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 here. W&J is a college on the move. Just look at the new Swanson Science Center that houses our Chemistry and Physics Departments. In front of it, where an old alley, pock-marked with pot holes used to cut through campus, is a new green space, which will be dedicated as Salvitti Quad in the near future. And we have finally been able to resurface the streets that define the campus—College and Lincoln. In the coming months, you will see the library transformed from a book repository to an information commons. Books will still be there, but so will new individual and group study spaces, new technology, and a new home for the College archives where the documents that record this College’s remarkable history are kept for researchers. We are also in the planning stages for a complete overhaul of Henry Gymnasium, including new tennis courts, an inside running track, and three new multi-use courts for students to play basketball, tennis, and volleyball. There will be dramatic improvements to the swimming pool and to the basketball court (including new bleachers with seat-backs) as well as a weight room, new locker rooms, and offices for coaches where they can have private discussions with players. The new Athletic Center will be air-conditioned, allowing year ‘round use, and it will include a museum and visitor’s center where all of you can show your friends team photos, brag about all our trophies, hold receptions, etc. It is going to be a wonderful way to express our commitment at W&J to strong bodies as well as strong minds.
But of course the College is much more than buildings and books and bleachers. A college is about the people—the students, the faculty, and you, our alumni. A few nights ago, I was fortunate to hear a talk by Keith Bellows, Editor of National Geographic Traveler. He told wonderful stories of his travels to the Sahara, to Venice, to Antarctica, and he concluded by telling us that there are tourists and there are travelers. Tourists return from their travel unchanged because they have seen what they expected to see, but travelers return transformed because they have seen things they never expected to see. Travelers are open to the lands they visit and their lives are molded by their travels. Well, sitting there, of course, I thought—“That’s not just true of travel; it’s also true of education.” There are those, I suppose, who pass through college largely unchanged, but far more common are those who meet friends and professors in college who shape their lives forever in both dramatic and subtle ways. For them, education transforms their lives.
As I talk with so many of you at events and one-on-one, I have been impressed by the many ways in which you report that your experience at W&J changed your life. You met your spouse or partner here. You learned to think, to question, to write effectively and to speak clearly. You remember that day in Dr. Gargano’s class when his love of literature infected you as well. You remember Homer Porter and Dewey Dieter, who had faith in you and worked you harder than you had ever been worked before. You remember Hugh Taylor who slapped the screen while projecting slides of famous art. Through Greek organizations and athletic teams, you discovered what it takes to be a leader, how to deal with adversity, and what friendship truly means. You remember traveling to London with the Eastons or to Russia with Doctors Scott and Dodge. As a result, you tell me, when you gather with your college friends, no matter how many years have passed, it is as if you had never been apart. And, for you, W&J truly is a family.
As I listen to the media pundits and read the endless stream of newspaper stories that question the value of a college education today, I wonder how they are measuring that value. It seems as if every day a major newspaper runs a headline like “A Generation Hobbled by the Soaring Cost of College” or “53% of Recent College Grads Are Jobless or Underemployed” or Newsweek’s cover story “Is College a Lousy Investment?” I read all of these articles with interest—I want to know how the public perceives the enterprise I have devoted my life to.
Personally, I am glad that colleges are being judged by their outcomes, rather than just by the SAT scores and GPAs that students bring with them when they enter college. After all, it’s what happens to students in college and where they are at the end of their four years that matters. I am proud of W&J’s outcomes. Do you know that 98% of students who earn W&J degrees complete them in four years? 98% in four years. Most public universities will only cite graduation rates for those who finish in 6 years and, even so, they cannot come close to our performance. We even guarantee that W&J students will finish in four years, or we will give them a fifth year tuition free. And when they cross the stage at graduation, more than 90% of our students have jobs or have been admitted to graduate or professional schools. 90%. Once our graduates are on the job, employers tell us that they are promoted more rapidly than those from other schools because they are exceptionally well prepared and have a strong work ethic.
But I think that the value of college should be measured by much more than graduation statistics and the first job that a college graduate lands. My first job after college was a retail sales clerk. My husband’s first job was mowing graveyards and minding the city dump. You can’t really measure the value of a college education until years later when the trajectory of your life becomes apparent. A college education prepares you both for your first job and also for a lifetime of jobs and enriching experiences.
Look back at your own life. Think about who you were as a college freshman. Go ahead—be brave--look back. Then think about who you were when you graduated from college. How had you changed? How have you changed since then? How did that young college graduate become the person you are today? How did the experiences you had at W&J shape who you are today?
Education is measured by your ability to move through life with self-confidence , with curiosity, and with understanding. Lifelong learning is evident in the ability to walk through the Tower of London and know the history it embodies. The ability to listen to Beethoven and hear, in his symphonies, the echoes of the French Revolution. The ability to frame new research questions that will help move science forward or to guide a complex global business through difficult waters. The ability to share with your children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews, your delight in poetry, in physics, in art, in mathematics. Lifelong learners shape their own lives.
And you can see the result in this room tonight. Dick Clark, the chair of the W&J Board and former CEO of Merck, was a history major at W&J. He told me that when he recently traveled to Florence for the first time, he remembered the books he had read about the Medici’s as he looked out at the Palazzo Vecchio. He could see the history he loved in the stones at his feet and the buildings before him. At W&J he also read histories of Abraham Lincoln voraciously and one day he hopes to write the definitive biography of that great man. Dr. Ron Salvitti, who is an internationally recognized eye surgeon, has an art collection that is one of the finest in this region. He enjoys the work of local artists like Malcolm Parcell and James Sulkowski. Betsy Hurwitz-Schwab, who began her life as a social worker and later, with her husband, owned the children’s clothing company Little Me. She is a world traveler, long-distance bike rider, and the owner of an art center in their hometown of Cumberland, Maryland. All of you have experiences that reveal how your lives were enriched by the broad-based education you experienced at W&J. You benefited, your family benefited, and your community benefited.
That is how I measure a college education. At W&J, we are setting students on the track to that kind of multi-faceted life of passions and success as early as their freshmen year through rigorous classes in which they must understand and question complex texts and ideas, through hands-on laboratories in which they explore questions of their own devising, and through opportunities to gain perspective through travel beyond their familiar surroundings. Our students travel through books, through ideas, and through space. Did you know that W&J is #24 in the country for the percentage of our students who travel abroad during their time in college? Many of those W&J students travel on Magellan Projects, providing them a chance to get a taste of the long-lasting effects of a college education. This past summer, we sent 75 Magellan Scholars off to pursue their dreams. One young man studied shark migration in South Africa (his footage was part of the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week). One traveled to the slums of India to learn about education there. Another interned in the export/import bank in Washington, DC. One young woman backpacked throughout the southwest studying art and culture. Another took her first plane trip when she went to study attitudes toward youth in Ireland, England, and France. And another worked on organic farms in Argentina. When they return, these students reflect upon their experiences. One wrote:
Sitting at home (McAllister, PA), I remember thinking about how small this place is. People were born here, and they died here. No one ever leaves. I had already made the decision to see the world when I accepted my place as a student at W&J, and since then, I have been to Spain, Ireland, Puerto Rico, and now across the United States. . . . Everyone dreams about things they want to do and places they want to go, but it is incredible to be offered an opportunity to do so.
And another found her life’s work while working for 12 weeks in a refugee camp for children in Uganda. She wrote:
Gandhi once said that "if we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children." This is my purpose, to bring hope to these children and give them the life they deserve because they gave my life back to me. These children are the reason I am becoming a human rights lawyer with a focus on children’s rights. I owe that to them. I want to make the world a place where Muwangzi can be a doctor, or where Aklam has a bed to sleep on and not the outside dirt. Africa changed everything for me. . .. I never knew that helping 129 children would also save me.
And so, is college a lousy investment? I don’t think so. One of the greatest joys of being a college president is watching students grow and change. In four short years, they gain confidence, they become curious and imaginative, and they become leaders. I see students present their research at professional conferences on panels with faculty from other institutions. I see students publish their research in peer-reviewed journals. I see them shape their lives by designing their own majors. I see them win national and international awards—this year they won the Udall Award (one of the BIG FOUR along with the Marshall, Rhodes, and Truman), earn places in the highly selective Teach for America program, get two Fulbright awards, and earn the prize for the number 1 essay on history in America. I also see them deal with the death of parents and loved ones, devote their Saturday to painting a school or building for Habitat for Humanity, and march together as members of our new ROTC program. I see them cheer each other on in athletics and comfort one another when they are frustrated. I see all of this and I know that W&J is making a difference in their lives, a difference that is priceless.
Do I wish we could lower the cost of college? No question. If I were in charge of such things, all colleges would be free to those who were able and willing to do the work. But the truth of the matter is that our costs rise each year. Did you know that when we renovated Upper Class Hall a few years ago, we put as much electrical load in each room as we once had on each floor? And of course, our professors want to be paid competitive wages. The truth of the matter is that we could have larger classes—classes of 300 or 1000—and by doing so, we could lower our price. But I am not willing to sacrifice our quality in that way. I believe that our small classes and our dedicated faculty are responsible for our exceptional success. For education is a human endeavor. It occurs when people can look one another in the eye and say, “Why do you think that?” or “Help me understand.” Sitting in front of a computer can expose you to information, but even the most interactive programs cannot nurture wisdom. Only human conversation can do that.
Every year we find new ways to do more with less. We share under-enrolled courses with other small liberal arts colleges, saving us all money. We pool together to increase the size of the group covered by our health insurance and so lower our costs. We write athletic schedules to minimize travel. But still the costs of educating W&J students far exceed the tuition that they pay. I am proud to say that one third of our students are still the first in their families to go to college, and twenty percent of our students come from families whose adjusted gross income is less than $40,000 a year.
We make W&J affordable for them through the generosity of generations of donors who have endowed scholarships and other forms of financial support. When you were in college, many of you earned scholarships that previous alumni had provided. Even if you did not receive a scholarship while you were here, you walked the halls of buildings built by alumni and friends of the college. You took classes from professors whose salaries were paid by the income from endowed chairs. You read books in the library bought with funds donated decades earlier, and you received a degree from W&J, whose reputation for excellence was established by those who went before you and which you continue to uphold today. For you are the college. When someone comes up to you and asks, “Where did you go to college?” And you respond, ”Washington & Jefferson College” you may be the only person they know from W&J—after all, we only have 13,000 living alumni. Their impression of W&J will be based upon their impression of you. And, given the strong reputation of this college, I know you are representing us well.
The liberal arts education that we offer at W&J does more than nurture individual development--it is also crucial to sustaining the health of our democracy. Thomas Jefferson recognized that an educated citizenry was essential to democracy. He wrote to a friend, “If a nation expects to be ignorant & free . . ., it expects what never was & never will be.” That is why we call this a liberal arts education—it not only liberates the mind and the spirit, but also liberates the people so that they can govern themselves effectively in a democracy rather than being ruled by a king or despot and having no voice in their own futures. As you may know liberal education, which combines breadth of study with mastery of a major field, is an American invention, designed to prepare citizens for their role in a participatory democracy. The events of the last few years have shown us what happens when democracy is introduced into a country that lacks a broadly educated citizenry. More young children in Egypt work on the farms and in the factories and the auto repair shops than go to school. Parents who have no education see no reason to send their children to school. And those lucky few who do get a formal education, even at the university level, are taught to memorize the answers, not to discover the answers. There is no debate, there are no questions.
How can a country vote if its citizens do not know what issues lie before them or what stands the candidates are taking? How can they understand candidates’ positions without being able to critically analyze speeches and newspaper reports? When voters merely do what they are told by the neighborhood bully or a powerful figure in government or the military, they are not truly voting—they are merely casting a ballot. There are many reasons why I fear that democracy may not survive in Egypt, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in so many African countries. They lack strong education systems to teach people how to analyze problems critically, how to weigh evidence, and how to make choices informed by research and meaningful conversation. The education we offer at W&J does more than prepare individuals for careers, it instills the skills that are essential to a democracy. And that is how I measure the value of college—it is a good investment for individuals and for our country.
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. Thank you for embodying the remarkable achievements of Washington & Jefferson College. Thank you for being a President. And welcome home.