2017 Founders Day Remarks

January 17, 2017

We celebrate Founders Day and gather for Convocation, by direction of the Board of Trustees, on the birthday of Robert E. Lee, who served as our university's president from 1865 to 1870.

Washington and Lee is 268 years old. I have been the President for 3 weeks. It is a privilege to participate for the first time in one of our most important traditions. On this occasion, we reflect upon the people whose vision, leadership, and hard work gave rise to this university, in which we take pride and to which we now devote our own energy. We reflect upon the purposes and the values that abide as the common thread connecting the members of this community across decades and centuries during which so much else has changed. And we reflect upon our motto ⎯ non incautus futuri, not unmindful of the future ⎯ which expresses our commitment to honor the past, not from a desire to remain frozen in time, but rather as a source of inspiration to direct our own efforts, while we are fortunate to be on this campus and on this earth, for the benefit of those who will follow us in the decades and centuries to come.

Sunday evening, we were graced by the presence of Diane Nash, the legendary civil rights activist, who delivered the keynote address of our celebrations in honor of Martin Luther King. Listening to her, I was struck by the connection between the driving force that propelled the civil rights movement and our own motto here at W&L. She spoke of agape, the ancient Greek word for the love of humankind, and said to the young people in the audience, who had not yet been born in the 1960s, "although we did not know you, we loved you." The civil rights activists gave of themselves so that people of my generation, and of our students' generation, and of future generations could live in a better world. Our university motto calls upon each of us to do the same.

Washington and Lee's two most prominent founders, the men for whom our school is named, exemplified this ethos and expressed their conviction ⎯ in word and in deed ⎯ that the future is best served by education.

221 years ago, George Washington provided the endowment that ensured the survival of Liberty Hall Academy, enabled its subsequent transformation into a college, and continues to support us today. He declared that the time had come "when a plan of universal education ought to be adopted in the United States. Not only do the exigencies of public and private life demand it, but, if it should ever be apprehended that prejudice would be entertained in one part of the Union against another, an efficacious remedy will be, to assemble the youth of every part under such circumstances as will, by the freedom of intercourse and collision of sentiment, give to their minds the direction of truth, philanthropy, and mutual conciliation." Education, Washington emphasized, not only prepares us for personal success and public service, but also, and most importantly, unifies diverse communities of students and teaches them to live in harmony.

Robert E. Lee was born 210 years ago, today. Opposed to secession and to the Civil War he knew it would bring, yet feeling himself duty-bound to accept Virginia's request that he lead its army, Lee will forever be remembered primarily as a Confederate general. But he served twice as long as a college president ⎯ 3 years at West Point and 5 years here. And he clearly took more pride in his work as an educator. When Lee arrived in Lexington in the fall of 1865, only months after surrendering at Appomattox, he wrote to his wife: "Life is indeed gliding away and I have nothing good to show for mine that is past. I pray I may be spared to accomplish something for the benefit of mankind and the honour of God."

Lee accepted the presidency of Washington College because it offered him a chance to accomplish something for the benefit of mankind: "So greatly have [educational] interests been disturbed [in] the South," he wrote, "and so much does its future condition depend upon the rising generation, that I consider the proper education of its youth one of the most important objects now to be attained." Lee devoted the remaining 5 years of his life to this end. He saved this institution when its existence was threatened and he proved to be remarkably forward looking. Lee transformed the college into a small university by expanding the classical curriculum with the addition of modern languages and history, mathematics and natural science, journalism, and law. He built the kind of institution that he wished he had been fortunate enough to attend. As he famously remarked to a faculty member, "The great mistake of my life was taking a military education."

Washington and Lee is 268 years old. And although its most prominent founders are the two men for whom it is named, our university owes its endurance, its character, and its success to countless other people. Thousands of individuals have contributed in thousands of ways. Some have been celebrated, some have been acknowledged, some have gone unrecognized. Our honored guest and speaker, Jonathan Holloway, will lead us in a reflection on the consequences of making visible the people and the work that have not been granted recognition previously.

Jonathan Holloway is the Dean of Yale College and the Edmund S. Morgan Professor of African American Studies, History, and American Studies.

Dean Holloway is a noted scholar of post-emancipation United States history. His most recent book is Jim Crow Wisdom: Memory and Identity in Black America Since 1940. In 2009, Dean Holloway won the William Clyde DeVane Award for Distinguished Scholarship and Teaching in Yale College, and in 2014 he won the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award. He is currently a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians.

Dean Holloway completed his bachelor's degree in American Studies at Stanford University, where he was an outside linebacker for the Cardinal football team. He then earned three degrees at Yale, including a Ph.D. in History. Holloway has taught at Yale since 1999 and served as the master of Calhoun College from 2005 to 2014. At the end of this academic year he will become the Provost at Northwestern University.

Please join me in welcoming Jonathan Holloway, who will speak on "The Price of Recognition: Race and the Making of the Modern University."

Office of the President

Washington and Lee University
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Lexington, VA 24450