2010 Homecoming Speech


What a pleasure to welcome you all home to your alma mater, Washington & Jefferson College.  It is such a joy each year to see so many alumni return to renew old friendships and to see how W&J has grown and changed.

As you wander around the campus, cheer on the football team, and see your old friends, I hope that you will get a sense of the remarkable momentum on this campus.  W&J is a college on the move.   In the past few years, our freshman applications have grown from 1000 to more than 6000 applicants for the 400 spots in our freshman class, and we have built 16 new buildings that provide our students with comfortable living and classroom spaces.  The new Swanson Science Center at the corner of Lincoln and Maiden streets is evidence of our on-going commitment to provide our faculty and students with state-of-the-art facilities.  If you haven't had a chance to go inside, I hope you will be able to do so this weekend.  It is truly a magnificent building.  There, our chemistry and physics faculty and students are doing ground-breaking research.  Last year, several of our students travelled to The Netherlands to do advanced spectroscopy work, 12 students attended the American Chemical Society's national conference, where they presented their work alongside that of faculty from other colleges.  And one of our students was among 800 scientists worldwide invited to present their research at the World Vaccine Congress in Beijing-and he was only a junior at the time.

Of course, there is always more that we need to do on campus. Our Biology and Psychology building, named for the legendary professors Dieter and Porter, needs to be renovated.  When it was built in 1981, it was not air-conditioned.  At the time, that was a reasonable cost-saving measure because few faculty were doing summer research then.  But now, our faculty and students are busy in the labs almost every day of the year.  And with temperatures in the building cresting 100 degrees this past summer, the working conditions were unbearable. To add insult to injury, in the winter, the building's 30-year-old boiler often sputters to a halt, causing classroom temperatures to plummet to an equally unbearable 40 degrees.  So, we are working hard to raise the money needed to upgrade the heating and add air conditioning to this important building.

Undoubtedly you have also seen the construction going on around McMillan Hall, just across the street from here.  As I'm sure you know, McMillan Hall was the first building on the Washington College campus, and it is the third oldest building in continuous use on a college campus in this country.  It showcases the fact that for 230 years, W&J has been the leading liberal arts college in this region.  We are proud to preserve that heritage by restoring the building so that it can stand for another 200 years.

But more than buildings are changing at W&J.  We are becoming a global campus.  This year, more than 75 International students are studying here.  Students from South America, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East live and learn with our American students, bringing a global perspective into the residence halls and classrooms.  The friendships they form here become the foundation for international understanding as well as the basis for business networking relationships in the future.

Our students are venturing out across the globe as well.  They travel with W&J faculty during our January term, Intersession, to learn about theatre in England, or to study the real estate market in China, research the chemistry of perfume in Paris, or explore the politics of East Africa.  Others study for a semester or a year in a foreign university through one of our 40 study abroad programs.  While most colleges provide these kinds of international experiences for their students, W&J does even more.  Our Magellan Project provides stipends each summer so that students can travel to complete self-designed research projects or undertake prestigious internships.  This program is garnering lots of national attention.  Last year, it won the Andrew Heiskell Award for innovation in study abroad from the Institute for International Education.  What fun it was to accept that award in front of a huge crowd at the United Nations in New York.  And just last month, The Magellan Project was profiled by Newsweek in their special College issue.

This past summer, more than 70 students completed Magellan projects.  One student travelled to China to attend the World Expo and watch the Dragon Boat races, another shadowed a rural doctor in Ecuador and delivered five babies.  Two students travelled to Poland to study how that country was able to weather the recession so much better than other European nations.  One student spent time in French vineyards studying the wine export business.  Another taught English at an orphanage in Ghana.  And another traveled to The Gambia to learn how new laws there are shaping the education of girls.  Another student walked in the footsteps of John Milton in England, while yet another studied classical architecture in Rome and Paris.  One young woman, who was just profiled in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, backpacked through the Philippines for 59 days, studying social stratification.  I'll never forget her stories when she returned.  She said that she almost didn't leave the United States because being on her own in a country where she had no family and no friends was so daunting.  And, when she arrived in Manila, she cried herself to sleep that first night.  But, she said, she got up the next day and set out to complete her project because she was so passionate about it.  In the course of two months, she travelled all on her own from island to island. She fell out of a tree, was cured by a witchdoctor, and made lifelong friends.  She said that at first she found travelling with others was a comfort, but as she traveled more, she came to trust her own strength and by the end of her project, she was just as happy and confident on her own.  "I can't believe how strong I am," she told me.  "I know I can do anything."  That is the kind of growth we expect from Magellan Scholars.  These students are learning to author their own lives, to take charge of their own futures, and to find the strength and confidence they need to make a difference in the world.

Back on campus, our Music Department is also winning national and international notice.  Our Jazz Ensemble conductor, Kyle Simpson, who you will see leading the pep band at the football game tomorrow, has received highly competitive international scholarships to study musical composition in Europe for two summers running, and our Camerata Singers won the America Prize this year, which is awarded to the best university or college choir in the country.  Quite an accomplishment.

This fall, Forbes Magazine recognized W&J for all these accomplishments and more by ranking us number one among this region's colleges and universities.  I am particularly pleased by this ranking because Forbes bases its conclusions on outcomes not inputs.  They looked at our excellent graduation rates and the success of our alumni and determined that we were the best in the region.

W&J's relationship with the community is improving as well.  In the 1990's, you may recall, the city sued the College for not contributing sufficiently to the local community to justify tax exemption.  Today, the College and the city are working together for the good of the community.  Together we repaired the city's public pool so that everyone had a place to swim this summer.  Together we are creating a new gateway to the City by refurbishing Route 19.  Together we are working with consultants to design a comprehensive plan that will revitalize the city over the next decade.  This new relationship was evident during the City of Washington's Bicentennial celebration last July, which culminated in a free country music concert in front of Old Main.  More than 2000 people attended and enjoyed the music of Ricky Skaggs and Big Kenny.  As I sat with the crowd, watching toddlers dance and oldsters tap their feet, I thought this is how the Old Main lawn should be used.  We were where W&J should be-at the heart of the community.  Each year, our students provide more than 15,000 hours in community service.  And this fall, more than half of the freshman class participated in the First Year Day of Service, cleaning yards, painting community centers and schools, and generally improving the region in which we all live.

This is a big athletic weekend as well, but you will only see a small fraction of the athletic activity that is a regular part of W&J.  We now support 24 varsity sports that involve more than 625 students.  Our women's soccer and basketball teams have gone to post-season play for two years running, and Jessica Barby was named College Water Polo Association Division III Player of the Year.  On the men's side, we have taken home the PAC All-Sports trophy for six consecutive years now, and last year, men's track and field won their first conference championship.  But even more impressive to me is the fact that 26 of our student athletes have been named Academic All-Americans.

Looking back over 230 years of W&J's history, I think that the remarkable success of this small college is due to its ability to continually reinvent itself.  W&J began as three log cabin schools that educated pioneers and prepared them to become the teachers and preachers needed to establish new communities as the frontier moved farther westward. Those early schools had to weather Indian raids and crop failures, but they survived and transformed themselves into Jefferson College in Canonsburg and Washington College, on whose campus we now gather.  Those two academies continued as educational leaders in this area until the Civil War.  At that time, so many young men left to join the Confederate and Union Armies that there were not enough students in the area to support both colleges.  And so they reinvented themselves again as one college, a united college, W&J.  Then, in the middle of the twentieth-century, when young men were called to the battlefields of Europe, North Africa, and the South Pacific, the college population shrank. In 1945, there were only 130 students at W&J, only 9 in the senior class.  Once again the college's existence was threatened, but it survived by opening its doors to various military schools that brought hundreds of officers here for training, providing much-needed revenue.  And then, in the 1960's, the college again faced difficult financial times and was forced to reinvent itself, this time by admitting women. And so, at this Homecoming, we celebrate 40 years of co-education at W&J.

Transforming from an all-male to a coed college was not an easy decision, I am sure. The faculty and the Trustees had many concerns. What would the admission of women do to the moral fiber of the College, they wondered.  Could the College find jobs for its women graduates? Would the men study more or be more distracted in a coed environment?  Hair washing was a major concern, and it was noted in the minutes of the Trustee's meeting that women would need special areas in the dormitory for washing their hair and a special room in the new Henry Gymnasium to allow for hair drying.

Despite these concerns, however, under the wise direction of President Howard Burnett, who is with us tonight, the College admitted its first class of women --77 freshmen and 30 transfers.  But when the women arrived in the fall of 1970, they were not universally welcomed but rather greeted with signs reading "Coeds Go Home."  It wasn't an easy transition.  As one of the women told me, "We were given a dorm, a dean, and that was it."  No sports, no sororities, no changes in the curriculum.  Some men told me that they didn't know how to deal with having the "foreign creatures" around for more than a weekend.  "We could only look good for 3 days at a stretch," one of them said.  And not all of the faculty were delighted to have women in their classrooms, either.  One professor, who had been warned to temper his colorful language in deference to the new coeds, apparently slipped once, using the word "hell" in a sentence.  And, in response, he thought he detected a gasp from one young woman in the front row of his classroom.  So he came back at her, leaning over her and shouting every expletive that he could think of.  After this tirade, he concluded, "So . . . now you're used to it." But as the year wore on, W&J's new female students found various ways to express themselves.  They became part of the community.  One woman wrote essays on feminism for the Red and Black and another group executed a reverse panty raid on the ATO fraternity, stealing their underwear, dying it pink, and then returning it.  Little wonder that these women forged deep bonds of friendship.  At this year's Homecoming, we celebrate that first class of women graduates and welcome their return to a campus where the student body is now half women and half men.

And so, over the centuries, W&J has demonstrated a remarkable ability to reinvent itself to meet the changing needs of the times.  And these efforts continue today as we face the challenges of an increasingly divided society.  As ideological battles heat up to the point of incivility on both sides of the aisle in Congress, it is essential that W&J work to teach our students how to engage in civil discourse with those who have different experiences, religious beliefs, and political opinions than they do.  Our students must learn to discuss contentious and often emotional issues with those who disagree with them.  Fortunately, W&J is one of the most diverse colleges I know in terms of political and social ideology.  Most colleges are dominated by a liberal or a conservative point of view.  That homogeneity makes them comfortable places-everyone knows that their opinions are right because they all agree with each other.  But such homogeneity also breeds intellectual sloppiness.  With no one to challenge their opinions, students do not learn how to think critically.  At W&J, however, there are sizeable groups of students on both sides of most contentious issues.  Some students are pro-choice and others are pro-life.  Some believe that we should impose taxes on our wealthiest citizens and others support tax cuts.  In the last presidential election, so far as we can tell, about half of our students voted for Obama and half for McCain.  We work everyday to nurture this kind of ideological diversity because it teaches students to engage in meaningful discussions that help them to understand the very real problems that our society faces.  Only when our students can converse across lines of difference from a position of respect will our participatory democracy thrive.

It was this diversity of voices at W&J that actually drew me to the College.  When I was visiting the campus as a candidate for the presidency, I met two young men who introduced themselves the most politically active students on campus-one the most politically liberal and the other the most politically conservative.  And they were roommates.  Now, this was October 2004, at the end of the Bush-Kerry campaign when the swift boat arguments were raging and the atmosphere was highly charged.  So, I asked them if they watched the presidential debates together.  "Oh no," they said.  They watched them in separate rooms, but once the debate was over, they would come together and discuss it.  And it was true--you would see them arguing in The Commons, talking heatedly over a cup of coffee in the Ski Lodge.  I asked one of them, "Do you think you will ever convince your roommate of your point of view?"  "No." he said, "but I have to keep trying . . . because I respect him."  At that moment, I knew that W&J was a special place-a place where people with truly divergent opinions could engage in reasoned discourse.  That's when I knew that W&J was the kind of college where the essence of American democracy-the ability to talk across lines of difference from a position of respect-could be taught and practiced daily.  

So, as the society around us evolves and presents us with new challenges, we will continue to reinvent ourselves, as we have for 230 years.  But some things will never change.  At heart we will be what we have always been, a place where earnest students and dedicated staff and faculty work together to ensure the success of our graduates.  Everything we do, from our small classes to our Magellan Project to our eagerness to welcome new groups of students to campus, everything is designed to challenge students, to empower them to become the very best that they can, and to produce, as our mission statement says, men and women of uncommon integrity, competence and maturity who are responsible citizens and lifelong learners.

The momentum that the College is currently experiencing is due in large part to many of you who are in this room.  You have guided our students as alumni mentors, you have given your time and your financial support to this College, you have been our best representatives.  We cannot thank you enough because we build our reputations on you.  Because, if you live more than 50 miles from Pittsburgh, when someone meets you, you may be the only person they know from W&J.  For them, you are the College.  And I know that you represent us well.  Thank you for embodying the remarkable achievements of Washington & Jefferson College. And welcome home.