Departing WU, Lori White leaves behind a legacy of enthusiasm for and dedication to athletics
When Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Lori White arrived at Washington University in 2015, she had never worked at a Division III college. A self-described huge sports fan, she came from schools like the University of Southern California and Stanford, where athletics played a major role in campus culture. So her new school prompted a learning experience.
Five years later, White has fallen in love with Division III athletics. She is still working on learning all of the DIII mascots (her claim to fame is that she knows all of DI), but she has found an immense appreciation for schools where high-achieving student athletes can thrive.
White is leaving Wash. U. next month to become the president of DePauw University. But her impact on athletics here will remain, from a bolstered sense of school spirit to the athletic director’s motivation to better the experience of every student athlete.
“She will be valued as having built a great team and she has very emphatically embraced this concept of the ‘scholar-champion,’” said Mark Wrighton, the chancellor at Wash. U. for the first four years of White’s tenure. “She has inspired people to embrace a commitment to having really top-notch athletic competition.”
Bringing together a team of leaders
Much of White’s influence in Wash. U. athletics stems from her 2017 decision to hire Anthony Azama as the school’s athletic director. In 2014, the University had hired Josh Whitman to succeed long-time athletic director John Schael, but Whitman left after just 18 months to serve as the athletic director at Division I University of Illinois, his alma mater.
“I had this huge challenge of how to replace him, which I knew would not be easy,” White said.
But she rose to the challenge. She assembled a search committee of coaches, staff and student athletes and over the course of months recruited potential athletic directors from across the country.
Deko Ricketts, who ran for the Wash. U. track and field team from 2013-2017, was a student athlete representative on the committee. He recalled that rather than attempt to drive the conversation during the search process, White let the other members of the athletic community have strong voices and take the lead. One of White’s top skills was that she could always capture the mood in the room. “She just has this presence of listening to you and wants to know your input but also has this commanding presence where she can say ‘This is what needs to be done and this is how we’re going to do it,’” he said.
Even before he was hired, Azama could tell that White was special. Right away during the interview process, she was welcoming, engaging and upbeat, with “a wicked sense of humor.” Azama remembered that “it was unique to be around that committee that she led,” observing that it was full of “people committed to rolling up their sleeves and working shoulder to shoulder to create an experience for young people that will impact their lives beyond the Danforth Campus.”
Since his selection, Azama has impressed all around, and many credit White with his presence at Wash. U.
“Anthony was a fantastic hire and he wouldn’t have been here without her involvement,” said Megan Wolf, who played for the Wash. U. women’s soccer team from 2014-2018. “I think that that’s something that, looking back on her impact on athletics, will last for a really long time.”
According to Ricketts, Azama has played a key role in working toward one of White’s overarching goals, inclusion, by ensuring that the school’s student athletes received the recognition they deserved. “One of the things that Anthony brought that we were all really excited about was this ability to market the athletic program, of saying ‘We don’t even necessarily need to make the program better, because the program is great. It’s that we need to show the world that it is great,’” Ricketts said.
White’s team-building extended beyond hiring Azama. “She let her senior people take a lot of responsibility,” Wrighton said. “She gave them support, but she had confidence in their ability to do their part of the job.”
According to Wrighton, White was instrumental in recruiting Aaron Keen as a replacement for Larry Kindbom, the football head coach who retired last fall after 31 seasons. “I know that Lori did an excellent job in recruiting a person who at one time was with us,” Wrighton said, referring to Keen’s career as a player and coach with Wash. U. in the 1990s. “I think that’s a standout appointment in her last year.”
“She’s like the ultimate coach”
White’s leadership extended from hiring into her day-to-day interactions with student athletes and athletics staff alike.
“The first kind of feelings I always got with Dr. White was just that, whenever you were talking to her, it feels like you’re talking to family,” Ricketts said.
“Some people may feel intimidated by somebody who is in a higher-up position or anything like that, but students wouldn’t feel like that toward [White],” said senior Johnny Davidson, the starting quarterback for the football team and a co-president of the WashU Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC). “She’s super approachable and easy to talk to.”
White made her dedication known by how she spent her time in athletics. She travelled to Indianapolis in the fall of 2017 when women’s soccer goalkeeper Lizzy Crist won the NCAA Woman of the Year award, she spent countless weekend afternoons in the Field House watching sports from volleyball to basketball and she came to Wash. U. track meets even when the full team was not there, sporting Wash. U. red and cheering for the Bears.
Assistant Athletic Director for Communications Chris Mitchell focused on White’s decision to attend the Indianapolis award ceremony in 2017 as a manifestation of her care for the program. “Dr. White took time out of her busy schedule even though she had no idea that Lizzy would win [the award],” he said. “But it was really important for her to represent the University and be there.”
White’s dedication to athletics and the student experience at Wash. U. became clear in small ways as well. Davidson remembered how White would send him handwritten notes of congratulations when he won awards. “It’s just super nice to get that, even if it is something small,” he said. “To me, it means a lot, just to know that she is watching and making sure that the students are having a good time.”
Davidson was not the only one to receive Dr. White’s letters of encouragement. Mitchell, who sends out dozens of press releases each week, said that Dr. White would often take time to reply to his stories. “I randomly get emails from her that say ‘Thank You’ or ‘Such a cool story,’” he said. “She gets a lot of emails, I’m sure, but she always takes time out of her day to just respond.”
Ricketts emphasized how White integrated herself with student athletes. “Showing her face and showing her presence, being there with students instead of sort of above the students was a big thing to show and say ‘We are a program together,’” he said.
Before the start of classes each year, White would stop by various teams’ preseason practices. At 6 a.m. volleyball workouts, for example, White went around the gym, making a point of meeting every player, learning their majors and letting them know that she was a resource for them on campus. She is on the shorter side, particularly when compared to the women on the volleyball team, but in the gym those mornings nobody noticed.
“Her personality was huge and so much fun…She just took up the whole room,” senior volleyball player and Co-President of the SAAC Hannah Turner said. “I think it’s rare that students get that interaction with administrators, so for her to come to one of our early morning practices showed that she was really caring about our experience.”
Turner recalled that the team’s freshmen would never know who White was when she arrived at the gym. Each successive year, though, those same Bears would look forward to White’s return to the gym. “You’re coming back and you’re excited for when she came because she was always so energetic and really fun to talk to,” Turner said. “At 6 a.m., some of us aren’t that excited to be in the gym, but she always was.”
Azama said that White’s energy and dedication made her an inspirational boss as well. “She empowered every one of us with responsibility and with her level of encouragement and enthusiasm,” he said. “We were all loyal not just to the mission, but also we didn’t want to let her down. She’s like the ultimate coach that you’ll go through a wall for.”
“She recognized the power that athletics has”
One of the first things many newcomers to Wash. U. learned about White is that she hates to see students wearing merchandise from other schools. Over and over again at speeches during orientation or early in the school year, she talked about how students can earn a free coffee if she sees them wearing Wash. U. apparel. If she found them wearing something from another school, she would give them a coupon—she calls them “spirit amnesty cards”—to come to her office and pick up a bit of Wash. U. swag.
Wolf, who became close with White as an undergraduate representative to the Board of Trustees, got to experience the apparel switch first hand. One day, when passing through White’s office, she noticed a student leaving the office with a Wash. U. shirt in tow. Wolf asked White what had happened, and the vice chancellor explained.
“The fact that she cared enough to take money out of her budget to make sure that there were constantly a supply of shirts that students could go and grab to increase school spirit was really awesome,” Wolf said. “I feel like that made a big impact overall on how students approached the way that they felt about Wash. U. and…how they felt pride when athletics would do well.”
White’s career as a cheerleader and cheerleading coach in high school and college also informed her support of athletics. “She has all that unbridled enthusiasm for what we’re doing,” Wrighton said. “She’s a great speaker and a great person in terms of motivating other people.”
Mitchell recalled how White encouraged the entire Student Affairs staff—368 employees—to wear red on Fridays in a show of support for the athletic community. It was an initiative Assistant Athletic Director for External Relations Chelsea Petersen had started when she arrived at the University in 2018, but White took it and ran with it.
“She bought into it,” Mitchell said. “That was always a big thing for her, that school spirit.”
White said that wearing the red shirts on Fridays was in line with other colleges nationwide. “It was a way for us to support our coaches and staff in athletics so that they didn’t feel like the only ones trying to carry the banner for Wash. U. spirit,” she said.
“I think that sports really knit a community together, so that’s why I’m excited about some of the things we’ve been able to do with athletics since I’ve been here,” White said. “Because I think our students also are finding that athletics is something that everyone can rally around.”
The shirts were just one aspect of White’s approach to athletics, but their impact was felt widely.
For Turner, White’s initiatives surrounding school spirit made her feel supported as an athlete. “As athletes, some of our rivals are at schools like Emory or Case Western, and a lot of people [at Wash. U.] know those schools and wear shirts and sweatshirts from there,” Turner said. “We don’t like when people wear our rival schools on campus, so we loved hearing the story that [White] would give people a free Wash. U. T-shirt to try and just promote more Wash. U. school spirit.”
The influence of the shirts went deeper as well. “Sure, wearing a T-shirt might not seem like a really big deal, but if you’re coming to campus and you see everyone wearing a Wash. U. shirt, that’s gonna make a huge impact and impression on a student that might be choosing between there and somewhere else,” Wolf said. “[White] knew that and recognized the power that athletics has.”
Seeing White’s immense skill and upward professional trajectory, Azama knew that his time working alongside White was fleeting. “I always knew it was a matter of time [before White left],” Azama said. “I remember saying this to her, ‘I know I need to move with strategic speed, but I just want to maximize the opportunity that I have with people like you.’”
As White prepares to leave for DePauw, that sort of gratitude for getting time with her percolates through various Bears’ recollections of the vice chancellor. Members of the community spoke of a combination of sadness at her departure and excitement to see what she does next.
“The main takeaway for me about Dr. White is that she is a powerful woman who makes you feel special,” Ricketts said. “She made me want to be better just by knowing her and having conversations with her. I think anyone who meets her knows that she really is destined for great things. She’s shown the world that every day.”
Wolf is happy White stayed at Wash. U. for as long as she did. “I’m just really excited to see what she does in this new position at DePauw,” she said. “They’re lucky to have her.”