Welcome Back to Washington and Lee

March 9, 2022

Timing is everything.

Two years ago, I launched Distinctively W&L – a monthly series on our place in higher education and the ways we are building on our strengths in the service of an even brighter future. I rolled out the first three installments: Our Approach to Liberal Arts Education; The Cost of College; and, The Value Proposition.

Then the pandemic struck.

From the day I had to announce the suspension of in-person classes and send our students home – March 13, 2020 – all of our energies have been focused on providing the best education possible, under constantly evolving circumstances, while protecting the health of our community.

The first phase of our response – which took us through the end of that school year – involved crisis management and reinventing our operations on the fly. Everyone got home safely, and our classes resumed online within two weeks. Professors learned new technologies, and students adapted to virtual instruction.

We spent the summer of 2020 preparing for phase two – bringing students back to campus that fall, prior to the development of vaccines. Facilities staff reconfigured classrooms to allow social distancing. Dining mobilized to produce thousands of daily takeout meals. The Student Health Center prepared for testing, contact tracing, and quarantine. Student Affairs and Athletics created new safety protocols for every imaginable activity. Faculty determined how best to teach their courses, which often involved hybrid forms of instruction.

The emergence of vaccines was a game-changer and ushered in the third phase of our response this fall. Classes are in-person, sports and the arts are in full swing, and we are hosting campus events. The undergraduate and law classes of 2020 celebrated their commencements – 18 months after the fact – on the front lawn. Parents and Family Weekend was an exuberant success. Alumni are making up for lost time by making the pilgrimage back to Lexington for reunions.

We now have good reason to hope that we are entering phase four, when Covid-19 will be endemic, no more disruptive than the annual flu.

In the meantime, what have we learned in the last two years? W&L students, faculty, and staff are flexible, resilient, and dedicated. We love our traditions and routines. They were disrupted yet we persevered. Our community has made the best of an exceptionally adverse situation.

The value of what we do here at Washington and Lee – the topic on which I wrote in Distinctively W&L just two days before emptying out the campus in March 2020 – has never been more apparent. For all that the pandemic has taken from us, it has also bestowed a heightened appreciation of precious things that we no longer take for granted. Each of us is grateful for the relationships and opportunities that we enjoy when we are here together.

Like many of you, I was moved by the pandemic to reflect upon what I do and why I do it. I have devoted a quarter-century to higher education, as a teacher, scholar, and academic leader. It is my profession but also my calling. There is no place I feel more at home than on a college campus.  

What do I love so much about university life?

Ours is a fundamentally optimistic enterprise. We are future-oriented. Students make up two-thirds of our community. They arrive as young adults, full of possibility and promise. They bring tremendous energy and wide-ranging curiosity. Students come to make sense of the world and to discover themselves. They are ripe with potential and eager to make a difference.

Students are the best part of working at Washington and Lee. Their talents and dreams are inspiring. Their good humor and joie de vivre are uplifting. They give the campus the gift of perpetual youth – while we teachers get older, the students never do. Each fall brings a fresh crop, for whom everything is new and ready to be made their own.

Students are also the reason we are here. Being with them is a joy but also a serious responsibility. Our mission is to develop their intellect and character in ways that will be conducive to their personal, professional, and civic success. W&L exists to invest in our students and, through them, in the communities to which they will contribute.

It’s easy to get out of bed in the morning with a purpose like that.

I also love the way we go about our work. Our job is to help our students launch themselves, not to do it for them. We expand their horizons, and they choose their own futures. We give them the tools to examine the world, and they draw their own conclusions.  

Every student at Washington and Lee explores a broad variety of disciplines, each one offering a distinctive set of topics, problems, and methods. Students also acquire sustained experience with the specific modes of inquiry in their chosen majors.

Whatever the field, our undergraduate and law faculty expect their students to become proficient at intellectual combat. In our classrooms, students are challenged to express their opinions, clarify their assumptions, pose questions, consider other perspectives, and revise their views on the basis of new information and compelling arguments. I know from teaching my own seminar each fall term that W&L students are eager to do this work. They are independent thinkers who enthusiastically and respectfully participate with their peers in the probing discussions led by our faculty.

Learning and growth are not confined to the classroom, of course, and another great pleasure of university life is watching our students pour themselves into athletics, the arts, community service, outdoor adventures, and all manner of activity. At Washington and Lee, we get to know our students personally, understand their passions, support their efforts, coach them through setbacks, and celebrate their successes. 

Having come to know our seniors and 3Ls so well, saying goodbye to them is always bittersweet. We are sad to see them go, but excited about their futures. It is a treat when they return to campus, often with an even deeper appreciation of what W&L means to them, and with budding professional confidence, experience, and evolving plans.

Our mission – preparing graduates for lifelong learning, personal achievement, responsible leadership, service to others, and engaged citizenship in a global and diverse society – is more important than ever. The privileges and joys of being part of the W&L community are more meaningful than ever.

Which brings us back to where Distinctively W&L left off two years ago. Given the significance and value of what we do, who gets to be here? How do we select our students? And how do we make it financially possible for them to attend Washington and Lee? I look forward to addressing these issues of access and affordability next month. For now, after two unimaginably difficult years, let me just say how good it feels to be back, and how much I look forward to celebrating commencement with this year’s graduates in May.