When Robert E. Lee assumed the presidency of Washington College in 1865, he knew the task of educating leaders demanded an innovative academic program. The students of his day would face a set of challenges unlike those faced by previous graduates. He honored the past by building for the future.
Today Washington and Lee confronts a similar moment. In a world transformed by science and technology, globalization and new economic, political and cultural realities and where the solutions to problems require moral insight as well as analytical and technical skills, Washington and Lee must prepare its students for a daunting set of challenges. This does not mean changing the University. Instead, it calls for a renewed commitment to the timeless values of civility and integrity, enhanced by an ability to honor the quintessential Washington and Lee tradition: educating students for lives of consequence, motivated by a desire to serve others.
This strategic plan outlines “A Liberal Arts Education for the 21st Century.” It will be a distinctly Washington and Lee education—one that brings dedicated faculty and staff together with students who demonstrate exceptional intellectual and personal promise. The plan embraces our long-standing values. But it also recognizes that students learn differently because of developments in technology and because of the sheer volume of information now available. Students want to understand how their education enables them to thrive and flourish in a complex world. All this places faculty members in a more demanding role. They are teachers who must convey an ex citement for learning, and they are scholars who must also participate in the dynamic changes in their own fields of expertise so that they may be better teachers.
The landscape of higher education has itself changed. Liberal arts colleges and universities are only one of many choices for high school graduates, and they are among the most costly. In a society that seems increasingly to favor practical academic programs and quick return on investment, the value of a liberal arts education is not self-evident. Universities have not persuasively explained how a liberal arts education directly and significantly influences students’ lives. Washington and Lee must offer an education, in and out of the classroom, that enables students to interpret the world and clarify the ethical values that will guide their most critical choices.
In a world transformed by science and technology, globalization and new economic, political and cultural realities and where the solutions to problems require moral insight as well as analytical and technical skills, Washington and Lee must prepare its students for a daunting set of challenges.
If the value of a liberal arts education is no longer self-evident, Washington and Lee has a particular opportunity to assume a leadership role among its peers. We offer not just an exceptional liberal arts education but also one especially appropriate for this day and age. Our increasingly strong interdisciplinary programs, in areas such as the environment, poverty and women’s studies, and our international programs address some of the most challenging contemporary questions. Our professional programs in law, business and journalism shape campus conversations in ways that do not occur in other liberal arts colleges. These professional programs benefit because they exist in a liberal arts setting, and our liberal arts programs benefit because they exist alongside areas of inquiry attuned to the problems facing our society.
Another advantage Washington and Lee enjoys is our emphasis on education for character. The honor system, student self-governance and our existing academic programs in applied ethics are only the most obvious examples of an enduring commitment to an educational climate that cultivates moral and ethical reasoning. Our alumni speak well of an institution that prepared them for lives of integrity. Never was this responsibility greater than it is today. At Washington and Lee, character remains an important component of a liberal arts education. It includes nurturing civil discourse in a setting where not everyone thinks alike or shares the same opinions and beliefs.
Our strategic plan will help the University leverage these distinctive capabilities. It will strengthen a host of academic programs across the campus and give added attention to how we educate students outside the classroom. It will provide the academic spaces we need for a 21st-century education, as well as the physical facilities that enable students, faculty and staff to work together in a civil, mutually supportive and collegial environment. Through enhanced learning opportunities, programs that engage our students and faculty, and a renewed commitment to shaping a student’s character for a life of service, responsibility and integrity, Washington and Lee will provide a “Liberal Arts Education for the 21st Century.”
Kenneth P. Ruscio