Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton’s 2016 Message to Washington University’s Graduates


2016 Chancellor’s Address at Washington University in St. Louis

Congratulations to our newest alumni, the Class of 2016! You have earned a 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.

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. Graduates, would you join me in thanking those who have supported you in realizing your success here?

I would like to extend special recognition to some leaders of the university for whom this is a time of commencement to a new phase in their lives and careers. Dean Edward Lawlor of the Brown School is concluding his deanship after 12 years at the helm. During his tenure, we have developed degree programs in public health, expanded the faculty, and developed Tom and Jennifer Hillman Hall, the newest academic building on our campus.

Dean Mahendra Gupta of the Olin School of Business will conclude his deanship, too, after having served as dean for 11 years. Dean Gupta has developed strong international dual-degree programs and the university’s very first joint degree program with IIT Bombay. During his tenure, he also developed Bauer and Knight halls, wonderful additions to our academic environment.

Deans Lawlor and Gupta plan to continue here as distinguished members of the faculty.

John Berg, the leader of Admissions for more than 20 years, is concluding his tenure in June. Mr. Berg has built the finest undergraduate admissions program in the country, and contributed to building our quality and visibility by helping us recruit the best undergraduate students, including those graduating today.

Michael Cannon is also concluding his tenure as executive vice chancellor and general counsel, after more than 20 years in a 24×7 leadership role. Please join me in thanking these outstanding people for their many years of service and leadership.

Congressman Lewis, 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, Stephen Brauer, Paula Kerger, Staffan Normark and Euclid Williamson are great individuals, too, 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, and 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 in the ‘elite eight’ as we strive to win national championships beginning on Sunday, May 22.

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 PowWow, 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.

Members of our Class of 2016 now begin a new phase of their lives. We do not know for sure what our world will be like in 2066, 50 years from now. But we do know that there will be challenges and opportunities along the way to which our new graduates will respond, just as members of our Class of 1966 have done in the 50 years since their graduation. We celebrate our 50-year reunion class and their achievements.

Let’s look back to 1966 to understand life in America at that time. In the motion picture industry, “The Sound of Music” won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and Dr. Zhivago was popular. The “Batman” television series had its debut on ABC and “Star Trek” had its first television episode on NBC. The popular Beatles gained some criticism when John Lennon declared the Beatles to be more popular than Jesus! And it was in 1966 that the Beatles played their very last concert at old Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Popular songs included “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys and “Monday, Monday” by The Mamas and The Papas.

Here in St. Louis, Busch Stadium was opened and the Gateway Arch was dedicated by Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. Today, we have a new Busch Stadium and the Arch grounds and riverfront are being dramatically redeveloped.

Politically, 1966 was an interesting year, with Ronald Reagan elected governor of California. Major challenges continued as the U.S. struggled to assure civil rights for all its citizens. But international affairs were very important, too. Lyndon Johnson was president, and engagement in Vietnam increased sharply with U.S. troop strength at nearly 400,000 by the end of 1966. The year saw much protest activity related to the Vietnam War.

We were also in the midst of the Cold War and in a space race with the former Soviet Union. In 1966, the Soviet Union’s Luna 9 landed on the surface of the moon and transmitted photographs back to Earth several months before the Surveyor 1 of the US landed on the Moon and sent back photographs. Surveyor 1 laid the groundwork for the U.S. effort to have the first manned mission to the surface of the moon in 1969. Further in the international realm, in India, Indira Ghandi was elected the first woman to be prime minister. So far, she is still the only woman to hold that post. Meanwhile in China in 1966, Chairman Mao launched the Cultural Revolution.

Here we are, a half-century later, with many examples of great progress in many areas, including revolutions in the way we work, play and communicate stemming from advances in technology. In just the last two decades we have seen the development of large U.S. corporations like Apple, Facebook, Uber, Google and Amazon, with a combined market capitalization well over a trillion dollars. It is such U.S. corporations that should encourage Americans that innovation and entrepreneurship are still a powerful potential contributor to a brighter future for all of us. The rest of the world, however, is not standing still:  for example, China, South Korea, and Singapore have developed as powerful economies, and America’s domination of science and technology-based companies is being diluted by successes internationally like Samsung Electronics, Alibaba and Huawei.

Major advances in the past 50 years have also occurred in the area of human health.  Thanks to better medicine, better lifestyles, and better nutrition, the U.S. life expectancy has grown from about 70 in 1966 to about 79 this year. It is estimated that a baby girl born in the U.S. this year will have a 50 percent chance of living to 100!

Speaking of better lifestyles, it was in 1966 that cigarette packages were first required to carry the message “Caution! Cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health.”  Today, Washington University and many other institutions are tobacco-free. The program to reduce smoking and use of tobacco products is one of the most successful efforts to improve public health.

But other public health problems from at least 50 years ago are still with us. It was in 1966 that sniper Charles Whitman killed 13 people and injured another 31 from atop a tower at the University of Texas. Today, death and injury from guns represents one our country’s greatest public health challenges with about 30,000 deaths annually and about double that number of injuries annually from guns. Roughly two-thirds of the deaths are suicides, and others are homicides and accidents. One month ago, just a few hundred yards from where I am speaking, an assailant in a passing car on Forsyth Boulevard discharged a gun multiple times aiming at a member of our community. Fortunately, in this instance the victim will recover and no bystanders were injured or killed.

Over a year ago, our university undertook an initiative to reduce death and injury from guns, addressing the problem as a public health challenge. It is my hope that those returning for their reunion 50 years from now will view this public health crisis as one dealt with long, long ago. Like automobile safety measures and reducing the use of tobacco products, overcoming death and injury from guns will involve time, technological advances, and policy changes. Let’s get started!

Recent major breakthroughs in genetics and genomics, imaging science, and immunology are ushering in an opportunity to develop personalized or precision medicine.  Our School of Medicine is at the forefront in these areas, and there is the potential to develop individualized, lifesaving approaches to warding off Alzheimer’s disease and other diseases and treating cancer. In fact, we just learned this week that two of our most esteemed cancer researchers, Robert Schreiber and Graham Colditz of our Siteman Cancer Center, have been appointed as advisers to the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative, led by Vice President Joe Biden.

There remains enormous opportunity to have longer, healthier, and more productive lives. There are many graduates here today who will convert those opportunities into reality.

Advances in human health have occurred in Japan and South Korea, too, where life expectancy is similar to that of the U.S. But in Japan and South Korea the birth rate is such that these countries are experiencing a major challenge in addressing the aging of their populations. China faces a similar challenge. America’s population is aging, too, but America’s population is growing at roughly the world rate. Thus, we are bringing young people into the world at a rate that can be healthy economically. A critical need, however, in the U.S. is to prepare the young people for lives of meaning and purpose through the kind of education that is provided at Washington University. Our population is growing more, not less, diverse, and we must expend special effort to invest in the future educational achievement of our young people. Our future as a nation depends on it. The future of other nations depends on investing, too, and many of the challenges we face will require investing in collaboration to address the problems no single country can address alone.

Among the problems requiring collaboration are those relating to energy and environment. Under the leadership of 2003 alumnus Phil Valko, and encouraged by student leaders, Washington University is making excellent progress in improving the energy efficiency of its buildings. In the last two decades we have doubled the amount of space while holding electricity consumption essentially constant. We are reducing costs and reducing the amount of carbon dioxide through this achievement. Our result will be amplified by sharing what we have done with the 30 university partners in our McDonnell International Scholars Academy at a meeting in Brisbane, Australia, in September. This is but one example of the prospects for global progress through collaboration and cooperation.

I am confident that a brighter future lies ahead, because our students, alumni and faculty can make contributions to a better world ahead. Washington University and other colleges and universities are powerful forces for good through their educational and scholarly programs. We have prepared our students for leadership roles. You have already heard from Christine Lung and Ashley Macrander, and they are among the future leaders of society. Undergraduate representatives to the Board of Trustees Shyam Akula and Scott Jacobs briefed our Board of Trustees on ways that we can enhance the performance of the university to support our diverse student body. These and all graduates here today are destined to contribute to a brighter future for all.

Graduates, 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. To quote the late Steve Jobs: “You can do it.  Don’t be afraid.” Today is your Commencement marking your start to making the world better. Thank you for taking up this challenge!

Congratulations to the Class of 2016!