In the United States, the weekend of Labor Day has long symbolized the unofficial end of summer. The weather becomes a bit more moderate (even in St. Louis). Some of the leaves on the trees have even started to fall. This is typically the time of year when outdoor pools close for the season, and schools begin their academic terms. The long weekend, for many, normally serves as a chance to gather together outdoors for one last slice of summer before most people settle into a routine that will define the next few months or so.
Here at Washington University, this time of year also usually serves as a chance to end one chapter and begin another. Although this summer – like any other – was extremely busy, many of us found at least some chances for respite in order to recharge our batteries. Our plates are becoming a little more full now, and students have begun to arrive on campus.
Living in the Midwest — where the seasons predictably change — while simultaneously working at a higher education institution where the academic year follows a similar cyclical pattern — many of us have come to appreciate the natural ebb and flow of this cycle. Our breaks tend to align perfectly with the seasons and holidays, and we take comfort knowing we can count on this circadian rhythm of life.
This year, however, has been far from predictable. Our lives and careers have been disrupted. Our trips have been canceled. Our children’s school years and activities didn’t start as planned. Our normal end-of-summer celebrations seem less festive due to physical distancing and limits on the size of gatherings. And our country remains in turmoil as we work to address this pandemic, as well as the racial injustices that continue to plague our nation.
At Washington University, things are also not the same. Our community is not fully together, as we begin the academic term with some students dispersed throughout the country, while others acclimate to a residential experience that is anything but normal. We still can’t come together as a full community to celebrate big wins and milestones alongside our colleagues and friends. What’s more — many of us are experiencing “Zoom fatigue,” becoming tired of video calls and work-from-home isolation, and we miss the energy that comes from working in-person on teams. On top of all that, our start of this fiscal year that began on July 1 has been one of the most stressful in recent memory.
Friends and colleagues, this has been a difficult season of life — not at all the one we have come to expect. Many of us are exhausted and grieving, wanting and waiting, hoping and dreaming. We want to know answers, and we long for community. And yet, we don’t know exactly when this will happen.
As I write this today, I want you to know, once again, how saddened I am that this is how we are moving through this period of life. For many, WashU is like a family, and I’m reminded now more than ever that our close-knit, in-person community is vital to our identity. In fact, some of our most obvious losses – May Commencement, Reunions and Recognitions, and now Convocation – are testament to this. For the loss of these communal rituals and so many other anticipated traditions that are yet to come, I am truly sorry.
While our current situation still disheartens me, at the same time I want you to know how hopeful I am that we will come out of this crisis even stronger than before. And, as I’ve said before, that’s because of you — the people who make this institution so unique and distinctive.
As we move into this 2020-2021 academic year, I am reminded of and grateful for each and every one of you and the role you have played in keeping this university moving forward. Not standing still during this time…but moving forward.
Whether you are treating patients or conducting life-changing research. Whether you are in food service preparing meals and menus for our students and frontline workers. Whether you are in facilities and grounds and have been keeping the campus clean and beautiful this entire time. Whether you are in WUPD or Protective Services and have been maintaining safety on our campuses. Whether you are in IT or Human Resources and have been helping to ensure our remote work success and personal well-being. Whether you are in University Advancement, Public Affairs, Admissions, or Finance and are working diligently to advance our mission, sustainability, and reach. Whether you are in one of our academic units and have bent over backwards to give our students a top-notch online experience despite these unprecedented circumstances. Whether you have made sacrifices by being on furlough or working reduced hours.
No matter who you are and what your role is, you are extremely vital to this community and our mission to improve lives in service of the greater good. You have come up against significant obstacles these past few months, and you have risen to the occasion time and time again. In fact, it’s your very efforts that are allowing us to move ahead with our fall semester, however uncertain and unpredictable it still might be.
During a particularly turbulent time in both the nation and university’s history — in the midst of the Vietnam war and political unrest on U.S. soil, including college campus throughout the country — on Washington University’s Founders Day in 1970, our 12th Chancellor Thomas Eliot said, “I want to say one reassuring word. The University still stands: and, as it always has, it stands for the unterrified and unconfined search for truth.”
Fifty years later and these words continue to be profoundly resonant. Even amidst this current crisis, we are standing, and not just on physical campuses. We are also standing on our mission. We are standing on the values guiding our decisions. And we are standing together, as a community, both rooted in our foundation and poised with great momentum. I am confident we will continue to stand firm because of colleagues like you who have braved this uncharted territory and will continue to make sacrifices and lead even during this most difficult and unpredictable season. Thank you, as always, for all the ways you support this university, our region, and our world. We are #WashUtogether.