Making Lexington Great Again: A Look at W&L’s Next President
By Ben Whedon For over a year now, the American people have followed the Republican and Democratic primary elections with great interest. Political outliers like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have suddenly captured the imaginations of millions with their anti-establishment rhetoric and promises of real change. Changes in Presidential Administrations have rarely been smooth transitions during our nation’s history. As America searches for its next leader, Washington and Lee University also faces a coming transition in its leadership. President Ruscio shocked the Lexington community in 2015 by announcing his resignation at the end of his tenth year in office. Though Ruscio’s term was marked by several controversial policy decisions and conflicts with the student media, his tenure did spearhead several positive initiatives for the general improvement of life at W&L. We at The Spectator wish him well in his future endeavors.
The search to fill the vacancy began mid-last year. To the Search Committee’s credit, the efforts to garner student and alumni opinion on the matter were extensive, including a comprehensive survey on the matter and the addition of Executive Committee President Mason Grist on the committee. In a remarkably swift announcement, the Board of Trustees declared its selection at an impromptu press conference in Elrod Commons less hour before the start of the Mock Convention. With pomp and circumstance, the Board of Trustees heralded the arrival of William Dudley as the University’s next leader.
The gathering of teachers, faculty, and students listened with eagerness as Dudley gave a gracious acceptance speech, the whole of which can be viewed on The Spectator’s Facebook page. An unexpected choice, Dudley is the current Provost at Williams College in Massachusetts. His academic background is in philosophy, with an emphasis on Immanuel Kant. For those concerned about the school’s declining emphasis on the liberal arts, congratulations! You may at last have a champion. As chance would have it, Dr. Dudley was already quite familiar with our publication, loosely aware of the controversy surrounding our recent article on the Culture and Diversity FDR petition. Receiving us warmly, he graciously agreed to an interview to talk about the possible direction of his administration.
This act in and of itself is a positive sign as to the character of the next administration, for which Dudley deserves credit. It demonstrates a sincere desire on his part to connect with the Washington and Lee community, and may herald further constructive dialogue between the students and the administration. When asked about his vision for the school, Dudley dispelled the notion of any preexistent agenda, stating modestly:
“Washington and Lee has a tradition of excellence spanning 250 years. I’ve spent three days on campus! It would be presumptuous of me to arrive with a grand vision. I need to get to know the people and the place. The goal is to sustain the university’s strengths while seizing opportunities to improve. I’m eager to learn from everyone in the community what they love about W&L and how they think it could be even better.”
Such an approach, should it take place, would be a welcome change from the historic top-down reform on major issues. Eager to affirm his commitment to the liberal arts and the entire community, he offered this insight with regard to policy:
“I see Washington and Lee as a model for education in the 21st century. At its core is a commitment to the best possible liberal education, provided by great teachers who are devoted to cultivating the full potential of their students. It couples that with outstanding pre-professional and legal education and an extraordinary track record of preparing students for lives of public service and personal success. I think my priorities are closely aligned with those of W&L, which is why I’m so excited to come to Lexington and get started. I care about academic excellence. I want life on campus — intellectual, social, residential — to be satisfying for all members of the community and to attract the best students, faculty, and staff from around the country and the world. I want all of our facilities to be great places to work and play. And, of course, an important part of my job is raising and stewarding the resources that ensure Washington and Lee will serve future generations at least as well as it serves students today.”
As the history of the University - in particular our connections to Robert E. Lee and the Civil War - has been a cause of both veneration and controversy, we asked him to weigh in on W&L’s history as well as its values and virtues. Dr. Dudley again affirmed his commitment to become a part of the community and assume office with no preconceived notions:
“I’m inspired by the fact that Washington and Lee dates to 1749. It is humbling to walk in the footsteps of the students, teachers, and leaders who have made this university what it is and loved it so deeply. As a newcomer, I don’t think it’s for me to pronounce the definitive virtues and traditions of W&L. I’m counting on you all to educate me about those. But there are some distinctive features of Washington and Lee that I find very appealing:
‘It has a strong sense of purpose, encapsulated in the motto -- Non Incautus Futuri — and reflected in both Washington’s belief that quality education was needed on the frontier and Lee’s conviction that education was critical to reconciling the nation after the civil war. People at W&L know that what they are doing is important, but they don’t seem to take themselves overly seriously. I like that combination.
‘The honor system is indicative of an admirable confidence in young people. If you trust students with significant responsibility they will rise to it. There is tremendous educational value in giving students a great degree of independence and expecting them to learn to use it wisely. I’m a fan of that approach. The speaking tradition is uncommonly gracious and the community is warmly welcoming. People at Washington and Lee clearly strive to treat each other with mutual respect even when they disagree. That’s the kind of place where I want to live and work.”
Such an explicit commitment to self-ingratiation ought to be taken as a very positive sign to the traditionalist element of the community. It is refreshing to see a firm appreciation of our history and an affirmation of W&L’s definitive characteristics. His level of confidence in the student body is particularly reassuring, and may indicate a more hands-off approach to the community. On a personal note, Dr. Dudley showed a delightful sense of humor when questioned about the student preference for someone with a connection to the school. A poll conducted in a previous article found that 85 percent of the student body favored an alumni or a current faculty member. He had this to say in response:
“Well, it’s good to know that 15% of the students aren’t opposed to me! Seriously, the fact that 85% of the students hoped for an alumni or an inside hire tells me that they really love their school and they want to have a President who understands W&L and loves it too. I wouldn’t have it any other way. And I wouldn’t be coming to Washington and Lee if I didn’t fully expect to love it myself. My own experiences as a student, faculty member, and administrator have been at a small liberal arts college, founded in the 18th century, located in a small town at the base of the Appalachian Mountains, where the students are passionate about academics and athletics, and the alumni are fanatically enthusiastic about their alma mater. So there are many ways in which Washington and Lee feels familiar.
‘But I’m also well aware that every school has its own distinctive culture and traditions. I’m grateful to have experienced Mock Convention in person this year. It's such a unique event and something that Washington and Lee alumni of all generations have in common. I’ll be learning as much as I can, in every way that I can, about W&L. Most importantly, I want to meet the people — students, faculty, staff, alumni — and hear what makes Washington and Lee special to them. I hope the students won’t be shy about introducing themselves, getting to know me, and helping me get to know W&L.”
We welcome William Dudley to Lexington. While President Ruscio will be missed, the Washington and Lee community can rest assured that the University will be left in good hands.