At Washington and Lee University’s 236th Commencement ceremony on Thursday, members of the Class of 2023 were reminded by President William C. Dudley that engaged citizenship begins with intellect and character, and that responsible leadership is about setting an example and exerting a positive influence.
“Engaged citizenship – your citizenship – begins with the traits of intellect and character that are cultivated by a good liberal arts education,” Dudley said. “Your education has prepared you to assess what can be improved, and to have the courage to speak up about it.
“Figure out how to make things better,” he said. “If something needs to be done, roll up your sleeves and get to work. Persuade others to join you. Responsible leadership – your leadership – is less about commanding those who answer to you, or criticizing those who don’t, than it is about exerting a positive influence, showing others by your own example what matters, and why, and what you can accomplish together.”
Having the University President give the Commencement address is a custom at W&L in Lexington that dates to the 1930s.
Dudley recounted the murder of George Floyd in May of the same year, and the subsequent protests and calls for racial reckoning across the country, as well as the storming of the United States Capitol in January 2021 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year later.
“That’s a lot of bad news” he said. “And it’s tough to look away. The issues are important, and the coverage of them is not only ubiquitous but also weirdly compelling. So much so that the term ‘doom scrolling,’ which refers to the practice of compulsively consuming negative information, was named the word of the year in 2020.
“Social media enables information, misinformation, fear, and outrage to spread more quickly and widely than ever before,” Dudley said.
“You can’t be the kind of people that we are devoted to helping you become, or do the kinds of things that we are devoted to preparing you to do, without being well-informed about the world you inhabit, including its many serious problems,” he said. “But there’s a difference between being well-informed, which you should be, and being sucked into a vortex of negativity, which you should avoid.
“A good liberal arts education teaches you not to believe everything you read or hear,” he said. “It teaches you to ask good questions, to make careful distinctions, to discern what is important, to sift the probable from the improbable. Those habits of mind enable you to distinguish trustworthy from untrustworthy sources. Armed with reliable information and the ability to think freely, critically, and humanely – which you have honed here at W&L – you are prepared to be conscientious interpreters of the world.”
During Thursday’s ceremony, W&L conferred degrees upon 453 seniors. Altogether, the Class of 2023 earned degrees in 52 majors, with nearly 30 percent of the class completing more than one major. Fifty-three percent of the class completed at least one minor.
Four students were named valedictorians of the class: Walter Henry Barden, Anna Elizabeth Blackburn, Mary Elaine Graham, and Jason Gu. Each earned a final grade point average of 4.0.
A recording of the 2023 Undergraduate Commencement ceremony can be found at livestream.com/wlu.