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President’s Welcome for Fall 2020 Returning to campus in these circumstances will challenge us all, but teaching and learning together is what we do best, and it has never been more important.

SOCEmptySpaces03-scaled-800x533 President's Welcome for Fall 2020

This time of year, when we anticipate the return of students, faculty, and staff to campus, always fills me with energy and optimism. Summer offers a welcome contrast to the academic year, with a more relaxed mode of work and the opportunity to focus on individual projects. But as August shades toward September, we find ourselves rejuvenated, eager for the start of classes, and excited to reconnect with old friends and welcome the newest members of our community.

Of course, this year is anything but typical. We continue to live with the global threat of COVID-19, and the national calls for racial justice have given additional urgency to our ongoing efforts to make W&L increasingly diverse and thoroughly inclusive. Returning to campus in these circumstances will challenge us all.

But teaching and learning together is what we do best, and it has never been more important. Approximately 95% of our students have elected to come to campus this fall. They are hungry for education and for the personal growth that comes from being with their teachers, their mentors, and each other.

Law students return to the classroom today, followed by our undergraduates next week. Across campus, we have prepared carefully to give ourselves the best chance of completing the academic year safely. Many aspects of university life will be different. Students will move into dorms on staggered arrival dates. Pre-orientation and orientation programs will be conducted in small “home groups” on campus. Academic and student activities fairs will take place virtually, as will artistic performances and speaking engagements. In a season normally highlighted by athletic events, alumni reunions, and conferences, we will not participate in intercollegiate competition or host visitors on campus.

When so much has changed, let us remember what remains the same and imagine how we might seize this extraordinary moment.

Education is at the heart of our work.

Faculty continue to think creatively about how to deliver the best possible liberal arts education for our students. They have put in countless hours preparing their courses to be delivered in multiple formats; teamed up to develop timely interdisciplinary courses such as Perspectives on a Pandemic, which will address topics drawn from biology, economics, religion, journalism, and politics; participated in training sessions on inclusive teaching and advising; and collaborated on reimagining our general education requirements. Staff in Information Technology Services, CARPE, the University Library, and the University Registrar’s office have expertly supported our faculty in all of these endeavors.

Scholarly productivity has also been evident this summer. 168 faculty members used Lenfest grants to advance their work, while 88 students assisted them through the Summer Research Scholars program. Johnson Opportunity Grants and Enhancement Funds were awarded to 60 students to facilitate their independent projects, and six students received Student Summer Independent Research grants to explore their own interests with the support of a faculty mentor.

Our Advanced Immersion and Mentoring Program, designed to instill an increased sense of confidence and belonging within incoming first-year students, expanded to include 40 students while shifting to a condensed, virtual format.

We have energetic, creative and dedicated employees.

W&L employees have worked tirelessly to make it possible for our students to return to campus as safely as possible. Facilities staff have reconfigured existing classrooms to enable physical distancing and have created additional classrooms from scratch. Air handling systems have been adjusted to provide better ventilation. Custodians have implemented new cleaning protocols. Dining services has modified venues and serving procedures, while also planning to provide meals for quarantining students.

Student Affairs has reinvented the services, support, and opportunities they provide to help our students thrive during this very unusual term. Dr. Jane Horton and the Student Health Center have developed critical protocols for testing, contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine.

Our athletics staff moved into the brand new Richard L. Duchossois Athletic and Recreation Center last week after a two-year renovation project superbly managed by our capital projects team. The center will be open for the campus community’s use — subject to appropriate health protocols — this fall.

We are pleased to welcome several new colleagues whose work will be essential to our success in the coming years:

  • Tom Jennings, vice president for university advancement, will lead the fundraising campaign for our strategic plan, and oversee alumni engagement.
  • Jamie Kipfer, university registrar, will manage the information, systems, and processes that support our academic enterprise.
  • K.T. Vaughan, the Hal F. and Barbra Buckner Higginbotham University Librarian, will lead our library staff in supporting the university’s teaching and learning mission, and oversee the integration of CARPE into Leyburn Library.

We are committed to moving W&L forward.

At this moment of upheaval in our country and in our community, it is especially important not to lose sight of our long-term aspirations. Our Strategic Plan provides a roadmap for strengthening our community, curriculum, citizenship, and campus. In June, I outlined additional priorities, actions and next steps related to diversity and inclusion, including several initiatives we have advanced this summer.

Design work is underway in Elrod Commons for the Center for Inclusion and Engagement, which is scheduled to open in August 2022. We are hiring two new assistant directors in the Office of Inclusion and Engagement to enhance programming and student support in this critical area. CARPE, which will support the academic success of every student and the teaching excellence of every faculty member, is on track for completion in August 2021. The law faculty approved the expansion of the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse into a clinic dedicated to Civil Rights and Racial Justice. A search for a faculty member to direct that clinic is now underway.

Several speakers and events will contribute to our conversations about race and justice. First-year students will read and discuss a selection of articles by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to be an Antiracist.” Dr. Kendi will then lead a virtual discussion for the entire community on August 30. Plans are being finalized for a dynamic, year-long series on Activism and Black Life, sponsored by the Africana Studies Program, which will feature roundtable discussions, speakers, film screenings, and listening sessions. And the Mudd Center’s annual theme will be a timely exploration of Global Ethics in the 21st Century.

Rector Mike McAlevey ’86 announced in his message to the W&L community on July 7 that the Board of Trustees is undertaking a deep and detailed review of our name, our symbols, and their relationship to our commitments to diversity, inclusivity, and educational excellence.

Their process includes listening sessions with faculty, students, staff, and alumni to hear the full range of perspectives on these issues. The trustees have received and read messages from more than 3,500 members of our community. And they have constituted a special committee of the board that will gather and organize the information the full board needs to make decisions in the best long-term interest of the university. Rector McAlevey will have more to say about this work in the coming weeks.

We are all in this together.

One of the clearest lessons of the pandemic is the extent of our reliance on each other. This has always been the case at W&L, and it will be so more than ever this year.

The university’s mission is to educate our students, and we cannot fulfill our purpose without them. Students cannot receive a quality education — in person or virtually — without dedicated faculty who inspire, teach, coach, and mentor. Neither students nor faculty can succeed without our talented staff, who support every aspect of our institution.

We all rely on our alumni and parents, who generously contribute their time and talent in countless ways. And their financial support underwrites everything from student scholarships to faculty research, extracurricular programs to electric bills. Even in a year of tremendous economic turmoil, alumni and parents donated over $10.4 million to W&L’s Annual Fund — making the last four years the best on record — providing critical resources to meet the emergency student needs and budget shortfall caused by our rapid pivot to virtual instruction in the spring. Most recently, they have committed funds for programming in the Office of Inclusion and Engagement via the George Floyd Endowment and directed annual giving.

W&L is fortunate to have exceptionally devoted students, faculty, staff, alumni, and parents. We are depending upon the commitment of our entire community to complete this year on campus. Each of us must abide by our Statement of Community Expectations, respect our carefully constructed protocols, and be a good citizen and neighbor. It will not be easy to modify our usual patterns of behavior, but it is critical that we do so to ensure that we can offer and enjoy in-person education this year. Every student and employee bears responsibility for keeping the community safe.

We must also actively dedicate ourselves to creating a more inclusive community. Whatever progress we make will depend upon our ability to listen to and learn from each other. We need to hear, as difficult as it may be, the variety of ways that students and employees experience our university and determine what it will take for W&L to be a place where every single one of us can thrive.

This summer, groups of students, faculty, staff, and alumni have discussed actions they can take to advance anti-racism initiatives and make our leadership, organizations, academic and social life representative and inclusive of all members of our community. This work must continue, even in conversations that are uncomfortable and on issues that can seem intractable. I have confidence in our collective resolve, creativity, and determination to make a difference.

This is the challenge — and the possibility — of this moment. We frequently speak with pride about the community of trust that is a distinctive quality of W&L. As we reassemble under these extraordinary conditions, I hope we will approach the term as an opportunity to remember that what unites us is greater than what divides us, to discover what we can accomplish when we listen to each other and work together, and to relish the joy of teaching and learning that brings us all to W&L.

I am excited to welcome our first-year students during their Orientation week and to formally open the academic year at Fall Convocation on August 23. I’m eager to return to the classroom to teach my seminar on virtue ethics and liberal arts education. I’m looking forward to seeing students, faculty, and staff on campus again. And I’m grateful to each of you for helping to make this a safe and successful year.

Read more of President Dudley’s messages to the community on the Office of the President webpage.