Reveley's Total Immersion

Published 4:12 pm Tuesday, June 11, 2013

FARMVILLE – Books that W. Taylor Reveley II took off the shelves at Hampden-Sydney College when he retired as president in 1977 have been placed on a shelf six miles down the road and 36 years later by his grandson.

Shelving those books was the first thing W. Taylor Reveley IV did when he began moving into his office at Longwood University this month.

“It was a poignant moment,” Reveley said during an interview with The Herald.

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His baptism into the presidency of the university had begun.

The 38-year-old hit the campus in stride and for a reason steeped in his DNA.

Education runs in the Reveley family like trails run across the Appalachian Mountains.

Reveley's father, W. Taylor Reveley III, is president of the College of William and Mary, making a generational trifecta of college presidents.

Extraordinary-perhaps even a first-but that's not all. His maternal grandfather chaired the Lynchburg City School Board.

Education, Reveley said, “thoroughly infused” the atmosphere in which he was raised.

The possibility of following in the footsteps of his grandfather and father, however, occurred to Reveley “in stages, in a way,” he said.

Reveley laughed when he was described as an intellectual omnivore for his voracious appetite for learning, but he embraces the description, too.

After graduating from Princeton University, majoring in classics, he earned a master's degree in divinity from Union Presbyterian Seminary and then a law degree from the University of Virginia.

“I've always had this appetite for studying lots of things,” he said, and always knew he would find his way into the higher education career path.

“But I didn't really start to think about doing something like this until quite recently, when I saw that Longwood was doing a search,” Reveley said.

What strikes Reveley most about Longwood is that since its founding in 1839 it has “cultivated this tradition of the liberal arts while also preparing people for a profession and that resonates very deeply with me. I think that's the way the best universities and colleges in the country go about doing things, and that has a really strong appeal.”

He also loves the campus and its architecture, but LU's beauty, as far as Reveley is concerned, is far more than skin deep.

“Longwood has this tradition, it might by oxymoronic to call it this, of transformations. Some places, from age to age, are just the same,” he observed.

Not Longwood.

The institution was a pioneer in women's education, founded as a private school before transforming into a public school, then moving from a two-year to a four-year school, finally becoming co-ed and moving to university status.

“So it has this ability to maintain its great traditions while simultaneously updating itself. The Higher Ed. (higher education) landscape nationally is in so much flux right now and I think that habit of being able to transform might serve Longwood well,” he said.

Reveley, whose great-grandfather, Thomas D. Eason, taught biology at Longwood College from 1911-1918, is a passionate advocate of a liberal arts education.

“Lots of different reasons,” he replies, when asked why a liberal arts education matters.

“Perspective, certainly, is one of them…Residential liberal arts education has been one of the great revolutionary forces in all of history,” he continued, firmly of the belief that the “breadth of perspective” one receives “gives the people who have the good luck to have that kind of college experience a breadth and perspective on the changes around the world, allows people to have the ideas and insights that are going to keep on transforming…the world.”

Reveley understands that “one's reservoir of knowledge after college is finite.”

Education, he stresses, “is not only factual…It's getting something broader than that…Just the sheer comprehension of the fact that lots of great minds have thought great thoughts, now, in the past, and will in the future. And our circumstances are not wholly unlike circumstances that people have faced and grappled with and gone through in the past. That recognition, just in and of itself, does convey a degree of wisdom.

“There's a difference between wisdom,” he points out, “and broad knowledge.”

Continuing to develop the theme, Reveley addresses the significant difference, and impact, of a purely technical education versus a liberal arts education.

“A striking thing is that there are nuclear engineers in dictatorships, just as there are in democracies. The technical skills, even the most complicated-nuclear engineering-are not the thing that empowers a society to be free. It's something else, it's something related to that perspective…That also is an essential reason that the liberal arts are essential today,” he says, just getting warmed up.

“Probably for the first time in a generation people do seriously, around the world, talk about whether democracy is an appropriate form of government. A generation ago, at the end of the Cold War, it would seem crazy that anybody would ever be thinking that again,” he continued. “But, as China and other non-democracies have made progress in a way that America and Europe have not in the last decade or two, it strikes some minds as an open question.”

An open question in a world full of social media that compress everything into sound nibbles, not even bites. Is thoughtful engagement and dialogue an endangered species?

“I don't think it's anymore endangered than it always is, which is maybe the key thing to remember, that society can sometimes trick itself into thinking that it's a kind of perpetual motion machine and that it doesn't take fresh energy to keep the good things about it in motion,” he said. “And I think that social media opens up great possibilities. I think if Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas were tweeting each other it would be pretty interesting to see what they were tweeting to each other.”

Reveley came to Longwood from his position as managing director of the University of Virginia's Miller Center, a nonpartisan institute focused on the U.S. presidency, policy and political history, with former Virginia Governor Gerald Baliles as its CEO.

James Madison's name is the no-hesitation answer to the question of who, in American history, Reveley finds most admirable.

Madison has been called America's first graduate student, as Reveley notes, because after the author of the Constitution graduated from Princeton University he remained on campus to study additional subjects.

“Then, as happens with many liberal arts students these days, he moved back in with his parents and didn't quite know what he was going to do for a couple of years,” Reveley observed, with a chuckle.

“Then, as the time began to call for it, he began to bring to bear the thoughtful education that he'd had and…he was among those, in a more minor role, to help navigate the revolution, but then, in a forefront role, crafted this document of just enormous human wisdom, the US Constitution.”

Reveley has not come to Longwood University alone. He and his wife, Marlo, are the parents of young twins.

Ask him what effect fatherhood has had on his life, and a wide smile spreads across his face.

“A big one,” he said, grinning. “For starters, it's more fun than I thought it was going to be. We were very eager to have kids but thought that the fun wouldn't really kick in until they were four or five and that those early years were going to be labor-intensive. And of course they're just enormously labor-intensive but they're just a blast also.

“It's always nice in life,” he reflected, “to realize that you were happily wrong.”

Fatherhood, he continued, has “been just lots and lots of fun.”

And it has deepened his perspective on life's journey.

Incoming freshmen and their parents had been visiting the campus during Reveley's first days as president and as he was walking around meeting them he found himself “thinking about my kids a lot and what it will be like to bring them to college.”

His voice drops away as he finishes that sentence.

Missing them, it seems, already.

How does Longwood's new president view himself?

Reveley considers himself to be someone who listens “pretty well” and is able to keep his temper in check.

“I don't have a meaningful temper, at least…I don't have an outside temper but an internal thermostat, rather than an outside one,” he said, as part of his answer to a question about what he perceives to be his greatest strengths.

“I do have…a range of perspectives, both from experience and from vicarious experience through my long liberal arts education,” he continued, “and that perspective maybe lets you listen even better, it makes it that much easier to put yourself in someone else's shoes.”

And, with higher education in flux and facing a variety of challenges, the campus community won't be displeased to learn from Reveley that “I really do relish thinking over the long-term and strategically and how to move from A to B to C…”

Where does he see room for personal improvement?

He's getting accustomed to the spotlight that comes with his new job.

“The thing that is certainly specific to Longwood is I'm acclimating to the way attention turns to me when I'm doing something. To date, in my career, I've helped get things set up for others to then walk into a spotlight and now I've walked into a spotlight,” he observed. “I enjoy giving speeches and things like that, so I'm acclimating to it, but it does take some attention to really kind of be 'on' most minutes of the day.”

The trait Reveley most admires in others is “a good sense of humor. (That) is always a bellwether for me. I likewise have a soft spot for people who work hard. I think that hard work and a good sense of humor trump many other virtues and faults that people might have, and I'm high on being compassionate, too.”

As for those who, in his personal experience, have demonstrated qualities of leadership to which he most aspires, Reveley unsurprisingly looks toward his own family first.

“I've just been flat-out lucky,” he said of his mother, father and grandparents. “I was really lucky in my upbringing.”

That luck, as he sees it, has continued, with Governor Baliles, who “took me under his wing. Who could ask for anything better than that?”

Reveley also counts it as a blessing that he has been able to work with Jim Baker and Warren Christopher, a pair of former secretaries of state.

That trio, Reveley said, combine the rarest of all packages-greatness and goodness together.

But how does someone take their job very seriously without taking themselves too seriously?

“I certainly try not to take myself seriously,” he replied, turning again to the merits of a liberal arts education.

“It will sound like a broken record at this point but the flow of history and perspective, I think, is very, very, very” important to keeping one's ego in check,” he said, looking back at Longwood's rich history, its presidents who preceded him and 4,000 or so colleges and universities in the nation who have led and had leaders of their own.

“It's easier to feel the worth of what you're doing. So much hard work has preceded you…Most things you're going to think through have been thought through in one fashion or another before…We're working,” he said, “based on the work that's preceded us.”

The job is taken seriously, not the reflection in the mirror.

The job and the work it takes to do the job to the utmost of one's ability.

The single best piece of advice Reveley has ever received came from his father and it has made, he said, “a bigger and bigger impression on me as time has gone by.”

Reveley recalled being told as a nine or 10-year-old by his father, who stressed the importance of the words to come, “that just raw ability or talent in and of itself counts for only a very finite amount in the course of life-he probably used different words when I was nine. And it really is hard work (that matters most).”

Will he and his dad, the two college presidents, bend each others ears?

“Oh, yeah for sure,” he quickly answered.

In fact, the ear-bending has already begun.

“It's been a lot of fun already to just muse over things. The Reveley family dinner table is a pretty good symposium and always has been,” he recalled, adding that with his new job at Longwood some things he and his dad talked about in the past “in the abstract now have a particularized dimension about them.”

When asked to particularize the first two items on his 'bucket list,' Reveley is hard-pressed to find an answer.

“I'm a pretty happy guy so my aspirations are more institutional,” he said, before thinking long and hard to come up with a journey, with his wife, to Antarctica to thereby complete a visit to each of the Earth's continents.

“But I hear the ship to get there,” he said, smiling, “is kind of rough.”

And he adds, as the second item in the bucket, becoming “really fluent in a (foreign) language at some point.”

That coming from a man who, in his own words, loves languages and has “restaurant grade ability in French, German, and Spanish, and I can read Latin and Greek and Hebrew pretty well.”

A degree of language proficiency most would be thrilled to call their own.

Encourage Reveley to talk about his 'bucket list' for Longwood, on the other hand, and the answers come quickly. LU's new president seems clearly more at ease talking about the university than himself, the letters LU, not the letter I.

First, he'd like to see Longwood's graduation rate improve.

“One thing that jumps right out at me-and Longwood's not unusual in this in the country when you look at industry standards,” he said. Explaining that higher education uses six-year increments for analysis, he continued “…Longwood, like a lot of places, has a six-year graduation rate of around 65 percent. Sixty-five percent of matriculating students graduate in five or six years. Now the top 20 or so (universities in the nation), their graduation rates are always upper 90s, by and large.

“I'd really like to see that move up,” he said, of Longwood's graduation rate. “From a variety of standpoints, chief of which is just a moral standpoint…That's what this place does-educate…and if we're not doing that as well as we could…And also, just economically, it's good for the health of the university if students are moving through. It's also good for the health of the students, just economically. Student debt is a problem in general, for sure, but it's an acute problem for those who set out to get their bachelor degree and don't actually get it and in the process they rack up 10 or 20 or 30,000 dollars in debt but they don't have a degree. That's the situation where people really get caught and in trouble

“And so I'd certainly like to figure out ways to keep improving that here at Longwood,” he said.

Now he's off and running, his passion for education and Longwood University clearly the subjects he much prefers over nuggets of purely personal information-such as the thing people would be most surprised to learn about him is that he doesn't wear a suit at home. A suit everywhere else, apparently, “out of long habit” but he's “usually flopping around the house in jeans and shirt.”

Or that he wishes he'd kept up piano lessons.

“There is a broader thing that does catch my eye, though,” he continued, looking inside his Longwood 'bucket list,' and making it clear why LU's search committee was so high on him. “The universe of Higher Ed. in America is changing quite significantly. It's probably going through the biggest change it's gone through since the post-war era. And, again, historical perspective is somewhat useful. It's not as though American higher education has always been a particular way. It's moved through three, four, five meaningful cycles of evolution over 300 years or so. And we're in one of those cycles right now.

“Things really are changing and I think a generation from now universities and colleges that do not keep pace with the change and turn the change to their advantage, to the advantage of students, faculty and staff (will suffer),” he said.

There is no doubt in his mind what will happen on the Farmville campus.

“And I think Longwood really can (excel),” he said.

“I think that residential liberal arts education, marrying that with professional type training, is going to be the model, I think, that thrives…and it's exciting to me to think about Longwood being at the forefront of the types of transformations,” Reveley said.

Last month, Longwood graduated the first class of students from its new school of nursing-a liberal arts education and very special and specific professional training.

“That's the perfect example,” he enthused.

Ask what question he wishes to have been asked and, typically, it's not about him.

He wants to say more things about Longwood.

“I've thought so much about Longwood over the past six months, nine months, from the outside. It is wonderful to be here now and really getting an in-person tactile feel for the rhythms, particularities, traditions of our 175-year-old institution,” he said. “That's really special. That's what I hope to do over these months of the summer.

“Just immerse myself.”

Reveley may have put his grandfather's books on an office shelf, but the focus of his attention and energy are the very first pages in chapter one of his own presidency at Longwood University.