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Washington and Lee University

Washington and Lee University

President's Message

Remarks given by W&L President Kenneth P. Ruscio '76 at the Campaign Kickoff on October 22, 2010.

Washington and Lee University was here long before us. It will be here long after us.

We look back tonight to those who played pivotal roles in the life of this institution.

To George Washington, whose gift saved a struggling college on the western frontier of the new country.

To Robert E. Lee, who sacrificed the promise of personal fortune to head a small college as his effort to bind the nation's wounds.

To countless others such as Warren Newcomb, whose gift of $10,000 in the aftermath of the Civil War is a legacy we honored this morning, nearly 150 years later, by rededicating a beautifully restored Newcomb Hall.

Tonight we look also to the Lenfests, Johnsons and Duchossoises. We note not just their generosity but also the character of their contributions. Washington and Lee University did not burst forth one day fully formed. It has been built over time, a long time. And with each new development, each new endorsement of our mission, we further refine and enhance what we stand for.

This is an institution with values and purpose, shaped by the commitments of those who cared for it. And so today, we have a Lenfest Center for the Performing Arts; Lenfest endowments to support our teachers; a Johnson Program in Leadership and Integrity; and a Duchossois Outdoor Athletics Facility Complex, where students learn the values that come through competition.

Tonight we look back with pride and admiration and gratitude. But we also look forward, bound by a reciprocal sense of duty and obligation. If we benefit from the sacrifice of those who came before us, as we surely do, then we are obliged to sacrifice equally for those yet to come. Our inheritance from the past becomes our duty to the future.

Washington and Lee's strength is its people. This campaign is, first, about our people, and, foremost among them, our students.

I begin each morning by reading the paper. Before the sun rises, I turn to the financial column in the Wall Street Journal written by Kelly Evans to get her interpretation of the latest move by the Federal Reserve Bank or the prediction on corporate earnings. The image of her playing on our lacrosse fields and receiving her diploma just three short years ago is never far from my mind.

I may then turn to the news on the war in Afghanistan, and I think about and pray for Marine Corps Lieutenant Rob Rain, currently commanding 100 Afghan and U.S. troops in the combat-driven southern portion of that country. A former football player and student body president, he graduated in 2007 and will return home in March to begin his postgraduate studies.

I might see an article about poverty and world hunger. It will remind me of a recent letter from Jagger Harvey, a former student and a member of the class of 1998. The son of Haitian immigrants, a first-generation college student, he went on to Cambridge after Washington and Lee and received his doctorate in biology. He now works at a research institute in Kenya, helping its agricultural industry improve crop yields to feed their people. Jagger wrote, "I owe so much to the faculty and staff at Washington and Lee."

The stories of these three young alumni are illustrative of hundreds of such stories about our graduates and their achievements. They are why we are here. We do what we do because of the impact we have on people like them, and because of the impact they are having in the world beyond Lexington.

This campaign will ensure that people with their intellect and character will always find a place at Washington and Lee.

This campaign is also about our faculty and staff. We believe, as our statement of philosophy so eloquently puts it, "that the personal association of [our] students with a highly qualified and motivated faculty holds the greatest promise of inspiring in them a respect and thirst for knowledge that will continue throughout their lives." We seek "to encourage personal attention and a close relationship between teacher and student."

In our time, the generation of Sidney Coulling, William Jenks, Edgar Spencer, Leonard Jarrard, Roger Groot, William Buchanan and Delos Hughes has passed the torch to a new generation of Marc Conner, Brian Murchison, Pamela Simpson, Lisa Greer, Arthur Goldsmith, Tim Diette and Suzanne Keen. Brilliant minds, creative scholars, each dedicated to sharing the fruits of their own intellectual labors.

Teaching at W&L is tremendously gratifying. Discovering a student's aptitude and nurturing it into a passion, or discovering a student's inaptitude and coaching him through the challenge, sends us home each day confident that we have made a difference in someone's life.

The rewards of spending one's academic career at Washington and Lee are immense, but that does not mean it is easy. On the contrary, it calls for a deep personal commitment as well as professional competence. And it calls upon us, as an institution, to honor the dedication of our faculty by providing a professionally and personally enriching environment.

This campaign is about academic innovation. When Lee assumed the presidency in 1865, he knew the curriculum was not well suited to preparing students for the very different world they would soon enter. He changed it, not in a trendy way, but in a rigorous, deliberate manner. It may not make sense logically in one's mind, but it makes perfect sense if you know this University in your heart. Our tradition is one of innovation.

So today, we leverage our long-standing strengths to provide a distinctive liberal arts education, especially well suited for the times in which we live.

We have revamped a spring term that is once again receiving national attention for its pedagogical approaches.

We have launched a path-breaking reform of legal education, and instituted a wholly original program in poverty studies and other rigorous interdisciplinary programs.

We have begun a new initiative in global learning, and created programs in Washington and Wall Street to connect our students with the world around them.

All these innovations begin and end with the guiding principle that the world needs individuals not only with technical and analytical ability, but also with the capacity for ethical and moral reasoning. Our students should leave Washington and Lee with good minds and good hearts, with a commitment to something greater than the self.

Finally, this campaign is about the nearly indefinable sense of place at Washington and Lee. We tell stories, stories of our first glimpse of the Colonnade, of morning walks with friends across the footbridge, of sitting on a rock reading a novel at Goshen Pass one spring afternoon. In a beautiful passage in his novel "The Foreign Student," Philippe Labro reminisces about days that are unmistakably his from time as a student at W&L in the mid-1950s:

Like an overdose streaming into my body the memories come; the trombones in Stan Kenton's band during the big spring concerts, with all the young people sitting on the lawn; the red mud on the long cement footbridge that crossed a struggling train track and linked the football field to the gym; comings and goings under the colonnade on a sparkling fall morning with the sun sliding across the grass from behind Lee Chapel. I hear the silence of the campus during classes when, through open windows, a tardy student's anxious steps echoed on the flagstones as he ran.

Our restoration of the Colonnade says so much about us, about our respect for the past and about our being so mindful of the future.

The Colonnade tells its own story - the understated symmetry of its columns suggestive of the dignity we hope to instill in our graduates; its many details a reminder to find meaning in the finer points of life; its architectural grace and strength so perfectly reflecting our institutional temperament.

It has fallen to this generation to preserve that sense of place.

This is a campaign of meaning and renewal. It is about our core mission and its relevance to a very challenging future for Washington and Lee and her students.

And it is ambitious and historic. It will be noticed not only for its reach but also for the priorities we have established within it. It says something about this University, and about the leadership role we will assume in shaping the future of the liberal arts.

One of the many life lessons I learned at Washington and Lee is to make choices that always lead you to a place where good people will surround you.

As a student, I knew I had chosen a university with character. My classmates, my friends to this day, help me understand what is important in life.

Later, as a faculty member, I benefited from working with individuals of intelligence and curiosity.

As a member of the administration, I find inspiration each day by watching the staff contribute in their own individual ways to the education of our students.

As an alumnus, I am challenged by the commitment of many, including those here tonight who have wished me the best, even as they emphatically demanded that I not screw this up.

This wonderful setting this evening is a humble reminder that to be at Washington and Lee is to be in the company of people who care.

People who believe, as I surely do, that this institution has made a difference in their lives.
People who believe, as I surely do, in our duty to ensure that it continues to change the lives of those here today and those still to come.

We are all in this together, and we are asking a lot of each other. But the task before us is bigger than any of us. And it matters. It is our time. It is time to honor our past. It is time to build our future.