Speeches & Commentary

The 32nd Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemoration

Good evening and thank you, once again, for joining us for the 32nd annual MLK commemoration here at Washington University in St. Louis. I am honored to be with you today as WashU’s Chancellor-elect and especially during an occasion such as this. I am extremely grateful to those who worked diligently to prepare this evening’s event, to our performers, and to our speakers. Thank you, also, to the Rev. Dr. Barbara A. Reynolds for being with us tonight. I look forward to hearing your reflections and wisdom.

Just over 50 years ago in 1968, a black Washington University student by the name of Elbert A. Walton, Jr. was arrested for parking violations and subsequently beaten by the arresting police officer. His arrest resulted in a nine-day protest by members of WashU’s Association of Black Collegians. Out of that protest came conversations with then-Chancellor Thomas H. Eliot to “identify myriad concerns of Black [Washington University] students.” During those conversations, Chancellor Eliot was said to have led with “restraint, compassion, and insight.”

Here we are 50 years later and embroiled in another civil rights movement in the United States of America. Fifty years later, and people of color are still being profiled. Fifty years later, and racial equality is still not fully realized. Fifty years later, and some members of our mainstream society seem to have lost sight of the “restraint, compassion, and insight” that Chancellor Eliot exemplified when he met with members of the Association of Black Collegians in our very own Brookings Hall.

Fifty years later, and it’s difficult to see progress when progress hides under the veil of widespread bigotry and unrest. But in times like these, it is imperative that we remember and channel Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words when he said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

Indeed — students, faculty, staff, and friends of Washington University — while we continue to live in a world of finite disappointment, the world will never be able to take away the hope that lives within us. And in that vein, we must pause during days like today and celebrate the strides we have made in the last 50 years to become a more equitable and just world. At WashU, we have concrete evidence, which fuels our infinite hope.

Following the Brookings protests, WashU students and administrators worked together — and imminently — to address various areas of concerns, including enrollment and financial aid, employment conditions, off-campus housing, police relations, and the establishment of a Black Studies program, among others.  In the correspondence with the campus community, Chancellor Eliot stressed, “We must do better, on all fronts.”

Just a year later, Washington University established a Black Studies program, now the Department of African and African-American Studies. And since then, the university has enhanced efforts toward enrolling a higher percentage of students of color; recruiting and retaining diverse faculty and staff; increasing our socioeconomic diversity and access to financial aid; and hiring diversity practitioners to work closely with students, faculty, and staff from all backgrounds. With the help of the leadership of our students, faculty, and staff, we have done these and much more as we work to make this institution one where all people feel represented, safe, valued, and included.

But friends and colleagues — you and I both know we still have work to do. Fifty years later, and we have not yet arrived.

As Chancellor-elect, this reality disheartens me, yet it also gives me immense resolve and strength to continue what this university — what students, faculty, and staff like you — started.

I believe embracing diversity is an essential ingredient to success — not only individual success, but locally, nationally, and globally as well.  In addition to my own life experiences and encounters, that belief is informed by empirical evidence, which shows that diverse teams perform better than homogenous ones when they channel their differences in positive ways.  In addition, when we interact with people who are different than us, we become more aware of our own perceptions, values, and norms, and in turn, become increasingly self-aware, better critical thinkers, more empathic human beings, and better citizens.

All of us, regardless of background or experience, benefit from being part of a diverse and inclusive community. It’s not just about succeeding or benefitting, though. Beyond that, it’s also about thriving and flourishing. As human beings, when we work on our own selves and strive to communicate and collaborate across our differences, we begin to create a university, local community, nation, and world that truly flourishes.  

For me this means that, as WashU’s Chancellor-elect, I will commit to fostering a Washington University community that mirrors the microcosm of our nation and world. I will commit to recruiting, enrolling, retaining, training and empowering students, scholars, practitioners, and staff who are: black, white, Asian, and Hispanic; lesbian, gay, transgender and cisgender; Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu and atheist; conservative, liberal, moderate, and independent; and all identities in between. I will commit to recruiting the very best talent regardless of previous opportunities and ensuring all people feel their voice and presence are welcome. And finally, as Chancellor-elect, I will not shy away from difficult conversations and instead will do my best to approach dialogue and conflict with “restraint, compassion, and insight” just as Chancellor Eliot did and the chancellors who have come after him like Bill Danforth and Mark Wrighton. Because that’s what it means to pursue excellence in education, research, and patient care — the hallmarks of this exceptional university.

Friends and colleagues, this is my “infinite hope” for this university as we strive to enhance the lives and livelihoods of our students, the people of the greater St. Louis community, the country, and the world. Tonight, may we come together to reflect, celebrate, and dialogue about our own infinite hopes as we build a better and brighter tomorrow, both here at Washington University and beyond.

Thank you.