At Washington and Lee, the president provides the commencement address, a custom I strongly endorsed until I actually had to write one. We impose this duty on the president not because of some lofty principle, but rather to avoid a repeat of an occasion many years ago when a distinguished speaker approached the podium with a stack of jumbled index cards, and held forth for quite some time as he went through them…not once, not twice, but three times.
Ever since, with only a couple of exceptions, we have rested easy knowing that if our graduates and their families had to endure a worthless commencement address, we could at least hold the speaker directly accountable. When the Rector informed me last month that the Board would determine my salary for next year sometime after June 7, I didn’t have to ask about the significance of the timing.
The story of the jumbled index cards has undoubtedly been embellished over the years. There’s probably more fiction than fact in the details and I take some comfort in knowing that no survivors of that afternoon are around to correct me. But if there are, I will surely hear from them.
And that is because we take our stories seriously at Washington and Lee. Perhaps it is because of that southern literary fondness for folklore and oral tradition; or perhaps it is a sign of a strong institutional culture, which is how sociologists would explain it. Whatever the reason, we do have a vintage collection of mini-morality tales. They reveal so much about us—our values, of course, but also our focus on people.
I need only mention the James River Canal stock, and it conjures up impressions of George Washington, his integrity, and his real and deep philanthropic connection to us. It’s not just our story. The distinguished historian, Gordon Wood, returns to it repeatedly to explain Washington’s honorable character. When Washington was granted a generous gift of stock, he agonized over what to do. He could not offend his benefactors by giving it back. But neither could he violate his profound sense of honor by profiting from his public service. Public service was service, performed for the benefit of others not the self. Augusta Academy, now Washington and Lee University, was only too happy to help him out of his dilemma. We became the recipient of one of Washington’s few recorded gifts to education.
Or I need only mention the Doremus gift to underscore the importance of civility at Washington and Lee. While passing through the small town of Lexington on their way to another University, the Doremus’s became so taken with the warmth of everyone they encountered that they diverted their gift to us. Doremus Gym is the result.
This is simply the friendliest campus in higher education. And I enjoy a kind of ironic delight when I hear the seniors say, as they do every year, that freshmen just don’t respect the speaking tradition. It is dying, they warn, and only the upperclassmen can save it. Of course, when they were freshmen the seniors said the same thing about them. Your standard for civility rises as you spend more time here.
And there are the other kinds of stories, less significant in some ways, but still very, very important. A few weeks ago, I was in Richmond watching my son’s high school lacrosse game with a group of other fathers, several of whom are also Washington and Lee alumni from roughly the same period. At halftime, they re-counted an incident from their student days, but only after checking to see whether I, as the current W & L president, was familiar with the term statute of limitations.
One of them, let’s call him J.T. since he now occupies a position of some notoriety in his community and profession, had driven his Volkswagen beetle onto the Colonnade late one night, got it caught on the steps of Newcomb Hall, and left it there, adding a slightly avant garde look to our National Historic Landmark.
As J.T. headed back to his dorm that night, disappointed perhaps that he hadn’t completed the journey but thinking that all things considered it was a pretty convenient parking spot, he turned around and there was the legendary Murf. For our current graduates, think of Steve Tomlinson, Mike Young, and Baner all rolled up into one person.
Murf had two uncanny abilities. One was always being where you wish he wasn’t. The other was to make you feel like a complete fool, even as he restored your dignity in a situation where you had so clearly forgotten what it means to live in a civilized society.
It is in those most unlikely moments our students learn from role models who shape their lives well into their future—and it is in those unlikely moments when they forge an allegiance to a place where education occurs in many ways, but almost always involving a special person.
I don’t know how you go through four years at Washington and Lee without forming the deepest friendships you will make in your lifetime. For the graduates, I am of course talking about the people now sitting beside you. But I am also talking about the faculty and staff you have come to know. Among our most meaningful moments are those letters we receive from you years afterwards.
Dave Dickens, retiring today after 47 years of introducing students to German language and culture, received this note just the other day from someone he taught in 1976. They had not been in touch in 31 years:
I just wanted to tell you that I appreciate you taking a special interest in me and let you know that the things that I learned in your class were not wasted or forgotten. I am proud of my German heritage and have you to thank for that as well. Enclosed is a picture of my wife and me taken last summer -- I have two sons (Matt, who is a freshman at college and Chris, who is 14 and will be a freshman in high school.)
Graduates, please know that today you are not leaving friends behind, only that the form of that friendship will take on a new and richer if somewhat more distant quality. I speak for the faculty and staff when I say we won’t take credit for future accomplishments—well, maybe not full credit—but we will take great pride in you and we will never stop caring.
And by accomplishments, I mean personal as well as well as professional, for during your time at Washington and Lee I hope you have learned, and this is precisely my point, that relationships with others and commitments to others are the foundation for any kind of success.
The personal quality of your W & L education is all too uncommon these days. The virtues of friendship and respect for others will guide you the rest of your life in ways not now obvious to you. To be sure you have woven your thread through Washington and Lee’s fabric while you were here. We are a different place because of your contributions. But I believe you are a different person because of your time here.
In these last fleeting moments I have with you I do feel compelled to explain just one of the reasons why you are a different person. When you leave here today, you will carry not just a capacity for leadership but the capacity for a distinctly Washington and Lee kind of leadership.
I’ll explain what I mean—and in a way that will in the end, I promise, add yet another story to the Washington and Lee repertoire.
Now I know the mere mention of the topic of leadership causes the eyes to glaze over. As Pulitzer Prize winning historian and political scientist James MacGregor Burns says, leadership is “one of the most observed phenomena but one of the least understood.” As a society, we have been confused more than helped by a seemingly endless supply of cliché-ridden airport paperbacks, with titles such as The leadership secrets of Winnie-the Pooh or The leadership lessons of Attila the Hun or, one of my personal favorites, at least for the sake of parody, Jesus Christ, CEO.
They are full of contradictory proverbs. Look before you leap, one will advise, but remember he who hesitates is lost. A good leader is one who develops a strong vision and sticks to it no matter what, so long as she is flexible and willing to adapt.
The latest bestseller—my spirit of civility constrains me from mentioning its title or author--offers in its first few pages this finely tuned commentary: “We should be screaming bloody murder. We’ve got a gang of clueless bozos steering our ship of state right over a cliff, we’ve got corporate gangsters stealing us blind.” As one reviewer noted that doesn’t seem to square with the author’s advice a few pages later where he says, and I quote, “Let’s start by toning down the rhetoric.”
And so if we as an institution claim with pride and with high aspirations that we educate future leaders, we must explain what we mean, so that we don’t suffer guilt by association with the disciples of Attila the Hun and Winnie the Pooh.
It really is straightforward. At the core of Washington and Lee’s leadership is integrity. And we can begin to understand integrity through this one basic principle: our capacity for leadership expands as we focus on others instead of ourselves. Properly defined, properly distinguished from the mere use of power, leadership is about making the lives of others better.
Another Washington and Lee story. When Robert E, Lee was president of Washington College, a woman wrote to ask him what lesson she could give her newborn son as he got older. Lee’s typically concise reply: “Teach him to deny himself.” Now Lee did not mean this as an austere, Spartan sort of way. But through his finely honed sense of duty, much like Washington’s, he knew that leadership meant not personal gain but rather a capacity to put others first.
At Washington and Lee, you have acquired two necessary traits that will enable you to be leaders with integrity.
One is empathy. Walking a mile in another’s shoes is good moral advice. It is also good leadership advice.
Some of you may have participated in the Shepherd Poverty Program’s summer experience, or some of you may have had internships or studied abroad; or some of you may have worked in the Williams School Consulting Group for nonprofits; or some of you may have discovered in your literature classes how an author can transport you to a different time and place, putting you in the shoes of a fictional characters and forcing you to resolve, as if you were that character, the deep moral quandary she faces.
Through history, literature, philosophy and up and down the classrooms of the Colonnade you learned how to think and you learned how others think differently than you. And you learned how to be leaders with the integrity to understand and respect others.
The second is reverence, what the philosopher Robert Woodruff calls the forgotten virtue. Now I can’t do justice to his wonderful discussion, but think of reverence as the equilibrium between the courage of your convictions and the humility that comes from knowing you still have much to learn.
These days leaders careen between the extremes of arrogant certitude and a drifting, passive relativism. Reverence allows us to occupy the space between those two extremes. It is, to follow Woodruff, a forgotten element of integrity. It is time to remember it.
I can’t help but note how this view of integrity and two of its essential components brings us right back home to the liberal arts. For a liberal arts education opens our eyes to the world around us and makes us aware of others. It teaches us humility, even as it provides confidence in our judgments. It leads inescapably to empathy and reverence.
When I speak of a leadership with integrity, that is what I mean. And that is what I hope—that is what I know—you will take away from here. You are destined to be leaders with integrity. You will be leaders who have graduated from Washington and Lee.
Earlier in the program I promised I would make an announcement about an historic new gift to Washington and Lee, that I would tell you a new story. Through the support of a dear and generous friend of the University, we announce today the establishment a signature program built around this emblematic theme of leadership and integrity. It is what has defined Washington and Lee. It is our legacy and our past. It will be our future.
It will enable us to bring to this campus students with the intellectual and personal promise to be leaders with integrity, regardless of their backgrounds, their origins, or their financial circumstances—students like you determined to lead a life of consequence.
It will enable Washington and Lee to define with substance and depth how a liberal arts education best prepares leaders for the 21st century.
I can’t tell you today the name of the benefactor. He prefers that our attention at this particular moment be on the program, the University, and most important the graduates in our midst, who have given every indication that they have absorbed this legacy and will carry it forth. In true Washington and Lee fashion, he doesn’t feel that this should be about him.
But I can tell you the program’s components:
What you need to know first is the magnitude of this gift. It is the one of the largest ever given to a national liberal arts college—we believe the second largest gift ever. It is $100 million.
Here is how that will be put to use.
We will establish two endowed faculty chairs, one in the College focused on how individuals and ideas shape the course of history; another in the Williams School focused on entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity in society.
We will establish an annual lecture series and symposium that will shape not only the campus conversation but also the national conversation on leadership and integrity in today’s society. Each year, we will identify a single unifying theme and bring the most prominent thinkers and writers to Lexington to advance our thinking and society’s.
We will establish a summer leadership experience that annually will provide thirty rising seniors with the opportunity to design and carry out a project to advance their leadership potential.
And, finally, and most important, the bulk of the funds--$85 million—will be designated for scholarships for those who otherwise could not afford to attend Washington and Lee. We will re-structure our scholarship programs so that individuals with the most potential to serve as leaders with integrity can continue to find their way to Washington and Lee, no matter their ability to afford this education.
Let me reiterate: this endowment of $85 million dollars will be earmarked for students with financial need and it will be in addition to, not a replacement of, what we are currently able to provide.
In the weeks and months to come, there will of course be much more to be said about this transformational gift and its details. I leave you today with the following observations.
Forget for a moment the size of the gift and even its details and think of the deeper message. As with Gerry Lenfest’s gift a couple of months ago, which was actually the sixth largest gift ever to a national liberal arts college, this act of generosity says a great deal about the faith and trust that our most dedicated supporters have in this University. It imposes a responsibility on all of us to live up to that faith and trust.
And it reminds us powerfully of this University’s most distinctive features. As alumni repeatedly tell us, they go about their lives and their careers with a deep awareness of ethics and integrity, forged during their time as students on this campus. This new gift ensures that future alumni will also go forth with that same strong character.
It reminds us that our core strength is our people. Mr. Lenfest’s gift directly addressed the importance of faculty. With this new gift from another supporter, our students will benefit—certainly those now able to attend Washington and Lee because of this new scholarship program but all those who join the ongoing conversation on this campus.
Two alumni, two generous gifts, and one powerful message: this institution has always educated students for lives of leadership and integrity, for lives of consequence. Those who benefited in the past are determined we will do so in the future.
Finally, our benefactor agreed with me that there would be no more fitting time to announce this than today, when we send forth another class of compassionate, honest, and capable leaders, so able to meet the highest standards of integrity and trust.
As you begin a new chapter of your life, so Washington and Lee begins today its own new chapter. As you build on the personal foundation you have built here, so will Washington and Lee build on this new pillar of our foundation.
Go forth committed to honoring the legacy of Washington and Lee. Go forth ensured that those of us back here—and your fellow alumni throughout the country—will work tirelessly and unselfishly so future generations will have the opportunity you have enjoyed.
And never, ever park on the Colonnade.
We now bring these proceedings to a close, marked by a final expression of gratitude to you the graduates for the privilege of working with you these last four years. We are proud of you and all that you have already accomplished. We can only imagine what the future holds.
Keep in touch. Thinks of us often, just as we will think of you. Godspeed, and good luck.