Remarks to Richmond Kiwanis Club
General J. H. Binford Peay III ‘62
24 September 2007
Mr. McCowan, Mr. Louthan, Mr. Bryan, Members of the Kiwanis Club, Friends, Brother Rats, Ladies and Gentlemen… Good afternoon.
Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today here in our historic capital city. The tie between the Institute and Richmond has been, and is today, strong and warm. So, you will understand what I mean when I say that whenever I come to Richmond, it is – for me -- a “homecoming.”
In thinking about what I might say today, I was faced with “countless possibilities” offered by the monumental events and developments of our times… ranging from war, national security issues, economic uncertainties, environmental changes, social transformation, the condition of higher education in our land, and even the changing place and role of the United States military and our country in the world. All of these issues influence, mold, and color policies, decisions, and actions on a day-to-day basis in Lexington. And the reason for this is clear: we, as educators, are preparing leaders to enter this rapidly changing, challenging, exciting, and sometimes dangerous world. The stakes are high and the investment is great, so we must get it right.
A number of you (here) were at the Commonwealth Club last Wednesday for an inspiring-engaging talk by Coach Bobby Ross. He began his remarks by saying that while he appreciated the nice references in the introduction to his successful college and pro career…he wanted everyone to know that he regarded his most “illustrious achievement” – being elected to represent his class on the VMI Honor Court.
Think of that statement --- here’s a man that coached a college team to a national title, led another to the Super Bowl, has a basement full of awards…and (yet) look what means most to him. Embedded in that simple statement by Bobby Ross are the values at the heart of VMI – selflessness; integrity; honor; and service.
To the outside world, and especially to the many visitors to our historic post in Lexington, it probably seems that change comes slowly to the Institute. There are the impressive Barracks that have remained fundamentally unchanged for a century; there are the cadets who, on parade, are dressed in uniforms dating from 1839; there is the commitment to academic excellence; there is the rich tradition and strong sense of personal honor; there is the dedication to the concept of a sound mind in a sound body; and there is the unswerving dedication to the Citizen-Soldier concept. By all measures, VMI, as a place, is intent on conserving the best of its past. But, no college today can seek to address new problems with old tools, and VMI is no exception. Behind the rich layers of history and tradition is an intense dynamism focused on the leading challenges of today’s world.
As we all know -- when faced with great challenges, the first step is to develop a plan. At VMI, we have developed a long-range plan that we call “Vision 2039” – a plan that looks forward to our bicentennial in that year --2039. Much thought, effort, and funding is being directed to its successful completion, as I’ll discuss in a few moments. But behind any plan, there must be a directing thought – in short, an inspiring philosophy. Behind Vision 2039” are the ideas of: (1) commonality of purpose; (2) synchronization, and (3) integration or reinforcement of the VMI principals. The idea of all things working together for one great purpose inspires, infuses, and animates all that we are doing to advance the Institute and its many programs. And the three are sharply focused on one overriding outcome: the preparation of leaders.
Of all the words that can be used to describe VMI and its programs, the most accurate may be the word “focused.” As we confront today’s challenges -- guided by our long-range plan and its three guiding ideas -- we are focusing on very specific areas in which we are convinced VMI should and can make a significant contribution to the Commonwealth and to the Nation. They are: (1) academic excellence, with emphasis on the advancement of science and engineering; (2) service to the nation and national security; (3) integrity; (4) fitness; and (5) a structured military environment that accentuates discipline, standards, and civility. These are important areas for today and for the future, but they have also been of fundamental concern to VMI since its founding in 1839, which underscores VMI’s constancy of purpose and mission over 168 years.
We believe that the key to a strong educational system begins with a rigorous and thorough grounding in the fundamentals. Therefore, we are dedicated to remaining a “wholly” undergraduate college that seeks to produce graduates who are equipped and prepared for high achievement in the next stages of their education, be it in graduate school, professional school, the military, or other careers. Our goal -- the goal of Vision 2039 – is no less than to be a premier undergraduate college in America. We will do so as a Military Institute delivering a unique education in a structured military environment. This education will be supported by a beautiful, modern, technologically enhanced and historic post. This morning we are in the midst of a $185 million construction program delivering excellent facilities as a solid foundation of excellence for our programs.
As part of a recent successful reaccreditation process, VMI has reformulated its core curriculum…the first time in 15 years…to better meet the needs of today’s students and today’s world. We are focusing on a limited number of very high-quality majors, minors, and interdisciplinary programs to ensure the overall excellence of programs. But, we agree with the experts at the National Science Foundation who say that our young people need to be not only culturally literate, but also technologically literate. Thus, at VMI, we seek to maintain a “balanced distribution” among mathematics, science, engineering, and the liberal arts. It is our intention that more than half of our degrees should be awarded in math, science, and engineering. Innovative programs, high-tech classrooms with small classes, talented faculty members, and partnerships with the best graduate schools in America promote excellence in these critical disciplines.
The National Center for Education Statistics warns us that American students are falling behind those of other countries, including – especially – those in China and India. Between 1994 and 2001, enrollment in science and engineering programs by U.S. citizens declined by ten percent. In 2005, The Wall Street Journal reported that “In just five years, it is estimated that 90 percent of the world’s engineers and scientists will come from Asia.” (…And here we are two years later and the picture has not improved!) The crisis in math, science, and engineering education is a national crisis…perhaps a national security crisis; it is also often characterized by the media as “The Quiet Crisis.” For us at VMI, this cannot remain a “quiet crisis.” VMI’s commitment to science and engineering dates to the school’s very beginning – our first Superintendent (Francis H. Smith) was a mathematician who excelled in the engineering program at West Point. His intent was to prepare VMI graduates to teach mathematics in Virginia’s schools for two years before going forward with their careers, often in what we now call civil engineering: road, bridge, and railroad building. So, we see, our commitment to math, science, and engineering education as historic… and we have rededicated ourselves to it.
VMI has three engineering departments: civil and environmental engineering, electrical and computer engineering, and mechanical engineering. National publications have consistently ranked them high among their peers. Recent renovations of our engineering and science buildings have created superb laboratories and other facilities fitted-out with the most modern equipment and technology, and we are constantly upgrading those resources. VMI’s program also provides for foreign study, internships, undergraduate research, language training, and leadership. More importantly, our faculty members – many of whom are professional engineers as well as PhDs – keep abreast of changes within their disciplines. Ninety-seven percent of our faculty have Ph.Ds and they all teach in small classroom settings…averaging 12 students per instructor. Through our commitment to math, science, and engineering education, we believe we are giving our cadets knowledge, experience, and skills that will prepare them to fill this critical need in our nation. And in this area, too, we are a little different from other colleges. VMI believes it is advantageous for a cadet to enter the workforce upon graduation for a few years before going on to graduate school,…preferably in the service as a Lieutenant in the armed forces. The leadership experience and the maturing process gained will serve them well in the future.
When I think of the academic program at VMI, I think of two individuals who – to me – epitomize what we are trying to accomplish at the Institute. They both represent excellence and professionalism in their fields, and they are both figures from VMI’s past. The first is Colonel Claudius Crozet, who was born in France and served in Napoleon’s army. He came to the United States in 1816, taught mathematics and engineering at West Point, and became the Principal Engineer of Virginia from 1823-1831, and again from 1837-1843. Obviously, not a VMI graduate… but better still -- he was one of the founders of VMI. In fact, he was the first president of the VMI Board of Visitors. It was his experience as a graduate of France’s great Polytechnical School, his experience in the military and at West Point, and his professional engineering skills that helped to shape and direct the future of the Virginia Military Institute when it was established in 1839. His emphasis on mathematics and engineering education has continued over the nearly two centuries since the founding of the college, and we honor him for that great legacy and the importance he always placed on thorough and scientific education for young engineers. Crozet’s home was here in Richmond and still exists at 100 East Main Street…and this year there is significant historical review of his surveying and tunnel engineering work through-out the vast Shenandoah Valley.
The other person is Moses Jacob Ezekiel. Born in Richmond, an 1866, graduate of VMI who fought in the 1864 Battle of New Market, Ezekiel became a world famous sculptor. Following the Civil War, he went to Berlin, where he studied at the Royal Academy of Art, and later was admitted into the Society of Artists in Berlin, and at the age of 29 was the first foreigner to win the Michel-Beer Prize of Rome. He was knighted by King Victor Emmanuel III , of Italy. He died in Rome in 1917, but is buried in the Confederate Memorial Section of Arlington National Cemetery under the Confederate monument he designed. His grave stone carries the following plain inscription: “SGT, Co C, VMI Corps of Cadets.” Among his many creations are the “Religious Liberty” statue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; the statue of “Virginia Mourning Her Dead at VMI”; the statue of Thomas Jefferson in front of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia, and the statue of Homer the Blind Bard on the Lawn.
On one hand, an engineer – Claudius Crozet; on the other, an artist – Moses Ezekiel. Both hold a special place in VMI history and together they represent what we stress at the Institute and what we call a “complete education.”
Service to the nation and national security have become synonymous with the name of VMI. VMI has been producing Citizen-Soldiers since its first graduating class of 1843 departed the Institute. Since 1839, VMI has graduated more than 20,000 men and women. Of these, seven have been awarded the Medal of Honor, more than 230 made General or Admiral. Thousands have served in all branches of the Armed Forces since VMI’s founding. Over a thousand graduates have served in the current war; 60 of our cadets have been deployed-- some several times -- and 10 alumni have been killed in the global war of terror. The military mission is a mission and a tradition in which we take enormous pride.
The Institute’s history of military service extends back to the Mexican War. It includes the famous charge of cadets at the Battle of New Market during the Civil War and service in every conflict since those early days. The greatest name in this tradition, of course, is that of General George C. Marshall, VMI Class of 1901, who often said that “VMI gave him a standard to live by throughout his life”. The list of names of those who served and those who have led with distinction is diversified and long. Admiral Richard E. Byrd, noted explorer; Benjamin Ficklin, General Manager of the famous Pony Express; General Leonard Gerow, Commander of 2nd and 15th Armies in World War II; BG Frank McCarthy, movie producer of Patton and MacArthur films; and, many others. But allow me to jump to most recent times. I would mention three men who very admirably represent what we honor in our graduates and, by their chosen careers, reflect the influence of Claudius Crozet. Lieutenant General Robert B. Flowers, VMI Class of 1969, served as Chief of Engineers and Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from 2000 to 2004. He was succeeded by Lieutenant General Carl A. Strock, VMI Class of 1970, who served from 2004 to 2007…and General John Jumper, Chief of Staff of the Air Force and a 1966 Electrical Engineering graduate. To have three VMI men serve in these enormously responsible positions -- the Chief of Engineers of our nation and as a Service Chief -- is testimony to the strength of the engineering and military programs at the Institute as well as to the skill and leadership of these talented officers.
A key goal of Vision 2039 is to increase the percentage of graduates accepting commissions in the Armed Forces, whether active duty or reserve. In the past three years, the percentage of graduates accepting a commission has risen from 34 percent to 53 percent, which is an extraordinary record during time of war. We are a leader in ROTC commissioning across the country. Accepting a commission, however, is not required of graduates, but VMI prepares all of its graduates for successful military service in the active forces, the National Guard, or the Reserve components. Most VMI graduates serve a few years in the military and then enter into civilian careers. This is the heart of our “Citizen-Soldier concept and tradition. One example of this – a person known to most of you – was John D. deButts, a 1936 VMI electrical engineering graduate. After graduating from VMI, he entered the U.S. Army and served as a Second Lieutenant from 1936 to 1939. In civilian life he rose to be Chairman of the Board and CEO of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, at that time one of the world’s largest corporations. VMI will continue to produce people like John deButts, people for all walks of life – not just military – who have a strong foundation of knowledge, discipline, physical well-being, integrity, and civility.
Today we are taking great strides to enhance and advance the Citizen-Soldier mission at VMI. We are in the midst of a $17 million project expanding our ROTC facilities to the point that they will be the finest of any college in the nation. And we are building a complimenting $21 million VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics. We do not intend to have a separate college of leadership or degree in leadership. Rather, the purpose of the Center will be to better integrate, focus and enhance all the leadership activities at the Institute, providing the finest of instruction, leadership symposia, and other programs. We are also forming a Virginia National Guard Detachment at the Institute, which will recruit into the Virginia Guard, work with our Naval, Air Force, and Army Professors of Military Science (ROTC), and assist with training and teaching all cadets. Enhancing the Virginia National guard contributes to our defense at home and abroad…particularly important to a state faced with the homeland security challenges of Norfolk and the northern Virginia and national capital region.
In this sense, VMI is particularly contributing to the solution of a major problem facing the nation: the lack of a “national military manpower” strategy. Our volunteer force is now at three decades old. It has been a great success… yet produced significant challenges. Fewer and fewer Americans have been exposed to military life and understand the demands and obligations expected of those who serve. World War II, Korean War, and now Vietnam Veterans are departing from the scene. Actions must be taken now to narrow the growing “cultural rift” that threatens the soul of American’s military. The Institute is committed to insuring its long term tradition of leadership and service continues well beyond its bicentennial in 2039…particularly as citizen-soldiers.
A word about fitness. We read or hear every day that our youth are suffering from a lack of physical activity and that obesity is a critical problem. Just a few weeks ago, the newspapers reported on the findings of Trust for America’s Health, a research group that focuses on disease prevention. The organization reported that adult obesity rates in the United States continued their climb in 31 states in 2006. Their conclusion was that the nation has a public health crisis on its hands. At VMI, we stress fitness as an integral part of the total VMI experience. For us, every athlete is a cadet, but we also stress that every cadet is an athlete. This means that every cadet must strive to be physically fit and prepared for an active life. Usually one hears from colleges in this respect by news of their intercollegiate athletic teams. We are a small school of 1350 cadets, which will expand to 1500 shortly with the completion of a $60 million additional barracks complex; 400 of our cadets are NCAA athletes and another 400 are involved in a massive growth of club sports…alpine skiing, boxing, rugby, and ice hockey to name a few. In sum, 70% of our cadets are actively involved in organized sports. But at VMI, the “spirit” of physical fitness goes well beyond the intercollegiate and club sports teams… and our ROTC fitness programs. We believe that it is the duty – the obligation – of a college to encourage intellectual, moral, and physical development among all cadets. Much of what I have been talking to you about today will not be possible without young people who enter careers physically fit with energy and determination to advance and succeed.
We are concerned with published reports that increasingly speak of the United States as “A Nation of Cheaters.” We see cheating and lying in business, government, sports … in society as a whole. And study after study … report after report … document the disturbing fact that student cheating is reaching new levels in this country. Integrity, honesty, trustworthiness: these are virtues always in need, and never more so than now. Those who study this problem emphasize the need to change attitudes and to educate students, but they also seem to be in agreement: one effective way to control cheating is to support strong penalties and to encourage individuals to be intolerant of cheating around them. VMI has an Honor Code and an Honor System that forbids lying, stealing, cheating, nor tolerating those who do. Other colleges have similar Codes. At VMI, it is a single-sanction system: if convicted, the cadet is dismissed from the Institute. The system is run by the cadets, with supervision by the administration and faculty. And there are no exceptions.
The concept goes beyond honesty and truth telling. Here is what John deButts once said about honor: “What does honor mean? It means honesty and truth telling. It means a readiness to subordinate self to larger purposes. It means sensitivity to the needs of others. Most of all, it means a readiness to accept personal responsibility for everything one does or fails to do.” A shining example for us at VMI is the life of Jonathan Daniels, VMI Class of 1961, an Episcopal seminarian who was murdered for his work in the Civil Rights movement in 1965. In 1991, he was designated a martyr of the Episcopal Church, one of fifteen modern-day Episcopal martyrs, and one of only two Americans to achieve that title. Subordinating self to larger purposes speaks to VMI’s goal of “commonality of purpose” and “civility,” at the very core of “Vision 2039.” Commonality of purpose is absolutely necessary for the strength and well-being of our nation, and it speaks to the current question of national security. A nation made up of citizens who feel that they share essential values, that they share something valuable and precious together, who care for each other, who celebrate what ties them together while, at the same time, honoring their differences, will be strong and secure.
In closing…and with, hopefully, understandable bias…I believe that VMI is a “national treasure”. We strive to prepare and inspire our graduates to serve as role models in their communities, in the state, in the nation. On this firm foundation, we are building for the future.