Many students, parents and alumni have sent in their sympathies to the Wesleyan community and to the family of Chase Parr ’10, who was killed late last month in a car accident that also claimed the lives of her parents. Some of Chase’s friends will be working with the Dean of the College staff to prepare a memorial service in the new semester. A family member this week told me that Chase’s sister Katy is recovering well with a strong support network. Family friends in the Denver area have started a memorial website: http://johnsandychase.muchloved.com/. Our Wesleyan community deeply values recollection, and Chase’s impact on her friends and teachers has made her part of our common memory.
It’s a new year, the temperatures in Middletown are in the single digits, and I am in Texas to meet with alumni. Today I had lunch with Wes alum Herb Kelleher, a founder of Southwest Airlines and a legendary figure in American business. Herb was a member of the class of 1953, and he continues to value the liberal arts education (with a focus on English and philosophy) that he received at Wesleyan. I’d read a lot about Herb’s leadership skills and accomplishments, and I’d also heard much about him from a common friend in Los Angeles. This is a man who helped revolutionize the airline industry, who continues to show a concern for his now broadly national workforce, and who is as friendly and engaging as a person can be. I wanted to learn from Herb how you maintain and enhance the capacity of an organization to be innovative, to be able to seize opportunities and also to have fun working in teams. We talked of lifelong learning, of the culture of organizations, and of maintaining a clear sense of purpose in competitive environments. He told me about a book he was reading on chaos theory, and how some of the science classes he had at Wesleyan have been the most valuable to him over time.
We agreed that one of the most important attributes of a successful liberal arts education was the development of a capacity for judgment. In whatever position we find ourselves, we seldom have all the information we would like, but we have to make a decision or a choice. The habits of mind that develop in a liberal arts context often result in the mixture of focus and flexibility that allow for responsible, intelligent, and sometimes courageous judgment. At least that’s what we strive for.
In these first days of 2008 it is inspiring to meet with Wesleyan graduates who still use their liberal arts education every day, and who believe in its practical, transformative power. It’s our job to build a university today that will continue to be a vital resource to our alumni looking back on their education from, say, 2058. And as we look forward to building an institution for the future, we also recollect those who have been a vital part of our past.