Our Debt to the Future W&L Alumni Magazine: Fall 2011

WE KNOW WE are well into the annual college-ranking season when one publication or another determines how a particular institution is doing based on any number of measures, frivolous to serious. These rankings come and go every fall, with their ups and their downs and the accompanying criticism and praise. At Washington and Lee, we take great pride in one particular ranking: We are the ninth oldest institution of higher education in the country.

As an institution that is more than 250 years old, we cannot help but be aware of how some of the decisions that our predecessors at W&L made decades, even centuries, before our time continue to have a critical impact on who we are and what we do today.
That made all the more meaningful my signing of an agreement with Secure Futures L.L.C., of Staunton, Va., to install solar photovoltaic arrays on two buildings on campus.

Here's another ranking of importance to us: this will be the largest solar-energy installation in the commonwealth.

For me, the bigger issue is that this is the kind of project that a liberal arts institution needs in order to raise students' awareness that the decisions they make today will affect the citizens of tomorrow. They will face no question during their lifetimes more ethically challenging, or more significant to public policy, than what they owe to future generations.

It is incumbent upon us to prepare our students to deal with that question. This solar project will be a visible reminder that the time horizons they build into their decisions must get longer and longer. An institution that benefits so much from those in the past is uniquely positioned to teach an important lesson about our own obligations to the future.

There is, of course, self-interest here. We would not be making such a commitment if it did not make economic sense. We will plow the long-term savings that we will get from this project directly back into preparing students for their careers and their lives.

Through this sustainability project and others, we are aligning our institutional practices with what we preach to our students about their duties as responsible citizens and their obligations to future generations. W&L is precisely the kind of place where this should happen.

I don't know how to confront the problems of the environment without the intellectual breadth of a liberal arts education. It is not simply that this task requires knowledge of politics, economics, science, literature and philosophy; it also requires an understanding of how all those areas of knowledge come together and are interwoven in a single problem-and how graduates of Washington and Lee may use them to solve that problem.

"Non incautus futuri" is not a mere slogan for us. It is our mission, one that seems ever more fitting for this day and age.

This letter was adapted from an item that first appeared in the "College Inc." blog of the Washington Post.