Speeches and Opinion Pieces
2019 Commencement Address
May 23, 2019
It is a privilege to address the class of 2019 on the occasion of your commencement. This is the 3rd year in a row I've been asked to speak. Of course, the President always delivers the graduation remarks at Washington and Lee. Despite not having been chosen, it is a great honor to speak to you on this day, which marks your passage from students to graduates of W&L.
I remember when I sat, as you do now, surrounded by classmates, wearing identical gowns, exactly 30 years ago, waiting to receive our diplomas. It is a surreal experience. This is the moment you have all been waiting for, toward which you have been working diligently since you entered college. But it is also a transition so momentous and abrupt that it is difficult to believe it is actually taking place. It's an out of body experience that feels like it must be happening to someone else. Your minds are swirling with emotion as you anticipate saying goodbye to your closest friends; at the same time sharing joyful reunions with your families; and then facing the hard, inescapable reality of driving down the highway, while your beloved campus recedes in the rearview mirror. It's also a safe bet you didn't get a lot of sleep last night.
All of which makes it difficult for you to listen to me. On my graduation day, a very distinguished speaker delivered wise remarks, from which I certainly had much to learn. I can't recall a word he said. But I'm going to keep talking anyway. You can let me know at your tenth reunion whether anything I say sticks with you.
Let's begin by asking ourselves: Why are we here? I'm a philosopher. This is the kind of question we ask. Bear with me. The short answer is you want your diploma. And we'll get to that. But that's not what I mean. I want you to reflect upon why you came to W&L. And I want to reflect upon what Washington and Lee University is here to do. Hopefully those two things bear some relationship to each other.
This is our mission: "Washington and Lee University provides a liberal arts education that develops students' capacity to think freely, critically, and humanely, and to conduct themselves with honor, integrity, and civility. Graduates will be prepared for life-long learning, personal achievement, responsible leadership, service to others, and engaged citizenship in a global and diverse society."
There is a lot packed into those two sentences. So much that I teach an entire course on the W&L mission statement. A few of you took it last fall. I won't subject the rest of you to the whole thing this morning. But I want to hit a few highlights.
For starters, note that this institution exists for your benefit. The entire university is an incubator devoted to helping students cultivate their potential. You arrived four years ago, eager and anxious teenagers, and we placed you in an environment carefully constructed to be conducive to your intellectual and personal growth. W&L is small, rural, residential, and resource intensive. You are surrounded by extraordinary peers, professors, coaches, and staff. The variety and intensity of curricular and extra-curricular activity is astonishing. The incubator never sleeps. I know first-hand because my house is surrounded by Graham-Lees, Gaines, and Red Square. I hope you appreciate what a rare and remarkable privilege it is to live in a community so intentionally and wholeheartedly committed to your flourishing.
Our mission statement has a beautifully simple logic. The first sentence stresses the investment W&L makes in you. We provide a liberal arts education that develops your intellect and character. The second sentence stresses what is now expected of you. You have been prepared to learn, to lead, and to serve. You may not have studied leadership or citizenship. But if we have done our jobs, and you have done yours, you are ready to make significant contributions wherever you go, for the benefit of yourselves and your families, but also for the benefit of those less fortunate and the communities in which you live. By investing in you, W&L has made a long-term investment in the public good.
College is sneaky. You thought you were having fun. Making your first friends on pre-O trips. Practicing and competing with your teammates. Singing, dancing, and acting. Getting it right at Mock Con. Lounging in the sun on front campus. Hiking, climbing, fishing. Breaking it down at Fancy Dress. Traveling far and wide. You were having fun. But at the same time, when you weren't looking, you were becoming adults increasingly capable of making meaningful differences. That's the important business of education. And it's compatible with fun. Indeed, the effort it takes to accomplish important things is better sustained if you find joy in what you are doing. You have experienced this at W&L: rising to the challenge of difficult classes, difficult workouts, and difficult performances of all kinds is easier when you take pleasure in your purpose, and when you surround yourself with others who work, smile, and laugh right alongside you. It's a lesson that will help you surmount challenges throughout your lives.
I'd like to ask the members of the class of '19 to sit up on the edge of your chairs. Actually, since I'm still in possession of your diplomas, President says: sit up on the edge of your chairs. Balance there for a moment. You are perched precariously - right here, right now — on the precipice between the two sentences of our mission statement. The Colonnade, the campus, and your time as students lie behind you. Stand up, turn around, and take one last look at them together. Now turn forward to face Lexington, the highway that will carry you to the future, and the lives you will lead as graduates of W&L.
Today we are ejecting you from the incubator. We still love you. We will always welcome you home. But your college education is complete, and from this day forward you are responsible for both the development of your capacities (the first sentence) and the deployment of your own capacities in the service of meaningful goals (the second sentence). You are responsible for the entire mission. That's a lot of responsibility, so you'd better sit back down.
Take comfort in the fact that a liberal arts education is a formidable foundation on which to shoulder your load. Your time at W&L has expanded your horizons — illuminating paths you previously could not see — it has sharpened your skills — allowing you to follow paths wherever they lead — and it has increased your flexibility — giving you the confidence to change paths along the way.
Our mission statement does not tell you which path to choose. W&L is not in the business of determining what your business should be. Whether you become an accountant, artist, banker, doctor, engineer, journalist, lawyer, minister, politician, scientist, soldier, teacher, writer, butcher, baker, candlestick maker or, heaven forbid, a philosopher, it is up to you.
Liberal arts education is not job training. But it is the best possible professional preparation, especially for a world in rapid flux. The hunger for lifelong learning is the most valuable thing you can possess in the 21st century. You will be surprised by how your lives unfold. You will accomplish things you cannot imagine. At your 10th reunion, you will swap tall tales of the good old days here in Lexington, and you will be astonished by the variety of things your classmates have become and done.
No matter where you go and what you personally achieve, Washington and Lee is in the business of preparing each of you to lead and to serve. Each of you will have opportunities to exercise leadership, in ways public and private, large and small. What is responsible leadership? And how does liberal arts education prepare you for it?
Like some of you, I got my first taste of leadership as the captain of a sports team in college. I didn't find it easy. It was hard for me to understand teammates who didn't love the game as much as I did, who didn't want to get better as badly as I did. My instinct was to be tough on them. Their instinct was to resent me for it. It's not easy when your friends resent you. It took me a while to realize that different people want different things from being on a team. The better I came to understand what motivated each individual, the more effectively I was able to encourage each of them, and the more successful we became and the more fun we had.
Like others of you, I also served as an RA, responsible for assisting 20 first-year students with the transition to college. I wasn't a natural at that either. My freshmen faced challenges that I failed to anticipate and for which I was ill-equipped. I learned that being a good leader involves recognizing your own limitations and not being too proud to get help when you are in over your head.
The lessons have continued throughout my career. Like many of your favorite faculty members, I chaired committees that taught me the importance of involving people in making the decisions that affect them. When I made the transition from philosophy professor to provost, I went overnight from supervising exactly one person, myself, to having responsibility for several hundred people who were in charge of information technology, the art museum, the science center, and a host of other critical operations about which I knew nothing. I learned that good leadership involves hiring expert staff and trusting them to do their jobs. When I arrived at W&L, I found myself fortunate to be leading a community 25,000 strong - students, parents, faculty, staff, alumni, trustees - all of whom are passionate about W&L. They also have a fairly wide range of opinions. About everything. It dawned on me pretty quickly that the goal of leadership cannot be to please everyone. The aim is to serve your organization and all of its constituents as conscientiously as you can.
The particular contexts in which you will exercise leadership are different than mine. But we can extract some general truths that apply to us all.
Leadership happens, not when you seek out a fancy title, but when you accept an important role and do it to the best of your ability. Responsible leadership is responsive leadership, as Christy Coleman emphasized in her Founders Day address. It is oriented to the needs of the people you serve. But it is not merely responsive. Governance by survey is not leadership. If President John Wilson had operated here that way 35 years ago, there would be no women graduating this morning. Leadership demands the courage to make unpopular decisions. Leadership also demands the willingness to compromise, to balance the competing needs of your various constituencies. Leadership is not "toughness" that insists stubbornly on a single perspective to the exclusion of all others.
The nature of a compromise is that everyone leaves disappointed. It may seem strange that as a leader your job is to disappoint people. But it's true. You will need a thick skin. And you will need to earn the trust of your community, so that when individuals disagree with your chosen course of action, they will continue to believe you have their long-term interests at heart. People need to know that you understand who they are, that you care about their success, that you will work diligently on their behalf, and that you are competent to advance their cause. To establish and maintain that trust, you will need to listen carefully, communicate authentically, offer praise generously, and be receptive to constructive criticism. That's a lot to ask.
Responsible leadership is demanding. Fortunately, liberal arts education has furnished you with the habits of mind that characterize good leaders. You have been trained to observe closely, interpret judiciously, and reason carefully. You have practiced inhabiting the perspectives of those different from yourself, evaluating complex problems from all angles, and presenting conclusions persuasively. You have developed the stamina to work in solitude and the disposition to collaborate with others.
Liberal arts education cannot possibly prepare you in advance for everything you will encounter. But it makes you the kind of person who responds well to encounters for which you are not prepared. That ability, more than anything else, enhances your prospects for a lifetime of learning, achievement, leadership, service, and citizenship.
W&L has a very ambitious mission. I like it that way. But how well are we doing? It depends on you. How are you different as a result of the years you have spent in our incubator? No test administered today — don't panic, there's not another test — could answer the question. The Five Star Generals, who return to campus each fall, more than 50 years after their graduation, embody the lifelong impact of Washington and Lee. That impact cannot be measured by comparing lifetime earnings to the cost of college. The true value of the investments that you, your parents, our alumni, and our faculty and staff have made in your education lies in the quality of the lives you will lead.
What you do with the opportunities you have been given is up to you. Each of you will determine your own personal mission. I hope you will find your calling and make it into your work. Find a meaningful purpose that calls fully on your considerable talents and you will enjoy the deep satisfaction that comes from applying your whole self to worthwhile challenges. Do this in concert with others who share the pleasure you take in purposeful work. I consider myself very lucky to have found such work, purpose, and community here at W&L and I wish the same for each and every one of you.