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2010 Inauguration Speech

President Mitchell B. Reiss shared the following remarks upon his inauguration, held October 2, 2010, on the Campus Green.

Good morning and welcome.

I am honored to be here on this beautiful campus, among a community of faculty, students, devoted alumni, parents, friends, and citizens of Chestertown and beyond who cherish this historic American institution. To the Board of Visitors and Governors, thank you for your confidence in me. I promise to do my utmost to make this remarkable institution even better. To President Baird Tipson, President and Mrs. Garry Clarke, and former First Ladies Debby Toll, Ann McLain, Libby Cater Halaby and Katherine Trout, my wife Elisabeth and I are grateful for your examples of leadership and honored to follow in your footsteps.

To our distinguished delegates, I offer our heartfelt appreciation for your being with us today. It is a particular honor to have my father and my sister process with the inaugural delegates this morning as representatives of M.I.T. and Cornell. I am both humbled and inspired to be surrounded by this community of well-wishers who believe in the power of education to build a secure and prosperous future.

A Living Monument

We stand here today on venerable ground—uniquely blessed by that iconic figure, the Father of our Country. It was here, on this very lawn, that George Washington once stood where we do now, looking upon this living monument to his name.

Now we’ve all heard stories that “George Washington slept here,” but we know that he invested his time, his interest, and even his funds to help guide and support this College during its infancy. We know that he believed that a liberal education is necessary to prepare our citizens for the demands of public, as well as private, life. And we know that in a speech in 1790, our founding patron told Congress, “There is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is, in every country, the surest basis of public happiness.” These words grace not only the walls of Washington College’s buildings, but they reside at the very heart of our mission.

George Washington counted among his revolutionary colleagues men of soil and men of books, warriors and diplomats. None of them could anticipate the precise challenges their new country would face, but, like Washington, they understood that challenges there would be. And that it would take an educated citizenry to meet whatever the future held. A citizenry equipped not just with facts and figures, but with creativity and the moral courage to safeguard our inheritance and help us form a more perfect union.

It is for this reason that General Washington chose to endorse this school at the colonial port city of Chestertown—Washington College, Maryland’s first institution of higher learning, the tenth college on the continent, the first founded in the new nation and the only one to which he personally bestowed his name.

George Washington was a giant among men, and more than any other American, a symbol of rectitude.

Surely it is not a coincidence that of all the statues and monuments in Washington, D.C., only one contains no lofty inscription, no words of inspiration. Of course, I speak of the Washington Monument. It stands silent, a quiet compass to navigate our capital city by, but offering no words. And I think that is fitting. For Washington was not a man of words, not an orator or writer of fiery prose. He was a man of action. Which means that it falls to us to articulate his hopes and dreams for his College and our nation.

Our National Destiny

I believe that is how Washington would have wanted it: for his countrymen, present and future, to find their own words in an ever-changing quest to fulfill our national destiny. This quest started with the College’s founding. With the Revolutionary War still raging, the Reverend William Smith came to Chestertown with an idea. Smith would start a college— “far from alarms in time of war”—to prepare citizens for the business of self-governance. What a remarkable display of determination and optimism, a combination, no doubt, of his Scottish heritage and his American experience.

But his idea clearly resonated with his friend and colleague, George Washington, who was among the first donors of record. Together, they began the ambitious undertaking of educating the next generation of citizens and leaders. And for more than 225 years, the charge has been fulfilled—most recently by those who sit here today.

If George Washington were here with us, if he returned to campus, what would he see? I have no doubt he would be immensely pleased at the high caliber of student scholarship, the intensity of our professors’ focus on teaching, and by the almost magical intellectual exchanges that take place among them. An institution that has grown in size but not in place, still intimate enough to value a personalized education.

He would see students:

  • conducting groundbreaking scientific research;
  • discussing the proper role of government power;
  • exploring great books & works of art;
  • testing their limits on the athletic fields and on the water; and
  • embracing a code of honor and administering it to their peers.
  • He would see students determined to make a positive difference in the world.
  • Above all else, he would see our students learning not what to think, but how to think for themselves. And that this mission has created a rich and varied legacy. He would be proud, but not surprised, to learn that Washington College has produced governors, senators, scientists, military leaders, actors, clergy, novelists, inventors, journalists, entrepreneurs and many more. Our graduates have indeed made our country great and our society good.

As former President John Toll acknowledged more than a decade ago,Washington College is an ideal liberal arts institution. “I know of no place,” John said, “that does a better job than Washington College of helping its undergraduates to learn. I know this from my own long career in higher education. I’ve learned this from the alumni I meet on campus and around the country—from the stories they tell and from the example of their lives. This place is special.”

A New Chapter

As we look out at the start of yet another chapter in this College’s history, how can we remain “special”? In a young century already marked by unprecedented political, financial and global upheavals, what is the vision for Washington College?

Our way forward must take courage from the optimism of our founding fathers and confidence from our past accomplishments. As we look ahead, we must marry a renewed commitment to a rigorous liberal arts education with the timeless values of our namesake.

We will continue to do what we do so very well: preparing students academically by teaching them how to think critically and express themselves clearly. But I believe we have a further responsibility, a higher calling if you will: to help our students negotiate a pathway to becoming responsible members of their communities, their professions and their country.

We know that education alone does not instill reverence for honesty, fidelity, or a dedication to speak the truth. We know that being well-educated does not guarantee success. Sadly, the headlines point to the moral failings of educated men and women every day. Titans of finance, public representatives, scientists, even spiritual leaders—we seem to see a lot of highly educated people these days who have lost their way, who have not wedded knowledge with values.

It is here that Washington College students have a distinct advantage. George Washington speaks through the College, imparting his values to the everyday experiences of our undergraduates. As a child of the 18th-century American Enlightenment, Washington equated happiness with virtue. To him, virtue meant respect for others. It meant working in service to the greater good. It meant having the moral courage to stand up for what you believe, even if that belief is unpopular. Perhaps especially when that belief is unpopular.

Enduring Values

Today, George Washington still speaks to us through the virtues he demanded of himself.

Integrity: We ask our students to be trustworthy, honest and fair; to be accountable for their actions, and to set an example for others.

Respect: We ask our students to appreciate freedom of inquiry and expression, and diversity of views, to protect the diversity of species on our planet, and to value the histories and the cultures of peoples different from themselves.

Courage: We ask that our students hold fast in the face of enormous odds, that they not shy away from shaping the future. And we ask that they know their responsibility to do the right thing, especially when the consequences are grave.

Of these values—integrity, respect and courage—the greatest is courage. For without moral courage, no others could hold sway.

On July 4, 1776, the greatest military power in the world sat at anchor in New York Harbor—outfitted with 30,000 soldiers, 10,000 sailors and orders from King George III to bring the colonies back into line with British rule. At this precise moment, 55 men in Philadelphia declared the independence of the “13 united states of America.”

It was a moment of great daring, almost recklessness. Men blessed with privilege, great fortunes and towering achievements signed away their lives and titles in the old establishment, with hopes of forging a new, more egalitarian one. It was a leap of faith, made in ink, but to be purchased in blood. They did not know, they could not have known, whether they would be victorious. But they had the courage of their convictions.

A Sense of Optimism

This example of bold action and unwavering spirit—this profound sense of optimism at our ability to create a better future—all this George Washington bequeathed to us, his College, his living monument. More than two centuries later, it serves to inspire every student. Within each of them is the spark of our founding patron—the glimmer of an adventurer, a farmer, a soldier called upon to do extraordinary things. A leader.

George Washington recognized the potential of the young United States to become one of the world’s truly great nations. It is my fervent wish that Washington College realize its potential as one of the world’s truly great institutions of higher learning.

And this College has never been in a better position to realize our greatest aspiration—to be a living monument to the timeless values of George Washington. His lessons are not inscribed in stone, but live on in the hearts of our inquiring students, our dedicated faculty and diligent staff, our distinguished alumni, our generous patrons, our wise trustees.

Why does the Washington monument have no inscription to foretell a future path? Because our story is still unfolding—the story of our country and the story of Washington College. Our Revolution continues. We’re not done yet. Our best days lie ahead.

Thank you.