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:
- In December of 1865, Lee petitioned the General Assembly for funds to
support professorships in chemical engineering, physics, mechanical engineering,
civil engineering, modern languages, and history and literature.
- In 1869, Lee instituted rudimentary business courses and outlined a
curriculum proposal for a School of Commerce, a new concept in education.
Funding for the School was not forthcoming, but Lee created the foundation
for the University’ s nationally noted Williams School of Commerce,
which was finally fully established in 1906.
- Lee incorporated the Lexington School of Law into Washington College
in 1869. Established by trustee Judge John White Brockenbrough in 1849,
the School of Law became part of Lee’s plan for a practical education,
assuring its continuance and setting the stage for it to grow into the
nationally ranked law school it is today.
- Also in 1869, Lee offered the nation’s first courses in journalism.
It was an idea that was ahead of its time and received national criticism.
E. L. Godkin of the New York Evening Post was not alone when he
publicly branded the idea as “absurd.” While the journalism
program suffered after Lee’s death, the roots remained and it was
revived in 1925 as The School of Journalism--now the department of journalism
and mass communications.. The department also continues today as one of
the top of its kind in the country.
- Lee proposed a School of Agriculture, and courses were offered in 1869-70.
- Lee added courses in Civil and Mining Engineering and drew up a detailed
plan for a School of Medicine in 1869.
- Lee expanded the science curriculum in 1869 and purchased significant
scientific equipment. He also advocated for a Department of Astronomy with
an accompanying observatory and pursued an endowment for its continuing
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.