Speeches & Commentary

2019 Day of Discovery, Dialogue, and Action

Good morning, and welcome to Washington University’s 5th annual Day of Discovery, Dialogue, and Action.  I am immensely grateful for those who spent countless hours preparing this event. And to our speakers, presenters, and panelists — thank you for joining us and for sharing your wisdom.

We had a wonderful start to our program last evening, and for those of you who were with us, I hope you were able to glean some valuable takeaways.

To start things off, I want to share a short story — a story some of you have already heard, but one we ought to remember on days like today.

This story is about a man named Alexander Archer who was born into slavery in Virginia.  Alexander lost his father at a young age, and when he was just an adolescent boy, his owner moved to Missouri and brought Alexander with him.  Tragically, that decision marks the last time Alexander would ever see his mother again.1

Years later and in the midst of a violent Civil War, Alexander — still a slave — was accused of sharing information with Union troops.  Out of fear, he fled to St. Louis, and was chased by slave catchers who threatened his life. Thankfully, Alexander found refuge at the residence of a man who was vehemently opposed to slavery.  That man gave Alexander a home, a job, food, and most importantly, friendship. It would be two more years before the war would end and slavery abolished, and in that time, the two men became extremely close.  They also protected each other — one from slavery and the other from harboring a slave. The other man’s name in this story is William Greenleaf Eliot, founder and 3rd chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis.

As we gather today, it’s important for us to remember three things about this story.

One — that Alexander Archer is the true hero of this story, a person who sacrificed his life for the long road of freedom.  This sentiment is perhaps best described when Eliot quotes Alexander as saying, “Go for your freedom, [even if] you die for it” (pg. 48).

The second thing to remember is that there is not one hero in this story.  Rather, there are two.

While Alexander Archer was a hero who sacrificed his very life for the sake of freedom and progress, William Greenleaf Eliot — WashU’s founder— was also a hero who used his privilege to become a catalyst for change.  He was a man who continuously fought for the rights of our African American colleagues and friends. A man who, in fact, regularly purchased slaves for the overt purpose of setting them free2.  And a man who would later also advocate for the rights of women and other marginalized members of society.  

The third thing to remember about this story is that, even after abolition, William, Alexander, and their families were described as loyal friends up until the point of Alexander’s death around 1880.

In sum, if you remember anything from this story, I hope you remember this:

Change requires acts of bravery — from all sides.  And friendship and dialogue are perhaps the most powerful tools we can use to enact the change we wish to see.

Alexander and WIlliam now serve as important symbols as we look to the future as a university, community, country, and world.  Today is a day we intentionally come together in dialogue with one another, to reflect on our past, and to imagine our future. But, today is just one day.  Each and every single day, we must remember the courageous act of friendship between Alexander and William. Human beings who interacted with each other and saw each other just as they are — as equal members who deserve equal access, dignity, and celebration of life.

Washington University was founded around the same time Alexander and William forged their significant and life-changing friendship.  It was also founded at the same time the city of St. Louis and the state of Missouri were caught between the North and the South. Consequently, both city and state faced extraordinary turmoil and conflict during that time as they navigated difficult conversations and unknown territories.

Today, we’re still working to repair decades and centuries of systemic oppression and marginalization and strive for tangible change in the midst of an extremely polarized and divided world.  In some respects, we have come a long way, and in many respects, we still have a long way to go. But I am hopeful we can use days like today as a springboard for the important work we do every day to embrace diversity and inclusion as a central and guiding principle of this university.

Embracing diversity and inclusion is not just something we do because we should or because it’s the right thing to do. It’s also essential to human flourishing.  In fact, empirical evidence has shown us that diverse teams perform better than homogenous ones when they utilize their differences effectively.  In addition, when we surround ourselves with people who think, believe, look and act differently than us, we become more aware of our own perceptions, which can lead to becoming more empathetic.  In other words, when we embrace all people, we become better problem solvers, better communicators, better friends, and better colleagues. And at a broader, institutional level, we move further along the path toward excellence.   

For me this means that, as WashU’s chancellor-elect, I will commit to ensuring we build a community that is a microcosm of our nation and world.  I will commit to recruiting the very best talent regardless of background, experience, or previous opportunities. I will commit to ensuring all people feel their voice and presence are welcome.  And finally, I will not shy away from difficult conversations and instead will do my best to embrace dialogue and conflict with the utmost care, with open ears, and with a willing heart.

My commitment to you and the work we do will be a marathon and not a sprint — it will take passion, hard work, and collaboration from every corner of the university and region.  Nonetheless, we must start taking steps today, and today we are taking a big one. I’m pleased to announce an exciting new initiative for Washington University — a new university-wide Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity & Equity.  

The new center, which will launch in the fall, is an outgrowth of extensive planning and evaluation conducted by a 23-member task force that was formed as part of the work of the Commission on Diversity and Inclusion.  The commission was a major two-year undertaking to implement the Steering Committee for Diversity and Inclusion’s 12-point universitywide plan for enhancing diversity.  The task force articulated a strong and compelling framing for a center that better leverages the university’s strengths in such research areas as social, economic, and health disparities.  It is clear that a more cohesive and concentrated focus in the areas of race, ethnicity, and equity will benefit not only our students and faculty, but also our local and national community.

The inter- and transdisciplinary center will bring synergy to research already underway in these areas throughout the university — on the Danforth and Medical campuses — and be a driving force for further scholarship and collaboration.  It will promote path-breaking research that deepens knowledge and shapes national dialogue; facilitate student learning; and provide an infrastructure for our faculty members to engage in public discourse and policy design both locally and regionally.

Vice Provost and William M. Van Cleve Professor of Law Adrienne Davis will lead the charge as the center’s founding director.  Vice Provost Davis has been a longstanding member of both our WashU and the St. Louis community. She is a leading interdisciplinary scholar in the areas of law, gender, and race and has led the university’s 27-member Commission on Diversity and Inclusion.  Vice Provost Davis has devoted her career and scholarship to creating paradigms for thinking about race, gender, and sexuality. She has strengthened WashU’s efforts to recruit and retain an increasingly diverse faculty, staff, and student body and enhanced our community and region through sponsored lectures, programs, and courses that aim to uplift conversations around these issues.  Vice Provost Davis is an excellent choice to serve as the Center for Race, Ethnicity & Equity’s founding director. She will bring her relevant scholarship and strong leadership skills to help achieve the center’s primary goal: encourage, support, and facilitate collaborative research and student learning in race and ethnic studies at the highest levels of rigor and impact.

There is still a lot of information to share and a lot of work and collaboration to do to prepare for the center’s launch.  We plan to share more in the coming weeks and months, as many of you sitting in this room will undoubtedly play a significant role in engendering and sustaining this exciting effort.  The Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity & Equity only serves to affirm our role and the work that many of you are already doing.

Thank you, in advance, for joining alongside us as we pave this path together.  This center truly signifies the culmination of your work and your passion to improve lives in service of the greater good — our great responsibility as educators, researchers, and practitioners of patient care.  For as former Chancellor Bill Danforth said:

“The institution is driven by the same convictions that drove our predecessors: that humankind can learn and profit from the analysis of experience, that knowledge and wisdom can be passed from generation to generation, that improving our understanding brings us closer to truth, [and] that we need not repeat over and over again the mistakes of the past.”  

Chancellor Wrighton echoed these sentiments when he said, “we are still standing on the border of integration and equality…and it is up to us to move the struggle forward.”

From Chancellor Wrighton to Danforth, Eliot, Hoyt and chancellors in between, WashU’s commitment to dialogues across difference has remained a common thread that binds the university’s institutional and historical fabric.  Thankfully for me — and all of us — we have our past to guide and enrich us. Washington University, our city of St. Louis, and the great state of Missouri have lived in this important space since our university’s founding, and I can’t think of a better place to be a facilitator of dialogue around diversity and inclusion than WashU.

1 https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/eliot/eliot.html
2 https://library.wustl.edu/slavery-abolition-from-the-desk-of-william-greenleaf-eliot/