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Inaugural Address

Remarks by Dr. Kenneth P. Ruscio at his inauguration as Washington and Lee University's twenty-sixth President, October 21, 2006

Members of the Board of Trustees; colleagues on the faculty; fellow alumni represented here by the delegates of more than 50 alumni chapters from across the country;

the hard-working staff from facilities management; the anxious dining services crew awaiting the conclusion of these remarks and mobilized for the lunch of a lifetime; friends from the community, from Richmond and the Jepson School and from Omicron Delta Kappa; new and future friends among the students, …

my thanks to all of you for joining us today…as we celebrate Washington and Lee University, for although a presidential inauguration is about a transition in one office, it is far more importantly about our community, a time to reflect on its values, to take stock of where we are and where we have been, and prepare for what lies ahead.

That is why we are here today, and it is why I am privileged and honored to be joined by my predecessors, Bob Huntley, John Wilson, Tom Burish, and of course Harlan Beckley and Larry Boetsch who played critical roles at important times.

Their presence and our fond memories of John Elrod send the unmistakable message that I need not go back to the presidencies of Francis Pendleton Gaines or Robert E. Lee to realize that I have big shoes to fill. It is humbling to consider their legacies with thoughts of adding to it in the years to come.

A special thanks to my presidential colleagues who have joined us today from other colleges and universities---and to the delegates representing some of the finest institutions and societies in higher education. Thanks also to yesterday’s panelists, including our own Roger Mudd for helping us shape the conversations we will have on campus this year. You honor all of us at Washington and Lee by your presence this weekend, and you have our gratitude.

To the greeters for their kind and eloquent remarks, thank you. And of course, thanks to Mike Luttig and June Aprille. Mike, fellow member of the Class of ’76 and longtime friend, is now senior vice-president and general counsel of Boeing; he suffered the ultimate indignity of having to fly commercial to be with us today.

June’s presence, I’m sure, was motivated by the need for assurance that the deal is closed—that her troublesome dean of the past four years is in fact safely installed, no longer a threat. As provost of the University of Richmond, she can now safely report back that all is well. Seeing is finally believing.

They are true friends, the best that anyone could hope for, and they have made this very meaningful day even more so.

And last, but certainly not least, my family…my father who almost exactly thirty-five years ago to the day stood with me by the tree over to your right and took a picture we would later show my mother…a picture of me as a high school senior on the front lawn of a college we knew almost nothing about. The expression on my face is typical of a young man visiting a college with a parent—an expression that says at one and the same time I wish my father would disappear and I hope desperately he does not. Our prayers that day were focused entirely on the prospects for admission. This particular moment was far, far beyond the realm of our imaginations.

And of course, Kim and Matthew. Matthew, our son, born and raised in the shadows of Washington and Lee, not quite knowing what all this means today but knowing that it means a lot to his parents. He sacrificed a session with the PSAT’s this morning—perhaps the only alternative that could make him thankful he is here rather than somewhere else.

Kim, by no means a native of Lexington, who returns now for her third time—the first time having sacrificed a promising position in the center of New York’s fashion world, the second having sacrificed yet another position back at the center of women’s fashion, and this time sacrificing life as we knew it. For those and so many other reasons, I wouldn’t be here without her. We are a package deal. And we both now realize, this is home, and we are glad to be back.

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As president of Washington and Lee I can’t help but feel even more acutely than I did before the power of the history of this place. There are the standard stories we all know so well, such as the saga of George Washington’s gift of James River Canal Stock, given to him in gratitude for his service to the country. For someone like Washington, who had a noble vision of public service, the prospect of personal gain from doing his duty presented a true dilemma.

Too much of a gentleman to insult his well-intentioned benefactors by refusing the gift, but too much a man of integrity to accept it, he consulted widely with friends about what to do. Augusta Academy, the precursor of what would become Washington College, was the solution and the ultimate beneficiary. The funds would support the education of our nation’s youth. Washington never slept here, but his legacy is direct and real. From that point on, a sense of duty and integrity became part of our fabric.

Then of course, there is Robert E. Lee, assuming the leadership of Washington College after the Civil War. Offered numerous other opportunities, Lee chose a college presidency because it was the only option that allowed him to help bind the wounds of a divided nation. If the United States was to recover from the devastation and moral wounds of the Civil War, the healing had to begin with education. We build upon the legacy of Lee, the educator, with an ongoing commitment to educating citizens and leaders for a complex world.

Or the story of how Doremus Gymnasium came to be. It was a gift from a couple with no prior connection to the University, but with a clear impression of a welcoming and friendly place, which they experienced early in the 1900’s during an unplanned stopover in Lexington on their way back home from Charlottesville. That “other” University of Virginia was originally to be the recipient of their largesse, but their minds were changed by the uncommon civility of this campus. Though the Doremus gift was the consequence of the speaking tradition and not its beginning, it serves as a tangible reminder why respect for others, whether friends or strangers, is a defining quality of our culture.

But there are also the lesser-known stories, hidden away in the corners of our history, hidden away even further in the literature that this place has spawned. They evoke the spirit of our University. In 1839, Henry Ruffner, an alumnus of Washington College then serving as its sixth president, published a novel—a feat almost certainly not to be replicated by the twenty-sixth president.

Judith Bensaddi was its title. It contains a passage about how groups of college men would go hiking and gaze down on the vista from high atop House Mountain—a mountain that, in Ruffner’s words, “hides the setting sun and not infrequently turns the summers showers that come from the west wind...It stands like an island of the air, with its huge body and sharp angles to cut the current of the winds asunder.” And here is how the student described the experience:

“The little homesteads that spotted the hills and valleys under the mountain, the large farms and country seats farther away, and the bright group of buildings in the village of Lexington relieved the mind from the painful sublimity of the distant prospect and prepared us, after hours of delightful contemplation, to descend from our aerial height and return with gratified feelings to our college and our studies again.”

Or from a more recent time, The Foreign Student, written by another alumnus, the famed French broadcaster Phillipe Labro, who spent a year in Lexington as an exchange student in the late 1950’s. His fictional account of that year became a bestseller in France, winning several awards. It later became an atrocious American movie that won absolutely no awards. Though Washington and Lee is never identified by name in the book, in Labro’s eloquent reminiscing there’s no mistaking where we are.

They come back to haunt me like a piece of music that enfolds me, catapulting me back in time to where the present slips away and memory calls the tune: whiffs of green lawns; the bubbles of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer over the metallic taste of the chilled can; the scent of the bay rum the boys sprinkled on themselves on Saturday night when an entire male community primped and powdered for the great stampede to any girls’ school within a sixty mile radius. Like an overdose streaming into my body the memories come; the trombones in Stan Kenton’s band during the big spring concerts, with all the young people sitting on the lawn; the red mud on the long cement footbridge that crossed a straggling train track and linked the football field to the gym, comings and goings under the colonnade on a sparkling fall morning with the sun sliding across the grass from behind Lee Chapel. I hear the silence of the campus during classes when, through open windows, a tardy student’s anxious steps echoed on the flagstones as he ran.

From across the centuries come stories that reveal our principles and values; from literature comes the intangible sense of place, in words that resonate with members of the Class of 2010 as easily as they do with those of an earlier vintage. Washington and Lee thankfully has changed over the years. But even as we change, and acknowledge we are a better institution with each passing year, we embrace the imperfect perfection of the past.

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We honor that past by building upon it, and so for at least a few moments this morning, let us be not unmindful of the future, of the opportunity we face in the coming years. For I truly believe that Washington and Lee University offers not just an exceptional liberal arts education, but a particular version of the liberal arts appropriate for this day and age, appropriate in ways that few other universities can match. Those qualities spring from our past. But unless we aggressively adapt them to the demands of the future, we risk squandering the precious legacy given to us.

Earlier this month, I was in visiting alumni in Birmingham and met with the CEO of a highly successful publishing company. A graduate from the mid 70’s, he told me that he sort of majored in history and philosophy, or more specifically intellectual history of the eighteenth century, or to be even more accurate, he said, he majored in Jenks and Jarrett.

I knew the feeling. When I was a student, you could describe my major as Politics with a heavy dose of American Government and political philosophy, but the reality was that I majored in Hughes with a minor in Buchanan. And I suspect that there are others like us. For students at Washington and Lee University, the subject comes alive through professors. And just as Jenks and Jarrett, Hughes and Buchanan infused a passion for learning among an earlier generation, so too will Simpson in Art, Brown in Religion, Connor and Keene in English, Morel and Dickovik in Politics, Greer in Geology, Murchison and Johnson in Law, and Goldsmith and Hooks in Economics do the same for this generation.

But there is more at work here than dynamic, charismatic personalities, a certain flare or style. Faculty know that they are helpless without their own knowledge; it’s not about them. And the ultimate accomplishment of teaching is when students venture out on their own.

The words of John Henry Cardinal Newman, the famed Irish educator, come down to us from the 1850’s, describing the idea of a university. “An assemblage of learned men”—we can add women—“are brought together…They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere which the student also breathes…A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom.” Newman concludes, “This is the main purpose of a University in its treatment of its students.”

True, but somehow too quaint in this day and age, or at least too simplistic. Our faculty today, while holding fast to this ideal, face difficult challenges of rapidly changing fields of knowledge. Standard disciplines dissolve before our very eyes. Psychology bleeds into biology and chemistry through the new field of neuroscience. Politics and economics cross their divide through the bridges of game theory and rational choice. And the list goes on.

There are also different patterns of student learning, some brought on by the technology which shapes our lives, some by the culture in which we live. Students don’t read anymore; they search. They assemble data with great facility but struggle with complex arguments. Attention spans collapse under the weight of instantaneous and multiple forms of communication. We tend to forget that information is not knowledge and knowledge is not wisdom.

Our faculty are in a constant state of learning themselves, in order to be better teachers. But how not to lose sight of the students as they engage in their own learning?

For liberal arts colleges everywhere, but especially so for Washington and Lee, we need to develop a distinctive model of scholarship, one especially suited to a college where the ultimate prize is the passion for learning we see among our graduates.

Teaching introductory courses—and I mean really teaching them—conversing with colleagues outside your field on a regular basis, attending public lectures and meeting with visitors in different disciplines, all of that is bound to result scholarship that is original and creative, genuinely interesting and imaginative. The teacher-scholar model in a liberal arts college is not an adaptation of the research university approach to a constrained organizational setting. It is not Berkeley-lite. Instead it is a model with virtues all its own pursued in a setting that affords advantages not available elsewhere.

Cultivating, nurturing, and defining that distinctive model, remembering as we do that the true measure of its success will be its benefit to students, is one of our greatest challenges and opportunities.

But let me move on to another. We need to be more thoughtful in helping students draw the connection between their education and the world around them. We already do that in a few ways. Our interdisciplinary programs in poverty, women’s studies, the environment, ethics, and African-American studies, among others, are good examples. But let me focus for a minute on the professional programs in business, law and journalism.

Step back for a moment and ask the broader question why professional programs even exist in higher education. Why not leave the training required by each profession to the profession itself, to the apprentice model of learning?

The answer requires too long a departure into the history of higher education, but in nutshell, the answer is this. A profession should serve the public good; it has a responsibility to hold itself accountable to an ethic of service. That higher calling can best be understood, perhaps can only be understood, through an educational process that cultivates a philosophical habit of mind.

Too quickly we assume that the practicality and applied nature of professional education collides with the fundamental, philosophical, and timeless nature of the liberal arts. Under some conditions, yes, especially when we define professional education and the liberal arts in those too simplistic ways.

But under other conditions, such as what we strive for at Washington and Lee, they complement each other. When the law school looks at fundamental questions of justice and equity, or when the Williams School looks at the economic and political factors affecting inequality, or when our journalists look at the impact of modern communications on democratic processes, professional education and the liberal arts come together in the best possible way.

The professional programs at Washington and Lee are better because they exist in a liberal arts setting. But the liberal arts are better because of the hard questions asked by the professions, the problems of the world they bring to our attention, and the context they offer for interpreting the economic, political, legal and cultural settings in which we live.

The University needs to leverage this distinctive quality. I’m convinced it will cause others to look to us for guidance in the coming years.

One final challenge for Washington and Lee. How do we prepare students for a world in which most problems require ethical insight and moral reasoning, as well as technical and analytical skills?

If we look beyond the borders of our ivory towers to the public world our students will enter, the picture is both daunting and depressing. Daunting because of the magnitude and complexity of the problems. And depressing because at precisely the time we need mutual understanding, we are descending inexorably into a public discourse of incivility and mistrust.

I am not an alarmist about the state of democracy, but no one can be happy nowadays with the harshness and anger of the public sphere, or with the obsession over trivial matters to the exclusion of the consequential.

The opportunity for higher education—indeed our obligation—is to model a democratic culture of mutual respect and trust. Graduates of Washington and Lee should be critical and skeptical without being dismissive and cynical. They should not mistake tolerance and open-mindedness for relativism. Certitude should give way to humility and a willingness to learn from others. A Washington and Lee education should convey this compelling message: a strong community is one where we learn in common that which we cannot learn alone.

When we claim to be developing character, that is what we mean. Our alumni, many of whom have taken center stage in public life, have been models of independence, integrity, and intelligence. Quite rightly, we point to our honor system as the cornerstone of that mission and our most successful feature. No alumnus can look back on his or her four years unmindful of why trust matters in a community.

But because of the honor system’s durability, and because we take it as self-evident that learning for leadership occurs outside the classroom, we pay less attention to other ways of exploring complex ethical and moral questions. Especially in modern times, developing habits of the heart requires developing habits of the mind. The way to one’s heart should be through the head. If we wish to shape character, we need to shape the philosophical habit. Students will do well if they reason well.

That is why, in the end, the signature strengths of Washington and Lee—our academic excellence and the development of the character of our students—are so intertwined. We take pride in educating students who will make a difference, and we should never underestimate the academic challenges that presents, especially as the world changes in profound ways.

I close this morning with a request.

Take a second to appreciate where we gather this morning: one of the most graceful and beautiful settings in higher education, embraced on one end by Washington Hall and on the other by Lee Chapel. Think not only of the architectural symmetry but the visual reminder of the incredible legacy that has been given to us, in a straight line from Washington to Lee to us today. Consider the obligation it places on us to build a future worthy of our past.

We have much to do. Restore the colonnade for future generations… attend to other building projects with a constant awareness that the civility found on our campus flows in part from the gracefulness of our physical surroundings.. keep our curriculum vibrant and enriching/… bring the best faculty and staff we can to this campus and enable them to develop their talents throughout their careers/…and do everything we possibly can to attract students who possess exceptional academic and personal qualities no matter their origins, backgrounds, or financial capacity.

And let us achieve those goals by embracing the spirit that has always defined Washington and Lee. It is a difficult quality to articulate, but Abraham Lincoln, one of my favorite historical figures, provides a start. I have long admired how Lincoln, despite having every reason to dwell upon the worst features of humankind, always focused on the best. That uncommon sentiment received its most eloquent expression at a time when it was needed most, at the end of his first inaugural address:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break the bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, yet will swell the chorus of this Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

As all of us—alumni, students, faculty, staff, friends, and supporters—embark on our journey together, I hope we create an educational institution that calls upon the best qualities of humanity. I hope we foster conversations in which the objective is to understand rather than prevail. I hope we develop within our students a commitment to something greater than the self. And I hope that we will always offer an education that cultivates those better angels of our nature.

With gratitude for all that you have done so far, I look forward to working with you and for you…I pledge my firm commitment to each of you as individuals…and to a University made good by our predecessors, now entrusted to us to make even better for those who will follow.