On September 6, 2017, Mark Wrighton announced his imminent retirement as the chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis. He expressed that he wanted a “transition” as he approached the age of 70. He began his service at Washington University in St. Louis in 1995, at the tender age of 46. Only his immediate predecessor William H. Danforth (1971-1995) will have served in that role longer than Chancellor Wrighton. He worked with many associates over the years to expand Washington University in St. Louis physically and in the minds of ambitious students around the United States as well as around the globe.
Perhaps there is no better summation of Chancellor Wrighton’s influence on the university than the website for the school. It explains that during his administration, there was “a more than two-fold increase in undergraduate applications, more than 200 new endowed professorships for faculty, a redesigned Arts & Sciences curriculum, newly created programs in biomedical engineering, public health, American culture studies, and completion of more than 50 new buildings for Arts & Sciences, business, design and visual arts, engineering, law, medicine, social work and residential life.” These are incredible achievements, to say the very least.
Nevertheless, Wrighton’s reputation has not remained spotless over the years in the eyes of several alumni and current students. Students urged him to help create a more ethnically diverse campus while also providing a safe environment for students to be free both from physical, emotional, and sexual violence. He excelled in these issues as there are now numerous hotlines for sexual assault and for urgent counseling. Additionally, Washington University of St. Louis Police Department has become an influential template for colleges such as Three Rivers College in Poplar Bluff, Missouri near where I live. After the death of Michael Brown in 2014, he helped ramp up diversity numbers to make them equivalent to Ivy League universities, with a vow to further increase them in upcoming years. However, his close alliance with coal companies will probably remain the part of his legacy most critics hold against him. I agree in principle with the critics in regard to divesting the university from coal interests, but the interests do help pay for continued expansion of the student body that also aids in diversifying that same body.
Chancellor Wrighton has had an extremely positive influence in my life and on the life of my family. As a master fundraiser with alumni, he helped provide me with scholarships necessary for me. His efforts with the police helped me feel safe on a campus that my family did not think was safe at first glance, as it was in a large city. I was born in the year he became chancellor, and I have wanted to come here since the tenth grade. Washington University was not my safety school; it was my main target. I saw the beautiful campus, the high rankings in polls of the best universities in the United States, and the brilliant faculty at work when I first toured the university. I grew up in Broseley, Missouri, a three-hour drive to the southeast of St. Louis. I viewed other universities, but I was so nervous about not seeing my family for months on end that I wanted a university that would both intellectually stimulate me and be close to home. Washington University is all of that and so much more. It will provide me with a stable position to pursue a Ph.D. in history and give me a chance to make a living and do what I love so much.
I admit that his letters to the University could seem as though they contained a concatenation of banal generalities that might have been written elsewhere (and I saw him lampooned by other students in this regard). Many students point out that he does not focus on many issues of concern for current students because he can placate most of them with “Tempur-Pedic mattresses.” But despite the jokes, it is clear that he stands up for what he believes in within his letters. I might not always agree with the chancellor, but I have seen too many of his letters comforting the university community to not be moved by his intense desire to lead our community into a more optimistic mindset for the future while never forgetting about the sins of the present.
Chancellor Wrighton was never perfect, but he never had to be. He just had to try his best to improve the university’s structure and reputation for students, faculty, and observers. After three and a half years at Washington University, I can honestly say that I think he positively impacted the student body and the university’s reputation more than anyone else over the past two decades and established himself alongside Danforth as perhaps the greatest chancellor in this school’s storied history.
Luke Voyles is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.