Higher Education

The values informing our path forward

It’s hard to believe it’s already been a month since we’ve had to take swift and dramatic actions in response to COVID-19. In the last few weeks, even with all that’s been on my plate, I have tried to be intentional about taking walks on our Danforth Campus. It’s eerily quiet, and I know we’re all longing for the days when it will be filled with energy, activity, and community once again. This campus was not designed for this solitude, yet, as I walk and reflect, I feel certain that our energy, activity, and community will come together even stronger than before. And in the midst of the quiet on Danforth, I also know that all is not quiet on our Medical Campus. Quite the contrast, and yet, we are one Washington University, intrinsically linked by our mission, our work, and our humanity. This crisis has reminded me of a lot of things, and this is certainly one of them. 

Recently, I conveyed a message to our incoming students and their families. In that message, I shared — in full transparency — that I don’t yet know all the answers to the questions that are being asked of us. Nonetheless, what I can share at this time is some insight into our rationale for decision making. Our senior administrators and I have agreed upon a set of values we have been using to navigate these tough decisions. These values will also continue to guide our decisions moving forward, and so we think it would serve useful for everyone in our community to know what they are. 

First, the safety, security, and well-being of all people continues to be one of our most deeply held values. This has always been true and is more important now than ever before. Therefore, every class or meeting we hold remotely, every time we check in with a colleague or student, every event we cancel, every dollar we raise for crisis response, every message we write, every time we decide to stay home — we are putting this essential value into practice. 

Second, we are a community grounded in our mission — which is to utilize our distinction in education, research, and patient care to improve lives in service of the greater good. This is central to everything we do and every decision we make. In the midst of so much uncertainty, this is an absolute.

Third, our mission calls us to enhance lives, not just on campus, but also throughout the St. Louis region and around the world. While we have many in public health and the Medical School who are working on this crisis from a global perspective, we are focusing a significant portion of our efforts on our role and impact in St. Louis and for St. Louis — through community partnership, outreach, and compassionate patient care. 

Fourth, it is paramount that we uplift the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion during this critical time, as we consider how this crisis affects individuals from varying backgrounds and with varying levels of severity. In addition, we must bolster these values because it takes all of us — and a variety of perspectives — to come to the table and work toward innovative solutions. To that end, we must continue to be innovative, adaptable and willing to collaborate across identities, cultures, departments, schools, and roles (including our roles as faculty, staff, and students) in order to move forward.

Fifth is the value of accountability and transparency, qualities that have long been essential to my own understanding of leadership. Even if we don’t know the answers — or if the answers are difficult to accept — I can promise that we will always communicate our decisions along with our rationale. It is during times like these that I am reminded how important and essential these values are to our work as a community — our ability to hold each other accountable and communicate decisions, certainly, but also to see one another’s humanity, to extend grace when things don’t go exactly as planned, and to extend empathy and compassion. Indeed, we cannot be fully human, and we cannot be our best as a community, unless we are willing to be accountable and transparent.   

And finally, through all of this, we must uplift the value of careful stewardship and sustainability of the university’s resources and of our world — those resources that many in our community, both past and present, have entrusted into our care. This is not only central to our mission, but part of our responsibility to our steadfast supporters as well as our responsibility to advance our mission through and beyond this current storm — in perpetuity.  

These are some of the values we hold dearly at Washington University and the values that have given us the firm foundation we have in place. And right now, these values are fueling the work we do to flatten the curve, mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and do our best to care for those who are most vulnerable in the midst of this health, humanitarian, and economic crisis. While I don’t yet have all the answers, what I can promise is that we are weighing all of the additional uncertainties and questions against these values, and we will share answers to the many questions as soon as we know what they are.

I want to reinforce that this work is hard, and unpredictable. We are going to make some really good decisions, and it’s inevitable that periodically we are going to make some decisions that fall short.  And when that happens, we will pivot, self-correct, and keep moving. The most important thing right now is to not be overwhelmed or paralyzed by decision making. We must focus on the long-game, but we also must focus on the decisions that need to be made today — and make them. This is leadership.

Using these values as a guide in informing our path forward, I have also come to several tough conclusions about some of the work that needs to come to a halt. I know many of you have also felt deep disappointment at the loss of projects that have been put on hold — all of the work you put in and the excitement you exuded in design and execution. Some of those might include: the placement of publications and articles, the prospect of new research projects, potential new hires and onboarding colleagues, your creative pedagogy that could only be done in person, planning for major events and conferences, launching new initiatives, and executing on professional development goals. 

These losses are real, plain and simple. In many ways, I am also experiencing similar loss, as we had a lot of plans in place that are now being paused. In that vein, I want to share that, after long and careful discernment, we have made the tough decision to postpone our Strategic Planning process until January. As with most things during this unprecedented time, this is certainly not what we had imagined or planned for. However, in the interest of full transparency, I believe it is important to communicate this decision now so that we can continue to focus on the immediate work at hand — our role in flattening the curve, mitigating the threat of COVID-19, and working hard to steward our resources to weather the storm. This not only allows us to focus all energy on ameliorating this terrible disease, but it also allows Provost Wendland the chance to become acclimated into her role, it allows us to safeguard our financial resources to allocate toward immediate needs, and it gives all of us the space to think critically about what strategic planning looks like in the aftermath of a global pandemic. 

Let me be completely honest when I say that we still don’t know what that looks like or what lies ahead. Indeed, we still don’t know how long this crisis will last or what might happen in the fall. What I do know, however, is that, as an institution, we have overcome obstacles in the past, and we will overcome them again — together. We have used times of crisis to become more innovative, to become more resilient, to become more fiscally responsible, and to become a stronger community. I have absolutely no doubt that we will come out of this crisis with similar attitudes and convictions. 

For as Chancellor-emeritus Bill Danforth once said:

“The institution is driven by the same convictions that drove our predecessors: that humankind can learn and profit from the analysis of experience, that knowledge and wisdom can be passed from generation to generation, that improving our understanding brings us closer to truth, that we need not repeat over and over again the mistakes of the past.”

While this crisis has been tragic, I have been trying my best to find the silver linings, as I can imagine many of you are also doing. With that, this situation has confirmed for me that the pre-strategic planning process we conducted last year has led us down the right path. Our foundational pillars of academic distinction, educational access, and our role and impact in St. Louis and for St. Louis are even clearer now than they were before this pandemic. Because, undoubtedly, we are already modeling these pillars through our current actions and our tripartite mission of education, research, and patient care. I have been deeply impressed with the ways in which our community has come together during this time to magnify each of these aspects of our mission to improve lives in service of the greater good. It gives me immense confidence that we will move into our Strategic Planning with even more clarity and resolve. 

As we continue to navigate the weeks and months ahead, I hope that all of us can feel proud of the ways in which we are contributing to this current local and global effort. As a community, we have already shown — both individually and collectively — that we aspire to do whatever it takes to prioritize safety, well-being, and the humanity of all people — qualities that are central to our mission. Thank you, as always, for all the ways you support this university and help us move forward, especially during these times of uncertainty. In the moments of quiet, let us remember that we are #WashUtogether, and our momentum has not been lost. It has merely been shifted.