Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton’s message to the Class of 2017

Chancellor Wrighton
Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton welcomes families at the 156th Commencement in Brookings Quadrangle. (Photo: James Byard/Washington University)

It’s a privilege to be here. I tweeted out its a privilege to be able to have the view of this outstanding group of graduates.

I wish I could take credit for the good weather we enjoy this morning. But I need to share with you a little background.

Yesterday morning, at the Arts & Sciences recognition ceremony, I called upon the Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences to help us with this. But, not feeling completely confident, I asked Father Gary to pray for us. And he delivered as well.

Each of you as graduates has grown 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 all by yourselves. 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?

Anna Quindlen, your message this morning is one that has enduring value. Just as your contributions during your life have been a blessing for all of us, we are grateful for your participation this morning. Thank you again for an outstanding address.

Our other honorary degree recipients, John Bachmann, Father Gary Braun, Dr. Tom Frist, David Steward, and Dr. Virgina Weldon are also great individuals who illustrate a wide range of impressive achievements that contribute to making our world better.

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, and we have realized great success this year in Division III NCAA intercollegiate athletics, with two team national championships, women’s soccer and women’s indoor track & field.

Individual championships were won by Deko Ricketts in the 800-meter run in indoor track & field; Brandon Lum for the 200-meter butterfly in swimming and diving; and by Audrey Western, Kelli Hancock, Ashley Knudson and Alison Lindsay in the distance medley relay in indoor track & field.

Further, we expect to wrap up the year among the very best Division III programs in the U.S. Men’s and women’s tennis are both in the quarter finals, as we strive to win national championships beginning on Monday, May 22, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Baseball is in the Central Regional Playoff, and our track teams will compete at the nationals next week in Geneva, Ohio. We are No. 1 in Division III Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup standings as of yesterday morning!

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 Pow Wow and the Lunar New Year Festival. Our students have led Dance Marathon and Relay for Life. Many have been involved in research and other creative work that will enhance the quality of life for all of us.

Students graduating today have met many challenges while striving to meet their degree requirements. Hard work, creativity, and conscientiousness have been important for all.  Some of our new graduates have faced major hurdles in their personal and family lives.

Take, for example, the great achievement of Laura Cobb. Her undergraduate experience was interrupted by a devastating accident, but she battled back. She overcame many obstacles, with assistance from her parents, friends and professionals, including our faculty and staff. She graduates today with her degree in psychology. Congratulations, Laura Cobb! Your strength and perseverance is an inspiration to us all.

Our newest alumni today give us great optimism for a brighter future ahead, despite daunting global problems. Like our alumni of 1967 who have returned for their 50th reunion, our graduates of 2017 will face personal and professional challenges in the decades ahead, but will have many opportunities, too. I am confident that our new graduates will fulfill their high potential, and indeed, many have already made progress on important problems.

In this era, Washington University has been focused on preparing students for lives of meaning and purpose and to make contributions that will have a positive effect on society. Emphasis is on four areas where we have the potential to enhance the quality and impact of our efforts. First, we are striving to prepare the next generation of society’s leaders, and many of the 3,095 graduates today have already exhibited the kind of leadership that we need. Oftentimes, when we mention the aspiration to prepare society’s leaders, one thinks of leaders who become CEOs of large organizations — like corporations or universities — and we have surely seen Washington University alumni ascend to these roles.

For example, Arts & Sciences alumnus Jon Feltheimer, a newly elected member of our Board of Trustees, is CEO of Lionsgate Entertainment, and engineering alumnus Arnold Donald is CEO of Carnival Cruise Line. Architecture alumnus Jim Barker is the past president of Clemson University; Arts & Sciences alumna Deborah Freund became president of Claremont Graduate University; and alumnus Chia-Wei Woo was the founding president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

But I regard society’s leaders far more broadly, and they include leaders in their chosen fields and individuals who have gone on to the highest levels of success and recognition, including Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners. I am reminded of engineering and Arts & Sciences alumnus W. E. Moerner, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014, and Arts & Sciences alumnus Hank Klibanoff, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his outstanding journalism covering racial issues. Art alumnus Mike Peters won a Pulitzer Prize for his penetrating editorial cartoons. Anna Crosslin, an Arts & Sciences alumna, founded and continues to lead the International Institute here in St. Louis, providing enormously important benefits to people coming to St. Louis from other countries. Alumna Tarisa Watanagase became the governor of the Bank of Thailand. Other alumni have gone on to be members of the House of Representatives, the Senate or the Cabinet.

The current acting director of the FBI is law alumnus Andrew McCabe, and law alumnus and emeritus trustee William Webster has served as director of the FBI and of the CIA. Yes, we have a long history of having talented students who go on to become leaders in society, locally, nationally and internationally.

Many of our graduates today have already made important leadership contributions. New law alumna Wei Zhu and medical student Alexandra Keane served this past year as graduate student representatives to the Board of Trustees. They have introduced to the board the importance of working to establish a leadership institute that would serve the graduate and professional student community.

Arts & Sciences graduates Norah Rast and Rohan Khazanchi engaged with the Board of Trustees as undergraduate representatives, and they focused on mental health issues that many students face. Evan Garden and Casey Sands were the 2017 co-leaders of the Washington University Relay for Life, a student-run fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. They raised a great deal of money, and also raised consciousness to the prevalence of cancer and to our needs to advance research and patient care.

The prevalence of cancer and mental health challenges are but two areas where advances in human health are needed. Washington University has a great effort to advance human health, with an enviable record of achievement stemming from contributions of its alumni and its current students, faculty and staff.

As chancellor, I am proud to be here at Washington University, where medical miracles are being performed every day, including life-saving clinical procedures. Students leaving us with the letters “MD” after their name have the potential to advance human health in a way that is direct and personal. You carry a responsibility that is very special and significant, indeed. Those who graduate with the letters “MSW” after your name join about 10,000 other graduates of the Brown School of Social Work, who may also contribute directly to the advance of human health through the work you will do with your clients. To the MDs and MSWs, thank you for your commitment to helping humankind.

There are graduates here today who are also contributing to advancing human health, albeit a bit less directly. I am thinking about those who will have the initials “MPH” after their name who will work to address public health challenges and contribute to the formulation and implementation of sound public policy. I am thinking about those who will have the initials “PhD” after their name, who have been involved in fundamental research to support advances in health care. Having earned a PhD myself, and having mentored 70 people who earned a PhD, I know that faculty mentors can play an important role in advancing the research. But I also know that PhD students are vital contributors to the creation of new knowledge that can benefit humankind, including, but not limited to advancing human health. I congratulate all of our PhD graduates and thank you for the important contribution you have already made to advancing knowledge.

Knowledge created at universities can be a source of major benefit for society in terms of advancing human health, but new knowledge can be applied in ways that have major economic benefit. Advancing innovation and entrepreneurship is a third theme of importance for this era. Many students graduating today have been involved in programs developed by the Skandalaris Center, and what is so remarkable is that students themselves have been key contributors to the development of new programmatic elements. I am very impressed with what is now known as Sling Health Network that involves students coming to understand the problems faced by practicing physicians and developing solutions to those problems.

Another entrepreneurial development is the BALSA Group, founded and led by Washington University students, providing low-cost consulting services to science- and technology-based new enterprises. Each of these initiatives has become nationally significant. Enhancing innovation and entrepreneurship will be a key contribution to making the world better.

Speaking of making the world better, our fourth theme is to enhance the quality of life for all. Like innovation and entrepreneurship, everyone can contribute to enhancing the quality of life for all. We know the world faces challenges that no single institution — indeed, no single country — can address alone. These global problems are complex and require cooperation involving many different entities and people with many different areas of expertise.

Problems include the following: (1) providing the energy the world needs at an affordable cost, and without adverse effect on the environment; (2) public health challenges such as infectious disease, chronic illness, aging of the population and health-care disparities; (3) producing the nutritious food for a growing global population; (4) overcoming income inequality and poverty; and (5) working to assure safety and security for all global citizens.

As a scientist, I know that some of the global challenges will require advances in science and engineering, but I also know that technological advances alone will not be sufficient. Best solutions to the problems we face will come from a wide range of disciplines and from people with different backgrounds. Though we are sometimes in competition with other countries, we must come together to cooperate. We might find ourselves in “coopetition,” cooperating while competing. Doubtless, individuals will disagree on the best solutions to global problems, but international cooperation will be necessary.

This is why I am so pleased to have so many international students and colleagues here at Washington University. I am deeply appreciative of the commitment made by our international students, including their family members, who are contributing so much to our community. We at Washington University will continue to work hard to encourage and support our international colleagues and to build international partnerships, especially through our McDonnell International Scholars Academy that brings us into partnership with 32 premier research universities around the world.

Solutions to complex problems will come from diverse teams coming together to work together. Our new graduates have learned the value of a strong community, of working in teams, and working to strengthen the world around them. Our graduates are not the “me” generation, they are the “we” generation. Together, we can change the world for the better.

Graduates, you are the next generation of leaders. You are those who will carry forth the torch of knowledge and will ignite new efforts to make our world better by building economic prosperity; advancing human health; achieving social  justice; providing energy for all while preserving our environment; creating music, literature and art; and designing the built world. We can do it together.

Congratulations to the Class of 2017!

Leave a Comment

Comments and respectful dialogue are encouraged, but content will be moderated. Please, no personal attacks, obscenity or profanity, selling of commercial products, or endorsements of political candidates or positions. We reserve the right to remove any inappropriate comments. We also cannot address individual medical concerns or provide medical advice in this forum.