Opening Assembly 2023

Exeter begins its 243rd year

Principal William Rawson ’71; P’08 delivered his Opening Assembly address to an audience in Assembly Hall on Sept. 8 2023. Read the full text of his speech below. 

Good morning, Exeter.

When preparing for today, my thoughts naturally drifted back in time to the Opening Assembly that I attended as a new Lower many years ago.  This room was very different then.  The stage was smaller, and there was no balcony.  We also had 200 fewer students.  We sat in wooden pews and were assigned to our seats alphabetically, with Seniors up front, then Uppers, then Lowers, and Preps in the back.  With a last name beginning with R, I was pretty far back.  I admit to feeling a little nervous that day, but I also was excited.  There was no doubt in my mind that Exeter was where I wanted to be.   

Of much greater significance than the physical changes to this room over the years are the changes in the composition of our school.  Since the decision to become a coeducational school in the fall of 1970, my senior year, Exeter has been a leader among secondary schools in steadily becoming a more diverse and inclusive community.  We seek students of promising academic ability and strong character from a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, and identities – socioeconomic, ethnic, religious, racial, gender, geographical and cultural – and we admit students without regard to their family’s ability to pay tuition.  I have described the rich diversity of students that results as one of the defining strengths of our school.   

You represent that rich diversity at Exeter today.  Wherever you have come from, and whatever your prior experiences might have been, you have demonstrated abilities and qualities that will enable you to contribute and thrive here.  You have earned your places at Phillips Exeter Academy.
New students, I will tell you now what I tell new students at Opening Assembly every year: rest assured, you can do the work; you will make lifelong friends; and, most importantly, absolutely, you belong here.  We welcome you.  We are delighted that you are here.  
Our Deed of Gift, signed by John and Elizabeth Phillips in 1781, states that Exeter “shall ever be equally open to youth of requisite qualifications from every quarter.”  

The Deed of Gift states further:

“[A]bove all, it is expected that the attention of instructors to the disposition of the minds and morals of the youth under their charge will exceed every other care, well considering that though goodness without knowledge is weak and feeble, yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous, and that both united form the noblest character, and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to mankind.”  

From this powerful language, we derive our mission statement: unite goodness and knowledge and inspire youth from every quarter to lead purposeful lives.
Our school seal, adopted in 1784, contains the Latin words non sibi, meaning “not for oneself.” Depicted in a rising sun over a sea of knowledge, these words express our conviction that wisdom gained here should be used for the good of others as well as for oneself.  We boldly proclaim that we “seek to graduate young people whose ambitions and actions are inspired by their interest in others and the world around them.”

We return to these foundational statements each year at Opening Assembly because they explain why Exeter exists, and why we are all here today.   
Phillips Exeter exists not to confer extraordinary privilege on a chosen few, but to lay the surest foundation for your purposeful lives.  The Deed of Gift is a statement of belief – specifically a belief in all of you – that endowed with knowledge and goodness, each and every one of you will be empowered to make a positive difference in the world in whatever ways you might choose.

You will find at Exeter an extraordinary range of opportunities to develop intellectually, artistically, and athletically.  You will be able to choose among a wide range of courses, and even design some of your own courses of study.  You also will have opportunities to pursue your passions through a wide variety of co-curricular programs and test yourselves in competitions against other schools.  You will have to make some choices – you can’t do it all, and adequate sleep is very important to your health and success. But in addition to building on strengths and interests that you have brought with you, I hope you will explore new interests and perhaps build new strengths, and maybe surprise yourself along the way.   

You also will find a wide range of opportunities to contribute to the life of the school, help us build a strong sense of community, support your fellow students, and engage in community service in the surrounding Town of Exeter.  Again, you will have to make choices, but the opportunities are there for you, and your engagement will be an important part of your life at Exeter.  This is non sibi in action at Exeter.
Some returning students know that I enjoy watching English Premier League Soccer.  When one team is gaining momentum and pressing the attack, the British commentators often will say the team on offense is “starting to ask questions” of the other team.  In a sense, we will be asking questions of you during your time here.  What do you want to study?  How do you want to contribute to the life of our school?  What kind of presence do you want to have in your dorms, classrooms, teams, clubs, and other student activities?  What kind of student leaders do you want to be?  What kind of person do you want to be?  These are questions that in fact you will ask yourselves each year.  Your answers will shape your learning and growth and determine the impact that you will have on our school during your time here.

The world is asking questions of us all as well.  Even as our society has become more open and inclusive than it was when I was a student, and even as advances in technology have led to improvements in most aspects of our lives, we are confronted with disturbing headlines every day reflecting immense challenges here in the United States and around the world.  How will you respond?  One thing is clear: we will need the best minds across all disciplines to confront the challenges that we face and make the most of the opportunities before us.  We will need artists as well as scientists, poets as well as mathematicians, ethicists as well as economists.  Most importantly, across all disciplines and all walks of life, we will need citizens and leaders who are motivated by the spirit of non sibi, and who are committed to teaching and living the principles of a just and sustainable society – environmentally, economically, and socially.   

Toward that end, through Harkness and our rigorous academic programs, we will help you develop tools to better understand the world around you.  We will help you develop critical thinking skills and seek complex truths.  Our goal is to teach you how to analyze and think, not what to think.  You will master material in individual subjects at high levels, and in the process develop the skills of a lifelong learner.   
I hope you will find your academic work exciting, and also at times difficult – after all, you have come here to be challenged.  In meeting the challenges that you will face, you will begin to understand more fully your capacity to learn and grow.   

Much of the joy and excitement that you will experience at Exeter, inside and outside the classroom, will come from learning with and alongside your fellow classmates.  
To realize fully the opportunities through Harkness to learn with and from each other, we must commit fully to diversity of thought and free expression.  Robust debate and free intellectual inquiry are fundamental to our educational method and mission, just as freedom of expression is a pillar of a healthy democracy.
Our school Vision Statement for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion speaks to this point in compelling fashion.  It says:

“We must harness perspectives from every quarter to encourage adults and students to think critically, realize and challenge their assumptions, and collaborate to forge a greater understanding of the world.  This means developing an inclination toward, and facility with, diversity of thought, perspective and experience.  This also means cultivating the empathy, understanding and respect necessary to open one’s mind to those thoughts, perspectives and experiences that differ from one’s own.” 

Learning this way together is exciting, interesting, and fun.  Through the collision of ideas and perspectives, reflecting differences in backgrounds and experiences, we learn to probe issues more critically, and come to understand our own ideas and perspectives more deeply.  Empathy is critical and not to be taken for granted – we must work at it.  And as I have said in prior Assemblies, we must learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable, and must understandthat we should expect a diversity of viewpoints on almost every subject worth exploring.  Our willingness to learn in this way, and engage across differences, will propel our growth as individuals and as a community.  

I am very excited about the year ahead.  I can’t wait to see all that you will do and accomplish.  I can’t wait to see your plays and performances, see you compete hard on E/A weekends, witness your accomplishments in various academic endeavors and competitions, and see you contribute to the life of the school in so many other ways.  I will be there along the way, with your teachers, advisors, and other mentors, applauding from the audience, cheering from the sidelines, and supporting you in other ways as best I can.   

In turn, I hope you will never lose sight of how fortunate we all are to be a part of this very special school community.  I hope you will always be grateful to your teachers and all the adults here and at home who support you during your time at Exeter.  I also hope you will feel gratitude to prior generations of Exonians who have helped make your Exeter experiences possible.  One way we demonstrate our gratitude is by treating those around us, students and adults alike, with humility, kindness and respect as we go about our daily responsibilities.  How we say hello on the paths, and how we say thank you when going through the line in the dining hall, matters – to ourselves and everyone around us.

It has been my custom during my tenure as principal to unveil at Opening Assembly a new school t-shirt for the year.  We do this as a fun additional way to welcome our new students, but also to emphasize to all our students, new and returning, that you are all Exonians, and you all belong here.  Immediately following this assembly, please collect your shirt in the Academic Quad.  Please take a shirt with your class year on the front.  You will see that the shaded part on the back in fact is small type displaying the very words that I have been talking about this morning: non sibi, knowledge and goodness, youth from every quarter, and purposeful lives.

And now, by tradition, we end this assembly by dismissing the Seniors first.

Senior class.