In September of 1987 at the tender young age of 18 I arrived in Lexington, Virginia to begin my freshman year at Washington and Lee University. Wide eyed and excited by the journey ahead I had no sense of the profound ways in which my life would be forever changed in the days that followed.
Our orientation program began with what I assumed would be a mundane meeting of all new students in the school’s chapel which I knew ahead of time included some education about the school’s honor code to which I had paid little attention during the application process and about which I knew little or nothing. 31 years later I still look back upon this gathering as turning point in my life, a point at which I emerged from my teenage bubble and began the journey to establish a moral and ethical foundation for the rest of my life.
The honor code at W&L had three simple tenants: We will not lie, cheat or steal. The ways in which this simple phrase manifested itself in my daily life were ever present. No door was ever locked, belongings including money left behind never disappeared, no professor ever remained to proctor a test, and any final exam could be completed at any time and location of my choosing, always returned to the professor along with a written expression of honor:
“On my honor, I have neither given nor received any unacknowledged aid on this exam.”
Much more than just a simple rule guiding a four-year experience in college, the honor code became a standard against which we could judge our actions in all facets of our life and way of knowing that one’s word was sacred. On those rare occasions that a student violated the honor code, the singular penalty was expulsion from the university following a trial and conviction by a jury of your peers.
Four years later, emerging from this all-consuming experience, I was saddened to discover that much of the world did not value honor in the same way. Occasionally, I would encounter others who had gone through similar experiences in their college or high school years and immediately we established a common bond. While each of the four schools at which I worked prior to St. Andrew’s had an honor code, it was not an institutional value that was ingrained in the school’s culture. For me the opportunity to join this community of Saints was compelling for many reasons, not the least of which was the opportunity to immerse myself in a community that professes to value honor in ways that are personally and professionally significant for me. The degree to which that is true will only become known to me in the months ahead as I hear your stories and experience St. Andrew’s for the first time.
With that being said, please know this, as the person asked to lead this institution and model all that we believe in, there is no more fundamental value that I hold dear than that which is expressed through our honor code, and I very much look forward to working with all of you to ensure that is remains a cornerstone of our school. Please also know that my view of honor extends far beyond questions of honesty. My view includes an expression of character and how we treat each other in our daily affairs. Honoring the dignity of each human being on this campus regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, athletic ability, or any other defining characteristic is a core tenant of the St. Andrew’s mission and is an approach to life that I know each of you can aspire to.
This is no easy task and will require constant care and attention by everyone gathered in this room, but as you reflect upon the role you can play to live up to the ideals expressed in our honor code, you might also draw parallels to the simple benchmark I offered to you at the Opening Convocation earlier this month, “Make parents proud. Make your School proud. Make yourself proud.” I see many common threads between this expression and the Honor Code and look forward to knowing that each of you will live your lives in way that is guided by the principles expressed therein.