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Executive Speech

Thomas F. Farrell II
Chairman, President & CEO, Dominion
First-Year Class
The University of Virginia Code of Honor
June 22, 2009

Good morning.

Welcome to the University of Virginia.  It is a pleasure to speak with you and to congratulate you on your acceptance to what we call around here — the first-year class.

UVa is one of the nation's elite universities.  You did well to get here.  It took motivation, energy, maturity and discipline.  You and your families should be proud.

Getting here also required intellect.  Your membership in the first-year class proves that you are both smart and motivated.

But the world is full of smart people.  It is full of smart, young people.  Just look around.  Consider the students you beat out to earn your seat in this hall.  You succeeded by nurturing your intellect, focusing it and knowing when and how to utilize it.  Intelligence and focus are the first and fundamental keys to success.   Judging from your acceptance to UVa, I think each one of you has that part down pat.

The other and equally important key to success is going about your studies here, your future work and your personal life with honesty, ethics and honor.  If you think this sounds old-fashioned, it is.  Honesty as the foundation for success and happiness has stood the long and resolute test of time.

But not so long ago that traditional view began to look quaint, perhaps a bit dated.  In fact, it has often looked in recent years as though the rules of honesty and ethics have changed for the worse, and loosened up.  Through dishonorable and dishonest action, many prominent individuals challenged the old saying that "Winners never cheat, and cheaters never win."

To my immense frustration, surveys keep showing up each year with the same bad news… cheating in high school and college remains widespread.

Each year I deliver this talk I find no shortage of stories that illustrate how our standards of ethics and honesty are slipping.  And I have given this talk for a number of years now.

I have pointed to ethics failures in the worlds of academia, business and sports …

…a group cheating scandal at our prestigious rival down Tobacco Road, Duke University.

… a plagiarism scandal at The New York Times that took down the offending young reporter, the paper's managing editor and its executive editor. 

… a company known as Enron that collapsed in an accounting scandal and destroyed the life savings of many innocent, hard-working employees.  Key players responsible for the scandal are now in prison, the former CEO for a very long time.

Last year I was able to take the cheating spotlight off of business and point to a steroid scandal in Major League Baseball.

This year I point to one of the most spectacular rip-offs in American history… the Bernie Madoff investment scandal… likely the worst ever.  Bernie went down hard last week. He got 150 years in federal prison.  Earlier this year, he plead guilty to defrauding investors and causing what federal prosecutors estimated to be more than $60 billion of losses among more than 4,000 investment clients.

Some investors, journalists and economists have questioned Madoff's statement that he alone is responsible for the large-scale operation, and the investigation is still open.

Meanwhile, thousands of innocent victims … including many prominent people and important charities ... find themselves broke.

Madoff's crimes and sheer venality exceed even that of the disgraced executives who destroyed Enron.

If you think the moral of the story is do not cheat because you may get caught, you have only part of the picture.  Yes - policing is better.  Yes - consequences are more dire.

The bigger point, however, is that honesty, ethics and honor are the only real way to have professional success and personal fulfillment.   In fact, they always have been and always will be. Our nation's cheating scandals have only validated this core truth.  They have reaffirmed it, not diminished it.

During the next four years, you will be asked to reaffirm your own honor many times.  On every paper you turn in, on every blue book you fill out, and on many other projects, you will be required to write the Honor Pledge: On my honor as a student, I have neither given nor received aid on this assignment.

And sign it.   Simple.  I hope you think so.

You will do this countless times. And you will be on your honor not to sign it if you have given or received help, if you have used open books when counseled not to, if you have plagiarized another source.

Okay.  Time to lighten it up with a W.C. Fields story. As most of you know, W.C. Fields was a famous comedian, juggler and raconteur.  He also had a well-known fondness for liquid spirits.  I should not talk about this in front of minors, but his thirst was legendary.

At one point, W.C. Fields found himself in the hospital.  A good friend stopped by. To the friend's surprise, he found Fields reading the Bible. This astonished the visitor - who knew Fields as a lifelong agnostic.  The friend asked Fields why he was reading the Bible.  Fields replied:

"I'm looking for loopholes."

He also once said:  "Anything worth having is worth cheating for."

Wrong, W.C …dead wrong.

Nothing is worth having if you have to cheat to get it.

Please do not think that I am comparing Virginia's honor system and all that it represents to the Bible - especially since Mr. Jefferson authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.  But, in my book, it runs a pretty close second.

We should be rightly concerned if gaudy lapses in the business, political, academic and sports worlds are influencing the new generation.  Just last December a California survey found that nearly two in three U.S. high school students admitted to cheating on an exam in the past year.  The survey… conducted by the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles… uncovered an even more astounding finding:  Nearly one in three admitted to stealing from a store in the past year.

This particular survey found that 83 percent of students admit they sometimes lie to their parents but more than 90 percent are satisfied with their personal ethics and character.

Let me stop here to make a couple of points.  First, while I am talking about your peer age group, I am not talking about you.
As in-bound first-years at a top-ranked university, you have demonstrated a level of competence and academic accomplishment that only hard work and strong values can create.

In further point of fact, your performance, not your birthright, is the main reason you are among the new elite, and the presumed leaders of tomorrow.  Indeed, you embody Jefferson's vision of an enlightened meritocracy.  He said — quoting here — "There is a natural aristocracy among men and women.  The grounds of this are virtue and talents."

Society expects the best from you.  You can achieve your potential only the old-fashioned way.  It is an enduring truth.  If you have been exposed to or tempted by the low standards uncovered by countless surveys, consider your matriculation at the University of Virginia a new beginning, a cleansing opportunity… right here, right now.

It is also critical to understand another important fact — that honor and ethics are about far more than the bottom line, a specific grade in a specific class or a particular ranking at a given time in your life.

The truth is that the global marketplace will take care of those without honor who do not honestly acquire the intellectual weaponry now required to prosper.

You came to college to learn how to learn, behave, overcome challenges and adversity, and succeed.  If you approach college honestly, you will learn more than you think.   You will come out stronger.

Anybody who thinks they can fake their way through during the course of this new century may as well leave school now and go tie up shrimp boats at the beach.  It will be more relaxing.

Do not set foot on the doorstep of a Fortune 500 company.  Forget about great careers in medicine or law, at big ad agencies, in government, politics or the media.

Short cuts — like cheating — will not cut it.

Yet, the honor system at the University of Virginia is about much more than not cheating.

It is about — well — honor.  It is about you and your peers and what you are made of inside.

It is about personal honor.  Respect.  And trust. Our system here is, ultimately, less an honor code than an honor creed — a worldview, a way of living your life.

Live by the right creed, and the rewards of life will be endless:

Respect from peers and colleagues; love and trust from family; and, success in both its narrow career definition and in its far broader and more rewarding manifestations of spirit, emotion and self-esteem.

I was fortunate to be exposed to Virginia's honor system when I arrived in the early Seventies, an Army brat from Northern Virginia.  I was barely aware of this university's unique and marvelous history.  Today, I find it hard to believe — and even harder to admit — that I did not know it was founded by Thomas Jefferson.

Virginia is unique among the nation's elite schools because it administers a successful honor system based on trust in a large, diverse student population.  It is administered solely by the students. 

If you violate your fellow students' trust — if you lie, cheat, or steal — you are dismissed from the University by your peers.  Let me repeat that — if you lie, cheat or steal - your fellow students expel you — not an "F" on the test, or the course, not a slap on the wrist, not a wink and a nod.

No second chances; no appeals to the faculty, the administration or the Board of Visitors.

Your parents will not be able to get you out of this predicament.  You are treated as an adult and you are expected to act like one.

You will find this system to be nearly unique in the country.  Our alumni and students are deeply — and justifiably — proud of it.

The University of Virginia really is different, really is special… and our 160-year-old system is largely responsible.

The system has had its changes over the years.  That is one of its great strengths — its ability to evolve effectively.  The system today differs from what it was when I was a student.  It is different from what it was 10 years ago.

But its core values remain what they were in 1842.  The presumption is that students at the University of Virginia do not lie, do not steal, and do not cheat.  They respect and live in accordance with these principles.

While Thomas Jefferson did not establish the Honor System at the university's inception, we know how he felt about honor — particularly among young people.  Writing to his nephew in 1785 more than 30 years before the University of Virginia was chartered, he stated:

"Never suppose, that in any possible situation, or under any circumstance, it is best for you to do a dishonorable thing, however slightly so it may appear to you."

That was good advice in 1785.  It is even better advice in 2009.

I hope many of you will take an active role with the Honor Committee in administering the honor system.  I ask all of you to work to understand and abide by the system. Cherish it as the generations who have gone before you have cherished it.

On behalf of the Board of Visitors, I welcome you to one of the world's premier universities, and I thank you for choosing to join us.  I congratulate you on your admission.  Have a great summer, and come back prepared for the time of your life.

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