A Day for the Graduates W&L Alumni Magazine: Summer 2014

FORBES MAGAZINE labeled this "The Commencement Address Disinvitation Season" to describe instances in which protests either caused universities to rescind an invitation or speakers to bow out.

Although the media hype suggested there were more cases than usual, complaining about commencement speakers is actually a time-honored tradition.

One of this year's most publicized incidents was the decision of Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. Secretary of State, to decline an invitation from Rutgers because, she said, she did not want protests over her appearance to be a distraction on a day that should be "a time of joyous celebration for the graduates and their families."

Without debating the protests or her decision to withdraw, there can be no doubt that she is right about the purpose of commencement.

A few years ago, in a piece for Inside Higher Ed, I described Washington and Lee's tradition of having the president-the University president, that is-address the graduates. My point then was not that this custom made us better than our peers. Indeed, I'm sure that many of our graduates might wish they could boast of a celebrity who addressed them at Commencement.

Yet, each year when I sit down to write my remarks, my assignment is quite clear: I want to say something that will have meaning to the graduates, and only to them. It is their day, not ours.

As I told members of the Class of 2014 on May 22, we see commencement as a time of celebration and reflection, and not as our last shot to teach them life's lessons and suddenly spring upon them the revelation that the world is a treacherous place and they must now go forth and cope.

By the time they have finished four years at W&L, they know what awaits them without my reminding them. For us, Commencement is neither a beginning nor an end. It's simply a day to stop and pause and understand the longer journey and the role our community has played.

This year, especially, the message needed to be a personal one. The deaths of Kelsey Durkin '14 and Lara Gass '14L in separate automobile accidents left us numb with sadness that lingers still. As part of both the law and undergraduate commencements, we honored their memories by awarding them presidential degrees.

As I told the graduates, I want us always to remember Kelsey and Lara and the lesson we learned, the legacy they left us, which is the importance of being in a community where people care about each other.

None of us could have gotten through those dark days alone. All members of our community-faculty, staff, alumni and especially students-called upon the finest qualities of this University and demonstrated the compassion for one another that proved to be the strength we needed.

The focus of the graduates, in their final moments as students at Washington and Lee, rightly belonged on all they had achieved, individually and together. It was their day, after all.