Academic Convocation - 2011
Welcome to this morning’s convocation marking the opening of the 2011-2012 academic year. We are honored to have Dr. Jeffrey Weeks, today’s Convocation speaker, whom I will have the pleasure of introducing to you in a few moments.
First, I want to recognize the cadets who are seated to your front. They are Cadets Distinguished in Academic Merit, and I ask you to join me in expressing our congratulations to them on their accomplishments.
The 2011-2012 academic year has special meaning in the history of the Institute, in that it marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of two of our founders. Col. J. T. L. Preston, the man credited with conceiving the idea of the Institute, and Col. Francis H. Smith, our first Superintendent…, they were born in 1811 and 1812, respectively. Preston served on the faculty for 43 years, and Smith served as Superintendent for 50 years. Together with Col. Claudius Crozet, President of the first Board of Visitors, they constitute the three “Founders of VMI.”
We remember Preston and Smith mainly for their contributions to the founding of the Institute and their leadership of the school through the Civil War and the difficult times that followed. What is sometimes lost in all this is the fact they were scholars, in the traditional sense of that word, and educators. First and foremost, what they created was an academic community to “prepare young men for the varied work of civil life.” Preston was a graduate of Washington College and possibly attended Yale. Growing up in Richmond, he attended school with Edgar Allen Poe, and they remained friends until Poe’s death. At VMI, Preston taught Latin and English, was married to the Southern poet Margaret Junkin Preston, and often served as Acting Superintendent. Smith was an 1833 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he was an outstanding student of mathematics. After a short time in the Army, Smith became a professor of mathematics at Hampden-Sydney College, before coming to VMI as its first superintendent. For a number of years, while the duties of his office permitted, he taught mathematics to cadets, and he published several mathematics textbooks that were used at the Institute and elsewhere in Virginia. Both men considered themselves, first and foremost, teachers, and their main mission in life was the advancement of learning. It is fitting, therefore, that as we begin this academic year, we remember these founders and celebrate the central mission of VMI as an institution of higher education.
In many ways VMI is a unique college, having military and character-building components integral to its overall educational program, but it has in common with colleges across the nation an overarching emphasis on the development of intellectual and critical thinking skills in its students. One of the distinctive features of VMI is that cadet life, as it is organized, provides countless opportunities to test those intellectual and critical thinking skills in day-to-day activities, as well as in the classroom. As we begin this academic year, let us remember that the aim is not just to store up knowledge and develop skills for the future, but to use that knowledge and exercise those skills now. Moreover, we should never lose sight of the adventure and excitement of learning, exploring new paths, developing new interests and skills, and building on existing strengths and talents. The foundation that you are laying here at the Institute will serve you for a lifetime, so make it strong and as wide as possible. Prepare yourself for unexpected opportunities: for you cannot know at this moment where life will take you.
On this, the anniversary of the birth of two of our founders, let us remember their important contributions to education – Preston, the champion of the humanities, and Smith, the champion of mathematics (and more specifically the champion in the U.S. of the new field of “Descriptive Geometry”). And, by honoring them, let us celebrate and rededicate ourselves this morning to the educational mission of the Institute. But let us also consider all this as a foundation on which we, together, will build an even stronger, greater, and effective academic community.
• And speaking of mathematics and geometry, it is now my pleasure to introduce our speaker for this morning.
Dr. Jeffrey Weeks is a freelance American mathematician and inventor known for his research into using geometry and topology to understand the spatial universe. He is known for his book The Shape of Space, published in 1985, and lectures of the same title.
Dr. Weeks received his B.A. from Dartmouth College and his Ph.D. in mathematics from Princeton University. After teaching briefly, he became a full-time freelance mathematician. He was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1999.
In 2007, he became the seventh recipient of the Conant Prize for an article published in Notices of the American Mathematical Society, that … in the words of the editors… gave “a rare glimpse into the role of mathematics in the development and testing of physical theories.”
When he is not working with the Geometry Center and the National Science Foundation, he spends his time designing various computer programs to assist in mathematical research and mathematical visualization. As an aside, I might mention that the new field of “Descriptive Geometry” that Smith championed in the U.S. was an early attempt at “mathematical visualization.” So, you see, it is most appropriate that we welcome Dr. Weeks to VMI this morning.
Ladies and gentlemen… Dr. Jeffrey Weeks.
GENERAL J.H. Binford Peay, III
5 September 2011