The following remarks were delivered by University of Virginia Rector Frank M. “Rusty” Conner during 2018 Final Exercises:
What a beautiful sight this gathering is to behold – both in vision and in spirit. To our graduates, let me offer our collective congratulations and admiration and say that throughout the year we look forward to this day with great anticipation. For today we see the culmination of years of dedication and we sense the possibility for your future.
We are thankful for your decision to attend this University in the first place, for you have contributed mightily to its uniqueness since three presidents of this country laid our cornerstone 200 years ago. During your time on these Grounds, you have made this University your own and it is better as a result.
Ask yourself why, of all the great institutions of higher learning in this and other countries, that you chose, or fate chose for you, this University? As we enter our third century, we as a University have given much thought to the related question of what our purpose as an institution should be. The answers to these two questions are intimately intertwined.
We have determined that the bold ambitions that our founders envisioned for this University remain ever-present. We have determined that we will continue to realize those ambitions by every day becoming a better version of ourself, rather than a better version of another institution. We have determined that we need to re-embrace these ambitions as we enter our third century – not just for ourselves, but for our commonwealth, our country and the world community.
We have so concluded because we are unique. This is not to say we are better than other universities or that the obligations we shoulder are exclusive to us. But it is to say that from our beginning, we have sought to achieve excellence for a designed purpose. Our founding and our history link our purpose to the fate of this country, this democracy, this republic and to advancing the great unfinished business of democracy – both nationally and globally.
We seek to improve the human experience and to ensure the flourishing of democracy in this next century as we have in our first two by educating citizen-leaders in every field to ensure that the progress of this country continues to bend the arc of history toward justice and equality. This has been and continues to be our calling and our inspirational force. And as a result of your years on these Grounds, it has become your calling as well.
Our distinguished colleague Mark Edmundson captured in an essay this past year the uniqueness of this place: “Only one major university in the nation was founded by a true revolutionary, and that is ours. His presence makes us capable of being revolutionary ourselves.”
And so on this day, understand that by graduating from this University, by taking a degree from this University, you have in you the predisposition to be revolutionary. We are at a point in this nation’s history where we need to cast off the ways of the present. We can no longer afford to continue as we are if we are to sustain the progress of this nation in achieving its intended promise. We need for you to be a revolutionary:
- to repair our fractured discourse,
- to harmonize our common values,
- to undergird our democratic process,
- to further the rule of law,
- to offer respect for the humanity in each person,
- to seek social justice for all, and
- to provide at long last opportunity for economic equality.
This is your calling.
We acknowledge that this calling is a daunting obligation and perhaps one better left to a day that is not dedicated to celebrating your current accomplishments. But know that your whole life has prepared you for this calling – you are ready. Remember you chose this University for a reason – a reason that becomes even clearer as you venture forth in the world.
Remember, too, that in every walk of life there is a means to reforming this country – it is not just the responsibility of those in public service or that only momentous occasions provide the opportunity to contribute meaningfully. Each day provides opportunities for service to your fellow human beings. And it is more often the small actions of everyday life that are the most compelling and sustaining as we:
- adhere to the truth when there is pressure to do otherwise,
- summon the courage to speak up when it is more comfortable to remain silent,
- right a wrong even if at a personal cost,
- support the least in our society though it may be inconvenient,
- seek to understand rather than judge those whose views differ from our own, and
- recognize there is a greater purpose in all endeavors than merely satisfying our own self-interests.
So today we walk the Lawn to celebrate you and all that you have accomplished. We walk the Lawn to symbolize the calling that we who comprise this University community all share. We walk the Lawn because your country and the world are dependent on you answering that calling.
Go forth from this day with the knowledge that your days at this University were not designed simply for the purpose of starting you on the path to mastering excellence in one field or another, but rather for a greater purpose of applying your knowledge, your skills and your heart for the betterment of this world.
On behalf of our faculty, our president and our visitors, I congratulate you. I thank you for your contributions to this community. I wish you well as you move on from this chapter of your lives, and I look forward with confidence that throughout your life the hopeful challenge of our Rita Dove in her poem “Testimonial” remains your compass:
“The world called, and I answered.”
Godspeed to you and to your families.