Founders Day Reflection: Provost Gillespie

In her speech on Founders Day (Feb. 16), Provost Michele Gillespie highlighted the vital and important changes Wake Forest has made throughout its history, including the admission of women, the establishment of professional schools, the move to Winston-Salem, engagement in the Civil Rights movement and the creation of Wake Downtown.

Many in the WFU community have requested that the full speech be shared. The Office of the Provost provided the copy for Inside WFU.


“Every Founders Day, we celebrate another year in the life of Wake Forest University – we celebrate the passing of five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes we all hold so dear.

How do we measure a year in the life of a university? How do we measure the life of a university, period? The composer of this song, Jonathan Larson, says we can measure it in love. I think that’s a wonderful measurement; I am all for measuring with love, AND I am a historian too, and we historians also measure in change over time.

All the more reason to thank senior orator Katie Fox for her powerful remarks. Her oration represents a historian’s act of love for her university and for all of us in it. By documenting the absence of change over time, and an absence of self-awareness, in our yearbooks, she opens all our eyes to our responsibilities, right now, and in the future. Thank you, Katie.

Because our theme today is constancy and change, I want to talk about the paradox of Theseus, the mythical king and founder of the city of Athens.

To get at this paradox, I want you to take a good hard look at Wait Chapel. I mean it. Look around you right now. And then think about the first time you stepped into this building, and remember what it looked like then – whether it was for your first convocation, your first musical performance, or your first worship service.

You are thinking, in all likelihood, that not much has changed. The narthex where you came in, the nave, the sanctuary, the balcony behind you, the tiny, cramped rest rooms, even the seats are still the same — in fact the fabric on the seats was a gift from Piedmont Airlines, and Piedmont Airlines went out of business in 1989, long before some of you were born.

There are fancy automatic shades on the windows now, and the sound system has been improved over the years, but I hazard a guess that Wait Chapel has stayed pretty much constant and true over the course of your Wake Forest life, whether you are a senior, or whether you are a faculty or staff member who joined Wake a decade ago, or five decades ago like our Medallion of Merit awardee. I would also hazard a guess that while the chapel has not changed much, you have.

Which brings me back to the paradox of Theseus’s ship.

So Theseus had a ship, and over time, he replaced every single piece of that ship, until eventually not a single beam, a single mast, a single sail, even a single piece of wood on that ship was original, inviting the philosopher’s question: Was it a new ship by the end, and if so, at what point did it become a new ship? This philosopher’s paradox is about an object, but let’s look at the paradox of change in our own lives and in the life of this university.

Because after all Wake Forest is our ship. It is a ship that has necessitated constant repair and improvements since its origins in 1834. Those repairs and improvements include:

  • the creation of a law school in 1894 and a medical school in 1902
  • the admission of women students in 1942
  • the move to Winston-Salem in 1956
  • the admission of Black students in 1962
  • AND the creation of Wake Downtown in 2016

Wake Forest has been and remains a place of constant change, and indeed the university engages every one of us in change given its very mission, whether you are a student in your first or second year, or you are Provost Emeritus Ed Wilson, who has been at Wake Forest since 1939.

Sometimes we are blind to that change. We fail to recognize how we in fact are participants in that change. Other times we know change is happening and we balk at it, romanticizing the past, idealizing the way Wake Forest used to be.

Sometimes it’s the pace of the change, not the change itself that scares us, but then it’s amazing how quickly once the change happens, it’s no longer a big deal.

I remember quite vividly all the people who said we could never make Wake Downtown work — because of all the challenges of course scheduling alongside the physical distance — and yet here we are today, with courses offered by multiple departments and schools, and the shuttle buses regularly getting us there. Wake Downtown is now a normal, accepted part of our university life— one we take pride in.

There is one group among us who are known for their appetite for change, for pressing forward on some of the most vital, most needed changes — in the university and in our society — and they are our students.

And of course, Wake Forest has always sought to prepare our students to do this very restorative work. We have sought to nurture in our students a set of core values, beginning and ending with Pro Humanitate, informed by a broad liberal arts education, one that includes critical thinking, evidence based argument, and compassion, supported by dedicated teacher-scholars and mentors.

And our students have taken up the challenge of their education by helping to repair our Wake Forest ship again and again. Think only of the Wake Forest students who protested alongside the Winston-Salem State students to desegregate the Woolworth’s lunch counter, helping to bring the civil rights movement to this city and our campus in 1960. Think about our students this very week who are elevating the importance of mental health awareness across our community. And all along the way, faculty, staff and alumni have worked alongside the students, repairing the Wake Forest ship, piece by piece, together.

In the end, these new changes, these new pieces of wood that we keep adding to our ship, reflect the essence of this Wake Forest vessel that remains unchanged amid all the alterations — unending curiosity, a passion for new knowledge and learning, the thrill of solving a problem, the joy of working together to do good, lifelong friendships and lifelong mentorships between professors and students, all in the name of our shared humanity, all in the pursuit of Pro Humanitate.

Some things that really matter do change, and they must. But it’s also good to remember that some things that really matter do not, no matter the place or the time. We all seek to live out our core values in old, unchanged buildings on this campus like Tribble, and in new ones like Farrell Hall, on our playing fields, and in our studios, and in our local elementary schools, at Casa Artom, and at Wake Washington, and in our lives beyond this institution.

We seek to embody our core values wherever we find ourselves — we treasure them, we fight for them, and it makes us courageous and strong, helping us face the changes that we fear, and helping us keep our magnificent Wake Forest ship sailing along — which means we ourselves become Theseus’s ship, for we ourselves change over time in striving to live out these powerful values.

There is no better example of a Wake Forest life well lived than our own “Mr. Wake Forest”, Dr. Ed Wilson, who celebrated his 100th birthday 16 days ago. He has been a constant and true part of Wake Forest, embodying the best of Wake Forest since he set foot on the Old Campus in the fall of 1939. A brilliant teacher in amazing courses on the Romantic Poets and on Blake, Yeats, and Thomas, he was named dean of the college in 1960, Provost seven years later, and eventually Provost Emeritus.

Under his leadership, a Faculty Committee voted to end segregation, Wake Forest established its residential study abroad programs in London and Venice, and the Wake Forest University Press was created. He has received innumerable accolades and awards, but beyond all the recognitions, Provost Wilson personifies all that is good about Wake Forest—as does his wonderful wife Emily, a brilliant author and poet herself.

Thirty years ago, while serving as Provost, Dr. Wilson stood where I stand today and delivered his Founders Day address. He spoke about what makes Wake Forest so special, especially its timeless qualities, and most admirable virtues. Dr. Wilson has seen this campus through many seasons— across nine decades of change and growth — and has led so much of that change and growth himself.

Following this reflection, a collection of Wake Forest students, staff, and faculty read an excerpted version of Dr. Wilson’s original Founders Day speech, “To Honor the Legacy: Founders Day 1992” – 30 years later.”

Categories: Inside WFU