Final Exercises 1997: Andrews Speech

Senator Hunter B. Andrews
Commencement Address, May 18, 1997
University of Virginia

Mr. President, Mr. Rector, members of the Board of Visitors, distinguished deans, members of the faculty, members of the University staff, proud parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, children, boys and girls, husbands and wives, and significant others, citizens, taxpayers, personal pets, legislators, fellow Virginians, Americans and Earthlings, and my 26,000 personal friends that are here today, fellow Wahoos.

Although no one from the University approached me with ground rules concerning what I might say, I know that commencement speakers take on three duties. First, they must pay tribute to the students, their parents, their spouses, and their families, in recognition of a proud and significant achievement. Second, they must make some profound and pithy observations about life, the affairs of the day, or the future–which can me carefully absorbed, pondered, and within a few hours forgotten. And third, the remarks must be of the principle of KISS–Keep it Simple, Stupid.

I do not need to tell you that you are talented and privileged–you know that. Through the grace of God and your hard work, coupled with the love and support of parents, you have been able to partake of Mr. Jefferson’s University and succeed. And I have been advised that 93 percent of the freshmen are graduating here today–the highest percentage perhaps to graduate from any university in the nation, and you should be proud.

And what an experience you have had! As Virginians and as Americans, we take great pride in this University and we take great pride in you. In 1819, when Mr. Jefferson finally got the then significant but inadequate sum of $15,000 from the General Assembly to start his academical village, think he had this vision in mind. I dare say some of you may have spent more than $15,000 a year to stay here. He knew that every aspect of university life was a laboratory for learning. He knew that nothing but good would come from assembling young people from diverse backgrounds who have different experiences and interests to share. He knew that putting such a group together with a dedicated, world-class faculty to stimulate the mind and conscience would serve to produce leaders who could then fan out across the land. It is a vision that is just as valid today as it was in 1819.

I must confess, that we as a Commonwealth, and we as a nation, are in serious need of great leaders. To our detriment, we live in an era when political expediency has taken the place of true leadership–when principles are flexible, truth is relative, and forthright candor in public life is scarce.

Politicians and office holders study poll results, almost daily, to determine courses of action. Legions of advisors and spin doctors agonize over the best way to portray events of the day. Highly-paid consultants search for ways to turn public forums into engaging pictures on the twelve o’clock news. To these people–too many of whom are our elected representatives--molding our perceptions has become more important than managing and improving reality. And election after re-election has become an end in itself.

This fixation extends to the clichés and platitudes we the public are asked to accept in every campaign. You have heard it before. I am afraid that we in Virginia are about to hear it again.

"Taxes can be lowered without affecting services."

"Money for expensive new commitments can come from merely increasing efficiency."

"We can have quality education at no real cost."

These clichés, which we hear over and over again in numerous forms, tell us that:

* There is free lunch.
* That medicine won’t ever taste bad.
* And the shots the doctor gives you will never hurt.

Unfortunately, as you know, the truth is rarely this rosy.

* There is no free lunch.
* The medicine does sometimes taste terrible.
* And the shots do sometimes hurt.

Where would our nation be today if the founding fathers had taken a poll to determine whether to declare independence? When it is said they would find that one-third of Virginians didn’t give a damn, one third with the Crown, and one third did not know. What would they have done if they had done a poll on that?

Where would this university be if Mr. Jefferson’s focus group had been unequivocally sour on the idea of spending $15,000 a world away from the then center of life in Richmond and Williamsburg?

Would Franklin Roosevelt’s new payroll tax for something called Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Health Insurance ever have gotten past the television pundits to become Social Security?

And would Mills Godwin have ever proposed a statewide 1996 sales tax to build a community college system for starting kindergartens, and for providing for colleges and universities?

And in 1991, would Governor Holton ever have modestly increased our income taxes to provide more money for education?

And in 1986, would Governor Baliles have raised the sales tax and the gasoline tax to improve people’s goods and services?

I seriously doubt it. And yet, these things were proposed, they came to be, and they are now part of the fabric of our nation and of our Commonwealth. We take them for granted, as if they always existed, and as if they were pre-ordained. Of course, they were not.

In large part, they came to be because leaders whom we respected took risks to communicate to others a vision of what could be, and by sharing their vision created momentum and a resolve to change, move forward, and grow. The personal rewards for the leaders were few, the risks to their futures were great, and yet, they acted anyway.

Is one of you a Mr. Jefferson in the making?

Is one of you a Governor Godwin?

Is one of you a Governor Holton?

Is one of you a Governor Baliles?

In the bipartisan manner, I have picked these gentlemen. Mr. Jefferson, as you know, was first a Republican, then a Democrat. Mr. Godwin served as a Democrat, then a Republican. Mr. Holton was the first Republican elected governor this century in Virginia. And Mr. Baliles was really a Democrat.

As Governors Godwin, Holton, and Baliles made clear in their landmark joint statement to The General Assembly, in January 1995:

"Now is the time to make critical key investments in Virginia’s future. We believe the place to start is by reaffirming public support for our unique system of higher education…."

This time is still critical now, and I hope you agree.

Are there those among you who are prepared to take the risks of true leadership?

You have earned a place in the process, and you have a voice in the direction it will take. You can begin by looking critically at what candidates and office holders say. Reject the illusory promises of a free lunch. Look beyond the clichés. And accept–really accept–the fact that policies which benefit us as a whole may not benefit you personally. That is sometimes the price we pay for belonging to a democratic society.

Each of you must choose where to make your mark. In making that choice, however, I hope you will realize that you owe a debt to those who gave you the opportunities you have had–like attending this great university. I expect and ask you to look for ways to give something back.

For my part, I spent the better part of some 37 years in public service trying to chip away at educational barriers. I believe then, as I do now, that there is no higher public purpose than education.

My journey has taken me from opposition to massive resistance in our public schools, through the birth of our community colleges, to the maturation of a system of public colleges and universities that are among the best in the nation. We have in Virginia already the framework–the major mountains have been climbed.

And yet, I sense a troubling erosion in the Commonwealth’s commitment to education in general, and higher education in particular. State funding is stagnant, tuition levels are uncomfortably high. In Virginia, we cannot be proud of the fact that our students, some 300,000 of them, and their parents…pay the second highest tuition to our state colleges and universities in the nation. Only Vermont is higher. We cannot take pride in that.

In a very real sense, ensuring that those who come behind us will have the same opportunities that you and I have had is in question. We need your commitment to ensure that this experience and others like it remain alive.

And so I say to each of you, you have not only a right but a responsibility to participate in public life and to help choose a direction for this Commonwealth to take. You have the duty to defend, protect, and promote and live the lives of educated ladies and gentlemen that you have now become. If Mr. Jefferson were here today, he would ask of you the same thing. Now being ever mindful of the wisdom of Mr. Jefferson, who said that "amplification is the vice of modern oratory, speakers measured by the hour die by the hour." I take not and realize that my time is up.

Will the next Mr. Jefferson please stand up?

Good luck and Godspeed.