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New Student Convocation

President John T. Casteen III
August 26, 2001, The Lawn

This time of year, faculty members commonly observe that students seem to be getting younger. Psychologists call it denial, I think. Personally, when I see new students, I experience an even stranger dissociation. Like you, but 40 years ago, I was a first-time student here.

I came here on a Sunday night for the opening convocation. I realize now that the elderly-looking faculty who greeted my class must have found themselves experiencing, as I do now, a collapsed sense of time and just as suddenly, responsible authority.

In some form or another, this will happen to you too. That you will be tomorrow's leaders fills us all with great hope for the future. Though it may be 90 humid degrees, the Lawn, this beautiful space filled with new students so expectant, and bright, and so hopeful, is spring-like tonight. With entering students arriving on Grounds, the end of summer — the coming of the new students, the opening of classes — this is the time of renewal at the University. Because when all is said and done, what we see in you is not ourselves, but the future.

We are confident in the future that you will inherit because we are confident in you. After months of work done in the Admissions Office and the long process of building the class, we know you, and we have confidence in you. You are extraordinary people, with remarkable gifts. You are, first of all, intellectually gifted: 95 per cent of you were in the top 25 per cent of your class; 81 percent, in the top 10 per cent. Fifty per cent of you scored between 1230 and 1410 on the SAT's. 9 of you scored a perfect 1600. You have taken the hard courses, excelled as citizens of your schools and communities — earned the right to be here.

In addition to academic skills, you bring abilities and varied backgrounds and a wealth of experience to Mr. Jefferson's University. You come from 46 states, the District of Columbia, 2 U.S. territories, and 56 foreign countries.

68 — 69% Va/majority of Va: N.Va.

54 percent are women

9 percent are African-American (272 students)

11 percent are Asian-American (345 students)

3 percent are Hispanic-or Latino-Americans (79 students)

6 percent are international students (167 students)

This, I think, is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. The friends you will make here and the habits of mind you will acquire will be yours, I hope, forever.

Some of you may be feeling right at home now, while some of you may be feeling a bit lost. Those of you who find yourselves on familiar ground today, in the coming weeks may discover that the University is more complex than you may have imagined before. In a sense, I hope you find that it is more demanding and more rewarding, because I want you to grow here, to stretch. Those of you who may be feeling the unfamiliarity of these new surroundings will discover — I hope — 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, all of you will come to delight in the wonder of this brave new world, and the people in it.

Tomorrow or the next day, the rigorous routine sets in — you get up on time, you work your way through the classes, labs, libraries, study sessions, papers, problems that are the daily work of being a student. Tonight, however, is our time together as a community to speak words of idealism and tradition and to assert our common purposes and aims. Let's start by beginning to explore together the connections between this place and it founder. Look around — these houses where professors lived and live, taught and teach, these rooms where students lived in the beginning and live now, this place of gardens, books, columns, and indeed the symbolic building behind me that stands in the common iconography of our world as the great symbol of learning in the service of human freedom — these are the ingredients of the place imagined by Thomas Jefferson as appropriate or fit for the education of people capable of sustaining their own freedom and their nation's.

Mr. Jefferson founded the University to educate a new Republic, one to whose future he had pledged his on survival in his words and signature on July 4, 1776. He meant the students of this university to be prepared to advance the public good. He expected them to be public citizens -- to give the best of themselves to their communities. He argued that a good life was one spent in service–to our communities, to our country, to the world. By coming here to pursue your own education, you inherit and accept this role. But you will not assume it simply because you have credentials and talents, nor by the friendships you make. Simply cultivating the intellect and the social life is not sufficient. You have come here also, as more than a quarter of a million have come before you, to learn character, human virtue, and the qualities that sustain good and truth and freedom.

Cicero said, "Ability without honor is useless." To act with justice and honesty and to be free, you must think deeply about justice and honesty and human freedom. The University's honor system is a wonderful object of reflection and teaches us a lot about public good. It helps us understand how limiting an individual's freedom with rules and laws paradoxically serves justice and enlarges freedom. This is so because there is no greater danger to individual freedom than a society in which the strong, unimpeded by law, rule the weak. John Locke notes that the purpose of law "is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom." He says that where "there is no law there is no freedom." If we succeed in our obligations to you, your teachers and this place will put propositions about these principles before you every day, in every course, in every human interaction during your time here, and you in turn will do the same in your dealings wit other students. Being successful is not only knowing how to think, but also knowing how to act honorably. There are many ways of being in the world. But the most important way to be is to be honest. Without ethical sense, you will be no benefit to society; you will be a detriment, perhaps even more than you would have been without a university education. Theodore Roosevelt's witty comment is instructive. You may remember that he once said, "A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car, but if he has a university education he may steal the whole railroad." Your parents and the schools in which you were educated, taught you right from wrong. But like the intellect, the moral sense needs constant cultivation.

Later this evening, you will hear from a distinguished alumna and from the leaders of the Honor Committee about the peculiar blending of freedom and responsibility that are yours under the Honor System. Let me preface what comes after by saying this: This instrument of self government and self discipline teaches one of the fundamental lessons of the Enlightenment, the European philosophical movement that shaped Mr. Jefferson's conceptions of American independence, of the rule of law, and of the role of the University in sustaining the republic. John Locke wrote that the purpose of law "is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom." He believed that where "there is no law there is no freedom."

In a sense, the Honor System is the law that governs our community of students. In a passage that you may already know, Thomas Hobbes contrasted what he called the state of nature to the condition of civilization. Let me read to you the first part of this passage in which Hobbes imagines the absence of law:

No culture of the earth, no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of people, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Then give me a moment to explain why the University's students developed and have sustained in a system of self-governance unlike any others. The early days of this University resemble in some ways the society Hobbes imagined without law. Three incidents stand out. In 1825, masked students attached two members of the faculty and were brought before the Board of Visitors. Thomas Jefferson was the rector or chairman of the Board of Visitors. He wrote later that the day of the proceedings against these students was the most painful day of his life, and then overcome by emotion, he stopped speaking and could say no more. The result of that riot: the first rules — students were no longer allowed to wear masks on the Lawn. In 1835, the faculty attempted to take away guns that students had begun to tote out to the Lawn in the middle of the night and fire — often at the clock behind me. Students rioted; faculty who lived on the Lawn feared for the lives of their families; and the Rotunda was placed under military guard. In spite of the mayhem, the faculty decided against stiffer discipline for students because of the belief that students would eventually learn to govern themselves. Then, in 1840, two masked students ventured out one night with pistols. They lured John A. G. Davis, the faculty leader who had argued against imposing rules after the riot of 1835, out of Pavilion X, down at the end of the Lawn, by making a terrible racket. He came outside to see what was wrong, and was shot and killed by a student named Joseph Sems, who had come from Georgia. And thereafter the students themselves developed their own system of self government in the form of the Honor System by which they defined a kind of compact built on necessary, simple principles, to govern their lives together.

It was after this incident that the University's honor code was instituted.

Tonight when you sign your honor's pledge, think seriously about the pledges you make. Understand the social contract to which you are binding yourselves and your fellow students. Understand that with this pledge you do several things: you tie yourself to your community, you promise to behave honestly and honorably, and you give your consent to being governed by the rules of the system. Honor and justice connect people in a deep way, allow you to trust your neighbor so that you may effectively work with him or her, and ultimately allow life at the University to be just and free.

The honor system is not perfect and has changed many times since 1840, and will and must continue to change. It belongs to you. As a governing system it is not a sacrosanct cultural artifact that must be preserved in its original form. Effective governing systems change, and with your attention and allegiance, this system can change for the better. Thomas Jefferson himself argued that the compacts that bind us together must change. "Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the Ark of the Covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment." He continues, "laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind," and notes that in refusing to change institutions, "[w]e might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy." And he concludes that we should not "weakly believe that one generation is not as capable as another of taking care of itself, and of ordering its own affairs." Your generation will need to do what is right for the world you inherit. You are thoughtful, intelligent, and good people. No others in your generation are better equipped to do so.

Tonight marks the end of a life-changing weekend. It started with your leaving home, and ends with your signing the honor pledge. And, as in all endings, there is a beginning–most significantly tonight is the beginning of new responsibilities. In signing the pledge, you join a new community, a community of scholars, who have vowed to pursue knowledge honorably, and to apply their knowledge usefully in service to public good. You have taken on a sacred trust and with it, challenges that will bring you new depths of understanding. As you take on these challenges, I wish you much joy and success, and hope that you will always live the ideals that animate this place, and that all who know you believe the world to be a better place because you are in it.

The following letter was delievered and read at Convocation:


"Your presence at this ceremony today speaks highly of your academic achievements. The Seven Society wishes to take this opportunity to congratulate you on your dedication to learning. Yet on this day of honors, the Seven Society asks you to reflect on the words of Robert Louis Stevenson:

'That man is a success, who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much; who has gained the respect of intelligent men; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who looked for the best in others and gave the best he had.'

"The Seven Society encourages you to view this honor not merely as a recognition, but as an opportunity. While applauding your successes, the Seven Society challenges you to use your talents and abilities towards improving the lives of your fellow students and the University community. The Seven Society wishes you well in your future endeavors."