President Dudley reflects on his first year at helm of university

Dudley shared what he’s learned from his new experiences in Lexington, as well as what he has in mind for the years to come


Rachel Hicks, News Writer

William C. Dudley became Washington and Lee University’s 27th president on Jan. 1, 2017. Dudley was provost and a philosophy professor at Williams College before coming to Lexington, Va.

After a little more than a year on the job, he said he feels he’s accomplished much, but has many goals yet to achieve.

Dudley said the creation of the Commission on Institutional History and Community in wake of the violent rally in Charlottesville was an important feat because of Washington and Lee’s proximity, both physically and conceptually, to the city. He said an ongoing goal of his is to attract and accept students from more diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.

The Phi sat down with President Dudley last week to discuss a class he’s teaching next fall, the Honor System and an article he wrote for The Washington Post criticizing President Donald Trump’s tax plan. This interview has been edited for length.

Having been president for over a year now, can you boil down a favorite part of the job or of life at Washington and Lee?

I think one of my favorite aspects of my job involves interacting with so many different people and parts of the community. I get to spend a lot of time with students and faculty. A lot of time with staff and alumni. You are all fascinating people doing interesting things, so part of my job is showing up at Romeo and Juliet and hosting the cast for dinner or going to University Singers or sporting events. Fraternities and sororities have invited me to dinner. It’s just part of my job—trying to get to know the community and be with the community and support all [of] the exciting things people are doing.

Which of your actions or decisions over the past year stand out to you as some of your most significant?

The creation of the Comission on Institutional History and Community, which I decided to do shortly after the events in Charlottesville last summer. [Charlottesville] is very close to us physically. Because of the statue of Robert E. Lee, that makes it close to us conceptually and historically too. Charlottesville was kind of a catalyst for wanting to help this institution have conversations that are important to it. And people have wanted to have conversations about for a long time. I feel good about the process and the people serving on the commission and how thoughtful and dedicated they’ve been about it. I know that whatever they say will be their most thoughtful, honest suggestions.

The other thing is [the university’s] strategic planning process. It’s good institutional hygiene, asking who are we, how did we get here [and] what can we do to move forward. Out of that will come a really good set of high-level goals that will guide our work for hopefully the next decade or so.

Which of your initial goals do you feel you’ve achieved or productively set in motion? Which important goals are still to come? Is there a central goal for the remainder of the school year?

The goal is by the end of this academic year to complete that strategic planning process. I came here knowing that I was a newcomer, ready to learn and listen and figure out how to take a school that’s already excellent and make it even better. That’s the main thing that I want to complete this year. And the commission is something I want to complete this year, although I’m not personally working on that. I said I want to hear something from you at the end of the year, whether that is an interim report or a final project. I think they have some very interesting things to say, and I’m excited to hear them.

One thing I’ve been saying that’s true about W&L is one of our strengths is political and ideological diversity and one of our weaknesses is racial diversity and socioeconomic diversity, and I think those are mission critical. I think that we don’t want to miss out on talent wherever it can be found and everybody’s education benefits from having more diverse classrooms and resident halls. And fraternities and sororities.

One of the areas in which I know W&L will improve is continuing to do work in admissions to find really high-achieving, capable high school students from all backgrounds, all parts of the county, all races, all socioeconomic backgrounds who are capable of contributing to W&L and then we need to do some additional work with respect to fundraising to be able to meet the financial need of all the greatest kids we’re able to find. That’s not a one year project, but it’s something we’re working on. In the last two years, we’ve managed to double the number of low-income students in the entering class. The rate of progress is good.

Any plans to teach a class again soon? What did teaching a freshman seminar this past fall teach you about students? Did it shape your view of the university in a different way?

I’m going to teach a class in the fall. [The class I taught last fall] was a first-year seminar about the philosophy of higher education that I co-taught with Professor Bob Strong. I felt comfortable in that class. We were thinking about education and liberal arts education as a whole but also wanting to apply it to [the university]. I enjoyed it.

This fall, I’m going to teach a seminar on the 200-level on virtue ethics and the liberal arts education. If you look at the W&L mission statement, the first sentence basically says that what we’re here to do is help our students develop the ability to think freely and critically and humanely and to learn to act with honor and integrity and civility. So what we say we’re in business to do is help you guys develop actual virtues and virtues of character. As a philosopher, I want to ask good questions like what those virtues are and what do those virtues amount to to try to help young people develop those virtues. I got to teach our students firsthand. I’d heard a lot about our students, but the best way to get to know our students is teaching them. Getting to know 12 of our first-year students up close and personal and getting to see for myself just how smart and engaged and curious they were was a great thing.

How would you describe the Washington and Lee community to outsiders?

I think W&L is a great national liberal arts college with really beautiful weather and nice people. Being located where we are, there aren’t a lot of small liberal arts universities in the neighborhood. A lot of the students who are applying here are also applying to bigger schools, but to my mind they’re very different than us. We are about smaller classes and opportunities to participate and lead. Our natural peer group is more like the other really great small liberal arts colleges in other parts of the country. I would love for that to be more widely known, because I feel like kids who are applying to other liberal arts schools don’t know we are [every] bit as good as those schools and we have better weather and nice people. The honor system and speaking tradition makes us a warm, welcoming and trusting community as well.

What compelled you to write the article in the Washington Post? What reactions have you received?

I would say all positive. All W&L people love W&L, so it helped some of them understand how this tax bill contained this provision that’s really bad for our school and bad for our students and their families. So I think that people who are personally in favor of the tax bill as a whole, could still understand how this particular thing that was stuck in there was a bad thing for higher education and for W&L. Most people said ‘right on,’ but that doesn’t change the world. It’s frustrating to me because that bill so obviously hurt students and parents and to have Congress impose that is so clearly counterproductive to what Congress claims to be doing. But taking away the money that we actually need for programs and financial aid was against that. And our alumni were very generous in their time with reaching out to Congress people that they knew. But we still got the law that we got.

How do you see the Honor System at work in the community, and do you feel it has affected you?

I was struck when I interviewed for this job that the search committee included not only the people I would have expected, mainly trustees and faculty and maybe a few staff members, but also the president of the student body, who at the time was Mason Grist. He wasn’t just on there as a token member, but he participated and conducted himself with really notable maturity and poise, which is not easy to do in a setting like that. And that made quite an impression on me. And as the president here, I have a regular monthly meeting with the president of the [Executive Committee]. I’m impressed and proud of the responsibility we give to our students and the seriousness of which they take it. And I realize that’s not perfect, but I think that expecting the students themselves to make decisions about what constitutes the certain behavior that they all expect each other to have is the best way to go. And I think by and large, it brings out the best in people. As a teacher, I certainly like being able to trust my students.

Bryn McCarthy, ’19, contributed to this story.

Photo by Ellen Kanzinger, ’18.