Customs old and new fill Opening Assembly

Principal Rawson '71; P'08 rings in Exeter's 242nd year with an all-community address.

Patrick Garrity
September 9, 2022

Principal William Rawson ’71; P’08 and Phillips Exeter Academy formally rang in the institution’s 242nd year Friday morning, embracing its most hallowed customs and introducing a new one at Opening Assembly.

Beginning with a student procession of the flags of the 37 countries from which the student body hails and closing with the traditional dismissal of “Senior class,” the ceremony played to students, faculty and faculty emeriti in Love Gym and to a livestream audience beyond. 

Principal Rawson cited the Academy’s Deed of Gift and the school’s mission and core values throughout his address, punctuating his remarks with themes the founders introduced in 1781 and that still permeate life on campus today: Goodness and knowledge; non sibi; academic excellence; and serving youth from every quarter.

Our objective is to teach you how to think, not what to think, and the focus, inside and outside the classroom, will always be on knowledge and goodness.”
Principal Bill Rawson '71; P'08

“We aim high at Exeter,” he said. “We will help you excel in your academic pursuits, and in all your other endeavors. Our objective is to teach you how to think, not what to think, and the focus, inside and outside the classroom, will always be on knowledge and goodness.”

He then quoted The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. to underscore the point: “We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.”

Symbols of youth from every quarter

“Wow!” Principal Rawson said after watching the national flags wind through the gymnasium, a new addition to the time-honored program. “I just wish you could see my smile as I watched everyone process in and seeing all the flags.”

He then introduced the deans of students and faculty to welcome colleagues old and new. Eimer Page, a longtime instructor in English who is the new dean of faculty, introduced the instructors who are beginning their tenures at the Academy. Dean of Students Russell Weatherspoon welcomed the emerti faculty in attendance, including Richard Brown and Werner Brandes, whose appointment dates were 59 and 57 years ago, respectively.

Principal Rawson noted that the 341 newest Exonians — the class of 2026 and new lowers, uppers and seniors — represent 34 states and 20 countries. He also noted they are the first students to arrive since the school announced last fall a “need-blind” admissions policy, meaning that Exeter’s admissions decisions are made without regard to any family’s ability to pay.

His message also included the school’s commitment to equity and inclusion, telling students that commitment is inseparable from the institutional core values. “Experienced Harkness students know that listening with empathy — really being curious about why another person might feel or think differently than you do — is a critical skill, upon which your learning and personal growth will greatly depend.

“Learning in this way from each other is exciting, but we recognize that at times it also can be uncomfortable. It can be uncomfortable to have your ideas and assumptions challenged by others. We must be comfortable with being uncomfortable, and we must understand that in a thriving educational community we should expect a diversity of viewpoints on almost every subject worth exploring.”

A greener Exeter

The principal also spoke of the school’s long history of environmental stewardship, from the class of 1884’s Gifford Pinchot — one of the founding fathers of the conservation movement — to the strides made in recent years to curb carbon emissions by 60 percent.

“We will continue to build on these accomplishments this year and in the years to come, and student engagement has and will continue to be important, as we continue to explore ways to incorporate sustainability into all aspects of our programs, operations and daily lives at the Academy.”

Principal Rawson closed his remarks with a message of enthusiasm.

“It has been a great pleasure to walk about the campus these past few days and feel the excitement, energy and joy that all of you bring to a new school year,” he said. “When I was a student, I spent my summers waiting to come back. I sense a similar feeling among all of you.”

Read Principal Rawson's full remarks here.