Principal Rawson's 2022 Opening Assembly Address

Exeter begins its 242nd year

On Sept. 9 2022, Principal William Rawson ’71; P’08 delivered his Opening Assembly address to an audience in Love Gymnasium. Read the full text of his speech below. 

Good morning, Exeter.


I welcome you again to this Opening Assembly, which marks the beginning of the 242nd year in the history of our school.

It is indeed wonderful to see everyone gathered together, and to feel the energy and excitement in the room.  For some, this represents a return to the school you already know well and love, and to friendships that already have been formed and mean the world to you.  For others, it represents a new beginning.  I am happy and excited to see all of you here this morning.

I would like to thank Dean Page for welcoming and introducing our new faculty to our school community.  We are so excited that our new faculty are here and are now a part of the Exeter community.

Thank you, Dean Weatherspoon, for welcoming and recognizing our emeriti faculty.  We are deeply grateful for our emeriti faculty’s presence this morning and for their enduring commitment to our school.

I would like to extend a special, warm welcome to all our new students.  You are 341 in number, and come from 34 states and 20 countries.  You bring a wonderful diversity of backgrounds, experiences, talents and interests.  Every one of you was admitted without regard to your family’s ability to pay tuition or other costs of attending Exeter.    

Last November we announced a “need-blind” admissions policy, meaning that Exeter’s admissions decisions are made without regard to any family’s ability to pay, and the Academy is committed to meeting the full demonstrated financial need of every student.  The generosity of alumni, parents and friends of the Academy, recently and over many generations, has made these commitments possible, and we are indeed very grateful.

In addition to welcoming our new students, I would like to assure you that I have every confidence in your success at Exeter.  I say that from the perspective of having once occupied your seat, as a new Lower, many years ago.  I came from a modest background and was a financial aid recipient.  When I attended opening assembly for the first time, I certainly was happy to be here, and of course I felt the excitement of the day, but I also was a little nervous, and perhaps even a bit overwhelmed or intimidated by everything and everyone around me.  That was many years ago.  With our robust orientation programs today, hopefully you have already left those uncertain feelings behind, but just in case, let me tell you what I tell all our new students every year.

You can do the work.

You will make lifelong friends.

Absolutely, you belong here. 

It has been my custom during my tenure as principal to unveil at Opening Assembly each year a new school T-shirt, and I will do that now. This is an additional way to welcome our new students, and to reinforce for all students, new and returning, a sense of pride and belonging. You are all Exonians. You will be able to collect your T-shirts outside as you leave the gym, and keep an eye out for Exeter bars outside McConnnell Hall as you head to class.

Seniors, members of the Class of 2023, I want to add that it is wonderful to see you in the front section!  This will be an important and memorable year for you.  We have 31 new seniors this year.  Whether this is your fourth year at Exeter or first, or in between, your leadership across all aspects of school life will be important to the success of our school this year.  

Uppers, members of the Class of 2024, you have passed the halfway point.  It will be exciting to see you continue to learn and grow this year, and to watch as you emerge into leadership positions in your own right.  Please welcome 25 new students to your class.   

Lowers, Class of 2025, we have 62 new Lowers this year.  This is a year for you to explore new passions and develop new strengths, perhaps strengths that prior to coming to Exeter you never imagined you could have.  

And finally, preps, Class of 2026, 222 strong and all new to Exeter.  It might be hard for you to imagine, but in time you will be seniors, and a new class of preps will be looking up to you.  For now, I encourage you to reach out to older students for advice; they can tell you what they wish they had known when they arrived as new students.

It also is our custom at Exeter for the principal at Opening Assembly to talk about the Academy’s Deed of Gift and reflect on the mission of our school.  The Deed of Gift was signed by co-founders John and Elizabeth Phillips in 1781, five years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and seven years before the State of New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratifify the U.S. Constitution.  Our Deed of Gift is a remarkable document.

It states that Exeter “shall ever be equally open to youth of requisite qualifications from every quarter."  

And it states, "Above 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 humankind." 

From these passages, we derive our school mission.  Our mission is to unite goodness and knowledge and inspire youth from every quarter to lead purposeful lives.

To unite goodness and knowledge and inspire youth from every quarter to lead purposeful lives.

We proudly proclaim “academic excellence” as a core value and signature strength of our school.  Indeed, that is one of the reasons you are here — to excel academically. Our core value states, “In every discipline, and at every level within our curriculum, we seek to inspire students to develop critical thinking skills and seek complex truths. Intellectual exploration through rigorous inquiry and thoughtful discourse at the Harkness table nurtures inquisitiveness, creativity, insight, empathy, independent thought and mastery in our students.”

We aim high at Exeter.  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.  

As The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. said, while an undergraduate at Morehouse College, “We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”

At Exeter, we are committed to building a diverse, equitable and inclusive community, where all members of the community have a strong sense of belonging and equal opportunity to thrive.  In this regard, our commitment to youth from every quarter is integral to how we teach and learn, and inseparable from our mission to unite goodness and knowledge and prepare our students – all of you – to lead purposeful lives.  

The Academy’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Vision Statement explicitly states:

“Our Harkness pedagogy is grounded in the belief that we are all better equipped to learn and to lead when our thoughts are tested by others, particularly by those whose thoughts or identities are different from our own. Only when we skillfully engage our differences …  will we find a path to that greater understanding of the world and how we can be of service to it.”

As an educational institution, we value free expression.  We recognize that free expression is essential to robust and free intellectual inquiry.  We understand that the promise of a diverse community is not realized without such free expression, just as the benefit of free expression is not fully realized without a commitment to diversity.  

In our national discourse today, too often we see division, rancor and meanness, a predisposition to attack opponents personally, and a strategy to prevail through some combination of sound bites, half-truths, untruths, and deceptions, or sidestepping the issues entirely. 

At Exeter, the goal is not to win but to learn, and the strategy for learning must be precisely as stated in our DEI Vision Statement:  

“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.”

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.    

We also want you to find the work challenging and at times even difficult, so you will come to understand your own capacity to meet the challenges that we offer.  It is through meeting the challenges that you face that you will come to realize your own possibilities to learn and grow.

This is how we aspire to teach, and how you will learn.  In particular, this is how you will learn from one another.  It is how together we can seek complex truths.  It is the essence of a Harkness education.  It is how you prepare yourselves to be the kinds of leaders and citizens that our world needs today. 

I would like to draw your attention to a third passage in the Deed of Gift.  In the very first paragraph, our Founders wrote, “the time of youth is the important period, on the improvement or neglect of which depend the most weighty consequences, to individuals themselves and the community.” In essence, our Founders were saying that your time here matters.  It matters not only to your own development as human beings, but also to those with whom you will engage throughout the course of your lives.  Our founders were expressing a belief that imbued with knowledge and goodness, each and every one of you will have the capacity to make a positive difference in the world and in the communities in which you will live.  

We give expression to this idea on our school seal, with the words “non sibi,” which in Latin means not for oneself.  Non sibi also is a core value of our school, and signifies our belief that wisdom gained here should be used for others as well as for oneself.  We state plainly that we “seek to graduate students who are motivated to face the challenges of their day, and whose ambitions and actions are inspired by their interest in others and the world around them.”  Non sibi is the very spirit and ethos of our school.

One aspect of our commitment to non sibi is our long history at Exeter of environmental stewardship.  Gifford Pinchot, Exeter Class of 1885 and generally regarded as the founder of the conservation movement in the United States, championed conservation of our natural resources when he returned to the Academy to speak in assembly in 1919. The first outing club was formed not long thereafter. Our first ecology club was formed, and the first ecology course taught, more than 50 years ago. 

In April 1970, quite a number of students boarded buses and went to Washington, D.C., to attend the first Earth Day. Student engagement on environmental issues has been strong ever since, and is strong now, and with good reason, as we hear and read about the existential threat of climate change on a daily basis.  

The Academy is committed to doing its part.  In recent years, we have reduced scope 1 and scope 2 carbon emissions by more than 60 percent. We have achieved our emissions reductions through a variety of means, including introducing geothermal heating and cooling in several buildings (including the new dorm), and the installation of solar panels on the roof of the field house. We also have steadily grown our curricular offerings in the areas of sustainability and climate science.  We will continue to build on these accomplishments this year and in the years to come, and student engagement will be important, as we continue to explore ways to incorporate sustainability into all aspects of our programs, operations and daily lives at the Academy.   

I will close this morning by saying that I am excited about this new academic year.  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.  When I was a student, I spent my summers waiting to come back.  I sense a similar feeling among all of you.  

It will be exciting this year to watch you excel across all academic disciplines and thrive in the arts — visual, music, drama and dance.  You will compete at a high level in athletics, perhaps win a championship or two, and forge lifelong bonds with your teammates.  You will carry on a tradition of numerous strong student publications, excel in other clubs and activities, and provide leadership for affinity groups.  You will perform in assembly, give meditations, and be leaders of student religious groups.  In all these and many other ways, you will have fun, learn and grow, and, importantly, support each other.

It was very moving at graduation three months ago to hear our graduating seniors express their deep gratitude for their time at Exeter.  We all should start this new academic year with similar feelings of deep appreciation and gratitude for the opportunities and privileges that we all enjoy by being a part of the Exeter community. 

I will be excited to see what special things you will accomplish this year, how you will contribute to the life of the school, and how you will lay the surest foundation for your own purposeful lives.

And now, for the benefit of the new students, by tradition, we end an assembly by saying “senior class” and give the seniors an opportunity to leave first. Senior class.

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Mission and values

Read the Academy's updated mission statement and values.

Go to the page titled Mission and values