‘He was the most admired human being in the city of St. Louis’: How Danforth shaped Washington University for decades to come

| Associate Editor

William H. Danforth II rarely flew first class. Given his 60-to-70-hour work weeks and his tall, lean build, Danforth’s staff often encouraged him to splurge. Yet he insisted that until his students and professors could afford to fly first class too, he would fly in the back of the plane with everyone else.

That care and humility informed his approach to Washington University, and, over 24 years as chancellor from 1971-1995, enabled him to transform the school from one of mainly local renown to a nationally recognized pillar of higher education.

Danforth died in his Ladue, Mo. home on Sept. 16. He was 94.

When Danforth first took office, a majority of University students came from the St. Louis region. He took the reins of a “streetcar college” that had just the previous fall faced a $6.7 million deficit. The University was struggling with what an inauguration day Student Life article termed “the growing problem of student attitudes: apathy, distrust, cynicism.”

By the time he retired in 1995, 85% of students came from outside the St. Louis area. Danforth had grown the University’s endowment elevenfold to $1.72 billion and had gained a reputation among students as fatherly “Chan Dan,” known for strolling the campus and reading stories to incoming undergraduates.

As Chancellor Andrew Martin put it in the hours after Danforth’s death, “In addition to his innumerous accomplishments, we will also remember Bill for his passion for our mission, his relentless pursuit of excellence and his abiding appreciation for and commitment to the people who make up our Washington University community.”

So much of Danforth’s strength stemmed from his ability to fundraise. He spearheaded the 1983-1987 Alliance for Washington University campaign, which raised $630.5 million, breaking the existing national record for any school’s fundraising efforts.

Danforth was able to capitalize on his connections within the St. Louis community to foster the growth of the endowment. He was the son of a local business executive and the grandson of regional giant Ralston Purina Company’s founder. In 1973, a $60 million endowment challenge grant from the Danforth Foundation—which he helped run—helped spark the fundraising.

But it was Danforth’s extensive preparation for meetings with donors that struck Mark Wrighton, who succeeded him as chancellor and served until 2019. “He was a very articulate spokesperson for higher education and the importance of research,” Wrighton said. “He was able to make the case as to why support should be extended and the impact that it would have.”

‘They were proud in any way to be associated with him’

That persuasion impressed John Biggs as well. Biggs served as the University’s vice chancellor for administration and finance in the late 1970s and early 1980s, overseeing everything from the endowment to budgets and the implementation of a reserves system, which he said allowed individual deans much more autonomy and creativity, enabling the University to thrive. “Bill was the most admired human being in the city of St. Louis,” Biggs said.

That status and the chancellor’s soft-spoken yet compelling nature made fundraising much easier. “Whenever I know that something is of interest to Bill Danforth, I usually end up giving two or three times what I should,” Biggs said. “I think everybody felt that way. They were just proud in any way to be associated with him.”

Biggs recalled how Danforth was offered multiple attractive government positions during his time as chancellor. Each time, he would turn down the position, citing his love for the University and not wanting to commit to things that were beyond his values. “99 out of 100 chancellors would have jumped at the chance to be doing a major job for the government, but Bill wouldn’t do anything unless he could do it on his terms, which were totally honorable,” Biggs said.

In a Student Life opinion piece at the time of Danforth’s retirement, the chancellor’s special assistant in the early 1990s, Sara Johnson, described a workplace that facilitated respect and compassion.

“He takes genuine pleasure in the experiences and accomplishments of students, faculty and staff,” Johnson wrote, describing how the chancellor would write letters complimenting individuals’ efforts and comforting them “when things had not gone as we had hoped.”

‘Fortunately, there is work left to do’

Taking on challenges was a hallmark of Danforth’s time leading the University, and he did not shy away from them. “Today there are doubters, persons who question the historic confidence in progress and in education,” he said in his speech following his appointment, acknowledging the hurdles that faced higher education. “No one can deny the problems, but anyone who thinks seriously about the matter realizes that without the existence of a vigorous educational system mankind will be ill-prepared for the tasks ahead or even for survival in this complex and interdependent world.”

Danforth would reflect on his time with the University each fall in notes the University later compiled into a volume it called “Thanksgiving Letters.” The 1985 letter demonstrates how the chancellor refused to stop fighting for the school. “People ask me occasionally, ‘When will this striving and sacrifice end?’” Danforth wrote. In an insistent tone, he noted that the same question was likely asked of each of his predecessors. “Fortunately, there is work left to do. The opportunities forever outstrip the resources; the challenges never end. Each generation—even each decade—brings new challenges that must be met and surmounted to keep faith with the past and renew the search for excellence.”

That optimistic impression of the role of higher education seeped into nearly all of Danforth’s actions as chancellor. He established 70 endowed faculty chairs and implemented extensive campus construction and scholarship funding. To the occasional chagrin of students and faculty involved with the liberal arts, he focused on expanding the University’s research capabilities, increasing support for research from $27.8 million in the 1971-1972 academic year to $101 million in 1986-1987.

Pushback to the emphasis on research was not the only topic of contention on campus. Danforth’s tenure had its fair share of other student activism, from the remnants of Vietnam War opposition in his early years to the numerous Black Manifestos developed throughout his time. Black student enrollment, which was at 6% in 1983, the midpoint of Danforth’s chancellorship, was a key issue, as was the limited number of Black professors with tenure.

The University often did not act upon student demands, citing financial constraints or other factors. The same issues that plagued Danforth’s tenure remained throughout Wrighton’s, with the 1998 Black Manifesto calling out still-low Black enrollment and the need for support in the financial aid office specifically for minority students.

Yet, students appreciated Danforth’s sensitivity and empathy when it came to tough discussions. “Danforth’s demeanor is a 180-degree departure from that of his immediate predecessor, Thomas H. Eliot,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote in 1975. “When Eliot got angry, most everyone on the second floor of Brookings Hall knew it, as well as a few on the first.”

Danforth, on the other hand, was much more measured. Biggs recalled how the chancellor was outraged at the four-year prison sentence for a person accused of burning an American flag outside Brookings Hall and how Danforth insisted that the University find some way to honor an outgoing community member even though he had been a longtime key instigator of campus activism.

“His philosophy was always to say that there was a smart way to live your life that is not to get angry or dislike people,” Biggs said. “My instinct would have been to intensely dislike [the campus organizer] and say ‘Thank god he’s going,’ but Bill didn’t see it that way. He saw him as someone really committed to the University as a critic.”

‘An attractive place for people from all across the country to go to college’

Despite their occasional disagreements, faculty and students alike viewed the chancellor in a popular light. “I have a great deal of respect for Bill Danforth,” Michael Friedlander, a physics professor who at one point chaired the Faculty Senate, told the Post-Dispatch in 1994. “We have disagreed on policies involving tenure and other matters. In a couple of cases, we’ve disagreed quite publicly. But it has never been disagreeable. And he has always been a defender of public freedom. We have been very lucky, particularly when you look at the way university heads have intervened at other universities.”

It was common for students to run into Danforth on campus. Some even joked that it was easier to get a conversation with the chancellor than it would be to schedule an appointment with an academic dean. He held an annual picnic with the University’s resident advisors at his house and was active in other aspects of campus life, once attending a senior class holiday party at Blueberry Hill on the Delmar Loop.

Wrighton said that Danforth took a very favorable view of the changes that had occurred at the University since he first arrived on the medical school faculty in the 1950s. “I think one of the things that gave him a great sense of pride is how, through his leadership, we became an attractive place for people from all across the country to go to college,” Wrighton said.

That pride in the University especially shined through in Danforth’s Thanksgiving Letters. In his last one, a special letter he wrote in March of 1995 just months before retirement, he focused on his love for the many students who had passed through during his chancellorship. “Certainly, it has been a privilege to share in the lives, the hopes, the ideals and the dreams of young people who come to Washington University,” he wrote. “I wish everyone could have that experience.”

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