Getting to Know Will Dudley From W&L: The Washington and Lee University Alumni Magazine
Before you were approached about the presidency, what was your knowledge of W&L?
Growing up in Virginia, I had friends who attended W&L as undergraduates and law students. They loved their experiences in Lexington, so I've long been aware that Washington and Lee is a special place. More recently, as the provost at Williams, I pay attention to our peer schools. W&L stands out among the very best schools in the country for its history, the quality of its students and teachers, the passion of its alumni, and the resources available for education. Well before I was approached about the search, Washington and Lee was on my radar as a place I would be excited to work if the opportunity ever arose.
How did you choose to attend Williams College — like W&L, a small liberal arts college in a small town — for your undergraduate studies?
I had broad intellectual interests and wanted to go to a school where undergraduate teaching is the focus, so a small liberal arts college was the perfect fit. I also wanted to experience a different part of the country and was drawn to the natural beauty of New England. Thoreau famously wrote, in reference to Williams, "It would be no small advantage if every college were thus located at the base of a mountain." He was right, and the same could be said for the location of Washington and Lee. The surroundings are inspiring, and the absence of a big city means student activity is centered on campus. It's no surprise to me that W&L students and alumni have such powerful feelings for Lexington.
Like many W&L students, you focused on two disciplines as an undergraduate — in your case, mathematics and philosophy. How did you hit upon that combination?
Math was my first love. I enjoyed solving problems from a young age, and then I had a great teacher who opened my eyes to the beauty of mathematical truth and the creativity involved in proving theorems. I dreamed of playing for the Redskins, but if that didn't work out, I wanted to be a world-class mathematician. When I got to college, I continued taking math and science, but I also explored the rest of the curriculum, especially things I hadn't had the opportunity to study at my public high school. Freshman year I took poetry, music, religion and economics. Sophomore fall I stumbled into philosophy 101. It blew me away to discover a 2,500-year-old tradition of brilliant thinking about the most fundamental human questions.
And it has a lot in common with mathematics. In both disciplines you define your terms, state your assumptions as clearly as possible, and try to deduce the consequences. At some point it dawned on me that my professor was getting paid to think about fascinating ideas and introduce them to curious young people. I started to wonder if maybe I could do that.
Your scholarship focuses on philosophy and German idealism. Do those disciplines inform your leadership style, and if so, how?
Well, it's a long way from Kant to committee meetings. But I'm sure my philosophical habits do affect how I approach problems and interact with people. Philosophers are acutely aware of what we don't know. And we're trained to ask questions. When I confront a complex issue, my instinct isn't to leap to a conclusion, but rather to try to figure out what information is required to make a good decision and to make sure I involve the people who have relevant expertise. Philosophers are also comfortable with disagreement. We know that the best ideas emerge when smart people with different perspectives make the best cases for their points of view. I try to build talented teams, to ask each person to speak his or her mind, and to encourage everyone to remain open to persuasion by good arguments.
I think my interest in higher education is attributable in no small part to a lifetime of reading philosophy. The philosophers who have influenced me see education as the key to justice, and freedom, and happiness - the things that matter most deeply to human beings. And the German idealists are systematic thinkers, which means they emphasize the ways that every whole is the result of the interaction of its many parts. That makes me very interested in how the disparate elements of university life - academic, athletic, residential, social - work together to help our students cultivate their potential.
What are some of the major challenges facing higher education today, and what impact do you think they have on Washington and Lee?
One challenge is helping people understand the nature and value of a liberal education. There's a common but mistaken belief that the liberal arts have somehow become irrelevant. Nothing could be further from the truth. Liberal education is not job training, but it happens to be the best professional preparation. This is especially true in the 21st century, when most people have numerous jobs over the course of their careers, and most of those jobs demand intellectual flexibility. Washington and Lee is a leader in connecting the liberal arts and pre-professional education, which is reflected in the success of its alumni.
A second challenge is the cost of higher education. Quality liberal education is expensive. It requires a rich curriculum, small classes, good facilities and a host of extra-curricular programs and student support. It also requires a talented student body, since the students learn from each other both inside and outside the classroom. Financial aid is critical so the most capable students can be admitted regardless of their family circumstances. Raising and stewarding the resources necessary to ensure that W&L remains excellent, accessible and affordable long into the future is a top priority.
A third challenge is the shifting landscape of legal education. After the financial crisis of 2008, law school applications dropped precipitously around the country. Universities found themselves having to compete more aggressively for the best students. Washington and Lee responded thoughtfully, developing a strategic plan that involves sustaining quality while reducing enrollment to a more appropriate level. The market environment seems to have stabilized, and the implementation of the plan is proceeding well, so there is reason for optimism, but we will continue to give careful attention to this important part of the university.
How might you spend your first 100 days in office?
The most important thing right off the bat is to get to know the students, faculty, staff and alumni as well as possible. At the same time, I'll be working to learn as much as I can about the organization, operations and finances of Washington and Lee. Establishing good relationships and a shared understanding of some of the key challenges and opportunities will enable us to accomplish great things.
I'm really looking forward to getting started at W&L. It will be invigorating to meet so many people, begin learning about their work, and immerse myself in the life of the university. I also plan on enjoying the arrival of spring, which happens much earlier in Virginia than it does in Massachusetts.
How does your involvement in Division III athletics as a student-athlete at Williams inform your thoughts about the role of sports in a liberal arts education?
The long answer to this question is the course I taught at Williams called "Big Games: The Spiritual Significance of Sports." It examined why playing and watching sports matter so deeply to so many people. What are the fundamental human needs that sports satisfy? A central theme was the role that sports play in setting us free, which also happens to be the aim of a liberal arts education.
The short answer is that I've loved both sports and school my whole life. The opportunity to continue swimming in college was a significant factor in deciding to attend Williams. I never thought of myself as a student and an athlete. I'm a single person who enjoys intellectual and physical challenges. I've always found the two to be complementary. A hard practice can provide a welcome change of pace from schoolwork, but it can also restore the energy you need to tackle a paper or a problem set. The study habits that make you a good student can help you master the technical aspects of sport. Academics and athletics both involve trying to get better at something difficult, and success requires discipline and dedication.
Liberal education is about developing the whole person, cultivating intellect and character. Sports contribute to that development for a lot of people. Serving as captain of the water polo team was my first crash course in the challenges of leadership. You learn to work with teammates toward a common goal and to celebrate their successes as well as your own. You experience the pride and the responsibility of representing your school. You learn to cope with disappointment. Thirty years later, my college teammates are impressively accomplished in academia, medicine, law, business and the arts. I think they all would point to their athletic experience at Williams as a central part of their education and a critical factor not only in their professional success but also in the personal satisfactions of their adult lives.
You're coming from a college without a Greek system. How will you get to know W&L's sororities and fraternities, as well as its independent students?
I have a strong sense of the value of residential and social affiliation, both from my own experience as a college student and more recently as the chair of our committee on undergraduate life. It's important to me that every student feels at home at W&L and finds appealing options for living, eating and socializing. I understand the Greek system is a big part of the Washington and Lee experience. I hope the students will help me get to know this aspect of the local culture. Spending time with students is the best part of my job. I hope they won't be shy about asking me to share a meal, attend a game or watch a performance. I'll accept as often as I possibly can.
At Williams, you've chaired and/or served on many committees, including those on undergraduate life, educational policy, and diversity and community. How will those experiences inform your leadership on those topics at W&L?
As a faculty member at Williams, I've always sought to get involved with the committees working on the most important issues. Over time that has given me substantial exposure to all of the major areas of the college: admission, financial aid, academics, student life, finances and facilities. Much of what I have learned will be transferrable to Washington and Lee. Both schools are trying to allocate their resources as effectively as possible to provide the best education, inside and outside the classroom, to talented young people from all backgrounds. But, of course, there are important differences. W&L has an undergraduate school of commerce, a law school, fraternities and sororities. So some of the challenges are very familiar to me, and others will be new.
One of the benefits of committee work, regardless of the particular issues at stake, is that it brings together faculty, staff and students who might not otherwise know each other and gives them a common project. Successful leadership, I think, involves listening to all of the relevant constituencies, helping them understand each other, finding common ground, and explaining decisions well, especially to those who disagree. I have of lot of experience with that process and great respect for all of the participants.
Turning to some less weighty topics — how do you unwind and have fun?
I like to get outdoors. Living in New England, where it's almost always winter, that means a lot of downhill skiing, which has become a passion for me and my kids. I'm also an avid golfer, so the longer season in Virginia will be welcome. I try to stay fit. Swimming reminds me how far I've fallen from my youth, so I'm more of a runner these days. I enjoy getting my hands dirty, growing vegetables in the garden or working wood in my basement shop. And I'm always reading something for pleasure, usually history or fiction.
How does it feel to be (almost) back home in Virginia?
It feels great. Being closer to my parents in Charlottesville and my sister and her family in Arlington will be wonderful. Even though I've been away for a long time, Virginia still feels like home. The towns, the landscape, even the license plates bring back positive memories. Many of my oldest friends are here, and I'm excited to return.