Statement on Name of Washington & Jefferson College

The name of our College, and the likenesses of those for whom it was named, remind us that our educational mission calls us to honestly examine the history of our country and its founders who first articulated our national values of equality and unalienable rights, and yet, as slaveholders, contributed to the persistent violence and injustice endured by Black Americans ever since.  We strive to learn from this history and act to create a more just society, now and in the future.  As we acknowledge that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson failed to live up to the principles they so eloquently espoused, integrity requires us to judge ourselves and our generation by the same standard, for more must be done to ensure that Black lives matter and that members of the Black community experience America’s promises of equal rights and justice.

Since the 19th century Washington & Jefferson College has admitted and graduated outstanding Black students who have gone on to achieve success in many fields of endeavor.  We build on this longstanding commitment today by redoubling our efforts to eradicate racism wherever it is found – in our College and in society at large – and to advocate for equality and justice for all Americans.

In his 2017 inaugural address, President John C. Knapp declared:

“The history, the mission, and, yes, the name of Washington & Jefferson College place us in a unique position to contribute to the national conversation about the state of our democratic republic.  In recent months, some college and university campuses have seen tensions flare over questions of free expression, and how to remember our history, and the meaning of our national creed that all people are created equal, that basic human rights are intrinsic and cannot be granted or withdrawn by others.  The nation’s founders understood that democratic values would always be aspirational, that we would inevitably fall short of them in various ways.  In their own time, this shortcoming was their failure to address slavery, which W&J’s Pennsylvania friend [and benefactor] Benjamin Franklin warned the first Congress was ‘an inconsistency [in] the character of the American people.’  Today we still must strive to make equality and human rights real for all people.”

In this address, he announced plans for an annual Symposium on Democracy where the College takes a day off classes to explore timely issues in dialog with diverse perspectives of noteworthy thinkers and leaders.  At the inaugural symposium in 2018, President Knapp invited a faculty panel to lead a discussion of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson from the perspective of the 21st century.  The fourth symposium, in 2021, will again examine these and other questions relevant to racial justice and equality.  Our professors, as well, address these issues in their classrooms, in class projects, and in their research.  It is the mission of Washington & Jefferson College to prepare graduates to be leaders who serve the common good by confronting critical issues affecting the well-being of our society.