Speeches & Commentary

Fall 2020 Community Reflection Remarks

Today we gather together to reflect, to grieve, to mourn, and to instill hope in a time that can sometimes feel hopeless. Thank you for being with us today — a chance to simply “be present” as a community as we continue to navigate two pandemics — COVID-19 and the racial injustices that plague our nation. 

In my own state of grief and mourning these past seven months, I’ve done a lot of reading and reflecting of my own.  In those moments of quiet reflection — and certainly timely given his recent passing — I have found Bill Danforth’s Thanksgiving Letters especially helpful and inspiring as I myself attempt to emulate some of Bill’s many endearing qualities and lead the university during such a turbulent time in our history. 

To that end, I want to share with you a few excerpts of one particular Thanksgiving letter Bill wrote in 1978.  He starts by saying this:

“When I review the history of an institution, I am always struck by the persistent trials and the recurring difficulties that have been overcome.  Since its founding, Washington University has transcended wars, panics, social unrest.  It has been troubled by setbacks, disappointments, irresolvable problems; yet it has progressed.” 

Now, it’s clear that Bill is referring here to our institution, while today we gather as a community to reflect more so on individual loss and communal, national, and global grief. However, I think these words still resonate even as we think deeply about all levels of uncertainty, change, profound loss, and mourning — both individual and global.  Throughout our history, we and our ancestors have survived eras of conflict, violence, sickness, and tragedy.  Some of us more than others given our contexts and backgrounds, and I’m especially reminded today of those black, indigenous, and people of color in our community, among others, who have experienced long and arduous ancestral struggle. 

Seeing as today’s event has some spiritual undertones, I want to share another passage from Bill’s letter as he attempts to explain the ingredient that helped us move through each of these tumultuous eras.  That ingredient, he says, is faith.  And so the passage reads:

“A positive relation to society requires trust and confidence in others… Many acts of faith are required.  Unfortunately, faith cannot always be well placed.  Faith must sometimes be disillusioned, perhaps as often as every month or every week or even every day; but without it our institutions would stagnate.  Too much faith is better than too little.  Wisdom lies in starting afresh after each disappointment and in never allowing oneself to become cynical, jaded, or untrusting.” 

Today, let us remember the words of Chancellor Emeritus Danforth, a man who lived by his convictions.  In that vein, let us also remember that this isn’t easy.  In fact, as Bill mentioned, many of us feel disillusioned right now.  We lack faith and trust in our leaders.  We lack faith and trust in humanity.  We lack faith and trust in the future. 

While these things might be true, let us find ways to remain in faith.  May we find faith in one another.  Faith in this community.  Faith in our region.  Faith in our healthcare workers.  And faith that justice will inevitably prevail.

These past few weeks, I have found faith and inspiration in this community.  In our students for braving this unprecedented semester.  In our faculty and staff for their resilience and flexibility in adapting our plans.  In those of you who are actively serving in your communities and giving voice to the people and needs that are too often silenced.  In those of you who are marginalized who haven’t lost sight of faith and continue to fight for equity.  And in those of you using your privilege to work and advocate alongside them.  At the institutional level here at WashU, we are also committed to working alongside each of you, our neighbors, and our surrounding communities as we take action toward equity and justice.  

Thank you again for being with us as we name our grief, come together to mourn, and carve out spaces to find faith and begin to heal — and as we recommit ourselves to the work ahead. Even though we cannot be physically together, it is important that we remember the strength of our community and the hope that remains.  Thank you.