A chat with the chancellor

We had an opportunity to visit with the chancellor and talk about his great joy of leading the university and helping others succeed. Here, he shares some highlights and insights.

Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton discusses his legacy with Washington magazine. (Article photos: James Byard & Tom Malkowicz/WUSTL Photos)
Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton discusses his legacy with Washington magazine. (Article photos: James Byard & Tom Malkowicz/WUSTL Photos)

Outside the North Brookings office of Washington University in St. Louis ­Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton, stonemasons are erecting the granite exterior to the Henry A. and Elvira H. Jubel Hall while crews ready the roof of Anabeth and John Weil Hall for solar panels. By fall 2019, the transformation of the east end of Washington University will be largely ­complete. There will be three new academic buildings, an expanded Mildred Lane ­Kemper Art Museum, two new multiuse facilities, an underground parking garage and a lush new park. But last November, the site was all cranes, scaffolding and tractors that go beep, beep, beep. Wrighton claims not to notice the incessant racket.

“Oh, is there beeping?” Wrighton asks with a wry grin. “I don’t hear it.” 

On June 1, 2019, Wrighton will ­conclude his 24-year ­tenure as ­chancellor — a term that is ­extraordinary for both its length and productivity. The ­average chancellor stays in the job 6 ½ years. But for Wrighton, there was always another challenge — a new ­initiative, a new campaign, a new building — he wanted to complete. As chancellor, Wrighton oversaw the construction of more than 50 new buildings and boosted the number of full-time faculty by 1,000 and the endowment by $5 billion. During his administration, ­Washington ­University also increased student enrollment and diversity, ­admitting a ­growing ­percentage of Pell-eligible and first-generation students. 

“WashU is a special place, and one of the things that makes it special is that people here do not rest on their laurels,” Wrighton says. “There was always the next challenge, and it has brought me great joy to help people here do what they want to do. But now is the right time for me and the ­university. We just finished a big fundraising campaign. I’m going to be 70 years old. That’s a good time for a transition.” 

Note the word “transition.” Wrighton is not retiring, and he bristles at the term ­“stepping down.” 

“I prefer to say that I’m ‘stepping up’ to the faculty, doing some teaching,” ­Wrighton says. “It’s the most important job at the ­university.”

Here, Chancellor Wrighton shares his earliest memories of campus, his views on our culture of collaboration, his approach to recruiting top faculty, his thoughts on the accomplishments making the biggest impact and more. 

Did you have growing pains as you made the transition from provost at MIT to chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis? 

In many ways, I was very well-prepared for a job like this. Having been provost, I understood financing in higher education and how to work with a diverse group of faculty. I also had some exposure to the MIT Corporation, which is the equivalent of our Board of Trustees. But ­Washington University had schools of which I knew nearly nothing: law, social work and, most importantly, medicine. So I felt I was on a steep learning curve. But that’s also what made the job attractive, because I think it’s fun to learn in areas where you have no experience. 

Do you remember your first impressions of campus?

“Learning and discovery are activities that sometimes involve controversy and disagreement, but it was clear early on that my high expectation for an intellectual community capable of open discourse would be realized here at Washington University.”

— Mark S. Wrighton

I had never visited Washington University until the search committee brought me here. It was all very secret. I think I was even registered at hotels under a different name. Jim Davis [a professor of political science, who died in 2016] arranged for Ralph Thaman [retired ­associate vice ­chancellor for facilities planning and management] to give me a campus tour. Even then, I could see the opportunity to strengthen the physical ­infrastructure. I saw many beautiful buildings, but I also saw Mudd Hall. 

And I saw something else in the university community once I arrived: a high ­degree of mutual respect, integrity and civility. ­Learning and discovery are activities that sometimes involve ­controversy and disagreement, but it was clear early on that my high expectation for an ­intellectual community capable of open discourse would be realized here at ­Washington University.

Was it hard to step into a role occupied by Chancellor Emeritus William H. Danforth, who was both respected and beloved by students, faculty and the broader St. Louis community? 

Having Bill Danforth as chairman of the board and a great mentor was a huge positive. He knew everyone in St. Louis, and I knew no one. He was a sounding board and guide, and he was very generous in introducing me to people outside the university. To his credit, he never called me up and said, “Mark, you know I hear you’ve done this. That’s really dumb.” 

In addition to constructing many new buildings, you also helped create an environment of collaboration, not competition. How did you help strengthen WashU’s unique culture? 

It comes down to people, really. I asked Jim ­McLeod [dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, who died in 2011] to take a leadership role as vice ­chancellor for students. That was one of my very best ­decisions. He was a ­tremendous person in every respect: smart, hardworking, sensitive, ­visionary. He’s deeply missed, but his legacy lives on in very important ways. I try to ­reaffirm his values every convocation when I tell our new ­students that this is a ­community where we are ­committed to ­knowing each student by name and by story. I also tell them that they belong here and they should set their own goals. At some places, there is a lot of competition. Here, we have a very good environment where people are aspiring to do well but not at
the expense of others.

Chancellor Wrighton speaks on the importance of recruiting and retaining the best faculty in order to recruit the highest caliber students. (Article photos: James Byard & Tom Malkowicz/WUSTL Photos)
Chancellor Wrighton speaks on the importance of recruiting and retaining the best faculty in order to recruit the highest caliber students. (Article photos: James Byard & Tom Malkowicz/WUSTL Photos)

During your tenure, Washington University has drawn even more talented students and faculty. Which came first?

We had 5,000 undergraduates my first fall. Now we have 7,000 undergraduates. To maintain a very high-quality experience, we had to expand our faculty. I believe we need to expand it again. That is one of the challenges of the future. But one thing I’m really proud of is that by building the quality of the student body, thanks in large part to John Berg [vice chancellor for admissions, who retired in 2016], we were able to get the attention of fantastic faculty ­members. In my first campaign, ­David Blasingame [who retired as executive vice chancellor for alumni and development programs in January 2019] helped raise support for more than 150 endowed professorships. And with the campaign we just ended, we raised funds for ­another 150 endowed positions. Those resources are extremely important in recognizing and s­upporting ­talented faculty. 

What has been your approach to recruiting top faculty? 

We are striving to recruit faculty who are going to do the best work in their lives at Washington ­University. And certain areas of academic work, like engineering and science, demand significant ­resources. Many people do not understand that when we recruit a faculty ­member, we need to ­provide the funding to get them off to a good start. The one-time start-up cost can be $500,000 to $2 ­million — and that’s for a person who has never held an academic position before. So we are ­investing based on the potential we see in them. To earn a tenured position at WashU, they must demonstrate that potential and the promise for more. I’m fond of telling young faculty: “To get tenure, you have to be the best person in your area, in your cohort, in the world. And if you are, you’re going to get tenure, no trouble.” The challenge is once they get tenure, they think they are all of those things. 

During your tenure, Washington University researchers have made important advancements in a number of fields. Which accomplishments have made the biggest impact?

“When you ask what area has made a huge difference, I would say the development of the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center has been and will con-tinue to be hugely important. … The research there is leading to developments that are helping people everywhere.”

— Mark S. Wrighton

We have two schools — the Brown School and the School of Medicine — that are widely recognized as among the very best in the world. Yet each of our seven schools has a great impact. But when you ask what area has made a huge difference, I would say the development of the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center has been and will continue to be hugely important. Alvin ­Siteman is an emeritus trustee, and he’s been ­incredibly ­generous. But money isn’t everything. You also need leadership, and Dr. Tim Eberlein [director of ­Siteman Cancer Center and chair of the ­Department of Surgery at the School of ­Medicine] has been a ­tremendous leader. The research there is leading to developments that are helping people everywhere. For instance, Dr. Bob Schreiber [­director of the Andrew M. and Jane M. Bursky Center for ­Human Immunology and Immunotherapy Programs at the School of Medicine and the Andrew M. and Jane M. Bursky Distinguished Professor] is working on immunological approaches to ­dealing with ­diseases, including cancer, and has been a ­pioneer in personalized medicine. We were there early, and our work has been significant. 

In your inaugural address, you stated the university must serve the community it calls home. In what ways has the university impacted St. Louis?

Because we are here and we are successful, we have a huge positive economic impact on St. Louis. We attract significant funding from foundations and the federal government for our research, almost all of which is spent in our ­community. The secondary job creation is very significant. And our s­tudents, 90 percent of whom come from outside the region, spend significant money here on ­restaurants, goods, entertainment. And our ­student growth leads to employment growth. 

But there is so much more. For instance, the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement, the Brown School and our ­Institute for Public Health bring us directly into the ­community in partnership. 

And our work to support innovation and ­entrepreneurship has been very ­important. We worked collaboratively with BJC ­HealthCare, the Missouri Botanical Garden, Saint Louis ­University and the University of Missouri–St. Louis to launch Cortex, which is now home to a ­number of bioscience and technology startups and companies. Washington University was one of the partners of the Donald Danforth Plant ­Science Center, which is leading the way in ­agriculture biotechnology. St. Louis is on the move thanks to the hard work of key ­individuals like Hank Webber [executive vice chancellor for administration and chairman of the Cortex ­Innovation Community] and Provost Holden Thorp, as well as the faculty and students who are starting and contributing to these enterprises. 

You also have raised our profile globally. While many universities built satellite campuses, you opted to create partnerships with the globe’s leading research universities through the McDonnell International Scholars Academy. How did you launch that program? 

When I arrived, there was an interest in a more proactive engagement with Asia. I thought it was a great idea. Asia has a huge ­population, the economy of Asia was growing, and there was an appreciation in Asia for American ­universities. I felt there was a compelling case to build our ­visibility, so we could attract ­talented international students. After laying the ­groundwork with an ­advisory council largely made up of alumni, ­parents and friends who lived in Asia and ­identifying the premier universities we would like as partners, I reached out to two individuals who have made the McDonnell ­International Scholars Academy a premier globalization program: James Wertsch [who concluded his term as vice ­chancellor for international relations in 2018], who ­became the director of the scholars ­program, and Life Trustee John McDonnell and the JSM ­Charitable Trust, who gave us $10 million to create the program. The McDonnell Academy ­provides a different kind of experience: Students learn together, travel together and share expertise. The academy has been a huge source of personal pride, and I will continue to support it. 

What do you think the key was to your transformative leadership? 

When I think about what’s been accomplished, I need to acknowledge that it wasn’t so much about what I did but what we were able to do as a team. We were able to recruit a phenomenal leadership team, deans and executive vice chancellors. And I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with this great group of people, who have dramatically enhanced the quality and impact of the university. 

How did your wife, Risa Zwerling Wrighton, support you throughout this process? 

I was extremely fortunate to meet her within two weeks of arriving. She keeps me on course and in touch. Some people don’t want to come to the ­chancellor when they have concerns, so they go to her, knowing she is not afraid to bring me bad news. And she was extremely effective as an ­adviser and through the Home Plate program and the gun violence initiative, which is now showing signs of real substance. Risa is full of good ideas and is a tremendous ­partner. And she is fun. I don’t know that I would do “The ­Dancellor” or the ­“Peel-the-Banana” dance without her. 

Diane Toroian Keaggy, AB ’90, is senior news director of campus life.

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.