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New Student Convocation Speech

John T. Casteen III
August 28, 1999, The Lawn

It is said that when Enrico Caruso first appeared before Maestro Giacomo Puccini and let loose his astonishing, heart breaking tenor voice, the Maestro said to the singer, "Who has sent you to me -- God!?" At the start of the school year, when I see a new class of students assembled before me, I am reminded of that joyful exclamation.

With your collective and individual distinction, you too astonish. First of all, it was really tough to get a place in your respective classes. For the Class of 2003, we received more than 17,000 applications for fewer than 3,000 places. 60 per cent of you graduated in the top 5 per cent of your class. 22 percent in the top 1 percent. 213 of you are your high school's valedictorians.

And you do well on tests, too. The mean SAT score for the Class of 2003 is 1307, the highest ever. Eleven of you out there scored a perfect 1600 on these tests. 85 earned perfect 800s on the SAT Verbal; 98 earned perfect 800s on the SAT Math. All of you are very, very good students.

Stronger in your academic achievement than students in earlier times, you are also different in your cultural "profile." This year, 56% of you are women. In the class of 2003 are 291 African-Americans, 355 Asians and Asian Americans, and 93 students of Hispanic origin. You come from all over the world -- 34 from Korea, 23 from India, 15 from Canada, 12 from Pakistan, 11 from Turkey, 14 from China, 9 from the Netherlands, 9 from Taiwan, 7 from Germany, 6 from Ecuador --and so on. 66 foreign countries in all.
Although very different from the all-male all-white entering class of 1825, you have some things in common. Of this class Jefferson wrote:

A finer set of youths I never saw assembled for instruction. They committed some irregularities at first, until they learned the lawful length of their tether; since which it has never been transgressed in the smallest degree. A great proportion of them are severely devoted to study, and I fear not to say that within twelve or fifteen years from this time, a majority of the rulers of our State will have been educated here.

More than anything, more than faculty, more than the endowment, more than facilities and grounds and libraries, more than all that, what distinguishes a university is its students. There are ways of quantifying collective distinctions–how many endowed chairs, how many prizes, how many papers and books our faculty publishes, how many games or championships athletic teams win, how many graduates are listed in Who's Who. Rhodes Scholarships, Marshall Scholarships, Truman Scholarships. We care naturally about what the world thinks about the University of Virginia. These measures are important. But more important, are the contributions the University makes to the common good.

What the University contributes to the world is more difficult to measure than its reputation, because what we allocate to the public good is intellectual capital. In contributing to your education, we furnish your future communities with people who will solve difficult problems, provide political and business leadership, cure illness, educate children, educate adults, make scientific discoveries, enlarge intellectual communities, contribute works of beauty to enlarge the human spirit. So you are in a sense a growing intellectual endowment waiting to be compounded in the future.

The common good was what was very much on the minds of the people who founded this University. Near the end of his life, but with his thoughts turned toward future generations, Mr. Jefferson envisioned an institution that would be a "bulwark to the human mind." Education here is the fulfillment of a visionary plan, and one as fundamental to our national experiment in personal freedom as are the words of the Declaration of Independence or the promises made in the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

I want you to spend a few minutes with me imagining this place as it was before it was this place. In April 1817, on a site described as "an old turned-out field" -- the ground beneath you tonight -- the University of Virginia had its physical beginnings. With spring hay green around them and hills visible all around, Jefferson, Monroe, and others gathered behind you at the corner of Pavilion VII, to lay the first stone. They worked from a design that had occupied their minds and their public engagements for almost a decade. This design was in part physical: In 1818, Mr. Jefferson wrote that

instead of constructing a single and large edifice . . . [he and the other members of the Board of Visitors] thought it better to erect a small and separate building, or pavilion, for each professor they should be able to employ, with an apartment for his lectures, and others for his own accommodation, connecting these pavilions by a range of dormitories, capable each of lodging two students only, a provision equally friendly to study as to morals and order.

Look around for a moment. This green space, with the Rotunda here, Cabell, Rouss, and Cocke Halls down there, the pavilions and colonnades along the sides, this Lawn -- Mr. Jefferson called it "trees and grass" -- is living history, one of the great accomplishments of the Enlightenment in this new Republic. It belongs to all Americans and all who admire America, and especially to those who live and work in universities. Many people come here to see a treasure of architecture. If you are like students who have come before you, you will experience it differently as put to the uses its designer intended -- as, living here, you visualize and begin to realize your dreams and become good and free citizens of our republic and the world.

Use this place. Help us teach you, and let living in this place teach you. The original plan provided for the close association between students and faculty. Today our faculty, for the most part [I am an exception to this new rule], live off Grounds, and the old parietal relationships are gone, both in practice and in law. Still, faculty members want to know you, to understand your needs and aspirations, to support your progress. Come visit us in our offices. Speak to us after class. Question us in class. Students teach teachers, and we value the lessons you offer us, just as we value your active inquiry.

The University is not a television set. When you speak to us, not only do we answer you, but your questions and our answers change the lesson, the intellectual program we offer you.

Education here is more than classroom or laboratory learning. Participate in clubs and societies, student religious organizations, musical and theatrical performance, visual arts, intramural athletics, and social action. Take part in National Make a Difference Day: learn the rewards of volunteering to make the community a better place for everyone.

Take possession of the systems of student self-governance. Become involved in the work of the University Judiciary Committee, the Student Council or your class council, the Honor Committee. Learn the link between personal privilege and community responsibility.

Work to broaden your academic experiences. In your early years here, resist the temptation to settle into a narrow concentration in some one field. Ponder the future, but live in a present where, for the only time in your life, knowledge pursued for the pleasure of learning and discovery can be your daily business. To be human is, among other things, to work, but to work narrowly is to live narrowly. Make it your business here to learn more than your business, more than the job or jobs that will come to most of you after the years of study. Broad knowledge of history, literature, science, and other liberal disciplines is useful even to players of Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy.

For Mr. Jefferson, as for you, education was the key to personal freedom, and the means to assure that people could protect their natural rights. The political freedom claimed in the Declaration of Independence was a freedom secured through education. Make the "illimitable freedom of the human mind" that Jefferson imagined as the foundation for learning in this place the primary legacy of your years here.

Know, too, that the illimitable freedom of the human mind has changed the world, that the world Mr. Jefferson inhabited is precursor to your own world and not a limitation on it. When he called for a general education for all the citizens of Virginia, he did not imagine enslaved Africans and women educated to standards that applied here. When the first class of the new University of Virginia assembled in 1825, no women enrolled, and no black persons. Hegel wrote: "The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom." Make this consciousness the cornerstone of your own consciousness of this place and of freedom's role in it.

Finally, some practical words about living here. Most, but not all, of the time, these Grounds, this neighborhood and the surrounding community are good and wholesome places to live. Sometimes they are not. Take responsibility for your neighbor as well as for yourself. If you are a man, know that every woman is threatened by the specter of sexual assault, and that this threat inevitably limits freedom. No one can prevent every outrage, every abuse, every violation, but see your neighbor as your sister and treat her with respect and decency. This community feels agony when any of its members suffers the loss of freedom and dignity that violence visits on its victims. Do not tolerate this loss here.

If you are a white student, listen when African American students or Asian students or any others describe concerns about life in this community -- even and perhaps especially when these concerns address our most cherished traditions: the Honor System, ways of living together, academic behavior. No human system gets everything right all the time. You have the right and the obligation to use reason to combat wrong: do it. To be intellectually free is to sustain others' freedoms as well. Work together to make this community work for every one of its members.

We will meet again in this space -- for most of you, three years and nine months from now -- but you will then be seated facing the other way, on the yard in front of Old Cabell Hall, and I will speak to you (and to your parents and professors and friends -- something like 30,000 persons in all) in one of the oldest and grandest public ceremonies held in this country: the final exercise or graduation ceremony of the University. Your distinctions then will be different. Few will wonder whether you were valedictorian or your high school, or what score you earned on the SAT. Rather, that day's issue in your mind will be what you have made of your years here, what you have done to master the body of knowledge, to prepare for your own period of responsibility for the larger community -- for the nation itself, to build the quality of life in the community, to interpret anew for your time and the future the traditions and values that assure the illimitable freedom of the human mind. Godspeed, and welcome to the challenge.