Higher Education

Remaining hopeful this Thanksgiving

Sunset behind Brookings Hall

I’ve been reflecting for a while about what I might write in this year’s Thanksgiving Letter. And the truth is, my thoughts have changed each day with each passing news cycle — filled with devastating news about COVID-19, continued political tensions, economic uncertainty, and ongoing struggles for racial equity. As I think about what this year has meant to me, it continues to be marked by the incredibly difficult steps we had to take this year to keep our community safe and stewarded — significantly reduced operations this spring on both the Danforth and Medical Campuses, study abroad and travel plans abruptly halted, canceled university traditions and events, furloughs and reduced hours, the shift to remote operations and virtual gatherings, the planning and execution of a fall semester unlike any other, physical distancing and masking, low-density residence halls, and finally, immense feelings of loss and grief. 

What’s more — Thanksgiving is supposed to be a time to gather with family and friends — a time to celebrate one another and strengthen the bonds we share. This year, most of our Thanksgivings will look quite different than those that came before. Many of us have chosen not to fully gather together in order to keep our loved ones healthy and safe. Many have suffered job loss or employment insecurity and thus may no longer prepare the special meal they’ve come to know. And many have lost loved ones due to the pandemic or other unfortunate circumstances and will feel the void of those losses this year. 

Indeed, in moments like these, it can be hard to express feelings of gratitude. It can be hard to look beyond the horizon. And it can be hard to find hope in a world that too often feels hopeless. 

Today, though, I want to try my best to remind this community that — although this year has been extraordinarily difficult — it serves as only a moment in time on the long, and often winding, path toward hope and progress. 

I would be remiss if I wrote a Thanksgiving Letter this year without calling upon our beloved and late Chancellor Emeritus Bill Danforth who began the tradition in 1974. While his passing is yet another loss we’ve had to grieve this year, I’m especially grateful that his eloquent words and indelible legacy live on. Since his passing, I’ve taken care to re-read many of his letters, which have inspired me in this particular period of time. They, too, serve as a reminder that periods of uncertainty and tumult often seed fruits of change, innovation, justice, and hope for the future. 

While thinking about what to write in this year’s Thanksgiving Letter, one particular excerpt from the letter Bill wrote in 1985 struck me. It reads:

“Excellence is a constant search for deeper understandings, for clearer explanations, for better predictability, for more profound art. Excellence means the passing to oncoming generations, not just of subject matter, but also of restless strivings to be better. Excellence is a state of mind, not a resting place.” 

As I read that paragraph over and over again, I thought about the role excellence plays in our community, as well as our path from excellence toward distinction. And then, I began to replace the word excellence with other words that provide meaning for the circumstances in which we currently live: Progress. Hope. Resilience. Equity. Empathy. Collective Strength. Community. Leadership. Service. 

Try it, and see how it applies for you.

In addition, I was struck particularly by the last sentence — the notion that excellence, progress, hope, resilience, equity, empathy, collective strength, community, leadership, and service are states of mind, and not resting places. 

Here again we go back to the idea that this year — this unprecedented season of life — is not a resting place. While this Thanksgiving we will hopefully take time to rest, the next day we will get back up and keep on going. We will continue to chart a path forward, one with a final destination we do not yet know. But then again, we can remain hopeful that the destination is brighter than the section of the path we’re on today. We can remain hopeful that our resilience and drive will carry us through. We can remain hopeful that our expressions of empathy and compassion have the potential to lead to greater understanding and kindness. We can remain hopeful that our collective strength will engender progress, innovation, justice, and truth. 

This Thanksgiving, I remain grateful for all of these things, and most importantly, for each of you and the many ways you contribute to our WashU mission to improve lives in service of the greater good. This past year, you have gone above and beyond the call of duty in service of our students, colleagues, patients, the region, and the world. This past year has been an exemplary reminder that we refuse to be knocked down, we refuse for 2020 to be a state of rest, and that even though we are apart, we remain WashU Together.

Thank you, as always, for your steadfast commitment to joining this community on the path toward distinction in education, research, and patient care. Even though this Thanksgiving looks different, may we continue to find gratitude and hope in one another and the extraordinary work we do to make the world a better and more equitable place for all to live. To that end, here’s to a happy and hopeful Thanksgiving and the promise that tomorrow brings.