Speeches & Commentary

Convocation 2023 Address: ‘A Home Where Everyone Belongs’

Remarks delivered August 27, 2023, at the Convocation ceremony for the incoming Class of 2027 in Brookings Quad

Good evening, and welcome again to Washington University in Saint Louis!  I’m so happy that you’re finally here.  

I want to take a moment to acknowledge the incredible team that’s worked so hard tonight and this whole week.  To our student affairs and university ceremonies teams, and to our many dedicated volunteers, thank you for sharing your time and talents during this busy week of celebration and learning.  Please join me in a round of applause in gratitude for their dedication.

Parents and families who are watching, I am sure you’re exhausted from the shopping, packing, travel, move-in … not to mention the overwhelming sense of pride for the young adults you launched last week.  I hope you have recovered some energy to toast this milestone with us.  It’s your milestone, too. 

To the WashU Class of 2027… welcome home.  As we gather this evening, from wherever you have come, and whatever mixed emotions you may be feeling, I want you all to know that you belong here.

You belong here because you earned it.  You belong here because of what we see in you. Brilliance. Character. Curiosity. Passion. And the potential to lead.

But I want you to know that here at WashU, the word “belonging” means more than earning your spot. When we say belonging, we are talking about a heartfelt realization that we are an integral part of a community, valued and accepted for who we are.  And it’s an important part of both our health and our academic success.

When I welcomed you home, I didn’t mean Beaumont Hall or Zetcher House.  Today, I’m defining home not as a place, but rather as a state of living alongside others as your authentic self.  Integrating your identities with your passions and academic pursuits.  And fearlessly exploring your ideas and interests.

American author James Baldwin put it this way in his 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room, which explored themes of identity, sexuality, love, and societal expectations.  He wrote: “Perhaps home is not a place, but simply an irrevocable condition.”

Does that sound idealistic?  If we can achieve it anywhere, we can achieve it at WashU – if we all work together.  The responsibility for creating a community where people can be their whole selves is shared by the university, by the faculty, by our staff  … and yes, by you, the students. 

WashU Class of 2027, as you consider your place in this community, I want each of you to ask yourself if you’re willing to be a leader as we build a culture of belonging.  For some of you, this may come naturally.  You may already be working toward this within your residential colleges, on your teams, or elsewhere.  For many others, though, you might ask what qualifies you to be a leader in this endeavor. 

The answer lies in your definition of leadership.  You may not have the loudest voice, or the most formal leadership training.  But do you have the desire to guide others toward a shared vision?  Can you listen well, engage others in constructive dialogue, or use your voice – your unique and legitimate perspective – to build bridges and create positive change?  You may not feel like it today, but we believe you all have the potential to be this type of leader, and we are here to support you as you step up to fulfill it.

While we may talk more of belonging than we did twenty, fifty, or 150 years ago, Washington University has a long and proud history of welcoming and celebrating diverse voices.  While our demographic makeup is growing more culturally diverse each year, we have long stood on a foundation of diversity of thought. 

We take seriously our policies of academic freedom and freedom of expression on campus, which protect our faculty and our students from being judged as scholars for their personal beliefs or political views as they pursue knowledge and solutions.  This right is implied by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the right I would call the freedom of inquiry.

What does free speech or freedom of inquiry on campus mean for you, our students?  Well, it means that we all – you included – work to foster an environment where diversity of thought can flourish, catalyzing growth, innovation, and progress. 

We challenge ourselves and each other to consider alternative viewpoints, thereby enriching our understanding of complex issues, even when we disagree with those viewpoints.  We should welcome those conversations, and make others feel welcome in those conversations. Free speech is a cornerstone of the home we’ve created.

You may have heard of other institutions where individuals or groups seek to limit the types of questions students and professors can ask.  They do so because they don’t want to contend with the implications of the potential answers.  These challenges to freedom of inquiry aren’t limited to any one side of the political aisle, and they are always antithetical to who we are and who we wish to be.  I believe that the highest use of free speech is to search for the truth. If we’re afraid to ask questions about history, or identity, or anything else, our work no longer serves our mission, as described by our motto, Per Veritatum Vis, or strength through truth. 

WashU Class of 2027, in order for you to get the most out of your education, it is both my hope and expectation that you will, at times, ask questions you are afraid to know the answer to.  Not only that, I expect you to respect others when they do the same.  When I said before that the highest use of free speech is in the search for truth?  Well, the worst is to use your voice to belittle or demean others.

We are all on a path of learning here at WashU, and we all deserve to learn in an environment of respect and empathy. 

We all deserve to feel at home here – when we’re right and when we’re wrong. 

We all deserve to be treated with dignity, whether we agree or dissent. 

Regardless of our cultural differences, our religions or political viewpoints, our varied upbringings, or our personalities and identities – we are all seeking truth here at WashU. Seeking knowledge, progress, growth, and justice.  We are all building this home together. 

Can you help us make it a home where everyone belongs?  I know you can.  I hope you will. And once again, I’m glad – so very glad – that YOU are here.  I wish you all the best for the journey ahead.  Thank you.