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2010 Commencement Address

Full text of speech by William F. Quillian, Jr., president emeritus

5/24/2010 9:26:04 AM


Dr. William F. Quillian, Jr.

Preliminary Comments

Every college has its lore ó its traditions, its stories about people and events. Before beginning my prepared address, I want to share with you a bit of the lore from this college.

In the early years of this college there was a very special black employee who loved the college and whose life was devoted to serving it. She was Aunt Maria.

In her later years when she was no longer able to work, the College prepared for her a room plus bathroom facilities in the rear of the first floor of the building which now houses the Admissions Offices. She remained there until her death a few years before my arrival.

Aunt Maria was sort of the official College greeter at the front entrance to Main Hall. Among the stories attributed to Aunt Maria are these:

1. One story is that Dr. Jack, my predecessor as president, was going out from Main Hall and was bare headed. It is reported that Aunt Maria spoke to him and said "All our presidents wears hats."

2. Another story was about some students who were leaving Main Hall to get into a taxi ó She spoke to the taxi driver and said: "Take care of these girls. They waywards easily."

3. And on another occasion there were a prospective student and her parents who had just completed a tour of our College and meeting with the Director of Admissions. As they left Main Hall one commented to Aunt Maria "We are now going out to look at Sweet Briar." At that time, the president of Sweet Briar was Meta Glass, a R-M graduate. And so Aunt Mariaís response was: "Ainít no use going out there. We done taught Miss Meta all she knows."

A Letter from Jimmy

The title of my message today is "A Letter from Jimmy."

Let me tell you how that letter came about.

In early February, 1952, I received a phone call from a man who identified himself as Dr. A.J. York, chairman of the Board of Trustees of Randolph-Macon Womanís College and also chair of the Collegeís Presidential Search Committee. At that time I was in my seventh year as a professor of philosophy at Ohio Wesleyan University, finding very rewarding the challenge of the classroom in one of our larger and finer liberal arts colleges.

Dr. York explained that Randolph-Macon was looking for a new president, that my name had come to their attention -- and he asked if three members of the presidential search committee might go out to Delaware ó the small college town in Ohio where Ohio Wesleyan is located ó to meet with me and with other persons on that campus.

I agreed -- and they came: Gillie A. Larew, Dean of the College, and two trustees: Mrs. Rebecca Harmon, an alumna from New York City and Dr. Thomas Hawkins, A Methodist minister from Virginia.

During the day they spent some time talking with me. Dean Larew attended one of my classes, and they talked with whomever they wanted to on that campus.

They had lunch at our home. I know they were impressed by my wifeís culinary talent but most of all by the seeming ease with which she handled getting our two school age children off to school and taking care of our two pre-school children, one 4 years old and one 15 months old, while preparing lunch and entertaining those three guests.

Apparently we passed their inspection, for a few days later we were asked to come to Lynchburg for further interviews. We were offered the position of president and, after a few days of family consideration, we accepted. And we have loved every one of our years at this college.

But whatís this about "A Letter from Jimmy?"

Jimmy was my roommate for my last three years as a student at Emory University. He was an outstanding student -- Phi Beta Kappa -- a campus leader, editor of the student newspaper, elected to ODK -- and a great friend.

At the time that I came to Randolph-Macon he had received his Ph. D. and was Professor of English at the University of Texas. When he heard of my new appointment, he wrote me a thoughtful and inquiring letter. Let me read a portion of it:

"This announcement (i.e. of my becoming President of Randolph-Macon Womanís College) has set me to wondering what are the motives and criteria that lead a man to leave teaching for an administrative job. They are hardly the same, are they, that lead him into teaching in the first place? And if they arenít, is there involved anything like a repudiation of one set of values for another? The point is that I canít find in myself any urge to be a dean or president, and so I am wondering whatís wrong with me. As I try to think myself back to the time a hundred years ago when I decided to teach, I probably project into the person of that time motives that I didnít feel; so I am not sure why I went into teaching. I am sure, though, that I stay in it because of what happens in the classroom, where I make it happen and see it happen. That thing that happens in the classroom is a good thing, and I do it as well as most and better than some. I know that youíre as good a teacher as I, and I suspect much better. Yet here you are leaving the classroom, where there arenít many good teachers and going into the presidentís office, where also there arenít many good men."

In his letter he goes on to say that recently he had asked one of his friends in an administrative position why this friend had left the classroom, and this person had replied that the desire for prestige and power had been largely responsible for his change.

You can see how such a letter led to soul-searching on my part. I donít remember exactly what my response to Jimmyís letter was, but I am sure it was along these lines.

What about the suggestion from Jimmyís friend that it is the desire for prestige and power which causes the teacher to turn to administration? As for the matter of prestige, I fully agree with the judgment expressed by one of our children in our early years here when she remarked "I wish you were not president; I think professors are much better." She is absolutely right. It is the well-trained, skillful and dedicated teacher in the classroom or laboratory who gets the job done -- and this College has been blessed and enriched by many such over the years.

But what about the alleged desire for power on the part of the teacher turned president? Some of you may recall that in The Republic Plato states that in the ideal state those who hold the ultimate power, i.e. the kings or rulers, will be philosophers. I am more inclined, however, to agree with Immanuel Kant than with Plato on this point when in his essay, Perpetual Peace, Kant writes: "That philosophers should become kings is not to be expected. But neither is it to be desired; for the possession of power is inevitably fatal to the free exercise of reason."

And so, in my response to Jimmyís letter I rejected "prestige and power" as reasons for one to go from the classroom to an administrative position.

On the positive side, my response to Jimmy was that the considerations and values which led me to accept the presidency of this College are basically the same as those which made my experience as a teacher so satisfying. This is the conviction that there are outcomes in the lives of persons of the kind of liberal education to which this institution is dedicated which are essential for the greatest personal satisfaction of an individual and also for the greater good of mankind.

What are these outcomes? Let me name three.

1. A liberal education enables one to be at home in the natural world and in the realms of ideas, of art, of music, and of literature. For example: The student who has acquired some understanding of the field of botany will see much more as he or she walks about this lovely campus than will the student without that knowledge. Similarly, references to historical events, to great thinkers or artists or composers of the world, to characters in literature take on real meaning to the person who has had a truly liberal education.

2. A second outcome of a truly liberal education is, in my mind, more important than the first. This is the recognition that real learning is a matter of discovery. No one can give you an education, no matter how many items of information one may pass on to you. As the British Philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead suggests in his excellent little book, The Aims of Education, a student is not like a jig-saw puzzle whose pieces simply need to be put into place for wholeness to be achieved. Rather, a student is a living organism engaged in a life-long exciting adventure of examining and evaluating new insights and ideas.

3. A third outcome of a liberal education is that it results in a combination of two apparently contradictory attitudes: open-mindedness and commitment.

The obvious mark of an uneducated or a poorly educated person is cocksureness. A sure sign of the educated person is the ability to live with our uncertainties ó but also to take a stand on the important issues ó- issues having to do with right and wrong, of justice and injustice, of freedom and subjection.

And so my reply to Jimmyís question: "What are the motives and criteria that lead a man to leave teaching for an administrative job?" is that they are basically the same as those which made my experience as a teacher so satisfying.

The goal of both the teacher and the administrator is to bring about outcomes in the lives of our students of the kind of liberal education to which this institution is dedicated: outcomes which are essential for the greatest personal enrichment of oneís life and for the greater good of mankind.

The task of the college administrator is to provide an environment in which such a liberal education can flourish. That environment is made up of well trained and dedicated teachers, classrooms, libraries, well equipped laboratories and studios and equipment for the arts.

There is another important ingredient of that environment. That environment is also one where teacher and student may explore and advocate new and sometimes controversial ideas without fear of censure or retribution.

There have been times in the life of this College when the College and members of its faculty and administration have been the object of criticism.

Soon after coming to Randolph-Macon I would hear reverberations of criticism of Dr. William Scott, then recently retired Professor of Religion, for engaging his students in a scholarly, non-literalist approach to understanding the Bible. Ken Morland, Professor of Sociology, was a favorite target of the local papers for his involvement as an observer and reporter on civil rights activities such as the Selma March.

Your current speaker was the target of a critical editorial in The Lynchburg News for September 20, 1967 with the title "Dr. Quillian Typical: Academic Book Burner." The editorialís message was summarized in these words -- and I quote: "Dr. Quillian wants to muzzle and gag the Lynchburg newspapers so they will no longer print accurately the Communist backgrounds of individuals who appear as speakers on the campus of Randolph-Macon." It continues "We will not be deterred by academic book burners of the left such as Dr. Quillian."

A representative democracy such as we have in our nation depends upon the opportunity for a full and open examination of different points of view -- and I am proud to have been a member of a college community which encourages and defends this.

And so, my reply to Jimmy was that I accepted the invitation to come to this College because I saw here an opportunity to seek to fulfill at a different level the hopes and aims which had led me into the classroom. I saw in this College a treasure made possible by the vision, the work and the support of many. I saw an opportunity to build upon that treasure and, hopefully, to enhance it.

You graduates likewise have come to a place made possible by that vision, that work, and the sacrifices of many -- a place where many before you have experienced vita abundantior.

This College is yours. Love it and support it so that many after you may also experience vita abundantior -- the life more abundant.

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CONTACT: Brenda Edson, Director of College Relations


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