By William C. Dudley
Dudley is president of Washington and Lee University. This is based on remarks that he made to graduates at the university’s commencement.
College is sneaky. For four years, you thought you were having fun. In fact, you were having fun, sometimes even a bit too much. But at the same time, when you weren’t looking, you were becoming adults increasingly capable of making meaningful differences. That’s the important business of education. And it’s compatible with fun. Indeed, the effort it takes to accomplish important things is better sustained if you find joy in what you are doing, and when you surround yourself with others who work, smile, and laugh right alongside you. It’s a lesson that will help you surmount challenges throughout your lives.
The liberal arts education you have just completed has also equipped you with significant advantages. Liberal arts education is often misunderstood and mischaracterized. It is not job training, but it is the best possible professional preparation, especially for a world in rapid flux. The hunger for lifelong learning is the most valuable thing you can possess in the 21st century. You will be surprised by how your lives unfold. You will accomplish things you cannot imagine. At your 10th college reunion, you will swap tall tales of the good old days in college, and you will be astonished by the variety of things your classmates have become.
If we have done our jobs, and you have done yours, you are ready to make significant contributions wherever you go, for the benefit of yourselves and your families, but also for the benefit of those less fortunate and the communities in which you live. By investing in you, we have made a long-term investment in the public good. No matter where you go or what you achieve, each of you will have opportunities to exercise leadership, in ways public and private, large and small.
Leadership happens, not when you seek a fancy title, but when you accept an important role and do it to the best of your ability. Responsible leadership is oriented to the needs of the people you serve. But governance by survey is not leadership. Leadership demands the courage to make unpopular decisions. Leadership also demands willingness to compromise, to balance the competing needs of various constituencies. Leadership is not “toughness” that insists stubbornly on a single perspective to the exclusion of all others.
The nature of a compromise is that everyone leaves disappointed. It may seem strange that as a leader your job is to disappoint people. But it’s true. You will need a thick skin. And you will need to earn the trust of your community, so that when individuals disagree with your chosen course of action — and they will — they continue to believe you have their long-term interests at heart. People need to know that you understand who they are, that you care about their success, that you will work diligently on their behalf, and that you are competent to advance their cause. To establish and maintain that trust, you will need to listen carefully, communicate authentically, offer praise generously, and be receptive to constructive criticism.
That is a lot to ask. Responsible leadership is demanding. Fortunately, liberal arts education has furnished you with the habits of mind that characterize good leaders. You have been trained to observe closely, interpret judiciously, and reason carefully. You have practiced inhabiting the perspectives of those different from yourself, evaluating complex problems from all angles, and presenting conclusions persuasively. You have developed the stamina to work in solitude and the disposition to collaborate with others.
Liberal arts education cannot possibly prepare you, in advance, for everything you will encounter. But it makes you the kind of person who responds well to encounters for which you are not prepared. More than anything else, it is this ability that will enhance your prospects for a lifetime of learning, achievement, leadership, service, and citizenship.
You have heard that college is an investment, and it is. But the impact of these past four years cannot be measured by comparing lifetime earnings to the cost of college. The true value of the investments that you, the faculty and staff, your parents, and our alumni have made in your education lies in the quality of the lives you will lead.