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Mindful of the Future

Reprinted from the Washington Post, August 11, 2011

We know we are well into the annual college-ranking season when one publication or another determines how a particular institution is doing based on any number of measures, frivolous to serious.

These rankings come and go every fall, with their ups and their downs and the accompanying criticism and praise. At Washington and Lee, we take great pride in one particular ranking: We are the ninth oldest institution of higher education in the country.

As an institution that is more than 250 years old, we cannot help but be aware of how some of the decisions that our predecessors at W&L made decades, even centuries, before our time continue to have a critical impact on who we are and what we do today.

That is what made a ceremony here in Lexington this week all the more meaningful. On behalf of the University, I signed an agreement with Secure Futures L.L.C., of Staunton, Va., to install solarphotovoltaic arrays on two of our buildings. When they are operating by the end of this year, these arrays will generate approximately 450 kilowatts and will provide three percent of our annual power. For comparison's sake, that equals power for 44 houses in town or 365 barrels of oil in a year.

Here's another ranking of importance to us: this will be the largest solar-energy installation in the Commonwealth.

For me, the bigger issue is that this is the kind of project that an educational institution - particularly a liberal arts institution - needs to raise our students' awareness that the decisions they make today will impact the citizens of tomorrow. I am convinced that the college students I work with will face no question during their lifetimes more ethically challenging, or more significant to public policy, than what they owe to future generations.

It is incumbent upon us as educators to prepare our students to deal with that question. This new solar project will be a visible reminder that the time horizons they build into their decisions must get longer and longer. An institution that benefits so much from those in the past is uniquely positioned to teach an important lesson about our own obligations to the future.

There is, of course, self-interest here. We would not be making such a commitment if it did not make economic sense for us. We will plow the long-term savings that we will get from this project directly back into preparing students for their careers and their lives.

As part of a general sustainability initiative, Washington and Lee has committed to spend over the next five years $5 million in energy infrastructure in order to achieve a 25 percent decrease in our utility bills.

In addition to the solar arrays, we will soon put a solar-water system on the roof of our main library to provide all of its hot water. Two members of our staff are helping change the behavioral patterns of energy consumption on campus through continuing education. Our dining services have developed one of the state's premier local-food programs, serving everything from beef to yogurt that is grown and made within mere miles of our campus.

In all these ways, we are aligning our institutional practices with what we preach to our students about their duties as responsible citizens and their obligations to future generations.

And Washington and Lee is precisely the kind of place where this should happen.

I don't know how to confront the problems of the environment without the intellectual breadth of a liberal arts education. It is not simply that this task requires knowledge of politics, economics, science, literature and philosophy; it also requires an understanding of how all those areas of knowledge come together and are interwoven in a single problem-and how graduates of Washington and Lee may use them to solve that problem.

Washington and Lee's institutional motto, "Non incautus futuri," is not a mere slogan for us. Being not unmindful of the future is our mission, one that seems ever more fitting for this day and age.