Chancellor Wrighton’s convocation address to the Class of 2021

The following remarks were delivered by Mark S. Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis, at the academic convocation for the Class of 2021, held Aug. 24, 2017 in the field house of the Athletic Complex.


To the Class of 2021, welcome to Washington University! Also, welcome to new students transferring from other colleges and universities. And welcome also to family and friends of our new students. You are all now members of the Washington University family. I know that there are parents, other family members and friends of our new students watching in the Danforth University Center, Edison Theatre, May Auditorium, and Graham Chapel.  Thank you for being with us, and I look forward to seeing you later in the Brookings Quadrangle. All new students will process from here to the Quadrangle at the conclusion of our program, and parents will meet the students there.

Let me now address our new students. You have been admitted to Washington University because you have the potential to be leaders in the 21st century. Your leadership at Washington University begins tonight. We are experiencing regional, national and international challenges that we must address together as a community of leaders and learners. The events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in particular, trouble me greatly. In a public communication to our community just 10 days ago, I condemned the hate-filled ideology that we witnessed in Charlottesville. Let me be clear: our Washington University community will not tolerate racism, hatred, prejudice or bigotry. Indeed, in the face of such hate-filled ideologies we will continue our efforts to be more inclusive, more accepting, and more welcoming to all who join us. And we will continue our proactive work to be more diverse in all parts of the University — faculty, students and staff.  You represent a diverse group of exceptionally talented people who have already accomplished a great deal and are poised to do so much more. Thank you for making the commitment to be a part of this community and to helping us to become a better university.

We cannot ignore the reality that there are people who have embraced ideological views that are truly abhorrent. The United States of America allied with many other nations to confront Nazism in the 1940s. My father was among the millions who fought to eliminate the threat of Nazism at that time. Today we must have the courage to meet this reality that threatens us from within, not just from abroad. I am reminded of the wisdom and strength of Abraham Lincoln who said:  “Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.”

Washington University will contribute to help you decide where to place your feet. On some matters, 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, and learning to constructively engage with those who disagree with you will be a contribution to your intellectual maturation. 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.

As we begin the fall semester, we will gather on Wednesday, August 30 at 3:30 p.m. in Graham Chapel to affirm our community values and commit to achieving social justice and peace. I hope that you will take time join this program.

Every new student has my pledge that the administration and faculty will do our best to help you realize your potential and to provide the education you need to become effective leaders, whether that is to be a Nobel prizewinner, a corporate CEO, a United States senator, or a great artist, like students who have preceded you. All of you can develop understanding of the challenges we face and create new knowledge that will enable you to help make our world better for all humankind. You are the next generation of leaders this world needs. Tonight you can begin asking yourself this important question:  What can I do?

Your class includes about 1,780 students and was selected from a large and talented applicant pool, and you come from 49 states, U.S. territories and 19 countries. About two-thirds of you come from greater than 500 miles away. We are proud of the diversity you represent in every dimension. You have excelled in your lives in many ways, from academics to athletics, from theatre to public service. We encourage you to continue the interests you developed earlier in your lives.

To the parents: thank you for supporting your sons and daughters in their decision to attend Washington University. We share your interest in having your students enjoy success and happiness, and we are your partners in assisting them to realize their dreams of a great college experience. Like the students, you are now a part of this community, and we welcome your engagement. I look forward to meeting many of you at the reception that I will host tomorrow afternoon in the Frick Forum in Knight and Bauer Halls of the John M. Olin School of Business.

To all, the campus is undergoing some important redevelopment: east of Brookings Hall we will have an 800-car underground parking garage; the Sumers Welcome Center; the Schnuck Pavilion for Dining and Environmental Studies; Weil Hall for the Fox School; Jubel Hall for Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science; an expanded Kemper Art Museum; re-landscaping and a year from now we will start McKelvey Hall for Computer Science and Computer Engineering. All of these projects will be done by end of April 2019, except for McKelvey Hall which will be finished in the fall of 2020. The campus will be safer, more attractive, and have expanded academic facilities in 21 months! In just fours months the redevelopment of the John M. Olin Library and Bryan Hall be complete. I beg your patience as the campus improvements take place.

Back to the students, you will have many academic opportunities here, but you will also have many other exciting activities, including athletics, seminars, performances and social events. There are more than 200 student groups, and I encourage you to become involved, but these will involve a commitment of time.

With respect to how you spend your time, however, things have changed dramatically for you — starting tonight. Just a few months ago most of you were in high school with a relatively structured and controlled schedule. Tonight you begin a new phase of your life with more independence and freedom, but with that freedom comes more responsibility.  Beginning immediately, you will have many choices to make. As you make your decisions, it is my hope that luck will be with you. However, it was the great scientist Louis Pasteur who observed that “Chance favors the prepared mind,” and you must do all you can do to recognize an important opportunity and then to evaluate whether it is one you wish to pursue. We are confident you can do well and be successful, but realize that your success will depend on making good decisions.

Regarding time commitments, the new freedom you have means you are no longer under anyone’s supervision. Your parents are no longer responsible for you (except, of course, for those tuition checks!). You have responsibility for yourself. There will be no one to tell you when to go to bed or when or whether to get up; no one to tell you to make your bed; no one to tell you to eat your vegetables; no one to govern your comings and goings. You will be the one to decide who your friends will be and whether to join a Greek organization, and you will be the judge of when and whether to accept advice from others. You should enjoy your new independence, but there are also important responsibilities beyond those to yourself. You remain responsible to those who have made it possible for you to be here — your parents, other family members, teachers, coaches, religious leaders, and your friends. Much trust and confidence have been properly placed in you, and it is your responsibility to provide a good return on that investment.

The excellence of students and faculty of the University defines us. For many, this may be the first time you have been surrounded by so many high achievers like yourself. In these early days you may be intimidated by the fact that your classmates are as smart and accomplished in their area of interest as you are in yours. Personally, I had those feelings myself when I started my doctoral work at Caltech and later when I took up a faculty position at MIT. I believe those feelings are natural, but as I discovered and you will find, too, you are not in competition with your classmates. Your own goals should be your guideposts.

As I conclude my remarks, I want to give you some important advice. Number one, go to class. You or your parents are paying a great deal for you to have the opportunity to be here. Take full advantage of your educational program.

Number two, do not abuse alcohol or other drugs. The legal age for drinking in Missouri is 21 years. None of us can exercise good judgment when intoxicated, and we know that alcohol abuse is associated with adverse consequences academically and is a factor in more than 90 percent of campus crime. Most of your peers are making wise choices about alcohol, and the vast majority of our students drink moderately, if at all. Students, I challenge you to make wise choices during your college years — make decisions that will have a positive impact on you personally and on the University community.

You have my wish, and my support, for your success at Washington University.  I am privileged to serve as your Chancellor, and I look forward to our work together.  Thank you.

Published in The Source