Unmoved by the chancellor’s emails? Read one from our athletic director
Josh Whitman is an NFL-tight-end-turned-lawyer-turned-athletic-director. If that name doesn’t ring a bell despite the compelling biography, it is about time Washington University gets to know him.
Whitman is our first-year athletic director, having replaced John Schael after a tenure spanning nearly four decades. Whitman has actively recruited students to our sporting events with all-school email blasts advertising Red Alert. But one message he sent to only student-athletes last week is his most significant yet, and it has little to do with Bear sports.
Whitman, like Chancellor Mark Wrighton, crafted an email about the upcoming grand jury announcement in the case of Darren Wilson and how it could affect Wash. U. students.
In the case of Wrighton’s emails, as is usually the case after one of the chancellor’s infamous “University Announcements,” dissatisfaction has greeted our university’s leader. On this very page of the newspaper, Megan Odenthal writes her version of the email she wishes Wrighton had delivered to students’ inboxes. Senior Gabe Rubin of the Washington University Political Review has called the chancellor out for “fear mongering.”
I’m not sure the chancellor’s two messages are fear-mongering as much as they scream corporate liability. Either way, they certainly are not inspiring anyone or challenging us to think critically about the globally important events of this semester—beside directing our attention to the University-created “Wash U Voices” website.
Whitman’s message, though certainly not perfect, delivered the kind of call to more devoted consciousness that rarely comes from higher up at this University. Here is a sample from near the beginning of the approximately 700-word email:
“I would encourage you to appreciate the moment. Throughout our country’s history, there have been other times like this: moments that have put on full display, in starkly contrasting terms, the founding ideals that make our nation so strong—our judicial system, due process and the right to gather and speak in one or many voices—versus the challenges with which we continue to grapple—in this case, racism, unequal opportunity and access, and socioeconomic disparity.
“All of you came to our campus to learn. To develop. To grow. We—all of us—find ourselves on the precipice of history. For the next several weeks or months or even longer, let St. Louis be your classroom. Open your ears and your hearts and your minds to what is happening around us. Engage in the conversation. Ask yourself hard questions about what you believe and why you believe it. Allow others to challenge you to think differently. Importantly, seek first to understand; remember that it is always better to understand than to be understood. Recognize that every person—including, potentially, some of your closest friends and family members, many of whom you think you know well—will bring different perspectives, backgrounds and biases to the table, all of which deserve your thoughtful consideration. It is that ability to speak, to share ideas and to voice disagreement that is perhaps our country’s strongest foundational pillar. There is a reason our right to do so is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
Whitman also repeatedly encourages students not to fear the grand jury announcement and its aftermath. “If we allow this tragedy to pass without taking the time to reflect—and, hopefully, to grow—we have failed,” he writes. He includes the obligatory administrator directive to keep safe and watch out for destructive behavior but avoids making it the centerpiece of his position.
Social protest, by nature, is unpredictable, and unpredictability can be unsettling. Combine a climate of unsettlement with one of widespread indifference among most of the student body, and you have a community ripe for fear and withdrawal. Pockets of our community, however, have resisted that attitude all along. Groups such as STL Students for Solidarity, a coalition of activists from colleges and universities around St. Louis, have demonstrated courage by protesting in Ferguson and right here on this campus.
Courage can come in other small doses, from supporting businesses in Ferguson to facilitating uncomfortable conversations in otherwise insulated spaces. Regardless, a nudge toward involvement in these activities is what we should expect from our leaders.
Now let’s put things in perspective: Whitman wrote an email. I’m not suggesting we build a statue of him for the feat. He simply did what our other more powerful administrators should have done, and I will leave him with kudos. But hopefully the entire University student body, and not just Bear athletes, takes his words to heart in the upcoming days, weeks and months.