Remarks to the Class of 2010
by Washington and Lee President Kenneth P. Ruscio
at the 223rd Commencement Exercises
May 27, 2010
In keeping with the tradition established by my predecessors and affirmed by the Board, I take these final moments to send you on your way mindful of the lessons you have accomplished and learned during your time here. I will be brief, I promise.
Earlier this month I had one of those experiences that serve as a poignant reminder of why we do what we do here at Washington and Lee. It happened over the course of a single day. In the morning I met with 200 high school seniors and their parents in the Lenfest Center. They were here for accepted students day, trying to decide where they should spend their next four years. From there I headed back to my office on the Colonnade to begin greeting members of the Class of 1960 who were arriving for their 50th Class Reunion.
The merging of those two events-greeting prospective students and then alumni--began to take on almost a mystical significance, for I saw myself at the inflection point of a century of W&L history, looking back over the span of fifty years with my fellow alumni while looking ahead fifty years imagining similar stories from the Class of 2014 when they gathered in 2064 for their fiftieth reunion.
Here are just three of the many stories I heard from our alumni from the Class of 1960.
In the early to mid 1980's, Dr. Mervyn Silverman, with his medical and public heath degrees in hand was director of health for the City of San Francisco, a challenging public service career under any circumstances. But during his tenure, a mysterious disease starting spreading among the gay community. The cause was unknown. He found himself at the front lines of a public health crisis.
In the words of noted reporter Frances Fitzgerald, he had one of the most difficult jobs in the country and one of the loneliest. Eventually, the Silverman model for combating AIDS in San Francisco, based on compromise, consensus, and a commitment to public health, became the national model.
The Right Reverend Peter James Lee was first an army intelligence officer, and then attended Duke Law School. But the ministry called him, and he became an Episcopal priest. In 1984, he was named Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, the nation's largest.
There were deep controversies over the years, with many questions about church doctrine and the threat of deep divisions. Throughout his 25-year tenure, Bishop Lee gained respect for his calm dignity and ability to bridge the divides, standing fast for the principles of inclusion.
In February, Tom Touchton was named citizen of the year in Tampa, Florida. A successful manager of an investment firm, Mr. Touchton has also spent much of his career supporting local civic and charitable efforts. One stood out: his twenty-year odyssey-and it truly was an odyssey-to fund and build the Tampa Historical Center. His vision became a reality.
The Center is now the source of immense civic pride, as well as an important means of preserving the history and culture of the region. As one newspaper reported, "Touchton persevered, devoting his time, money and brain power to the task. And he showed precisely how such a venture should be pursued."
Now those are very different stories, but a common thread is that these three individuals, when they sat at their commencement as you do today, never anticipated the challenges that came their way.
Bishop Lee did not take a management or religion course at W&L that prepared him for the organizational or theological disputes he would encounter, nor was there a course on building consensus in the face of impossible odds... Dr. Silverman did not leave here with a manual of how to deal with an unprecedented public health problem that was politically, socially, and morally complex as well as medically mystifying... Mr. Touchton's transcript provides no direct evidence that Washington and Lee bestowed upon him the leadership acumen he would need to marshal the citizens of Tampa behind such a daunting civic effort.
But it was unmistakably clear to them, as it was to me when I listened to them and read about their lives, that Washington and Lee profoundly influenced their bearing and the choices they made along the way.
Here is what I mean. We do not give much thought these days to where people acquire and hone their values. But institutions matter, and just at a time when colleges ought to embrace the challenge of helping students decide what should be important, they seem to be shying away. We have not and will not.
In ways that you may not fully appreciate now, but certainly will when you gather here in 2060, the character of this community shapes the character of the individuals who belong to it.
Washington and Lee hasn't given you a roadmap because we simply cannot know what challenges await you. But we have given you a destination and a compass. We have instilled in you a disposition towards honor.
Over the course of your lives, this quality will reveal itself in ways large and small.
There was a story recently in the New York Times. It was about a retired lawyer who received a duplicate payment from the IRS after paying his taxes. He was $600 to the good as a result. The cause of the windfall, he discovered, was a flaw in the software package he had used to prepare his taxes. He returned the money to the IRS and notified the company that wrote software.
This was newsworthy, so when the Times reporter asked him to explain this seemingly inexplicable behavior, the attorney had a ready answer. Years ago, he said, I graduated from a college in the south, Washington and Lee University, where we were taught never to lie, cheat, or steal.
I recall an incident from my days on the faculty. In an American Government class we were discussing the ethics of campaign finance. One student, who had interned in Washington the summer before and brought the voice of hard experience to the discussion, made a Machiavellian argument.
It was fine, he said, to act honorably here in our enlightened community where no one would take advantage of your honesty. But leave such naïveté behind when you depart campus. For if you lead a life of virtue amongst those without virtue, you will be doomed to failure.
There was a moment of dead silence in the classroom. Then the woman next to him uttered a not very mild profanity, certainly not repeatable in this setting. She proceeded to eviscerate the moral bankruptcy of the argument, in the course of a tirade that I considered the most justified breach of classroom civility I have ever witnessed.
Now my point is not that you should give campaign donations ethically, although you should, nor that you should be honest on your taxes, although you should. It is something deeper.
You leave here not with the answers about what to do in a particular situation but with a disposition, a temperament, a moral vocabulary, a sense that life will not spare you from a multitude of personal and professional situations that will require a decision about how to act honorably.
The seed of that disposition is found in the honor system. It is nourished in your early days as freshmen, I mean first years, when you are most mindful of it and perhaps most intimidated by it. But gradually it becomes part of you. You are less mindful of it, even as you are living it.
The community's expectations develop within you what Alexis deTocqueville described in a different context as a "habit of the heart." A seemingly simple admonition not to lie, cheat or steal, grows into a moral perspective that causes you to be aware of your obligations to others; to respect individuals, no matter their differences; to lead a life that allows for pauses along the way to decide not simply what you want but what you should want.
We sometimes ascribe more to the honor system than it merits, even as we sometimes attempt to leverage it to solve every imperfection we find in our community. We sometimes look at its procedures and find we need to modify them. There are times when the pain of enforcement seems unbearable.
But we should never lose sight of how it is the foundation of so much of what we do here, and how it so profoundly raises the moral ambition of our graduates after they leave. It is telling that as life goes on for our alumni and their student days become more distant, they talk more about the honor system and its influence on them, not less.
When I greeted you almost four years ago-here in Lee Chapel, after the rain that according to custom allows us to be outside today-I told you this. At no other point in your lives will you grow as much as individuals yet feel so much a part of a community. I now challenge you to prove me wrong. Let your experience at Washington and Lee be just the beginning.
Do not leave behind the most important lesson you have learned at Washington and Lee; that you grow as individuals as you give to others. Leave here mindful of that disposition towards honor you have acquired and use it to strengthen your communities. As I have said on other occasions, the mark of a Washington and Lee man and woman should be that anyone they deal with, no matter their differences, should walk away knowing they were treated with respect.
Return here in 2060 to reflect upon your lives, as the Class of 1960 recently did, and say to each other that while the Washington and Lee student experience was fulfilling, fun, and academically challenging, it also was the perfect preparation for lives of consequence, for lives of meaning, and for lives of honor.
Thank you for all you have given us, and my congratulations on your accomplishments.