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New Student Convocation

August 26, 2000, The Lawn

Now in the evening, the excitements of the day calmed, cars unloaded, families on the road home, it is time for reflection, time to think about this new place in which you find yourselves.

Some of you may be feeling right at home now, while others may be feeling a bit lost. Those of you who find yourselves on familiar ground today, in the coming weeks will begin to appreciate the remarkable difference of the University of Virginia. Those of you who may be experiencing more keenly the unfamiliarity of your new surroundings will discover that this 35 hundred acre, 10 million square foot, 15 thousand employee institution was built for you. Tonight whether you are at ease here or not, I expect that, like Shakespeare's Miranda discovering a new world of possibility, you will all come to delight in the wonder of this brave new world, and the people in it.

You yourselves are uncommon people, wonderful in your gifts and in your differences. Eighty-three percent of you rank in the tenth percentile of your high school classes (94 percent in top 20 percent). Your mean combined SAT score is 1306 (Verbal: 644, Math 662). Seven of you scored a perfect 1600. Seventy-four had perfect 800 Verbal scores; eighty-five had a perfect 800 Math scores.

In your differences you give us strength. Fifty-four percent of you are women. Twenty-nine percent of you are of non-European descent (10.07 percent African descent; 14.4 percent Asian descent; 4.02 percent Hispanic descent THESE PERCENTAGES INCLUDE INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS). Over fifteen hundred come to the University from cities and counties around the Commonwealth; more than seven hundred hail from forty-six states (incl. VA, DC, and the Virgin Islands); and one hundred sixty come from forty-five countries spanning the globe, Argentina to Zimbabwe. With all you bring to us, you are the University's most valuable resource. Please know how welcome you are here.

Whether you grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, or Alexandria, Egypt, at the University you will share a common experience. That experience in most ways will be the experience the University's founder meant you to have. You will hear much about Thomas Jefferson–some good, some bad, some true. But know this as you begin, he was an idealist, he believed that humankind and the work of humankind are perfectible, perfectible primarily by means of education.

This is a night for optimism and idealism. Let me share with you some of Mr. Jefferson's beliefs, wonderful beliefs that still matter. He believed that:

  • The state is obligated to educate its citizens.
  • Knowledge should be widely distributed to all citizens.
  • Knowledge is power and individual freedom.
  • To prepare students to build and sustain democracy, education should encourage the free exchange of ideas and require honorable behavior.

The university was to be an engine of knowledge, producing an educated citizenry, people who would actively apply what they learned for the good of society. In 1816 Mr. Jefferson wrote, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." Simply put, our job is to educate you so that you may be free in your thinking and effective in your acting.

To educate students for freedom, the University set out in 1825 to teach what Thomas Jefferson called the "useful" sciences. "Science" in 19th Century usage denoted knowledge, not just in empirical disciplines defined by scientific method but also in non-empirical disciplines nowadays known as the humanities. Like the Greeks, Jefferson's view of education extended beyond the merely personal to the cultural, the communal. To be an educated person was to become an honorable, ethical, communally dedicated, positively contributing member of society. And as a functioning member of society, one continues to be educated. The Greeks call such a civilizing education Paideia. Being so educated, you become valuable to your community.

On Grounds last year at a meeting of alumni involved in electronic commerce, e-commerce executives noted that the people they like to hire are those who have learned how to think–how to ask questions, how to analyze answers, how to research problems, how to test possible solutions, and after thinking, knowing how to put their thoughts into play. Employers are looking for broadly educated people who have learned how to think and to do. Thinking and doing are imperative in a world in which a rapidly changing economy makes ever-new demands on workforces of the world. The useful sciences taught here in 1825 are little different from today's liberal arts–ancient and modern languages, math and science, government, history, arts and letters. But the world has changed, and our curriculum has changed with it. Liberal arts, and now engineering, medicine, and architecture, all useful sciences, are the rock on which the University is founded.

Technology has made our world smaller, and in doing so, it has become indispensable to almost all human endeavors. Selected by Yahoo to be on its list of most wired institutions, the University has technological resources that I think would have delighted our Founder. The figures are impressive:

  • 80 percent of students own computers
  • 100 percent of our dorm rooms have two Ethernet connections
  • By the first week of classes, I am told, 95 percent of first-year students have active e-mail accounts.

As we place technological resources in the hands of our students, we also teach the new technology and we use it to teach. This year we are offering students enrolled in the College, the School of Architecture, and in the Nursing School a course similar to one offered in the School of Engineering--an information technology literacy course intended to give you essential technological skills, grounding in the technology of learning, and tools to enhance intellectual inquiry. Faculty are putting technology to work in various disciplines. Just a few examples to give you a sense of the range of offerings:

  • Charles Grisham uses new multimedia technologies to teach biochemistry by means of a virtual library of three-dimensional protein models;
  • Benjamin Ray applies the Web to teaching African art in his (Religious Studies) course, "African Art and the Virtual Museum;"
  • Kathryn Rohe has been involving undergraduates in the conservation, research, documentation, and publication on the Web of the Drama Department's over thousand piece collection of antique clothing.

As technology has compressed time and space, making a wider world accessible to great numbers of people, I urge you all to spend a semester abroad. The new time space continuum that technology has created invalidates categories that formerly defined relationships. Study abroad permits a clear sense of one's relationship to widening circles of community while at the same time yielding useful knowledge. In encountering different cultures, you learn new languages, new customs, new modes of thinking.

As you begin to find your way to your future, please carefully consider all the resources available to you here. Take advantage of what this university has to offer. Opportunities abound here for participation in clubs and societies, student religious organizations, musical and theatrical performance, visual arts, intramural athletics, and social action.

Fully explore the opportunity for personal development most often noted by alumni who return to Grounds, the opportunity this university gives its students for self-governance. Protected by rights under the United States Constitution and the Code of Virginia, you as a student at this university are also in possession of the right and the privilege to monitor your own behavior as it concerns honesty and lawful conduct. To ensure the protection of this privilege, I urge you to become involved in the work of the University Judiciary Committee, the University's sole adjudicator on student misconduct. The UJC is the only completely student self-governed judicial committee in the United States with students running all trials and serving as judges in those trials.

Even if you decide not to offer your services in these capacities, the system needs your allegiance–your commitment to honest and lawful conduct, your recognition of your obligation to support disciplinary procedure. Recognizing this moral obligation and committing to its behavioral and procedural imperatives, will broaden and deepen your educational experience here and help you achieve the moral autonomy required for coming of age. Pay attention to the obligations of moral autonomy and you will achieve one of American education's more basic goals of education. According to Jefferson, the educated citizen needs

To know his rights; to exercise with order and justice those he retains; to choose with discretion the fiduciary of those he delegates; and to notice their conduct with diligence, with candor, and judgement. (Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Fix the Site of the University of Virginia, August 4, 1818.)

I will leave you today with some other imperatives. Use this place as it was intended. It is not a museum. It is not a social club. While the past, in the form of local history, architecture, and custom, and the present, as manifested in friends and social events, are enriching parts of life here, the future beckons, and you must prepare yourself for it. Apply yourself to useful sciences. Avoid narrow paths and blinkered points-of-view. Push beyond the familiar. You are too young to be confined by a narrow self-definition. Embrace Paideia and remember that a truly educated human being is one in whom all human faculties are developed, all human possibilities explored. Remember Mr. Jefferson's charge to you: be educated so that you may be free–free to discover the best way to serve your community, free to become the human being you are capable of becoming.

A brave new world of infinite promise waits for you. I wish you Godspeed in your journey there.