FEATURE — 2003


Imagining a University

Wayne Fields, the Lynne Cooper Harvey Distinguished Professor of English and an expert on the rhetoric of U.S. presidents, turns his expertise to the rhetoric of Washington University chancellors. He examines the speeches of four chancellors who, early in their term of office, set forth a vision for transforming the University from a local "streetcar" college to the nationally and internationally respected entity of today. The speeches are David F. Houston's 1908 speech to the Commercial Club of St. Louis, A University for the Southwest; Arthur Holly Compton's 1946 inaugural address, Education for Greater Destiny; William H. Danforth's 1972 Founders Day speech, Washington University: Continuity and Change; and Mark S. Wrighton's 1995 inaugural address, Learning and Discovery: Gateways to the 21st Century.

by Wayne Fields

The challenge of "explaining" a university has never been easy and, except for special occasions, is one we usually avoid. Instead we simply pretend that we know what a university is and does, take for granted the necessity of its existence, and assume that everyone else feels pretty much the same way. Those rare occasions when more is required—which usually arise when those of us with careers in higher education are seeking support for our institutions or in a time of change or crisis—force us to re-examine ourselves and the work we do. Such a time inevitably attends a change in administrations, when the responsibility of leadership passes from one chancellor to another. An inevitable part of this rite of institutional passage is an address in which the newly appointed simultaneously presents both his or her understanding of a university and of the historical moment in which he or she lives and leads.

David F. Houston
5th Chancellor

Arthur H. Compton
9th Chancellor

Four of the chancellors who have led Washington University, from its "refounding" after the 1904 World's Fair through its rise to national and international prominence at the close of the 20th century, have shared a remarkably consistent understanding of what this University could be and what it might come to mean to St. Louis, the United States, and the world. Yet each assumed office under very different conditions and had to explain his vision to profoundly different audiences. The speeches given by David Franklin Houston in 1908, Arthur Holly Compton in 1946, William H. Danforth in 1972, and Mark S. Wrighton in 1995—because they occurred in times of dramatic transition both for Washington University and for America—provide a unique insight into the emergence of the school as a pre-eminent institution as well as into the chancellors who guided it.

William H. Danforth
13th Chancellor

Mark S. Wrighton
14th Chancellor

Aristotle has taught us that all speeches represent an intersection of three elements: a speaker, an audience, and a message. Most immediately striking in the speeches given by newly inaugurated Washington University chancellors is the audience each has chosen to address. In 1908 Chancellor Houston, who had refused a formal inaugural ceremony, unveiled his vision for the University before St. Louis' Commercial Club. In calling for "A University for the Southwest," he argued before the city's most influential businessmen both an academic case and a civic opportunity with greatest emphasis falling on the latter. Aspirations for regional dominance, he argued, required St. Louis leaders to support an institution that would be more than just a "college" and that would differ from overburdened state schools. They needed a "University," he told them, a word he claimed to employ "in a quite different sense from that in which it is popularly used and applied in this country, and [to] attach to it the meaning that it carries in the minds of those who are familiar with such institutions as Harvard, Columbia University, and the University of Chicago."

Such a center of learning, Houston explained, would be privately endowed, elite, and breathtakingly ambitious. "A university has no limitation of subject matter or area. If it deal with any special part of the field of knowledge, or have any of the marks of sectional or sectarian bias or partisan affiliation, it cannot, in the nature of things be a university." The cost of such ambition he readily admitted would be great: ongoing support for the brightest faculty, the most extensive libraries, and the best laboratories. Above all he emphasized the importance of a graduate school "whose function would be to furnish advanced training to those who desire to specialize, to pursue research work, and to lay large the scientific foundations for the practical activities of the world."

The argument Chancellor Houston presented to the business club was that of a coincidence of ambitions, theirs to create a great city that would dominate a region—the "southwest"—and his to create a great university. Arguing their interest, he insisted, it was clearly "sound Policy for St. Louis to develop such a university," and that no city could either be great or dominate without such an institution.
"A University for the Southwest"
Construction of the Hilltop Campus began in October 1900, and the first academic use of the nine new buildings—a campus readying itself for Houston's vision—took place on January 30, 1905.

His recurrent reference to the newly created University of Chicago as one of the "real" universities ("real" and "true" are his favored antecedents for the word "university") is a reminder both of the stakes and the competition. His interest was in building the institution their civic hopes required. An outsider, he had arrived in St. Louis by way of the University of Texas where he had been president, and made it clear that he had come to their city because it was the place in which his academic ambition could be realized. Just as he told the businessmen before him why St. Louis needed his school, he explained why his school needed St. Louis. First, he argued, true universities demand a city, not the small towns favored by state schools and independent colleges; they require the intellectual activity and financial resources of an urban setting. Second, they need a "rare combination of foresight, business skill, educational comprehension, and wise and unselfish ... philanthropy," all of which St. Louis had demonstrated in what Houston called the "refounding" of the University following the World's Fair.

Collaborative Communities

If Houston had arrived in St. Louis with a 20th-century university in his head and the confidence that he could push a school, a city, and a region into greatness, Arthur Holly Compton returned to an academic home, a place where he had taught and done much of the research that won him a Nobel Prize. But he came home from a project in applied science that had both won a war and opened a new age of apprehension and possibility; a time when, "[a]s never before the destiny of man is being shaped by the universities." Houston's ambition had been tempered for Compton—and, in an important sense expanded, since its reach would be farther—by the cataclysm of a world war and the opening of a nuclear age. During his inaugural address, Chancellor Compton's was a university audience, not only on this campus but throughout a world in which war-borrowed academics returned to their peacetime preoccupations with a realization that the stakes had grown even greater than they had previously supposed. In this message Washington University's home is the world: "The world," Compton declared, "needs the best of our leadership. The great task of our universities is to educate men and women so that they may enable humanity to work effectively for life's true values."

The words that dominate Chancellor Compton's address were "complexity," "co-operation," "collaboration," and—most prominent of all—"dependence." If Americans and their educators had once thought the meaning of freedom was independence, self-sufficiency, and isolation, they had been taught differently by the conflict just ended. "We have," he explained, "just fought another great war for freedom. But note the difference: to win this war we became close allies with other great nations. Each country and every group within our country was closely dependent on the others. Yet all were free, because all were working for what they wanted: victory and release from the continual threat of attack by militaristic nations."
Medical School Reorganized Robert S. Brookings (Board president) and Chancellor Houston led the charge to reorganize the medical school according to recommendations made by Abraham Flexner in a 1909 report to the Carnegie Foundation. One result: A new Barnes Hospital complex emerged in the mid-1910s.

What war had taught must now be applied in peace, and the University must exemplify this lesson in creating an environment in which specialists work in collaborative communities, bringing their expertise to bear on complex issues. His own wartime employment as director of the Metallurgical Laboratory of Chicago (according to University historian Ralph Morrow "the experimental incubator of the atomic bomb") convinced Compton that "our greatest freedom ... comes through co-operation." Global conflict, in his account, had ended a period of national innocence. It forced the United States out of isolation and into a community of nations; it instructed even scholars on the need for and pleasure in a shared life.

Compton's optimism is evident in the title he gave his remarks, Education for Greater Destiny. But there was a different tone here, one humbled by experience, one in which the speaker turned and returned to religious thinkers and matters of the spirit.

"We are," Compton concluded, "groping for the pattern that we should follow. Education merges into religion as the only light we know which can show us that pattern. Striving to become a better world, we find that we can only say with our great Teacher, 'My Father worketh hitherto and I work.' In our halting and uncertain efforts to make life of value, we awake to find that we have indeed become the children of our Creator."

Contributions to Humanity

In Chancellor William H. Danforth's inaugural message at Founders Day 1972, the St. Louis community was, as it had been in 1908, the primary audience. But like Compton's, Danforth's message was influenced by a recent war; one with a legacy of dissent and alienation rather than cooperation and community. Looming over all discussion of America's universities, was the specter of "campuses ... torn apart by student unrest, disruptions, and burnings on an unbelievable scale." The public "trust" and "esteem," the "confidence" enjoyed by universities in the Compton era, had plummeted throughout the Vietnam War (a conflict that Danforth left unidentified, perhaps because of its continuing power to divide Americans). More than at any previous time, this city and this University had grown estranged from one another.
Cyclotron In 1940, Washington University scientists developed the first dedicated medical cyclotron. Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, the machine was installed on the Hilltop Campus to produce short half-life isotopes for medical use. A precedent-setting technological advance in medicine, the cyclotron also earned a colorful footnote in U.S. history when the Manhattan Project used it to produce the world's first plutonium—a tiny speck that would fit on the head of a pin.

Danforth began his remarks by reminding listeners that they were "responsible for Washington University," that "Washington University sprang from St. Louis. It is a child of St. Louis." Central to the credibility of this speech was the fact that Chancellor Danforth also "sprang" from this city, was himself "a child of St. Louis," and could represent both its and the University's interests and aspirations. In calling for a reconciliation between the town and the campus, he embodied reconciliation, was himself inseparable from both.

Speaking to a wary community, Danforth placed it in a parental relation both to the students and the University, and then reassured his audience that things had changed; "the tenseness and anger of the 1960s is gone. ... Students have rediscovered the joy of learning and going to college. The faculty have time for their traditional roles of teaching and scholarship. Administrators have time to think and to learn." In these remarks was the double-mindedness that served the chancellor and the University so well. He clearly spoke as the representative of a school he had long served—he had been a member of its faculty as well as of its administration—but with a perspective informed by his deep St. Louis ties. Though mildly stated, his words implied a frustration and disappointment akin to those felt by the St. Louis community. He shared the community's point of view even as he became the chief executive officer of the institution it regarded with suspicion.

"I don't think," he stated near the close of his remarks, "that I have gone soft-headed, that I have forgotten the recent tension between Washington University and the St. Louis community. I hope not, although I am optimistic enough to believe that much of the tension came from misunderstanding and from failure of communication—really failure to know one another well."
Community Outreach Faculty and students of the George Warren Brown School of Social Work are committed to serving in the community. Integrating knowledge gained in the classroom with supervised social work practice is an integral part of graduate education.

Danforth came to the chancellorship with an intimate knowledge of both parties and, after a troubled time, as an agent of reconciliation trusted by both. The personal credo with which he concluded his message was spoken as a citizen of the school and the city.

"I believe," he said, "that Washington University is one of this community's contributions to mankind. A successful university is a noble institution. It is a statement of faith; faith that human beings can be educated and that human thought is worthwhile, that the thinking, analyzing animal called man can use his unique talents for the benefit of himself and his fellows; that we can learn from our past; that we can change; that by intelligence we can improve our lot and the lot of our children and their children."

Partnering to Address Problems

Mark S. Wrighton did not come to his chancellorship in the aftermath of a war or even a World's Fair. Rather he arrived in St. Louis during a period of relative peace and prosperity. Chancellor Danforth's near-quarter-century of leadership had brought improved relations with St. Louis and completed the foundation and much of the construction of the "real university" of Houston's ambition. Chancellor Wrighton, looking in 1995 to the new century that would test the school, could confidently assume it had already joined the ranks of great research institutions and had become a university, not merely for the southwest but for the 21st century. ("The high standing we enjoy in this country places us among the leading universities in the world.")

The words dominating Chancellor Wrighton's inaugural message were "center" and "community"—both given a geographical and an intellectual dimension. St. Louis and Washington University lie in the center of a nation, but "intellectual activity" is the true evidence of the "centrality" we seek, and, Wrighton argued, that activity depends upon community. In describing his first impressions of Washington University, he emphasized "the high degree of respect, integrity, civility, and community," and declared these qualities essential for the work of "learning" and "discovery" that are our mission.
Sequencing Genes The Genome Sequencing Center helped lead the Human Genome Project. C.elegans was the first multi-cell organism to be mapped by center scientists.

"Learning and discovery," he explained, "are activities which sometimes involve controversy and disagreement, but it is clear that my high expectations for an intellectual community capable of open discourse will be realized at Washington University. The diverse community that comprises Washington University is an important asset. Its people are drawn from many backgrounds, from many states and countries, and differ with respect to race, ethnicity, and intellectual interest. This stimulating mix is one we must work to sustain."

Wrighton's emphasis on a diverse community was crucial to his educational vision, community all the more important because the intellectual activity demanded of a 21st-century university requires variety and difference rather than small clusters of the like-minded. "We will be successful," he argued, "when we draw together as one institution, unite in our efforts to seek excellence, and partner internally to address complex, interdisciplinary problem areas." The research that defines us requires the crossing of disciplinary boundaries, he insisted—echoing a Compton theme—because "the vexing problems and challenges we face today are ... multidisciplinary in character, requiring concerted synergistic energy from many intellectual perspectives."
Constructing the Future In December 2002, Uncas A. Whitaker Hall for Biomedical Engineering opened—the latest in a series of new state-of-the-art facilities on the University's campuses.

Where Houston looked to a region ripe for intellectual leadership, Wrighton placed the University in a global context with international responsibilities, its obligation not only to enhance "the quality of life for St. Louis and the United States" but to the world. In this larger community, one brought "closer together" by science and technology, the University's ambition to be at once diverse and a community, a place of civility and contention, implies more than a model of higher education; it bears witness to the mutually enriching benefits of a shared life. "Whenever progress is made in the problems confronting our global society," he concluded, "we can be assured that well-educated people will be key—people working individually and cooperatively and people working in many areas and with many backgrounds and perspectives."

After a century exploring what it means to be a "true university," a century whose challenges Chancellor Houston could never have imagined, the chancellor who would lead Washington University into its new millennium concluded that greatness lies in the ability of differing and strong-minded individuals, striving for excellence in their several fields, to "come together," "unite," to be a community, a singular institution.