A new take on an old tradition

Principal addresses virtual audience, highlights "opportunity to accomplish special things together.”

Adam Loyd
September 10, 2020
Physically-distanced students look on as Principal Rawson delivers Opening Assembly

Principal Bill Rawson ’71; P’08 ushered in the start of the 240th academic year of Phillips Exeter Academy on Thursday in his opening of school assembly address. Like so many events over the past six months, the annual tradition was adapted to accommodate COVID-19 health and safety guidelines. Speaking from the steps outside of Phillips Hall, Rawson addressed a dozen physically distanced student leaders on the lawn and an otherwise virtual audience tuning in from dorm rooms nearby and homes across the country and around the world. 

Rawson acknowledged the span of time between the winter term of the 2019-20 school year — when the Exeter community was last together on campus — and now as “a very difficult period of separation” brought on by the global pandemic and compounded by “anti-Black violence and racism that continue to plague this country.”

In his remarks, Rawson remained hopeful, calling on the Exeter community to embrace the opportunity and to support each other like never before.  

“We need to be in community now as much as ever, and we will navigate the challenges before us together,” he said. “I believe it will be an important year and a very good year, one that will stand out in our memories because of obstacles overcome and important work accomplished.”

Among the virtual audience, students new to Exeter received a special message from the principal.

“If you are feeling a little anxious, that is entirely normal, and you likely are not alone,” he said. “Rest assured: you can do the work, you will make lifelong friends, absolutely, you belong here.”

Rawson referenced some of the new campus health and safety protocols, instructing the entire community to subscribe to an “unfailing adherence” to the guidelines, calling it “non sibi in action.”

“Wearing a mask, keeping physically distant, washing hands, and using hand sanitizer at every opportunity are ways we help protect the health of those around us.”

Rawson also used the address to introduce a revised Academy mission statement, developed by a small group of trustees and faculty last year, with language coming directly from the Deed of Gift.  

“To unite goodness and knowledge and inspire youth from every quarter to lead purposeful lives,” he declared. 

Complementing the mission statement, Rawson unveiled five values — knowledge and goodness, academic excellence, youth from every quarter, youth is the important period and Non Sibi — that “reflect the character of our school and the reason that we are all here today.” He encouraged students to “take these words to heart” and to see the mission as “an invitation to open your minds and to seek out new avenues of discovery in all that you pursue here.”

The 2020-21 school year marks the 50th anniversary of the Academy becoming a coeducational institution, a milestone Rawson called “transformative.” The principal announced a yearlong celebration, “Her Voice at the Table: 50 Years of Coeducation at Exeter.” Highlighted by assemblies and guest speakers, course curriculum, a special website and alumni virtual events, the program will celebrate the “the extraordinary accomplishments of our alumnae, as students here at Exeter and in the world beyond.” Rawson said he hopes to have an on-campus event in May, conditions permitting. 

Rawson pledged a “renewed commitment” to diversity, equity and inclusion and becoming an anti-racist school, citing the work as a fundamental importance to the Academy’s “educational mission and method.”  

“Our DEI work, including our commitment to actively opposing racism and becoming an anti-racist school, is not the work of a few; it is work we all share. It is work we must actively do together.“

In his remarks, Rawson harkened back to a line from his first opening of school address as principal, now more applicable than ever. “We are not special simply because we are here. But because we are here, we have the opportunity to accomplish special things together.”

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