Better together: Rawson hails inclusion in Opening Assembly

Principal urges students to "engage our differences" as 239th school year begins at Exeter.

Patrick Garrity
September 6, 2019
Principal Bill Rawson

Principal Bill Rawson ’71; P’08 formally opened the 239th academic year of Phillips Exeter Academy on Friday morning, calling on the campus community to embrace our differences and reminding us that we are better together.

Rawson told a spillover audience in Assembly Hall that Exeter’s mission to pursue knowledge and goodness remains as pure as the day in 1781 when John and Elizabeth Phillips wrote the Deed of Gift for the school — and that pursuit “cannot be separated from the kind of community we seek to create.”

“It is both an understatement and oversimplification to say that our understanding of ‘youth from every quarter’ evolved over time, but it did, and we became more inclusive in terms of ethnicity, national and geographic origin, socioeconomic background, race and religion,” Rawson told a student body that hails from 44 states and 31 countries. More than 46 percent of the enrollment is comprised of students of color.

He hailed the decision a half-century ago to become coeducational as “a pivotal point in the history of the Academy,” and praised the school’s continuing efforts to “create a supportive environment for LGBTQ+ students and adults.”

“The journey is far from complete, but with every step along the way, as we have become a more inclusive community, we have become a stronger school.”

Ahead of Rawson’s address, Academy faculty weaved through the hall to a rousing ovation, and Dean of Faculty Ellen Wolff introduced both the school’s longest-serving instructors and its new ones. Wolff also welcomed an esteemed group of instructors emeriti, including Kendra Stearns O’Donnell, the school’s principal from 1987 to 1997.

Rawson prefaced his remarks by unveiling class T-shirts, each displaying a class year and a Latin phrase. He urged the members of the class of 2020 to make the most of their senior year and “don’t let it go too fast.”

The principal welcomed new students and returning students alike by telling them his first hope for each is to find joy in their time here. “Joy in your classes, your clubs, and all your activities; joy in knowing that you belong here; joy in discovering that there are others just like you; and joy in building friendships with others who might seem very different from you.”

“I hope you will aim high, focus on learning and growth rather than a narrow definition of success, and try new things. Every year, Exonians graduate with passions they discovered here, and with strengths that they never imagined they could have before coming to Exeter. Dare to be one of those Exonians.”

Rawson punctuated his remarks repeatedly with a message to engage differences and cultivate a community of diversity and inclusion. The school’s “vision statement mentions ‘excellence’ four times,” he noted, adding “our commitment to excellence in education and our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion go hand in hand. One cannot be separated from the other."

“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,” he said, quoting the vision statement.

He closed by telling the students “we will celebrate all your accomplishments, and support you on those occasions when you face disappointment. But no accomplishments will be more important than how we function as a community. We will learn together. We will support each other. We will celebrate our diversity in all its dimensions. We will seek to grow in our awareness and understanding of others, and seek to become a stronger and more inclusive community.

"Our pursuit of knowledge and goodness, and our commitment to excellence in all we do, require nothing less.”