Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878

Wash. U. carves out niche in St. Louis history

David Brody | Student Life Archives
St. Louis just turned 250, and Washington University threw it the intellectual equivalent of a birthday party.

But while Friday’s symposium focused on the mutual growth of the University and the city around it, some at the event felt the day glossed over lingering tension in the community, some of which the University contributed to.

Hosted by Yale and Washington Universities, the day featured a series of lectures, luncheons and dinners, as well as the opening of a new exhibit: “250/250: 50 people; 50 places; 50 images; 50 moments; 50 objects,” showcasing important bits of St. Louis’ past

But Michael Allen, director of the St. Louis Preservation Research Office, suggested the celebration might be too positive and fail to fully represent the city’s history.

“St. Louis at 250 still is something that should garner a lot of respect,” Allen said. “But we need to think about what St. Louis really is, who our residents really are. I’m seeing more celebrating than reflecting.”

Speaking at a luncheon in the middle of the day’s events, Chancellor Mark Wrighton explained that he believes the University’s presence has been beneficial for the city while also noting his hope that the institution will play a major role in St. Louis’ continued growth.

“We are one institution,” Wrighton said, “[but] an important institution. We offer the community value—value to those who come here to study and do research, value to those who work here. We are an institution that very much is a part of this city. We are one of the institutions that can make the future of this city brighter.”

Wash. U. was founded at a pivotal time for St. Louis: the mid-19th century, when the city was transforming from a Western outpost to a major metropolitan area. The University has had a strong impact on the city’s development with its contributions to the health care industry and higher-education landscape.

However, the perception of the University in the community is not entirely positive.

Documentary filmmaker Terry Artis, one of several hundred attendees at Friday’s symposium, said that he has found the University respected in the community as an educational institution but that it does not have the greatest reputation as an employer.

“Wash. U. has always been a well-respected school—I’ve known that all my life. It’s been a more liberal place of learning, but education is a liberal aspect of life, the freeing of the mind,” Artis said. “Now what I have heard punitive on their reputation is that they haven’t always been ethical when it comes to engagement with the black community. Their development and construction tactics are not always just and inclusive, so I’ve heard.”

Osage Nation Chief Scott Bighorse was also not at the symposium to celebrate. His people’s land was taken by the French conquistadors before ultimately being parceled in the Louisiana Purchase.

But the chief did not say he was there to cause a commotion but to return to the land that his people occupied for thousands of years.

“This is more of a homecoming for us,” Bighorse said. “We’ve lived here since the beginning of time. We controlled this whole mid-continent.”

Ultimately, the chancellor said he and Washington University are proud to have played a part in the history of the city.

“On occasions like this, we celebrate the long and strong traditions that bring meaning to people’s lives,” he said. “When we examine what has taken place in this city over the last 2 1/2 centuries, you gain an appreciation for it.”

Editor’s Note: This article originally contained quotes incorrectly attributed to Robin Conroy. They have been deleted as this story undergoes additional internal review. Student Life apologizes for the error.


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Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878