Wrighton reaffirms WUSTL’s commitment to diversity, inclusiveness

On the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr. Day Jan. 16, Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton addressed the University’s continuing efforts to strengthen diversity, improve gender balance and be more inclusive and accepting.

Washington University is one of the finest research universities in the nation and, indeed, the world — thanks to the efforts of our faculty and students and the support of our staff, alumni, trustees and friends. Achievements of the past decade are ones we can be proud of and benefit our region, the nation and the world, such as the development of the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center, the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in the entire state. The physical development and quality of our campuses assist in attracting talented faculty and students, providing modern and attractive settings for education and research. Generous support from individuals, corporations and foundations made it possible for us to achieve more than could be done with tuition alone.

Financial aid endowment has been expanded dramatically, enabling us to attract and support students who would not be able to be here without financial assistance. For example, the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Scholars Program was started with the largest gift for scholarships in the University’s history, provided by the Taylor family and Enterprise Rent-A-Car. The $25 million endowment gift now supports about 100 students, including many from the St. Louis region.

Our very successful fund-raising effort that concluded in the summer of 2004 — the Campaign for Washington University: A Partnership for the 21st Century — led to the creation of more than 150 new endowed professorships, helping us to attract and retain an outstanding group of faculty members. Yes, we have much to be proud of and we have become far better known and far higher in quality through creative and dedicated effort on the part of many.

Yet on this Martin Luther King Day in 2006, there are two areas where we must make more progress to place us as a standout among the world’s leading universities — diversity and inclusiveness. Let me first address the matter of diversity. We work diligently to attract more members of minority groups to both our faculty and staff, and we continue to work to improve the gender balance. In terms of both minorities and women, our faculty today is stronger than it was a decade ago. But we are not a leader. We are, at best, in the middle of the pack among our nation’s premier research universities. This is not a comfortable position, considering the educational benefits of living and working in a diverse community and considering our relative success in strengthening the University by overcoming other challenges.

In order to quicken the pace of our progress to improve diversity and gender balance of our faculty and administration, I appointed Ms. Leah Merrifield to the position of Special Assistant to the Chancellor for Diversity Initiatives. She has convened a Coordinating Council for Diversity Initiatives involving University colleagues from the administration and the faculty. The council will assist in developing new plans to build greater momentum. The Coordinating Council has been at work since early fall 2005, and the University Council of deans and vice chancellors held a daylong meeting with the Coordinating Council to consider the issues and how to address them. We were assisted in our meeting by keynote presenters from outside the University, including Dr. Walter Massey, our distinguished alumnus and president of Morehouse College. These external perspectives, while invigorating and inspiring, affirmed that we are not the leader we aspire to be.

We have resolved to dedicate the resources, creativity and hard work needed to become a leader in strengthening diversity and improving gender balance. This is a long-term effort with no simple or easy paths to leadership. But it is my hope that a look back 10 years from now will see the 2005-06 academic year as the beginning of a new era.

Inclusiveness is the second area where more work must be done. Ours is a community with a great tradition of civility and working well together, but we have not yet fully created the “climate” that supports all members of our community. Indeed, in our early considerations of what it will take to strengthen the University’s representation of minorities, I have become even more conscious of the importance of having an inclusive community. Programs led by talented undergraduates around the time of the Chinese New Year in the winter and Diwali in the fall help us understand the cultures and traditions of two of the world’s most populous countries. Black Anthology and Carnavál benefit us by showcasing the cultural heritage of the African-American and Latino communities. I applaud such efforts and pledge to continue to support the recruitment of an even more diverse student body. The curriculum led by our faculty is also rich in multicultural offerings and is a key to our academic leadership. We need to become more supportive of those we seek to recruit — and not merely sign them up and then leave them to their own devices to sink or swim. As much as we cherish individual and independent achievement, it is important to appreciate all of the factors that will contribute to individual success. An inclusive environment is especially important for members of our community who are members of minority groups.

I have not personally experienced the “chilly environment” that is felt by some women, African-Americans, Latinos, gays or lesbians. I have not absorbed abuse for my religious beliefs. Even my international travels to Asia and South Africa rarely give me a hint of what it is like to be different and to be the only white person in a group, for in those settings I am most often a person of interest and perceived importance, and I am welcomed and appreciated for my different background and perspectives. If we are to be celebrated as the premier research university we aspire to be, we must provide a community in which each individual is a person of interest and importance.

As members of an educational institution working with a diverse group of students from all parts of America and the world, we have a special responsibility to nurture the development of young women and men who are for the first time in their lives experiencing independence and the “freedom” of being away from their families. A student once told me that she valued this community for its diversity and because it allowed her for the first time to make connections with people who are Jewish and people who are black. How fortunate that our community members of different backgrounds welcomed her into their lives!

Students coming to Washington University as 17- or 18-year-olds may be exploring their sexual identities and discovering their sexual orientations. Some students may be questioning the faith traditions of their family and friends while others may be embracing them for the first time on their own. Our community must provide a supportive and accepting environment for these elements of personal maturation, and doing that in an inclusive, diverse community is best. At our Academic Convocation in August, I tell our first-year students and their parents that I have the expectation that all members of the community will show respect for each other. Of course, in a competitive academic setting like ours differences of opinion about important issues will emerge. This is a place where those differences can, and should be, explored.

Our laws and strong traditions of academic freedom assure everyone the right to express themselves freely on matters of importance. However, our faculty and staff serve our students best — individually and in the aggregate — when we responsibly exercise the rights to freedom so that our maturing students look to us for support and guidance. It is the University’s responsibility to provide an environment supportive of all, even for those questioning traditional views or ways of living. Individuals in positions of responsibility have the obligation to do what is best for those we serve, and we must avoid creating an environment that is intimidating or hostile. We should not accept actions that create an environment discriminatory toward those of a different religion, race, sexual orientation, gender, or cultural or ethnic background, nor should members of this community denigrate those with mental or physical disabilities. Indeed, ours will only be the best climate for social, emotional and intellectual growth and achievement if we are all committed to diversity and inclusiveness.

To conclude, we celebrate the life and contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. each year. Our annual holiday in his honor reminds us of his important contributions, which we should strive to emulate. Strengthening diversity, improving gender balance, and striving to be more inclusive and accepting are worthy University aspirations. So I close with this quote from Dr. King, written in 1958: “We can choose either to walk the high road of human brotherhood or to tread the low road of man’s inhumanity to man.” Each of us must take “the high road,” and I encourage all in this community to do so.