Higher Education Speeches & Commentary

Welcome to the 2021-22 academic year

Dear Washington University community,

Welcome to a new academic year at WashU! Some of you are just starting your journey here; to others, welcome back. And to those of you who never left, particularly our colleagues on the Medical Campus, thank you.

When we wrapped up campus activities in the spring, it was with the hopeful optimism that fall semester would arrive amid a post-pandemic calm and greater sense of normalcy. Now, the country is experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases due to emerging variants. We cannot predict what challenges the ongoing pandemic may bring.

What I do know is this: we will meet any challenge with our characteristic commitment to our mission and our community, and with our compassion for one another. With science as our guide, we will continue to be like a river meeting rock, adapting to obstacles in our path and always moving forward.

The events of the past 18 months have highlighted the many strengths of this community. When the pandemic hit, we pivoted, turning our research efforts to combatting and managing the virus, developing life-changing interventions, and adapting our teaching and support to meet all students’ needs. We kept our community safe and provided a model to emulate, never wavering in the advancement of our mission.

Positive progress

As our School of Medicine’s physicians, nurses and other caregivers continue — somewhat miraculously — to battle COVID-19 on the front linesalongside our BJC partners, they’ve also worked tirelessly to educate others in the St. Louis region and beyond about the virus and how best to defend against it. Meanwhile, researchers from an incredible array of disciplines at the school began working together at the outset of the pandemic to understand the virus’s intricacies. This has led to a stream of fascinating, invaluable discoveries, among them a quick and easy COVID-19 saliva test that we’ve used universitywide.

Another research team found that the antidepressant fluvoxamine has great potential to help COVID-19 patients in the early stages of the disease — a finding that led to clinical trials that have shown that many patients treated with the drug avoid hospital stays. And yet another team recently identified an antibody that is highly protective at low doses against a wide range of COVID-19’s variants. This discovery could lead to new antibody-based therapies that are less likely to lose their potency as the virus mutates.

Through all of this, the school’s physician-scientists, students, postdocs and scores of other researchers and support staff have continued to advance our work to cure Alzheimer’s disease, defeat cancer, and solve any number of conundrums affecting human health.

While we hit pause on some of the activity on the Danforth Campus for the summer, our work has continued, and we’ve made much progress.

To bolster the university’s arsenal against COVID-19, we began piloting a smartphone system that can alert users when they’ve been near another user who has tested positive for the virus. In our continual quest to improve public health, researchers in biomedical engineering and chemistry are collaborating to improve vaccines for the elderly.

Our strategic planning, led by Provost Beverly Wendland, is well underway. Nine working groups, composed of faculty, staff, students, and other members of the community, have spent the summer months convening focus groups, completing environmental scans, and exploring potential recommendations. Their work is guided by five principles: academic distinction; community impact; inclusion, diversity, equity, and access; global perspective; and stewardship. Already, these groups have identified several key areas in which the university is positioned to enhance its profile, including public health, student experience, and strengthening the St. Louis region.

We are broadening career opportunities with a new bachelor’s degree in data science. We’re progressing on increasing educational access: our incoming Class of 2025 is 17% Pell-eligible (largest in the university’s history), and 4% is part of the WashU Pledge program.

We continue our commitment to be “in St. Louis and for St. Louis” with the appointment of Dedric Carter as our first vice chancellor for innovation and chief commercialization officer, with the goal of elevating the university’s entrepreneurial impact on the economy of the region and beyond. We continue our commitment to our students, welcoming Anna Gonzalez as vice chancellor for student affairs, and to university operations, welcoming Shantay Bolton as executive vice chancellor for administration and chief administrative officer. Each of these leaders’ personal and professional experiences will help carry our community forward in many positive ways. We also welcomed the first round of faculty members identified through our race and ethnicity cluster hire initiative, a multiyear effort to build a world-class interdisciplinary research program on race.

Moving forward with grace

We have much to be proud of, and much work ahead. As we continue to move forward, I ask that we do so with grace. Many among us are struggling. Be patient with others and with yourselves. Let us all give each other the latitude and support that strengthen our community and unite us in distinction.

One of the most important ways we all can support one another is by following the public health protocols that are in place for the start of the semester. Wear a mask indoors, complete your daily self-screening, stay home if you’re not feeling well, and give each other physical space as much as possible. It’s been a long road, and we’ve only been able to weather the pandemic as successfully as we have so far because we’ve all pitched in and done our part. We need to keep looking out for each other by following these guidelines for a while longer. You can learn more by reading the plan for fall and visiting the WashU Together website.

As I said to our graduating classes last spring, the notion of “normal” may be something we never return to, nor should we. This year, I encourage you to leave the idea of “normal” behind and to embrace its opposite: extraordinary. Let us be extraordinary in our commitment to advancing ourselves, our mission, and our community. A quotation from Maya Angelou that I shared in my remarks to our graduates seems to sum up this moment well: “If you’re always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.”

Welcome to the 2021-2022 academic year. Best wishes for an extraordinary experience as we continue together on this journey.