So many nice things have happened to the Ol' Bloviator here of late that he is totally on edge, fearful that any second now that the Almighty will get wind of it, leading to what the market gurus call a "major correction" wherein he will be exposed for the worthless lout he really is and cast into the wilderness to wander for the remainder of his days, with nothing to eat but kale and nobody but Barry Manilow on his Ipod. Regardless of when--no need to waste an "if" on this one-- his day of reckoning comes, however, the O.B. will still be thanking the wonderful folks up at Washington and Lee University for awarding him an honorary doctorate in humane letters. Simply put, he can scarcely imagine a more generous and deeply gratifying form of recognition that could ever come his way. Despite his indelible ties to the nation's first state-chartered university (1785), he has long felt a special affinity for W&L, founded in 1749, generously endowed by a certain Mr. Washington in 1796 and revived after the Civil War by another Virginian by the name of Lee, who served as its president from October 1865 until his death five years later.
Of course, neither Robert E. Lee or George Washington are really dead on a campus marked by so much statuary and truly imposing architecture bearing their names and likenesses. Though the Lee connection has grown socially problematic at times, as recently as last summer, in fact, W&L's dynamite prez, Ken Ruscio, a stand-up dude if ever there was one, has steadfastly maintained that the school's special place in history is integral to its identity. Lest ye be deceived, President Ruscio's position does not imply dogged defense of an ossified, uncritically venerated past, but quite the opposite. As he told his commencement audience last week:
There's the old joke about how many Washington and Lee alumni it takes to change a light bulb. Five: one to actually change it and four to talk about how great the old bulb was....Washington and Lee does have a storied past....We preserve what matters in our history. And we learn from it. But we are a university, not a museum, and while the past shapes us, it doesn't dictate our future. That is up to us, and it is up to each one of you.
It is for this very insistence on reason over emotion and thoughtful discourse over shouting that, since the O.B.'s first visit to the campus nearly twenty years ago, he has been a walking infomercial, touting Washington and Lee as the place to go if you want to see undergraduate education done right, and his more recent trips have not only affirmed but, if anything, strengthened that conviction. A student/faculty ratio of 8:1 obviously doesn't hurt, especially when buttressed by an overarching commitment, not simply to teaching, but to challenging an impeccably credentialed student body replenished annually by freshmen classes whose average SAT scores may run close to the 90th percentile.
Despite expanding its need-based financial support efforts, W&L's sticker price for tuition, room, and board can add up to a four-year price tag in the rather exclusive neighborhood of $200 grand, and by and large, its undergraduate scholars come from some of the most heralded private and public elementary secondary schools in the nation. (Roughly 85 percent of the students hail from outside Virginia.) Noting that 80 percent of undergraduates belong to Greek organizations, the casual observer might mark W&L off as a nice little place in a quaint little town (Lexington, Va.) where pampered rich kids can come for further pampering, not to mention some serious partying. Please allow the OB to curb-stomp this misconception right here and now. Freshmen who show up with the idea that their prodigious G.P.A. and SAT numbers will allow them simply to skate through the next four years will be back home before you can say "Tonya Harding." This much is made abundantly clear before a student even applies, and from the OB's personal observations, it is reaffirmed every day in the classroom, where it is a given not only that the instructor will be superbly prepped for each session, but that no less will be expected from every student in his or her charge. Even if this expectation is not always met, from the first campus visit to the day the sheepskins are handed out, the message that this is a place where learning comes first never seems to fade.
It was certainly coming through loud and clear on May 28, 2015 when the OB was on the receiving end at a commencement ceremony for the first-time in four decades. As the famously excitable Bulldog scene-setter, Larry Munson, might say, "Get the picture":
It's a beautiful, though warmish morning, and, bedecked in tightly aligned white chairs, the sloping lawn forming a sort of natural amphitheater between Washington Hall and the Lee Chapel is "Masters Green" and groomed to match. Moving in that direction, the presidential and faculty procession halts to allow all 475 of the capped and gowned almost-grads to move ahead in two columns before splitting to line either side of the faculty's path. The OB has to confess that, had he been elsewhere, he would have been more than a tad apprehensive about having to pass so slowly through a gauntlet of students who might easily have had all manner of scores to settle with their former profs. The platform party and the faculty reached their destinations unscathed, however, and remained standing until all the degree candidates had reached their seats. After President Ruscio and a student body representative delivered some brief remarks and, and after hearing a very generous citation, read by Provost Daniel Wubah, (Ph.D., UGA,1990,BTW) a long-time "hood-er" of grad students became the "hood-ee" for a change. From there, it was straight into the business at hand, as each and every one of the graduates passed across the platform to hear their names called and their academic honors announced, shake hands with Dr. Ruscio and pick up their diplomas.
The most striking thing about this process to the OB was how frequently that, based, he admits, primarily on appearance and the cheers they received from their classmates, he sized up an individual graduate approaching the platform as a purebred party animal, only to hear his or her name suffixed with "Phi Beta Kappa" and "summa cum laude." An extended stay on the campus would doubtless knock some of the stars from the Ol' Bloviator's eyes, but even allowing for the possibility that the tremendous, ego-balming honor bestowed on him by the university may have imbued his spectacles with a slightly roseate tint, he believes knows this place and its people well enough to vouch for the imposing substance behind its captivating style.
Even with values so obviously out of whack at so many institutions today, it would still be hard to find a university president who didn't assure you that academics are absolutely his or her paramount priority. Although most of these presidents still truly mean what they say (and the OB has absolutely no doubt that UGA's Jere Morehead does), their words start to ring hollow in a hurry if they are out of sync with campus realities. As both a student and then a faculty member at his beloved alma mater, the OB could not be prouder of the dramatic upgrade in those realities that we have seen around here over the last forty years. He also recognizes that, in achieving and sustaining those upgrades, a small, well-heeled and highly-selective private university enjoys decided advantages over a large public one with almost fifteen times the undergraduates but less than two-thirds the endowment. Still, even if the W&L model can't be fully implemented here, I can't help but think that we would do well nonetheless to emulate it as best we can. For example, the percentage of their students in fraternities and sororities may be three times ours, but where our freshmen have already been gobbled up by the system before they have even set foot in a classroom, theirs will at least have a semester of classes,unconstricted interaction with each other, and a variety of on- and off-campus experiences under their belts before they have to ask themselves if going the Greek route will significantly enrich their social life or complicate their academic one. Whether we do our educating on 430 acres in Lexington or 759 acres in Athens, our key concern should not be how our students answer their own question in this or similar cases, but in fostering an environment and nurturing a mindset that encourages them to ask it in the first place.