Higher Education

WashU as a place of distinction

It’s hard to believe summer is almost over. It came and went before we knew it. At times, we never thought the intense bouts of rainfall would ever end. And now we’re wondering the same about the heat. Yet here we are, on the heels of fall and about to begin another academic year. 

It’s certainly a special time for me, as this marks my first full academic year as WashU’s 15th Chancellor. I’m incredibly honored to be here. I’m also incredibly eager to continue chipping away at the work ahead. During seasons like this one—an ironic mixture of nature’s elements beginning to fall away, yet simultaneously one filled with new beginnings—I’m often reminded both of how far we’ve come and where we’re going as one of the world’s leading institutions. In those moments—the fleeting ones between meetings, the balance of family life, and the mounting email inbox—as I take time to consider our path, one word often comes to mind:

Distinction.  

Here at Washington University, we are truly a distinct place of education, research, and patient care. That word “distinction” in and of itself is a choice term. It’s something different than excellence. In fact, when I’m around colleagues in various areas of higher ed, I hear time and time again the word “excellence.” To me, it’s a word that’s become a little overused—perhaps even cliché. In essence, we’re all striving for excellence, aren’t we? To that end, it takes something truly special to move beyond excellence to that of distinction, of which the common definition is “excellence that sets someone or something apart from others.”

When I think of WashU, I think we’ve earned the term. Or at the very least…we’re on the brink.

WashU embodies academic distinction for a whole host of reasons. We’re a campus filled with some of the world’s most renowned faculty and scholars in their fields—across all our disciplines. We’re also leading the way in path breaking research initiatives that have a deep and positive impact locally, nationally, and globally. What’s more—we’re wholeheartedly committed to utilizing our work to be a better neighbor in and throughout the St. Louis region. We have breathtaking, sustainable, state-of-the-art facilities that foster a culture of interdisciplinary and forward-thinking teaching and learning. Every year, we welcome a new cohort of some of the very best students from across the country and around the world as they seek to prepare for leadership and service. We employ more than 15,000 dedicated and compassionate faculty and staff who are equally committed to our mission to provide outstanding education, research, and patient care. And finally, we enjoy a robust network of nearly 150,000 alumni who are high-achievers in their fields and industries and who carry the WashU name with integrity, pride, and respect.   

There are countless more things that set us apart, and the list could undoubtedly go on and on. Ultimately, though, I’m extremely grateful for those who have come before who helped make the vision of academic distinction a reality. Even before Washington University rose from the ranks of a local commuter school to a global university, our predecessors carried with them that vision. Our 5th Chancellor, David F. Houston once said:

“No great university can be built up and sustained unless the university can secure and keep a fair number of the strongest, greatest, most creative and inspiring of the world’s teachers and investigators…In addition to these things, there must be a mature university student body, considerable leisure on the part of professors for research, a sympathetic environment, and absolute freedom in subject and method.”

While all of this is true, the other thing we must remember about the word “distinction” is that, in order to truly be distinct, we can’t just sit still. In fact, another dictionary definition frames the term in this way: “the act of perceiving someone or something as being not the same…”

The words “not the same” I find particularly striking. They’re the words that fill up my sense of resolve. They’re what get me moving in the morning. And they’re what keep me looking forward to the days, weeks, and months ahead as we work together to illuminate the path ahead.

Here at WashU, we simply cannot continue to “be the same.” We have to constantly strive to be more. To do more. To achieve more. 

The times we’re currently in also make our work that much more important. The stakes are too high to rest on our laurels. Instead, it’s time for us to use our current status as a leading institution and build on the momentum of our past successes. That means increasing our research capacity; empowering our faculty to do their very best scholarly and creative work; finding innovative ways to secure funding, access, and collaboration; expanding our pedagogical frameworks to new territories and outside our comfort zones; doing even more to support our students, our patients, and our community; and much more. 

Indeed, distinction is clearly a term that embodies our past and permeates our present. And now, as we embark on yet another academic year—one filled with opportunity and potential—I challenge all of us to thread the needle even further as we embed distinction into the fabric of our future.