Speeches & Commentary

2020 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration

Three students singing

On December 4, 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited St. Louis and spoke to a group of about 2,000 ministers of the National Council of Churches in Kiel Auditorium. During that gathering, he said this:

“I do not speak as any superficial optimist at this point; I’m not sitting back in some ivory tower with a rosy-eyed vision. I speak as one who has stood in the thick of this struggle. I speak as one who has subjected his family to dangerous living. I speak of one who has to live every day under the threat of death. But in the midst of that, I come to you not with a message of despair, but a message of hope.”

What a profound quote by one of our greatest civil rights leaders, for whom this day has been set aside to honor. And yet, here I am, the Chancellor of Washington University — a white, highly educated, heterosexual male who was asked to give this keynote speech to you today.

Unlike Dr. King, I cannot pretend to speak as one who has stood in the thick of this struggle.

I cannot pretend to speak as one who has subjected his family to dangerous living.

On the other hand, some of you sitting in this room and members of this community still very much live under those realities. Therefore, as Chancellor of this community, it is one of my greatest responsibilities, not to pretend, but rather to listen, to learn, and to advocate as we continue the arduous and far-from-straight arc toward justice, equity, and inclusion for all people.

Like Dr. King when he delivered his remarks here in St. Louis more than 50 years ago, what I strive to do today is share a message of hope, as a strong advocate for change and greater connection at a time when things can often feel as if they’re in despair.

Here at Washington University, we are an incredibly diverse community filled with people who come to us from a variety of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. Though, as I’ve said in previous venues, we all know full well that diversity on paper is not enough. We must continue to be a place of equity and inclusion as well.

While we still have a great deal of work to do to arrive at full equity and inclusion, I believe that, as a community, we have come a long way toward listening to the voices of those who continue to embody Dr. King’s struggle — the voices of those who have stood in the thick of it and who have lived dangerously, sometimes in the face of death.

Since the killing of Michael Brown, Jr. over five years ago, we have done a lot of listening and a lot of learning. We’ve uplifted voices, we’ve shared personal testimonies, we’ve reconstructed narratives, we’ve attended dialogue sessions in our neighborhoods and communities, and we’ve done significant research to understand the issues that continue to face our region.

But we all know that listening is nothing without results.

In the past several years, we’ve made some progress to act on that listening and learning. I’m pleased to share that, over the last nine years, the number of African American tenured/tenure track faculty on the Danforth Campus has increased 113% to 8% of our faculty. The number of women faculty on the Medical Campus has increased 36% in the last five years. And since 2010, of 51 target of opportunity hires, 43% were women and 54% were underrepresented minorities.

Our student body also continues to be increasingly diverse. This year, 23% of our first-year students are underrepresented students of color, 15% are Pell-eligible, and nine percent are first-generation college students.

Last year, 28% of our construction costs for the East End transformation supported minority and women-owned businesses.

Through our Medical School and in partnership with BJC Health Systems, we also continue to lead the way in conducting research on health disparities and providing a health care safety net. Last year alone, Washington University provided $117 million in uncompensated medical care throughout the St. Louis region.

At WashU, we’re also making strides to address the leaky pipeline in K-12 and STEM education. Through the Institute for School Partnership, last year alone, 100,000 K-8 students took part in our MySci curriculum, and nearly 5,000 high school students took part in our College Advising Corp program.

These are all great strides. While listening and learning are foundational to change and to our mission, I want to challenge us in the months and years ahead to focus even more on action.

It was Dr. King who once said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” That quote serves as our theme for today’s commemoration. And here at WashU, we must use it to compel us to further action and further connection.

To that end, I believe the time is right for us to be an even stronger catalyst for change. It’s also time for that change to take hold right here in the St. Louis region. In fact, the time isn’t just right. It’s critical.

Critical to the health and well-being of our region. To the equitable economic growth of the region. To our ability to look to the future with any glimpse of confidence or hope. And critical for the safety of all members of our community, including and especially our children. In fact, this work will continue to be absolutely critical until all of our children are safe in our neighborhoods and in their own homes.

For us, that means the time is right to increase our research here in St. Louis and implement interventions that can begin to address the challenges we face.

The time is right to open our educational doors more widely and freely to anyone with talent who wishes to receive a WashU education.

The time is right to provide an even stronger healthcare safety net and increase access to quality healthcare throughout the region.

The time is right to invest fully in all of our children and address the gaps where the pipeline is the leakiest.

The time is right to partner with our neighbors on community development and create more job opportunities right here in our hometown.

The time is right to address issues of poverty, crime, and gun violence, and to create clearer and safer pathways for all our children.

The time is right to roll up our sleeves, be present in our communities of greatest need, and deliver…not what we think people need, but the things they tell us they need. We must meet people where they are and come to the shared table with mutual dignity and respect.

That means, the time is right, not to be seen as an ivory tower or the place in the central corridor with the rosy-eyed vision. At WashU, we must not be that place.

Instead, we must be a place where we acknowledge that we aren’t always the smartest ones in the room or the one with all the answers.

A place where we open our eyes to how much we have to learn from others.

A place where our colleagues and students are listening, learning, and doing in partnership and in connection with community.

A place where we harness the collective strength and intellect of all members of the wider community — where people work with and alongside our neighbors and cross-sector partners.

A place where talent is not measured by the color of someone’s skin or the institution that granted their diploma.

This is the kind of place I aspire for us to be — not because it’s good for appearances or it’s good for politics. But simply because it’s the right thing to do. Once again, as Dr. King said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

Thank you again for inviting me to be with you today. As Chancellor of this great institution, I cannot stand here and promise or even pretend to understand the challenges every member of our community faces. But what I can promise is to be a partner and advocate on this journey as we continue to make our university, our communities, and our region better, more equitable, and more inclusive places for all.