The Columns

Positive Change Honors the Past, Doesn’t Reject It, W&L Graduates Told

— by on May 28th, 2015

A university is not a museum where change should be seen as a rejection of the past. Instead, advancing and improving are the ways universities like Washington and Lee honor their commitment to, and reverence for, the past.

That was the message Kenneth P. Ruscio, president of Washington and Lee University, delivered to 453 students who received bachelor’s degrees from W&L on May 28. James C. Cobb, a leading scholar of Southern history and a professor at the University of Georgia, received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree.

Ruscio asked the undergraduates to discern between character and artifice at their storied alma mater and in their lives. He told them — gathered on a campus that is a national historic landmark — “what truly matters here are the intangible attributes” of learning, friendship and integrity. “That is the character, the essence, the wavering nature of the place nourished by its source,” he explained.

Ruscio said that “as your life goes on, as you assume the duties of citizenship in this democracy, as you contribute to your communities and professions, I wish for you the quality of discernment — the ability to distinguish between what is real and what is artifice.”

Ruscio warned the graduates, “Celebrity is not leadership. The volume of an argument is not a measure of its quality. Repeating a false statement over and over does not eventually make it true. Sticking with an opinion in the face of contradictory evidence is not principled conviction, but is instead intellectual laziness.”

“Cultivate that quality of discernment in every corner of your lives, including your vigilant stewardship of your alma mater,” he asked, noting that when the Class of 2015 returns for its 50th reunion, it will notice some changes.

“If Washington and Lee is not a different place, and a better place, you should be ashamed of it; and if you have not played a role in advancing it, you should be ashamed of yourselves,” Ruscio said.

“It is perfectly fine for those of us here today to benefit from the sacrifice of those who came before us, provided we sacrifice equally for those still to come,” he said. “Our inheritance from the past becomes our obligation for the future. No other university has a past like ours; no other university has a future like ours.”

During the honors and recognitions portions of the commencement exercises, Provost Daniel Wubah presented Cobb for the honorary degree, calling him “one of the foremost scholars of Southern history, a teacher who has had a profound impact on generations of students, and a writer who has interpreted the South for academic and lay audiences alike.” At the May 27 baccalaureate service, Anne Holton, Virginia secretary of education, received an honorary doctor of law degrees.

Three graduating seniors, tied with perfect 4.0 grade-point averages, were named valedictorians: Christopher Hu, of Ridgewood, New Jersey; Eric Schwen, of Cottage Grove, Minnesota; and Scott Sugden, of Circle Pines, Minnesota. Eighteen earned both a B.A. and B.S. degree. Three each completed three majors. Four ROTC cadets were to be commissioned as U.S. Army officers in a late afternoon ceremony.