Inaugural Address

Inaugural Address of John C. Knapp, Ph.D. 13th President of Washington & Jefferson College October 19, 2017

Chairman Clark, members of the platform party, distinguished guests and delegates, faculty and staff colleagues, students, thank you. I am honored and humbled by the trust you have placed in me. It is a distinct privilege to serve with you at Washington & Jefferson College – a place whose storied past is but the prologue to even brighter and more promising years ahead.

I wish to express my personal gratitude to the Board of Trustees and the members of the Presidential Search Committee. At this moment, I feel a bit like our former President James Moffatt, who began his inaugural remarks in the year 1881 by saying, “You took a risk in offering me this position...” Well, in his case anyway, the risk paid off as he went on to serve the college with distinction for 33 years.

I am thankful, as well, for the leadership of my predecessor Tori Haring-Smith, and the many contributions of former presidents Brian Mitchell and Howard Burnett, both of whom are with us today. Brian and Howie, as the wheel of succession turns, your presence is a reminder that we are deeply indebted to all who preceded us as stewards of this place for well over two centuries.

Kelly and I are blessed to be joined today by some members of our family and several close friends who traveled to be here for this special occasion. We are aware every day of how much we rely on the support and encouragement of those who are dear to us and know us best. And of course I am especially grateful to Kelly, and trust that you are beginning to understand why I so value her partnership in this important work. She and I sincerely thank all of you for the warm welcome you have shown us in these early weeks at the college.

Now I would be remiss if I did not recognize the students participating in today’s program – the talented members of the Wind Ensemble, the W&J Choir, and the Camerata Singers, as well as representatives of the Student Government Association bearing the flags of the 32 states and 32 nations of our currently enrolled students. Will you join me in thanking them?

President John C. Knapp, Ph.D., addresses the Class of 2020 during the 221st Commencement Ceremony was broadcast virtually August 1, 2020 from Olin Theatre on the campus of Washington & Jefferson College. A limited number of people were in attendance in addition the the platform party due to the COVID-19 pandemic and gathering limitations.

Up to this point in our program, one might imagine that this occasion is all about one person. So I feel compelled to stress that today is first and foremost the inauguration of a new season of possibilities for all of us. I would like to spend the next few minutes reflecting on why I believe this is so.

It was on this date – October 19th – that George Washington received the surrender of British General Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, effectively bringing to an end America’s Revolutionary War. The year was 1781, and within two months of the armistice, three Presbyterian ministers on the western frontier of Pennsylvania had merged their log-cabin schools to form the venerable institution we celebrate today.

These two events, though 400 miles apart, were neither unrelated nor coincidental, for when our nation’s founders declared the colonies’ independence, they understood full well that the exercise of self-government would require a responsible and well-educated citizenry. George Washington said of education, “Without this foundation, every other means, in my opinion, must fail.” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people... They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

You may recall that this college enjoyed a relationship with another of the founders, Benjamin Franklin, who donated funds to help establish our library and assisted in the search for a president. He, too, was conscious of the fragility of our democracy and the need for educated citizens. When asked what the Constitutional Convention had accomplished, his answer was short and to the point: “We have given you a republic — if you can keep it.”

From that time on, educators have played a vital role in sustaining the American republic. Our college’s commitment to this purpose echoes down the hallways of time. When the Washington and Jefferson colleges merged in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, President Jonathan Edwards declared that W&J’s highest aim was “to secure and to hold forth the true principles of national liberty, stability and progress.” And he cautioned that the college should do so, “Without committing itself to any political party, and swaying and swerving with changing administrations...”

When after the Second World War, students were again filling our classrooms, President Boyd Patterson, reminded the W&J community, “The function of a college such as ours is to educate young [people] to take their rightful and proper places in a free society... We realize the need for a more enlightened citizenry...”

These beliefs remain at the core of our identity and are enshrined in a mission statement proclaiming that Washington & Jefferson College exists “to graduate people of uncommon integrity, competence and maturity who are effective lifelong learners and responsible citizens, and who are prepared to contribute substantially to the world in which they live.”

Let me take a moment here to say that I believe the history, the mission, and, yes, the name of Washington & Jefferson College place us in a unique position to contribute to the national conversation about the state of our democratic republic. In recent months, some college and university campuses have seen tensions flare over questions of free expression, and how to remember our history, and the meaning of our national creed that all people are created equal, that basic human rights are intrinsic and cannot be granted or withdrawn by others.

The nation’s founders understood that democratic values would always be aspirational, that we would inevitably fall short of them in various ways. In their own time, this shortcoming was their failure to address slavery, which our Pennsylvania friend Ben Franklin warned the first Congress was “an inconsistency [in] the character of the American people.” Today we still must strive to make equality and human rights real for all people. John Dewey was right when he famously said, "Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife."

Given the tenor of our national politics, I believe the time is right for W&J to convene a series of thoughtful discussions on the foundations of American democracy. I am therefore announcing today that the first Washington & Jefferson Symposium on Democracy will be held on February 14 and 15, 2018. We will invite distinguished thinkers to join us in exploring issues from many perspectives. Among these will be keynote speaker Dr. Richard Carwardine, a noted scholar of early American history, biographer of Abraham Lincoln, and immediate past president of Corpus Christi College at the University of Oxford.

Dr. Carwardine’s lecture will offer a perspective on America’s founding generation, including the men for whom this college is named – leaders whom we rightly honor for their vision and sacrifice in establishing the American republic. Of course, we will not approach this conversation as a matter of history only, for we as citizens must take seriously the very real challenges of our time.

I am proud that Washington & Jefferson College remains true to the higher purposes of higher education. This may seem to put us at odds with many of today’s public policy-makers and media pundits who speak of college education only as a private good – a means of achieving individual success, often measured solely by future earnings. To be sure, the professional achievements of generations of our graduates attest to the fact that we produce these outcomes exceptionally well. Yet it is equally true that our alumni, past and present, have a long and inspiring record of serving the public good in every walk of life. By cultivating uncommon integrity and responsible citizenship, we are serving society and giving our graduates something infinitely more valuable than a mere ticket to a trade.

We will be guided by this timeless mission as we chart our course in an era when private liberal arts colleges face pressures from stiffening competition, changing demographics, and greater demands to contain costs and demonstrate value. I have no doubt that W&J will successfully meet these challenges, but we must be willing to adapt and innovate in order to stay at the forefront. After all, the same is true for our students whose long-term success will depend their ability to keep learning and adapting as the pace of change accelerates throughout their lifetimes.

Soon we will begin a collaborative process to develop a bold, new strategic plan to guide us forward. For now, though, I will simply point to three commitments that should undergird any plans we make.

The first is that W&J must always be distinguished as a college whose graduates who are known for their personal integrity and social responsibility. In our close-knit learning community, faculty and staff mentors dedicate their lives, inside and outside the classroom, to developing the character, values, knowledge and competencies of our students. This campus, by intention, is a space where young adults come to realize their unique potential by reflecting deeply on life’s big questions, engaging in courageous conversations about difficult issues, and valuing others who are different from themselves. This community is also the doorway to a global society, where students are broadened and challenged while tackling complex problems in real-world contexts, navigating other cultures, and practicing responsible civic engagement.

I am delighted that our students are helping lead the way by establishing high standards of integrity for themselves. This past summer, a group of student leaders collaborated to draft a statement of shared expectations for life together in our campus community. This statement was presented for the first time by Student Body President Kenny Clark at the matriculation ceremony for new freshmen. I would like to share it with you now:

“As students at W&J we hold each other to a standard to achieve uncommon integrity as individuals and as a community. In order to thrive and excel, we expect that individuals within our community will:

  • Promote a culture of respect throughout the college community
  • Respect the privacy, property and freedom of others
  • Practice personal and academic integrity and expect it from others
  • Respect the dignity and work of all individuals
  • Promote the diversity of opinions, ideas and backgrounds of others.

Our freshman class stood in unanimous affirmation of these commitments to uncommon integrity. This, ladies and gentlemen, is leadership. This is what it means to be a Washington & Jefferson President.

A second imperative for our future success will be an uncompromising commitment to excellence in everything we do. This must be our promise to all who count on W&J:

  • our hard-working students, and the families that sacrifice to put them through college;
  • the employers and graduate institutions that have learned to expect great things of our graduates;
  • our alumni whose W&J pedigree is a growing point of pride and professional advantage;
  • our neighbors who look to the college for leadership and constructive engagement on issues facing the greater community;
  • our generous supporters – the alumni, friends and foundations that entrust us with their philanthropic investments;
  • and, significantly, the talented staff and faculty on whom everything depends, and whose professional development and personal well-being are of upmost importance.

Insisting on the W&J standard of excellence is more important than ever in today’s highly competitive world of higher education.

Third and finally, we must be unwavering in our commitment to a distinctive academic program grounded in the liberal arts and sciences. At some colleges and universities, the liberal arts model has been seen as incompatible with pre-professional education. Some have even argued that a narrower and more careerist curriculum is necessary to ensure employment for graduates. I am happy to say that W&J has always rejected this idea.

Our academic program is led a superb faculty – teachers and scholars – who understand that while a first job is an essential starting point, it is not a sufficient college outcome. Today’s students can expect to change jobs and even careers with unprecedented frequency during their lifetimes. This is why W&J students study in multiple disciplines and contexts, learning how to acquire new knowledge and skills for opportunities that may not even exist today.

I think of Dr. Jonathan Letterman – some of you are familiar with his story – an 1846 graduate of Jefferson College who became a physician and pioneered new treatments of traumatic battlefield injuries while serving in the Civil War as medical director of the Army of the Potomac. His innovations are still used today to save lives in emergency rooms and combat zones around the world. Where did he learn to pursue creative solutions to complex problems while leading others in uncertain times? He would tell you that his professors challenged him with a broad course of study that included algebra, Cicero’s orations, astronomy, Latin composition, geography, Grecian and Roman antiquities, chemistry, physiology, and rhetoric, among other subjects. His college experience also developed his abilities beyond the classroom, as he enjoyed activities like the essay and public-speaking competitions of his literary society, and the brotherhood of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity.

I thought of Dr. Letterman while preparing these remarks because I will have the privilege of speaking for the college next month at the dedication of a Pennsylvania state historical marker on the site of Dr. Letterman’s Canonsburg home.

W&J is well into its third century, yet the fundamental elements of our educational model are even more relevant in a world requiring greater capacities for agile learning, effective communication, collaborative leadership, and analyzing critical issues from the perspectives of diverse disciplines. We are firmly committed to the principle that the best preparation for professional and human flourishing is rooted in the fertile soil of the liberal arts and sciences.

Well, let me conclude these remarks by again saying how honored I am to be a member of the Washington & Jefferson College family. As we journey together toward a future filled with promise, let us remember with gratitude the many generations who preceded us and made this day possible. These lines by the poet Wendell Berry say it well, I think:

“Listen privately, silently to the voices that rise up from the pages of books and from your own heart. Be still and listen to the voices that belong to the streambanks and the trees and the open fields. There are songs and sayings that belong to this place, by which it speaks for itself and no other.”

We can be proud that Washington & Jefferson College proudly occupies a place like no other on the crowded landscape of American higher education.

I close with words the of former President Simon Baker, spoken at his inauguration 95 years ago:

“For the nation and the world we maintain this institution. . . Our history bears a halo of excellence, refinement, and eminence, and that is an incentive for us as we face the future.”