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Washington and Lee University

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Ken Ruscio '76

Liberal Arts and the Environment

W&L President Ken Ruscio '76 thinks one of the challenges facing the liberal arts today is helping students understand the connection between their education and the world around them. If the goal is to educate them for lives of consequence, they also need to see how their education provides insight into the key problems facing their generation.

“While sustainability is for me a personal commitment, so too is the mission of the liberal arts,” said Ruscio. “I don’t know how to confront the problems of the environment without the intellectual breadth of a liberal arts education. It is not simply that it requires a knowledge of politics, economics, science, literature and philosophy; it also requires an understanding of how all those areas of knowledge come together and are interwoven in a single problem.”

In the past two years, Ruscio has taken several steps that signal the importance the University places on bringing together students, faculty, administrators and staff to reduce W&L’s carbon footprint. In early 2007, he signed the Presidents Climate Commitment and the Talloires Declaration (see sidebars). “We must align our own institutional practices with what we preach to our students about their duties as responsible citizens and their obligations to future generations,” said Ruscio.

In September, Ruscio announced six institutional priorities for the 2008-09 academic year, of which sustainability is one (see p. 4). With the formation of the University Sustainability Committee, W&L will look for ways it can do more to reduce its use of energy, minimize its carbon footprint and tread gently on the local environment, all the while tying its commitment to sustainable practices into its educational mission.

“The commitment also derives from living and working in a place such as Rockbridge County, where the connection between the natural world and the character of this community is so close,” said Ruscio. “We sometimes take for granted how the sense of place—the civility of our personal interactions, for example—is, in no small part, a function of the natural setting in which we live, the graceful mountains in the background, Woods Creek and the Maury River, Goshen Pass, Natural Bridge. In a place such as ours, the physical and natural settings intertwine with the social and cultural.”