Chancellor Wrighton’s message to the Class of 2019

In his final address, Wrighton urges students to 'work together to assure the future of the Earth'

Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton delivers his message to the Class of 2019
Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton delivers his message to the Class of 2019 at Washington University in St. Louis during the Friday, May 17, Commencement ceremony in Brookings Quadrangle. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton delivered his message to the Class of 2019 at Washington University in St. Louis during the Friday, May 17, Commencement ceremony in Brookings Quadrangle. This was Wrighton’s last Commencement ceremony as chancellor; his tenure concludes May 31 after 24 years at the helm.

Below are Wrighton’s remarks to the graduates.

Congratulations to our newest alumni, the Class of 2019! Each of you has worked hard to earn your degree. But you have done more than grow 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. While you may lose your diploma, you will always have your education. Your education is the key to a more satisfying and rewarding life for yourself and holds the promise of a brighter future for all of society.

As I stand before you, your families and your friends, I am filled with gratitude. I am grateful that you chose Washington University. By coming here and engaging in many programs inside and outside the classroom, you have enhanced the impact of our university. To our international students, I am especially grateful that you had the courage to join us, to be far from home and in a different culture. You have contributed significantly to the quality of the educational experience for all students.

Many of you have taken full advantage of the opportunities that Washington University provides as a great research university, and you have contributed to the creation of new knowledge that can enhance the quality of life for all of us. A large number of you have performed and supported theater, music and dance and have enhanced our cultural understanding through Black Anthology, Carnaval, Diwali, the Pow Wow and the Lunar New Year Festival.

To those who are involved in our NCAA Division III intercollegiate athletics programs, you have provided fun and excitement for many through your athletic successes over the past four years – including national championships in women’s soccer, women’s cross-country and women’s track and field. Your efforts sustain us as one of the most competitive and successful Division III programs in the nation.

I am also thankful for those 1,200 excellent student-athletes who have played hard and represented the university so well in club sports. Our men’s ice hockey club team won its first-ever conference title this past year and the past few years have seen national championships in men’s water polo as well as a national runner-up in women’s water polo. To all of our scholar-champions, congratulations! And we are still in action in varsity baseball, track and field, women’s golf and tennis . . . go Bears!

You have contributed to the well-being of others through leadership of Dance Marathon and Relay for Life. Indeed, more than half of you have been involved in bettering the St. Louis community through your academic programs or through public service efforts coordinated by the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement, the Campus Y or other programs. Many of our graduates also participated in the presidential debate in 2016, a memorable time on our campus.

Yes, I am grateful to you, not only for choosing us, but also for your important contributions to the university and to the St. Louis community while you fulfilled your rigorous degree requirements.

Graduates, your achievements here are impressive, but you have not realized success on your own. 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. Thus, my gratitude extends to the wider university community. Graduates, would you join me in thanking all who have supported you in realizing your success here?

Michael Bloomberg, we are deeply appreciative of your message today. Your contributions to our country and the world have brought benefit to many, and I value greatly your being with us to encourage our new graduates to live lives of meaning and purpose. Thank you again for an outstanding address. Our other honorary degree recipients, George and Carol Bauer, Theresa Carrington, Wayne Fields, Joe Madison and Charles Rice are also great individuals who illustrate a wide range of impressive achievements that contribute to making our world better. I am grateful that our graduates today have the potential to make equally important contributions that will benefit the world.

We have worked to prepare you as a new generation of society’s leaders who will contribute to solving the most vexing problems we face. At the academic Convocation for first-year undergraduates nearly four years ago, I said that “luck favors the prepared mind.” Each of you has a prepared mind and all of you are ready for success in the next era of your lives. However, there are major challenges ahead as you commence the next phase of your lives. Of course, there are going to be many major and minor personal challenges as your life unfolds. But there are daunting global problems to solve that will take concerted effort over many years. There are three major goals I challenge you to achieve: address climate change; stop the decline of biodiversity; and realize racial equity.

Climate change threatens the very existence of life as we know it. This is the most important problem of this century. The growing incidence of severe storms has already had huge economic cost, and coastal areas are plagued by the threat of significant rise in sea level. These and other problems stemming from global warming may not be avoidable, as some are suggesting. However, it is imperative that the world take steps to reduce the use of fossil energy and turn to other sources of energy, including renewable energy such as solar photovoltaic electricity, which is now economically competitive in many locations. But significant penetration of solar electricity or wind power might require storage of energy, as both the sun and wind are intermittent energy sources. Creative approaches to economic storage of electrical energy are needed.

I am proud that yesterday Michael Bloomberg announced a Midwest Higher Education Climate Summit to take place in early 2020 and that Washington University would serve as an anchor university in collaborating with local and regional governments and private-sector leaders to develop innovative climate-change solutions. Support from Bloomberg Philanthropies for the operations of the summit is deeply appreciated.

Progress should come through research like that taking place in our International Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability led by Drs. Himadri Pakrasi and David Fike. For example, effort is being devoted to the development of batteries for economical storage of electricity in the group of Dr. Vijay Ramani in the McKelvey School of Engineering. But research and development of the energy systems of the future need to be accompanied by policies that will encourage more rapid deployment of economically viable, safe and clean energy. Thus, success in solving the problems from combustion of fossil fuels will require talented people from many disciplines. As a scientist myself, I am confident that science and engineering research will bring technological advances of importance, but implementing these advances will require input from leaders in social science, business and governments. I am grateful that our new graduates show the resolve to work together to assure the future of the Earth.

Under the leadership of Executive Vice Chancellor Hank Webber and alumnus and Assistant Vice Chancellor for Sustainability Phil Valko, Washington University is emerging as a leader in controlling the growth in carbon dioxide emissions. We have the goal of reducing our carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels, and excellent progress has been made. Even though we have more than doubled the amount of occupied space in the last two decades, we are using the same amount of energy today as we did 20 years ago. We have more to do and we look forward to our collaborations with other universities, businesses and government to make more rapid progress.

Speaking of expanded space, I am grateful for the patience of our community as we have redeveloped the east end of the Danforth Campus. Today, our graduates can enjoy having their photos taken on the steps of Brookings Hall! Our project team at the university has been led by Hank Webber and Associate Vice Chancellor J.D. Long, and I am appreciative of their very special efforts to bring our project to “material completion,” including opening our new 800-car underground parking garage! McCarthy Building Companies has had an excellent team doing the construction, and their leader is an alumnus of our McKelvey School of Engineering, Mr. Ryan Moss. We are on our original schedule and budget, and the project has been executed with an excellent safety record and at the highest quality. Our new graduates, like alumnus Ryan Moss, are prepared to make important contributions to significant developments here and around the nation and around the world.

Let me turn to another global challenge: loss of biodiversity. It is estimated that in less than half a century, global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles have declined to less than half their size — all of this in the time since the graduation of the Class of 1969! One in five of the plant species on Earth is currently threatened with extinction, putting supplies of food and medicines at risk. And some scientists believe a sixth mass extinction event is underway on Earth, triggering the largest loss of species since an asteroid slammed into the planet about 66 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs and many other species. If the statistics sound dire, that is because they are. The situation is urgent and scientists say there is no time to lose if they are going to try to reverse the cycle of loss and save Earth’s remaining species.

Washington University has recently recruited Dr. Jonathan Losos to our faculty as the William H. Danforth Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Biology in Arts & Sciences. He is a leader in evolutionary biology and a person who is developing approaches to addressing the challenge through a partnership with the St. Louis Zoo, the Missouri Botanical Garden and potentially other institutions in St. Louis and around the world. The initiative underway is called the Living Earth Collaborative, and like many efforts to address major global challenges, progress will necessarily involve bringing teams of people together from many disciplines. St. Louis is almost unique in having a world-class botanical garden, a world-class zoo and a world-class research university in the same community. The Living Earth Collaborative is just getting started, providing a new opportunity for a major contribution to the world.

My third aspiration for you is to achieve racial equity. I am grateful to students, faculty and staff who have been active in working toward racial equity in our community, including Associate Vice Chancellor for Government and Community Relations Rose Windmiller, who served on the Ferguson Commission; Professor Bob Hansman, of the Fox School of Design and Visual Arts, who has exposed many of our students to the urban challenges in St. Louis; Professor Will Ross, of the School of Medicine, who teaches our medical students about health disparities in our community; and Professor Jason Purnell, of the Brown School, who has collaborated extensively, including with St. Louis University, to set out paths to overcoming these health disparities. Sadly, the Class of 2019 will face the challenge of racial inequity wherever they live in the United States and it is my hope that our growing alumni network around the country and around the world will participate in addressing this major societal challenge.

We have a responsibility to make improvements in racial equity within our own walls while also striving to contribute to addressing problems in our surrounding communities. It is well known that the face of America is changing and that there will be greater diversity in the United States society. Washington University has embarked upon efforts to improve diversity and inclusion, and Chancellor-elect Andrew Martin has embraced recommendations of the university’s Commission on Diversity & Inclusion that involved many of our students graduating today. Chancellor-elect Martin has announced that he will launch a Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity & Equity to be led by Professor Adrienne Davis of the School of Law.

Our university motto is “per veritatem vis,” “strength through truth.” May each of those graduating today continue to seek the truth and use it to build a brighter tomorrow. Yes, I am filled with gratitude . . . for the outstanding graduates who have completed their degrees and for the promise they collectively represent in making the world a better place.

You are probably filled with gratitude too, because I am nearly finished with this message and you are thinking about lunch and time with family and friends. We graduate together, as this is my last Commencement as chancellor. So I conclude with a word of advice: commence the next phase of your lives with optimism and excitement; you are prepared to lead a life of meaning and purpose; look up from your phones, focus on your family and friends and enjoy your graduation day. You have much to be grateful for.

Congratulations to the Class of 2019!