Better know an admin: Mr. Chancellor goes to Steak ‘n Shake
This is the second in a series of profiles of Washington University administrators. The goal of the series is to help students who might not otherwise interact with these administrators get to know them on a personal level. After learning that Chancellor Mark Wrighton had an affinity for Steak ’n Shake, Student Life contacted him about getting lunch at the restaurant as part of our series. He cordially agreed, and on a pleasant Saturday afternoon, he picked me up for a meal at the diner.
“I already know what I want,” Wrighton says as we open our menus at a nearby Steak ’n Shake. This is not just any Steak ’n Shake, however. It’s the one located on Manchester Avenue, where the waitress knows his name and asks as soon as he sits down whether he’ll be having regular or Diet Coke today.
Wrighton says he found the perfect order, a double steakburger with lettuce and mustard, regular fries and a side of extra pickles, the first time he came to Steak ’n Shake. “[It was] 20 years ago…I go to the one on Hampton sometimes. I have to kind of sneak around because my wife doesn’t support my eating habit like this. She’s not in favor of me having French fries, greasy hamburgers. But their hamburgers here are really lean meat,” he says.
As he’s gotten older, he’s started to become more health-conscious. Wrighton attends biweekly strength training to maintain what he calls “lifelong fitness.” He also still gets up every morning between 4:30 and 4:45 a.m. to walk his dog. The Wrightons have a golden retriever and are currently dogsitting for their son’s dog, a pug.
“They’re not accustomed to being with each other,” he tells me, “but I’ve got them in a good place now…I give the golden retriever the opportunity to be the alpha dog and I keep the little one on a shorter leash.” Still, the two dogs manage to get tangled in each other’s leashes while inspecting the plants and such over the course of their walk.
Wrighton also confirms a campus myth: he walks the dogs in the same double-breasted suits he’s seen in across campus. They became his go-to uniform during his time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. “[The one I’m wearing today] is a double-breasted blazer, which I purchased from Burberry’s, back in the days when they sold the kind of clothes I like,” he says.
Morning routines, favorite burgers and suits are the kinds of things that Wrighton will readily discuss. He’s comfortable in this space. In the span of our hour-and-a-half-long conversation, he does most of the talking. Not that he’s overbearing or talkative. Rather, he takes the time to formulate his response. He will often pause between statements to decide where he’ll head next.
Wrighton was born in Jacksonville, Fla., but moved soon after. His father was in the Navy, a job that brought the Wrightons all across the nation and even to Newfoundland. He went back to Florida for his undergraduate degree in chemistry at Florida State University before attending CalTech for his doctorate.
“In high school, I had a paper route, morning and afternoon,” Wrighton says. It’s a job that seems to be the foundation of much of his work ethic. He had to get up at 2:30 or 3 a.m. every morning to deliver papers.
In his route, Wrighton started out on a bicycle before buying a Honda motorcycle. “[Honda] had a nice phrase…‘You meet the nicest people on a Honda.’ [They were] trying to get people to think that a motorcycle was not [for a] hoodlum,” he recalls.
That slogan, “You meet the nicest people on a Honda,” says a lot about Wrighton. He didn’t ride a motorcycle to look cool like Marlon Brando. He wasn’t rebelling against anything. It was a tool for communication. The paper route allowed him to meet people from all walks of life, a skill that he says helps him still in his administrative work.
“My paper route was a very big one,” Wrighton tells me, “so I delivered papers to people who clearly struggled to pay me because they didn’t have much money. But in other areas I was dealing with people who had a lot more affluence than our family.”
I ask Wrighton about the major influences on his work as a chancellor and he readily dives into University history. He takes inspiration from the man he calls the University’s second founder, Robert Brookings.
When a 1901 medical education assessment determined that Washington University had one of the worst medical programs in the country, Brookings had the assessment team make the school’s failings known so that he could act upon them. Wrighton says that “within days, [Brookings] fired all the faculty, except for one, and that rebuilding led to what we have today, which is one of the strongest and most important medical centers in the United States.”
With our plates cleared and the side of extra pickles almost finished, our conversation turns to the future of education and the value of higher education as a whole. While Wrighton is still thoughtful in his responses, it is in these topics that his eyes start to light up. This is his ballpark and he knows the game quite well after 20 years as chancellor.
Wrighton maintains that college education at an institution like Washington University is worth it, even with the rising cost of tuition. He says, “We’re condemned because we put a high sticker price on [education], but that doesn’t even cover our cost. We have $7 billion of invested assets that make the quality of your experience better than you’re paying for.”
Still, it’s important to Wrighton to find ways to make sure everyone has access to education that they can afford. “It really means that the cost has to be carried by people who are doing well financially,” he says.
When it comes to the college experience, Wrighton prefers to call on his educational background by using a scientific analogy: “As 17- or 18-year-olds…you could do anything. You’re like pluripotent stem cells. By something in the environment you become a designer or a writer or a chemist or prepare for medical school.” It’s an interesting observation to say the least, and one that bespeaks his academic personality.
While most of Wrighton’s life seems consumed by academia and the accompanying responsibilities of the chancellorship (a role he still seems to cherish 20 years on), he still takes time to relax. He and his wife enjoy traveling. This past winter break, they visited Bermuda. “We would do an hour-long walk every morning and have beautiful scenery. We rented motor scooters. Risa, my wife, likes that because she says when you’re doing the motor scooter you can’t look at your phone,” he says.
Even when the weight of the chancellorship sits upon him, it seems the job is still incredibly fulfilling. He describes, “I’m one of those academic people who probably will be bored in retirement because I didn’t develop, like, a love of bird-watching or photography. I’m not looking forward to the day when I have every day free.”
Who knows, though? Maybe he’ll go back to riding around on his Honda motorcycle, delivering newspapers. Student Life is always looking for new delivery boys.
Additional reporting by Megan Magray.