Dean Woo Invokes 20 Years of History in Fall Convocation Address

October 16, 2009

October 16, 2009 — A new era of international optimism, not competition, awaits those who were born as the Berlin Wall fell, said Meredith Woo, dean of the University of Virginia's College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, in her keynote address at Friday's Fall Convocation.

At the assembly, held at the John Paul Jones Arena, Intermediate Honors were bestowed upon about 401 third-year students whose academic work placed them in the top 20 percent of their class for their first two years. Also, outgoing U.Va. President John T. Casteen III and J. Thomas Parsons, chairman of the "Department of Microbiology, each received Thomas Jefferson Awards, the highest honor the University presents.

Woo addressed the honored students, noting that most of them were born in 1989, the year that the wall that divided East and West Berlin came down and Chinese college students staged an uprising in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Both events played out to a worldwide audience and were considered watershed events in world history. The students were born, she said, after what historian Eric Hobsbawm called the "Age of Extremes," which extended from the First World War until the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled an end to the Cold War.

Woo, who was named the dean in 2008, said these historic events also occurred at the dawn of Casteen's presidency at the University. Casteen assumed the post in 1990.

"He is ... a president spared the extremes of ideological prisms through which scholars peered at the world; like you, his presidency was born into a world happier, more prosperous and tolerant, more forgiving of differences," she said.

She praised Casteen for his "encyclopedic memory of the events of his tenure" and his understanding the nature of the University.

"Gertrude Stein, in her book on Picasso, once defined the artistic spirit as one that is effortlessly contemporary, one that intuits and acts upon the zeitgeist," Woo said. "Not surprisingly, throughout his presidency John Casteen has advocated and exemplified the best virtues of internationalization that the post-1989 era portended, and he tried his best to infuse them into the University of Virginia, a university that truly cares about history and learns from it."

Woo spoke of her own history, lured to the United States by a photograph of Maine in National Geographic magazine after attending high school in Seoul, South Korea, and Tokyo. Thirty-three years later, she is a dean at the University founded by Thomas Jefferson, a cosmopolitan who hired many foreign teachers for his new school.

"He instinctively understood and insisted that what was uniquely American could be also uniquely and ingeniously worldly; that America could be coterminous with the world, without the conquering ambitions so often associated with such wishes," she said.

Woo praised Jefferson for founding a university that was civilized, learned, open-minded, un-parochial and profoundly American.

"You are a class unscathed by the Age of Extremes, and in this you are the perfect class to embody the dreams of Mr. Jefferson. He fought in an anti-colonial revolution that was, compared to many others, not so bloody; he died before the bloodiest American conflict, the Civil War," she said. "He was a classic idealist in the American grain, and in the best sense of idealism tempered by historical and worldly experience."

She told the students they were the most diverse class to arrive at the University, by ethnicity, race and nationality, with students from 148 countries.

"You are diverse by another measure of diversity: excellence," she said. "Let me advance this proposition: diversity is excellence, and we shall measure our excellence by the way we cherish and work with differences."

Woo said people with diverse skills and viewpoints will solve the world's complex problems faster than people who all think alike. She cited baseball as the perfect metaphor for diversity, "because the players come from everywhere."

She said while watching an Olympic baseball game between teams from Korea and Cuba, she soon realized the players all looked the same, because they were all baseball players, using the same movements, mannerisms and body language.

"You do things, you excel, at the moment of excellence and accomplishment, and as you do, you begin to look alike in your excellence as distinguished people, and that is something wonderful," she said. "It isn't an accident, because if you excel in math or physics or art or history, you cross home plate with an A regardless of who you are or what you look like."

But diversity is not enough, she said.

"For diversity and difference to thrive and translate into excellence, there has to be hard work, discipline, conformity to rules and respect for community," she said.

She exhorted the students to lead the world into a new era.

"And since you are the first class to have lived outside the Age of Extremes, your citizenly duty is to make sure those extremes remain an unfortunate part of the past," she said. "Yours is an open age, to learn, experiment, find out what works for you. It is an optimistic age, in spite of our economic difficulties. It is a Jeffersonian age, because all things worldly are open to you. Do your best to try and meet his standards – very high ones, but in the end, Mr. Jefferson's standards are also signs of a life well-lived."

After Woo's remarks, Intermediate Honors and the Jefferson Awards were presented. Casteen received a standing ovation from the faculty, students and parents.

At the end of the ceremony, after the students and faculty had filed out, parents applauded the musicians from the Cavalier Marching Band, who played under the baton of director William E. Pease.

— By Matt Kelly