Chancellor Emeritus William H. Danforth had a longstanding tradition of penning a wise and gracious letter to alumni and friends of Washington University each year, sharing his observations on university life and current events, and thanking them for their contributions and service to the institution. If you ever have a chance to read the “Thanksgiving Letters,” you’ll marvel, as I have, at the timelessness of Chancellor Danforth’s insights about leading, learning and building a legacy of service to others.
When I am in need of inspiration or encouragement, I always uncover it in the pages of his letters. As I enter into the third academic year of my chancellorship — and the third affected by a global pandemic — I have certainly found myself in need of both from time to time.
In spring, we were energized by the optimism of life post-vaccine, and we opened our campus just in time to celebrate the historic Classes of 2020 and 2021 at 11 incredible Commencement ceremonies. We were looking forward to a fall filled with the treasured traditions of campus life, reunited and mask-free at last. But as the summer wore on, the Delta variant emerged, and we had to ground ourselves in our foundational values and make some tough decisions about campus life this fall.
In his 1978 Thanksgiving letter, Chancellor Danforth marveled at the “persistent trials and recurring difficulties” successful institutions must overcome, things like “war, panics, and social unrest.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Washington University has overcome all those things many times over. We are overcoming them now. And we will again and again, because that is the role of the university — to engage deeply with the world’s problems and opportunities in order to lead progress.
But how does one persist in this difficult work, knowing it never ends? According to Chancellor Danforth, it takes faith in others. He writes, “Many acts of faith are required … Without it, our institutions would stagnate. Too much faith is better than too little.”
Our students, faculty and staff have certainly had to make many leaps of faith in order to live, learn and work in community during a pandemic. Although we aren’t perfect, our community members put their trust in each other and in our leadership in order to advance our university’s teaching, research and patient care missions even under the most difficult circumstances, and they continue to do so quite admirably.
Chancellor Danforth cited appreciation of others as the second component needed for success. “In any large endeavor, there are people with a wide array of skills and talents, with different perspectives and goals. To understand and appreciate this diversity, particularly when the goals of many are at variance with one’s own hopes, calls for empathy and a great effort of will. The achievement of understanding, mutual trust and appreciation is not only an end in itself, but it is also a prerequisite for major progress.”
These acts — putting your faith in others, appreciating the perspectives of others — seem harder today than they did in 1978, don’t they? But Chancellor Danforth’s letter suggests otherwise. Rather, they are part of life’s work for those who seek to make an impact. And they underpin all the art, all the science, all the knowledge creation that takes place on our campuses. When these qualities were tested over the past couple of years, those were moments of great learning that will contribute to the work ahead for each of us. I continue to be particularly inspired by our young people in this regard.
As I write to you, our community is hard at work preparing for a weekend of events celebrating the life and legacy of Chancellor William H. Danforth. I encourage you to learn more about his incredible impact and find inspiration and encouragement in his story. May we all approach our trials with the faith and appreciation that informed Bill’s leadership and transformed Washington University.
Andrew D. Martin