Washington University Chancellor Wrighton reflects on diversity, value, and community commitment | St. Louis Public Radio

Washington University Chancellor Wrighton reflects on diversity, value, and community commitment

Aug 24, 2015

Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton (left) spoke with education reporter Dale Singer (right) on "St. Louis on the Air."
Credit File | Áine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio

On Monday, students, faculty, and staff members of Washington University in St. Louis crossed campus for the first day of classes. They are a lucky bunch: Wash U. is one of the region’s—and the country’s—premiere universities, highly-ranked nationwide in areas from academic programs to student life to campus food options.

Over the past twenty years, Wash U. has experienced tremendous growth in prestige, enrollment, and programming. With that growth have come changes and challenges—from inside and outside the university.

Students have spoken out in publications and groups against the school’s lack of socioeconomic diversity, prompting an administrative response to bring Wash U.’s financial aid to the level of its peer institutions. The national spotlight shone on St. Louis since last August’s Ferguson protests area has prompted university initiatives on gun violence, community introspection, and digital documentation. And tuition at Wash U. rises with its peer institutions’.

On Monday, Chancellor Mark Wrighton discussed the cost and value of a Washington University education with host Don Marsh and education reporter Dale Singer.

A major employer in the region and a strong recruiter of talented students nationwide, Wash U. has about 13,000 students and an equal number of employees, Wrighton said.

While the school’s prestige grows and admissions rate contracts, Wash U. is still making admissions a strong priority—as strong as it was 21 years ago, when Wrighton began his tenure. “As I assumed the chancellorship in 1995, we resolved to focus on three key objectives in connection with admissions: quality, diversity, and affordability,” Wrighton said.

Quality is rarely called into question, but diversity and affordability? Students have spoken out in publications and groups against the school’s lack of socioeconomic diversity, prompting an administrative response to bring Wash U.’s financial aid to the level of its peer institutions. And undergrad tuition this year is $63,000, including room and board.

Wrighton pointed to Wash U.’s most recent admissions statistics as an indication that the school is serious about increasing diversity. “This year has been particularly rewarding. We’ve taken a step forward on recruiting more African-American students, up from 6 percent last year to 9 percent this year.” The school’s proportion of Hispanic students, he said, has moved similarly, from 5 to 9 percent. And the proportion of admitted students eligible for Pell Grants has grown to almost 12 percent, Wrighton said—lifting Wash U. to the level of schools like Caltech and Princeton.

“Financing higher education is very complicated,” the chancellor said. Wrighton noted that the university has to juggle three “lines of business:” education, research, and patient care in the Washington University medical campuses and offices. Although $500 million a year comes to Wash U. for research, the university does not profit. And, he added, “In education, we’re striving to recruit the most talented students independent of family circumstance, so we’re investing very heavily in financial aid. So though our tuition, our sticker price, is very high, we’re not making money.”

Philanthropic support—and a hefty endowment of about $7 billion—have played a large role in enabling Wash U. to provide services on campus and beyond. And “precious little” of that funding is unobligated, Wrighton said, meaning that it must be spent as the donors demand.

“The endowment is a stabilizer, and a contributor to being able to do many of the great things that we do,” Wrighton said—from student services and classroom buildings to the institutions and programs that contribute, beyond students, to the larger state or national community.

Asked about crime on campus following a recent story in the Kansas City Star putting Washington University in the top 10 college campuses with the highest rates of crime reporting, the chancellor seemed confident that safety was one student service the university was not worried about. “I haven’t noted that we’re in the top view in that regard. Our overall record on campus is one that is very strong, and students and faculty and staff feel quite secure,” he said.

In connection with the services Washington University provides outside of campus, Wrighton indicated that Washington University gave a great deal of thought to responding to regional issues of race, bias, and health and economic disparities since (and before) Ferguson became a symbol of those problems. The Brown School of Social Work’s new Institute for Public Health and the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement are key to those responses, most recently tackling the challenge of gun violence.

The endowment and charitable gifts have also made it easier for Washington University to offer financial aid to lower-income students, Wrighton said, noting that only about half of the university’s undergraduates pay the full $63K.

Even students that do pay the full tab do not cover the full value of the education and services they receive as a member of the Wash U. community, Wrighton said. “I know that’s hard for people to accept, but we are doing something very special with the people we recruit to Washington University.

“I believe it’s important to have a good balance of idealism and pragmatism,” he continued. “We’re preparing our students for a complete life of meaning and purpose.”

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.