Lee University.


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