Chancellor Wrighton addresses 2,655 graduates of the class of 2008

To all graduates, you have my congratulations on your accomplishments. I welcome you as the newest alumni of Washington University, and I challenge you to continue the great work that earned your admission here and your graduation today. You are degree recipients in art, architecture, business, engineering, humanities, law, medicine, science, social science or social work. However, you have done more than just meet requirements. You have matured not only intellectually, but emotionally and socially as well. We have experienced a great deal together, and I am proud of your contributions—all of them. You have been involved in very impressive service activities including Dance Marathon, led last year by 2008 graduate Greg Perlstein. These service activities have brought benefits to many.

We have had fun and excitement in athletics, with a large number of NCAA Division III teams succeeding at the highest level during these past several years, including three national championships this year. The Men’s Tennis Team beat Emory University yesterday to win the NCAA Division III national title…we did not have time to prepare a banner, as we have for Men’s Basketball and Women’s Volleyball. You have enriched us with á capella singing, theatrical, music, and dance performances, and you have enhanced our cultural understanding through Black Anthology, Carnival, Diwali and the Chinese New Year Festival. Those among you who are professional degree recipients have prepared yourselves for leadership in ways that will serve society. Many of you have been involved already in knowledge creation that will enhance the quality of life. Today, it is my fervent hope and expectation that 50 years from now, when you rejoin us for a momentous reunion as the Class of 1958 is enjoying now, you will be able to say that your accomplishments have contributed to changing the world.

I have thought carefully about my message to the graduates today. I am proud of all listening today: our new alumni, parents, faculty, students and staff. In difficult times and in good times you have been collegial, respectful and thoughtful. I have valued your input on the many issues that have confronted us recently and during the years of your student experiences.

From time to time in a community such as ours, there arise differences of opinion about the best course for the University, from where best to deploy our financial resources, to whom should be awarded tenure and honorary degrees. We are a strong, diverse community, but a community of people. People are human and sometimes fall short of expectations of even those people about whom we care the most. This shortfall of expectations comes in families, in relationships, and in professional life. For students and alumni, Washington University’s community is most like a family, because alumni are forever linked to their alma mater as we are to our families. Being a member of a family is what makes human shortfalls sometimes so painful. Even so we remain a family and learn from each other. That is what is so refreshing about a diverse university family: we help each other and learn from each other. For the Washington University community, it has been my experience that everyone here is committed to enhancing the excellence of the University. Input from our community on critical issues has enabled me to see paths that will strengthen the University, and I learn from the differing views of our diverse community.

Let me affirm my commitment and that of Washington University to celebrating this community of diversity and inclusiveness. I reaffirm my commitment to work to strengthen diversity and inclusiveness and to improve our gender balance. These goals are vital to our progress. We operate all programs of the University without regard to race, color, age, religion, sex, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, national origin, veteran status or disability. I take these statements seriously and affirm that everyone in this community has the right to equal opportunity. My own goal for this university is to reflect the face of America in the make up of our community, and today we have much work to do to engage a larger number of members of minority groups and in some areas we need to improve the representation of women. We must also provide an environment where all students, faculty, and staff can realize their considerable potential. Progress toward this goal will build our quality and impact in education and research.

A major effort of the past two years has been our Plan for Excellence process leading to the development of a strategic plan to guide Washington University for the next 10 years. Every academic unit of the University has exciting and compelling aspirations that build on successes while accepting the new challenges of this century. But whatever programmatic and physical objectives we have, nothing of importance can be done here without talented people. Great students, faculty and staff define the strength of the University. We must foster a diverse, gender-balanced, inclusive and supportive environment where individuals and teams of people can learn together and discover new knowledge, be creative, and make important contributions to society—locally, nationally and globally. I pledge that our Plan for Excellence will include these considerations as University-wide imperatives.

Our impact on society will grow with the work of the Richard A. Gephardt Institute for Public Service under the leadership of Professor Amanda Moore McBride of the Brown School. Together with Associate Director Stephanie Kurtzman, the Gephardt Institute is engaging hundreds of our students in service to our own community, with an eye on other parts of the world. The “Faces of Hope” celebration by the Gephardt Institute in April showed the significant commitment of our students, faculty and staff to public service.

In another important area of national public service, I know that many of our newest alumni here today care deeply about improving public education in urban areas and that a significant fraction of our undergraduates have been selected by Teach for America, conceived by Wendy Kopp while a student at Princeton. I myself recently visited with one of our young graduates, Laura Vilines, a Teach for America ninth-grade English teacher, at a school here in the City of St. Louis. She is doing great work and improving the opportunities for young people in St. Louis, as I know many people here today will soon be doing. Future students will have the opportunity to work with a charter school Washington University will be sponsoring that is a part of the Knowledge Is Power Program, founded by former Teach for America teachers.

Creating new enterprises in St. Louis will also bring value to our community and to the wider world. Our work in entrepreneurship, including the programs of the Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, should bring new businesses to our region, such as Kereos founded by Professor Samuel Wickline in the School of Medicine. Professor Wickline is advancing a new paradigm in medicine call “theranostics”, combining diagnostics with therapy in treating cancer.

In another innovative effort, the Skandalaris Center contributed to the development of a blockbuster success in “social entrepreneurship” called the Blessing Basket Project led by Theresa Wilson. This project involves empowering women in developing countries by training them to weave attractive baskets that are then shipped to and sold in developed countries like the U.S. Today, more than 3,000 women in six developing countries are weaving hope, one basket at a time. They are building the economies of their communities. Students, faculty and staff have gone to Madagascar twice in connection with this effort, including undergraduate Kristopher Kelley. I congratulate Kris also because he competed successfully to be “Mr. Wash U” this spring to generate support for City Faces, a program for inner city children in St. Louis to learn to create works of art.

Our Plan for Excellence will include significant efforts to be engaged in international partnerships through the McDonnell International Scholars Academy. The first McDonnell Scholars to start and complete their programs are graduating today, Ms. Ming Zu of Tsinghua University, Mr. Vikram Govindan of IIT Bombay, and Mr. Chiaki Sato of the University of Tokyo. These individuals, as Washington University alumni, are part of a new global network of leaders who are building cooperation and understanding among people and institutions of the world.

Through our international partnerships we are already taking steps to advance education and research related to energy, environment, and sustainability. Aren’t you glad that Washington University commencement gowns are green? On our own campus, I am proud of the leadership of our students, faculty and staff who are planning for our being a model organization in terms of stewardship of the environment, and we are sharing our work with the 24 partner universities in the McDonnell Academy. Our new graduates have contributed significantly to these efforts.

Today, our hearts go out to the victims of natural disasters in Myanmar and China. Loss of life and devastation in these countries dwarfs even our own disaster from Katrina just a few years ago. In the aftermath of Katrina, many of our new graduates here assisted in the revitalization of New Orleans, giving up their spring breaks to assist others in need. This is noble and impressive, and I am proud of all those who assisted. In Myanmar, the problems in the aftermath of the devastating cyclone have been exacerbated by a tyrannical government blocking assistance by the rest of the world.

I am sure that our new alumni, the next generation of global leaders, will help in addressing these and other international challenges so vital to our future. Earlier this spring, students and faculty members of the American Studies Program of our McDonnell Academy partner Fudan University in Shanghai came to campus to work with our students and members of our faculty to develop a strategy that may lead to the abolition of nuclear arms. In the fall, our students and faculty involved in this endeavor will travel to Shanghai to continue their work. It is efforts like these that bring hope that our future will be brighter.

Indeed, our outstanding students are inspiring! For the past several years our students have led one of the nation’s most successful Relay for Life efforts for the American Cancer Society. Leading a community-wide effort, students, including 2008 graduates Chris Riha, Prerna Raj, and Jonathan Steer, have brought support to all who are affected by cancer, and obviously this includes everyone alive today. It is noble work like this that brings hope to our world.

Just a few weeks ago, I shared with an audience the definition of “chancellor”: a chancellor is a doorkeeper. I view my role here as one of many faculty and staff opening doors for students. Our new graduates are well-prepared to walk through the arch of Brookings and take the lead. Take the lead as our newest leaders in society!

I close with a brief quotation from Albert Einstein that was inscribed on a small gift given to me from the leaders of Relay for Life:

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.” Thank you and congratulations to the Class of 2008!