A Timeless Trust
The temptation for me this evening is to sum up everything I have learned about our alma mater after 31 years as a student, faculty member, administrator, and president. The arc of my W&L career starts in Gilliam dorm as a freshman, stretches to Davis as a junior dorm counselor, and then to Graham Lees as a senior dorm counselor. It eventually dead-ends in Lee House. That's a rather limited and unadventurous trek of about 50 yards, but one that at least led to a better parking space.
As my time as president winds down it is indeed tempting to take one last shot at capturing the character of Washington and Lee and this timeless trust it seems to instill in all of us.
But I am constrained by the inconvenient coincidence of this being my 40th reunion. A fair number of my classmates are here. There is nothing more humbling than being around those who knew you when. I imagine the finest legal minds from the Class of 1966, who are here for their 50th Reunion, have crafted a strict contract governing their classmates' interactions for the weekend, a version of which I strongly encourage the Class of 1976 to adopt: The one that goes, "I won't tell if you don't."
This is a weekend for eavesdropping on whispered conversations. Listen carefully the next few days, as I have done in the past, and you will overhear mystified alumni trying to make sense of things that will never make sense.
He's now a renowned cardiologist, but wasn't he a Beta?
He's an investment analyst, but he was so mathematically challenged as a student he couldn't even correctly number the footnotes in his English papers.
She married him?
And, my favorite: Didn't he barely get admitted here-and now he's the president?
My point is that any attempt on my part to draw grandiose conclusions about what this place is, what it stands for, what its values are, what it means in today's world, why, in the midst of sameness and soullessness in higher education today, our alma mater retains a level of distinctiveness and quality, and perhaps most of all, why it matters-any such ambition is likely to get quashed by those who know how to keep you humble.
But maybe I'll stick my toe in the water a little bit.
I wouldn't survive a day as president without the early morning walk through campus, a ritual that passes for exercise but is really to clear the mind. Those of us who work here take for granted the setting in which we find ourselves. This is a historic campus in a location unusually blessed by nature. We are in the Shenandoah Valley surrounded by the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains, not far from a place where a river cuts through the mountains to form Goshen Pass. We work in buildings of architectural grace and strength, which reflect so perfectly the qualities of grace and strength that define this community.
Each morning as I see the custodians and facilities management crews prepare the campus for the classes, athletic events, and concerts and performances that will stretch well into the evening, I am deeply aware how fortunate I am to have spent most of my career here.
I would caution us against the feeling-the hubris really-that as alumni we enjoy an exclusively privileged stake in protecting this university. We share it with those who may not hold a degree from W&L but have dedicated their careers to it. They are folks like Randolph Hare, who came here in the facilities area about the time I came as a freshman. He's never left. Much of the beauty of this campus has his fingerprints on it. When commencement and convocations and reunions come along, and chairs and platforms and tents have to be erected and then removed, there's Randolph supervising the operations, quietly and effectively, and working with dozens of others equally devoted to this university.
Or professors I work with every day...folks like Bob Strong, Angie Smith, Art Goldsmith, Jonathan Eastwood, Karla Murdock, and Bill Connelly. Even as they forge their own paths, they follow in the footsteps of icons such as Sid Coulling, Bill Jenks, Ed Spencer, Len Jarrard and Buck Buchanan. And the legendary and now sadly gone, Pam Simpson, the art professor who a few years ago gave an opening convocation speech just a month before she passed away, in which she explained how our physical surroundings both shape and are shaped by our character. When we conclude our business here this evening and exit the Chapel, keep her words in mind as you glance up to the historic Colonnade.
[W]hat we so value today [she said] came together over a period of several hundred years. Each generation built on the past. What resulted was not only a collection of historic, distinguished buildings (which we are now working hard to restore); we also ended up with a symbol. This is who we are. When we think of our most deeply held values- academic excellence, collegiality, civility, and most of all, honor, all of them are embodied here... White columns, worn steps, halls hallowed by time, and the strength embodied within them.
I often find large meaning in small places here.
Woods Creek winds through the ravine spanned by the world's longest non-suspended cement footbridge. The creek originates just a short distance from our campus, over by the Lexington Golf Course. It picks up force just before it hits the area near the Lenfest Center. It then flows boldly through the space between the Woods Creek apartments and the Leyburn Library, following the worn trail bed where, until the early 1960's, iron rails once served the trains that came into Lexington.
The creek continues behind VMI before it empties into the Maury River, which then empties into the James River. The James, in turn, goes past Richmond, the capital of the confederacy, past Jamestown, the home of the first English settlers, near Yorktown where the American Revolution came to an end, then into The Chesapeake Bay and ultimately the great Atlantic Ocean.
Washington and Lee is a distinctive place. But like the creek within our midst we are connected always to something much larger than ourselves, and to a past and a future beyond our present moment.
Another small thing with large meaning:
A few days ago, I met with a couple hundred high school seniors. They had been accepted to W&L as-brace yourselves-members of the Class of 2020. It was our hope that they would now accept us.
I asked them to imagine themselves returning to campus for their 50th reunion in the year-brace yourselves again-2070. I told them I would soon be meeting with the Class of 1966, who would be on campus doing just that-looking back on lives well lived, and remembering how their choice of a university shaped who they are today. I wanted those young men and women to think not only about where they will spend the next four years, but also about a community they'd been invited to join for the rest of their lives.
Meeting with them and being here this evening, I find myself on the cusp of a century of Washington and Lee history, imagining what those students will achieve in the decades to come, and now looking back with you, not imagining achievements but celebrating them.
I have spoken before about one of the defining characteristics of our alma mater-the intergenerational contract that binds us. It goes like this: It is perfectly fine and appropriate for those of us here today to benefit from the sacrifice of those who came before us, provided we sacrifice equally for those still to come. Our inheritance from the past becomes our obligation to the future.
That moral contract binds us with the generations who preceded us-the names that are familiar: Washington and Lee of course; but also others of more recent times-the distinguished jurists John Minor Wisdom and Lewis Powell, who are no longer with us, and those thankfully still very much with us, such as journalist Roger Mudd, and public servants John Warner and Linwood Holton who exemplified our highest values throughout their distinguished careers.
It has never been far from my mind that students walking on campus today will meet those same lofty standards.
And there is something profoundly moving in knowing that the Class of 2020 will be here in 2070 doing exactly what we are doing this evening.
It was Edmund Burke, the British member of Parliament during the time of the American Revolution, who wrote, "Society is a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born." That is true about the institution we call Washington and Lee University. It has been given to us in trust, and while it was never more perfect than it was during our time as students, we know deep within us that it gets better with each passing day, each new generation of students.
Another small thing with large meaning:
Shortly after I became president, we began to plan the restoration of the Colonnade. It was badly needed. The classrooms were terribly outdated. Faculty offices were crumbling around their occupants. Providing the latest technology was a challenge. The cooling system consisted of opening a window. Plumbing and heating were still mostly of the 19th century vintage. It did not escape our notice that we had recently ended the 20th century and entered the 21st. The Colonnade needed some serious changes.
But it was a national historic landmark. It needed protection as well. Our challenge was to preserve the character of a treasured, iconic building even as we adapted it to the 21st century and beyond.
I recall a meeting with the architects and historic preservation folks who had come to tell us what we could and could not do. I was prepared to take them to school. Some things along the Colonnade are historic by any standards. But other things are historic only by W&L standards. The reason for the location of a certain plaque, for example, is something you could know only if you knew the unwritten stories passed on through generations. My guard was up.
So we started walking down the Colonnade. Keep the worn steps into Payne Hall, I demanded. And don't touch the boot-scraper. It stays. The officials and architects were professionally polite and tolerant. They obviously had done this kind of thing before and dealt with people like me. They diplomatically assured me they understood.
And then they asked me, "What about the pattern of bricks on the Colonnade walk?"
"The what?" I said.
They explained, "As you undoubtedly know, from Payne Hall to Washington Hall the bricks have a distinctive inlay with a circular-spiral pattern. From there to Tucker the inlays become like stars, the differences reflecting the work of different brick makers called upon at different times during the construction of the Colonnade. We assume you want that historic pattern to remain after the restoration."
Well, despite having walked the Colonnade a few thousand times I did not know that the pattern of bricks changed, and it wasn't even worth pretending that I did. With considerable admiration for their knowledge and with a newfound humility with respect to my own, I insisted that the patterns should stay exactly as they are.
If you understand our approach to the Colonnade project, you understand the ethos of Washington and Lee University: a constant effort to identify and preserve what has made us so strong in the past, even as we change to prepare for a very different future. The worn steps, the boot scraper, and the brick patterns stay. But if we did not make some changes, our capacity to educate students would deteriorate along with the building's structures.
The question was not whether to change, but how and for what reason.
Some of you may have heard me talk about one of my favorite novels, The Leopard, by Giuseppe Lamberdusa. The time is the late 1800's in Sicily. Italy is moving, painfully, from a patriarchal monarchy to a democratic republic. A member of the old guard, the man known as "The Leopard," is not taking this well. His nephew, who has committed to the new order but retains great affection for his uncle, calls him aside and explains sympathetically, not harshly, "Uncle, if you want things to stay the same, there will have to be some changes."
If that fictional setting from a time long ago in a setting far from here makes it seem too remote, let me offer a local W&L translation from a more recent time. In 1971, alumnus and legendary Dean Frank Gilliam, who had retired a few years before, was asked what he would tell alumni if he could gather them together.
This is what he said:
"When everything is considered Washington and Lee is as fine an institution as it was when you were here, even though, thank heaven, it is different in many respects. I see no likelihood of Washington and Lee losing its essential distinction of excellence. I would say that if you were inclined to complain, try to analyze what has happened in education in America and look at where Washington and Lee is today. You have to accept many things which at first glance you probably don't like. Many of you think you are paying the University a tremendous compliment when you say you don't want one thing changed from the way it was when you were here. But if you had that institution unchanged, most of you would be ashamed of it. I am optimistic about Washington and Lee, and I glory in what it is now as I gloried in it when I first came here."
We talk a lot about history and tradition here at W&L. And we should. And we talk about them in tones of reverence, as we should. Universities have been defined as repositories for the accumulated wisdom of the ages. If so, few have had the opportunity to accumulate as much wisdom as we have. For the arc of our history traces the arc of our nation's.
We were here for the Founding and the American Revolution when the father of our country decided to help education on the western frontier, which was where Liberty Hall Academy was located. In conveying his gift, Washington wrote, "To promote literature in this rising empire and to encourage the arts have ever been amongst the warmest wishes of my heart, and if the donation which the generosity of the Legislature of the Commonwealth of Virginia has enabled me to bestow on Liberty Hall-now by your politeness called Washington Academy-is likely to prove a means to accomplishing these ends, it will contribute to the gratification of my desires."
We were here in the midst of the Civil War, and its painful aftermath, when a defeated general came here to this college, our college, help heal the nation's wounds. He explained his decision this way: "I have a self-imposed task, which I must accomplish. I have led the young men of the South in battle. I have seen many of them die. I shall devote my remaining energies to training young men to do their duty in life."
We are surrounded by history. But that does not mean and cannot mean we are confined by history.
I recall sitting on the Lee House porch last fall with a couple of members of the Class of 1958, reminiscing and listening to one say how the loss of conventional dress and Saturday classes was pretty much the death spiral for the University he knew. A minute or two later, he was talking about how incredibly proud he was of what the university had become.
The 60's brought an end to the dreadfully named Assimilation Committee, and the beginning of the radical curricular innovation called the Spring Term. By the time the Class of 1976 arrived as freshmen-we now call them "first years," by the way-the thought of conventional dress and life without Spring Term would have seemed strange. The 80's brought women to the undergraduate student body. The 90's saw a growth in enrollment, an arts center, a requirement that sophomores live on campus, and the start of the new student commons, seen at the time as a plot to undermine the Greek system - a plot that apparently failed miserably since Greek membership is today the highest it has ever been.
The past decade has brought a student body that is more diverse in every way-from geography to race and class-and is also, not incidentally, even more gifted academically. It also brought the Johnson Scholars program, neighborhoods in the form of on-campus housing for juniors, and yet more curricular innovations in the study of poverty, ethics, entrepreneurship, integrative and quantitative sciences, the environment, and global learning.
My point is this. For each of us there was indeed a moment in time when W&L came together for us. Maybe it happened while finding inspiration in a history or art course, or after a hard practice with teammates, or walking the Colonnade late at night. Those were good moments, perfect moments. We counted ourselves undeservedly fortunate to be here. And our gratitude elided into an understandable desire to preserve forever those features that defined perfection for us at that precious moment in time.
But we must not confuse custom with tradition. That demeans the deep significance of what is genuinely traditional. We no longer have the custom of an Assimilation Committee, but the tradition of civility endures. We no longer follow the custom of an all-male student body, but the tradition of academic excellence survives because we changed. We no longer follow the recent custom of relegating many of our students to substandard, unsafe and unaffordable housing farther and farther from campus because we care about the tradition of fostering a close community where everyone knows each other and cares for each other.
Sometimes respect for tradition requires change.
Think of the Colonnade and how carefully we restored it, preserving its character and changing it at the same time.
One last small thing with large meaning.
To your left and over my right shoulder is the Charles Wilson Peale portrait of George Washington. It is a piece of the nation's history, not just ours. The very first portrait of Washington, it was painted several years after his service to the King of England in the French-Indian War but still before his service in the Revolution. Every detail has meaning, in keeping with the significance of formal portraits at that time. The uniform, the amulet, the pose (which in the context of times is meant to convey the bearing of a gentleman,) and the background, which calls to mind the ruggedness of the countryside and the remoteness of the frontier battlefield where Washington fought.
And note this one particular detail: the papers in his pocket. Washington and Peale did not forget to tuck them in. They are displayed for a reason. They are the "orders of the march" meant to signify Washington's sense of duty and obligation. Their intentional prominence in the portrait is an early indication of a virtue that would define Washington's life: self-sacrifice in the service of others and a commitment to something greater than the self.
That was a part of the DNA of Washington's character, and I like to think that our connection with Washington made that part of our character, part of our institutional DNA.
In this day and age, a commitment to the development of character has become a rare and distinguishing feature of a college. It puts us in an increasingly lonely corner of higher education. We have not abandoned that mission, as have many others have, either implicitly or explicitly. We continue to embrace it.
But I can be more precise about what we do here at W&L. In so many ways-through the Honor System, through the sense of community we create, through the importance we attach to caring for each other, through the cultivation of the virtue of civility, through the lifelong friendships that are developed here, through the type of learning that enables us to have the courage of our convictions alongside the humility to learn from others, through the embrace of history that does indeed surround us, through the sense of giving back that brings many of us here this evening-in so many ways, Washington and Lee helped us understand that a life well-lived involves something much deeper than a commitment to the self.
During your time here this weekend and perhaps more importantly when you return to your homes and communities, appreciate your alma mater as a place of consequence, a place where what we do matters. When members of the Class of 2020 gather in 2070, they will see the Liberty Hall Ruins still standing and more than three centuries old. They will still be surrounded by the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains. And they will see the stately and imposing Colonnade, thankful that it was so beautifully restored and preserved through the support of devoted alumni.
They will also see changes we cannot even imagine. And they may be grumbling about them. That happens among people who care deeply about a place that has meant so much to them.
But I am confident of this. When the alumni gather in 2070 as we are this evening, they will, like us, be reflecting on lives well-lived, aware that in important ways W&L shaped who they are.
This is our institution's timeless trust, always mindful of our past, but never unmindful of the future.