2015 Chancellor’s Address

Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton’s 2015 Message to Washington University’s Graduates

2015 Chancellor's Address at Washington University in St. Louis

2015 Chancellor’s Address at Washington University in St. Louis


Congratulations to our newest alumni, the Class of 2015! You have accomplished an enormous amount, and you have even greater potential than when you began your studies here. You have earned a degree, but you have done more than grow intellectually. You have also matured emotionally and socially. Your newly acquired education will serve you well throughout your life, and the Washington University friendships and memories are ones I hope you return to often.

Graduates, your achievements here are impressive, but you have not realized success on your own. You have been supported by parents and other family members, by friends, and by Washington University faculty, staff and other students. And many among you have been supported by generous donors who provided scholarship gifts. Graduates, would you join me in thanking those who have supported you in realizing your success here?

I would like to extend special recognition to some leaders of the university for whom this is a time of commencement to a new phase in their lives and careers. I have already noted that Dean Robert Wiltenburg is concluding his tenure as Grand Marshal, and he is also concluding 19 years as dean of University College. Dean Ralph Quatrano is concluding his tenure as dean of the School of Engineering & Applied Science. Dr. Sharon Stahl is retiring from the university as vice chancellor for students emerita. Dean Larry J. Shapiro is also concluding his tenure as dean of the School of Medicine and executive vice chancellor for medical affairs.

Finally, vice chancellor and chief financial officer, Barbara Feiner, is retiring from the university at year’s end. Please join me in thanking these outstanding people for their many years of service and leadership.

Graduating seniors, thank you for your very generous class gift for scholarships for future students. Over 70 percent of the graduating seniors have already contributed to the class gift. Enhancing our financial aid programs is a key goal of our current fundraising effort: Leading Together, the Campaign for Washington University.

This campaign has already resulted in more than $294 million to support student financial aid needs and to reduce student debt. Our goal is to ensure that the Washington University experience is accessible and affordable. Speaking of gifts, I am very appreciative of the special gift presented to me at the senior class dinner last Monday evening. You have enhanced my wardrobe to include WU-monogrammed, double breasted pajamas … so I no longer have to sleep in my suits.

It is likely that many of our students follow the tweets of “FakeWrighton.” “FakeWrighton” tweeted a few weeks ago that Ken Burns would be our Commencement speaker and that the presentation would be six hours, in three two-hour episodes. We are grateful that Mr. Burns delivered his outstanding Commencement address and did so in slightly less than six hours. Mr. Burns, thank you for all that you have done to educate people everywhere and for being with us for our 2015 Commencement. Thank you again for an outstanding address.

Our graduating students have brought us many rewards during their time with us. We have had fun and excitement in athletics. We have outstanding student athletes, including graduating seniors who are not here today, as they continue to compete for national championships in baseball, men’s tennis, women’s golf, and track & field. This has been a great first year for Josh Whitman, the first John Schael Director of Athletics.

Our new graduates have brought us much more: they have performed and supported theater, music, and dance, and have enhanced our cultural understanding through Black Anthology, Carnival, Diwali, the PowWow, and the Lunar New Year Festival. Many have been involved in research and other creative work that will enhance the quality of life for all of us.

Members of our Class of 2015 now begin a new phase of their lives. We do not know for sure what our world will be like in 2065, 50 years from now. But we do know that there will be challenges and opportunities along the way to which our new graduates will respond, just as members of our Class of 1965 have done in the 50 years since their graduation. We celebrate our 50-year reunion class and their achievements.

Let’s look back to 1965 to understand life in America at that time. In Hollywood’s Academy Awards, Rex Harrison won Best Actor for his role in ‘My Fair Lady’ and Julie Andrews won Best Actress for her role in ‘Mary Poppins.’

Locally, one of the most exciting developments in the region for 1965 was the completion of the Gateway Arch, a symbol of St. Louis as the Gateway to the West. It was in 1853, over 100 years before the completion of the Arch, that Washington University was founded. At that time St. Louis was arguably the most important city in North America and served as the staging area for the expansion to the West. The Gateway Arch has become an iconic symbol for us and is known around the world. The Gateway Arch was completed October 28, 1965, at a cost of only $13 million — in today’s dollars approximately $200 million.

Prices in 1965 were a little different than today: a gallon of gasoline was 31 cents; a loaf of bread was 21 cents. The Dow Jones Industrial Average ended 1965 at 969 and, during the year, Warren Buffet gained controlling interest in Berkshire Hathaway at $18 a share. Today, Berkshire Hathaway has been trading close to $220,000 a share, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average has been close to 18,000. Clearly, Warren Buffet has done much better than the Dow!

1965 was a year with much racial strife, with the march from Selma to Montgomery and riots in Watts. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, guaranteeing all Americans the right to vote. President Johnson also announced an expansion of the “war on poverty” and set out his plan for Medicare. Clearly, 1965 was a year of great social unrest and change.

Here we are, a half-century later, with many examples of great progress in many diverse areas, but many of the same challenges from 1965 are still confronting us.

From Ferguson, to New York, to Florida to Madison, to Los Angeles, to Baltimore … all across America, we are still experiencing racial strife. Our community and communities throughout the United States are struggling with the problems that stem from lack of educational and economic opportunities, from significant health disparities and from racism.

But I am confident that a brighter future lies ahead. Washington University and other colleges and universities are powerful forces for good through their educational and scholarly programs. We have prepared our students for lives of meaning and purpose through programs like the following:

  • Professor Jason Purnell of the Brown School, working together with others, has documented health disparities in our region and is working to implement recommendations to overcome these disparities.
  • Our Institute for Public Health, under the leadership of Professor of Medicine William Powderly, was founded in 2007, and its mission includes eliminating health disparities in our region.
  • And Professor Bob Hansman of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts has long worked to enhance the lives of inner-city youth through City Faces.
  • Leah Merrifield is the leader of our College Prep Program to prepare talented high school students to succeed in college; the participating high school students will be the first in their family to go to college.
  • With leadership from Cheryl Adelstein, we are sponsoring charter schools in the City of St. Louis in the Knowledge is Power Program, and we are also sponsoring the Hawthorn School for Girls, opening this summer with a focus on STEM education.
  • Through our Institute for School Partnership led by Vicki May, we are engaging with public schools in the region to enhance science education.
  • The Richard A. Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement, under the leadership of Professor Amanda Moore McBride, is deeply engaged in our community and providing opportunities for students to make contributions to strengthening our community.
  • Provost Holden Thorp has attracted a team to enhance our efforts in innovation and entrepreneurship, including Mike Kinch, Dedric Carter and Emre Toker, the new leader of our Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, leading to the spawning of new companies and new jobs.

Our students have been involved in all these efforts to enhance the well-being of our community and all who live here. Indeed, our students have been leaders in these areas, including medical students participating in Saturday morning clinics, engineering and medical students founding IDEA Labs, and undergraduates who are a part of the Civic Scholars program of the Gephardt Institute.

Our new graduates provide the basis for my optimism that the future is bright. Our alumni amplify the work of the faculty and staff, and we will follow with interest the contributions of our newest alumni.

They will contribute to treating and curing cancer, overcoming neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s disease. Our new graduates will lead and spawn new companies, contribute to the achievement of social justice, and work to solve daunting problems associated with our growing global population such as the need for more energy and nutritious food without creating adverse effects on the environment.

Our new graduates will contribute to overcoming poverty and global public health challenges. Our alumni will be making the world better in other ways through their creative contributions in art, design, the humanities and the performing arts. If you need evidence of that promise, just go take a look at the Master of Fine Arts exhibit of student works in the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. Yes, the future is brighter thanks to the promise represented by our new alumni.

50 years ago, the Gateway Arch was completed. Today, the Gateway Arch is being redeveloped with an enormous investment from our community. In dollars, the investment is even more than the original cost of the Gateway Arch. But this redevelopment is part of what is needed to bring reality to the importance of St. Louis as a city of promise and hope for the future, just as it was in 1853.

Considering the challenges we face domestically and internationally, we need to re-focus on bringing reality to the promise of a brighter future through the work of the university, its students, faculty and staff. Most important, I challenge our alumni to take up the mantle of responsibility to make our world better.

Think of Washington University as the catalyst and the gateway to a better future. Graduates, as you pass through the arch of Brookings Hall, I wish you every success in your family life, in your continuing educational and career activities, and in your effort to make our world better.

Thank you for what you have done so far, but you have raised my expectations through your successes. The future of the world depends on you! It is now time for commencement of that brighter future. Congratulations to the Class of 2015!