Chancellor celebrates final Convocation: ‘This is what we value. This is why we celebrate’

The first of many lasts, Wrighton tells students to engage in thoughtful debate, vote and go to class

Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton leads student keynote speaker Dan Sicorsky and Student Union President Grace Egbo to the stage for his 21st and final Convocation. (Photo: Sid Hastings/Washington University)

“Some of you may wonder ‘What does the chancellor do?’ When I first came in July of  1995, I looked it up in the dictionary. And it says, among the definitions, ‘secretary,’ especially secretary to a king. Another definition: titular leader of a university. Being a chemist, I looked that up also. And that means ‘figurehead’  . . . There is another definition, and it’s the one that I like the most. It’s ‘doorkeeper.’ My responsibility is to open doors for you, our new students.” 

— Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton, Aug. 23, 2018

So went the final Convocation speech from Washington University in St. Louis Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton, who will step down next spring after 24 years of opening doors for thousands of students, faculty, staff and  members of the St. Louis community. He spoke Aug. 23 in the Athletic Complex before the 1,800 cheering members of the Class of 2022 and their proud-but-wistful parents.

Risa Zwerling Wrighton, Wrighton’s wife, can relate.

“We really can’t believe it’s the last year,” Zwerling Wrighton said earlier in the day. “Everyone has been congratulating us on his retirement, but we get this pang of sadness. We are not going to leave. We are going to find some other role at the university because this place is extra special.”

Move-in Day marked the first of many lasts for the chancellor. There will be the last Senior Dinner, last Staff Day, last Commencement. On June 1, 2019, Andrew D. Martin, Washington University alumnus and dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan, will assume the role of chancellor. Martin attended Convocation, sitting in the back of the Athletic Complex. His attempt to not be a distraction was foiled when Wrighton called him to stand. Zwerling Wrighton ran over and gave him a big hug. 

When asked earlier in the day if he was rethinking his decision to retire, Wrighton offered a big laugh and an emphatic “no.”

“Risa and I have had a great deal of fun but, after 24 years, it’s time for a new chancellor to come in and create an even stronger environment,” Wrighton said. 

Wrighton launched Convocation to share university values and create a community of friends and scholars. (Photo: Sid Hastings/Washington University)

“Our students are terrific and that progress that we’ve made is all about you and the students who have preceded you. We have had great students, and I declared in a tweet this evening that you are the best!”

Wrighton is known for his double-breasted suits and formal manner, which is why students find it so endearing when he performs the “Peel the Banana” dance on Move-In Day and the “Dancellor” at Dance Marathon. 

Wrighton leads the procession at the first Convocation in 1998.

Wrighton brought that same easygoing spirit to his largely ad-libbed address. In addition to his standard advice (“No. 1: Go to class”), he gave a shout out to “secret weapon” Zwerling Wrighton, noted that the Princeton Review just named Washington University the No. 1 “best-run college in America,” urged all eligible voters to participate in the midterm elections and stated his commitment to free speech, even if Student Life, the student newspaper, is “a little hard on us.”

It was a speech with more laughs, more applause and more emotion. Steve Givens, Wrighton’s chief of staff from 1997 to 2006 and again from 2013 to the present, could see his boss was enjoying himself on stage.

“He’s so loose right now,” Givens remarked midway through address. “He always gets so energized by the students. This is really one of his favorite nights of the year.”

Wrighton and his wife, Risa Zwerling Wrighton, greet students and their parents in Brookings Quadrangle after the Convocation ceremony. (Photo: Sid Hastings/Washington University)

“Here at Washington University, you will be challenged with opinions, ideas and proposed actions that run counter to your own views. Indeed, we expect you to be intellectually challenged! Respectful debate of the issues that confront us and discussion of how best to solve the problems we face should be an important part of your educational experience. My expectation is that we all remain respectful of one another as we address difficult issues.”

Wrighton launched Convocation 21 years ago and charged Givens and Karen Coburn, formerly assistant vice chancellor for students and currently senior consultant in residency, with creating an event that would create a community of friends and scholars. Every element — the students’ residential college cheers, faculty’s academic regalia, the parents’ glow sticks that light the way from the ceremony to the Quadrangle — reinforce the values and spirit of Washington University.

“It is a tradition that I am very proud of,” Wrighton said before his speech. “The students arrive in the shirts of their residential college and we put on our academic regalia, which sets the tone that we are here to have fun — but this is a serious place where we all hold high academic aspirations.”

Wrighton writes his own speeches, always noting which new building is starting/ending construction and nailing favorite jokes (“The legal age for drinking in Missouri is 21 years, and we are not in Colorado,” “Your parents are no longer responsible for you — except, of course, for those tuition checks!”). Most importantly, he reminds students that Washington University is place of respect and collaboration.

“Every class needs to hear those words,” Wrighton said before the speech. “I believe firmly that the whole educational experience is better for everybody when you are exposed to ideas and people and experiences that you haven’t had before. There is something very powerful about getting everyone in one room and saying, ‘This is what we value. This is why we celebrate.’”

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