Retiring Chancellor Reflects on Changes
William Danforth plans to move on after almost 25 years at Washington University
ST. LOUIS — IN 1971, when William Danforth was named chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis, he didn't plan to stay long.
``I took the job because I thought it was the right thing to do, but I really wasn't looking forward to it,'' he says. ``I thought I would stay three to five years.''
Last month, Dr. Danforth announced that he will be retiring next June, nearly a quarter-century after taking the job. His tenure is the second longest of any current university leader in the United States, according to the Association of American Universities in Washington.
In announcing his retirement, Danforth said: ``When I became chancellor, the students seemed so young; today the parents also seem young; no one should stay until the grandparents look young.''
Although he says his personal plans for post-retirement are only ``partly formed,'' Danforth intends to make good on a 20-year-old promise to take his wife on a trip around the world. He will also remain chairman of the Danforth Foundation and continue on the board of directors of both McDonnell Douglas Corporation, the St. Louis-based aerospace manufacturer, and Ralston Purina Company, which was founded by Danforth's grandfather in 1894.
Despite his brother's success in politics (John Danforth is a Republican senator from Missouri), William Danforth says he was never interested in that arena. He came to Washington University in 1957 as an instructor in medicine and became vice chancellor for medical affairs in 1965. The former physician is modest about his own successes in transforming Washington University from a little-known regional school into the nationally respected research university it is today.
U.S. News & World Report's most recent annual college ranking lists Washington University among the top 25 universities in the nation, and its medical school is among the top five.
With characteristic humility, Danforth seems uncomfortable talking about how he has brought the university into national prominence. He credits the faculty and students for bringing distinction to the school: People associated with the university have received 10 Nobel Prizes and two Pulitzer Prizes during his tenure.
``I just wanted to help the university, to the extent that I could, be a great university,'' he says. ``I'm from St. Louis, and I felt that the city needed and deserved to have a marvelous university located here ... international in outlook and bringing students from all over.''
In the last decade, applications have increased 50 percent, and more than half of Washington University's 11,000 students now come from outside the state.
During the Danforth years, nearly 60,000 degrees have been granted. Although Danforth sees some difference between students of today and yesterday, some things remain the same, he says.
``The music changes, dress changes, language changes, culture changes, political enthusiasms change. But if you look at the people involved, they are still bright young people.... They still ask the great questions about what all this means and how they can relate with their fellow human beings. Those great human attributes don't change.''
For years, Danforth has been known by students as ``Uncle Bill'' or ``Chan Dan,'' and his popularity remains consistently high. Over the years student-administration relations have grown less hostile. When Danforth first took the helm at Washington University, rebellious, protesting students were still challenging authority wherever they found it.
``In the early 1970s, when I became chancellor, people didn't trust you unless you earned their trust,'' he says. ``The university is much more friendly now. People trust you unless you prove unworthy.''
It was the less-trusting students of the '70s who established the Danforth tradition of ``bedtime stories.'' ``It was near the end of the radical era,'' Danforth says. ``Some of the students asked me if I would come down to the South 40 [dormitories] and read bedtime stories. I thought probably they were kidding. But a couple of days later I was down in that area and saw banners up: `Come hear Chancellor Danforth read bedtime stories.' ''
So, armed with a book, Danforth showed up at the dorms and started a tradition. During freshman orientation each year, Danforth shares his bedtime stories with the incoming students.
DANFORTH'S leadership style supports a structure of decentralized authority. When he took over, several graduate schools, such as the School of Medicine and the School of Law, operated on their own budgets. ``But the other schools were melded into a general budget and the chancellor made a lot of decisions,'' Danforth says. ``I thought it would be better to give more responsibility to the deans.... My feeling is that if the dean of engineering doesn't know how to run a better school of engineering than I do, we've got the wrong dean.''
The university has also benefited from Danforth's strong fund-raising abilities and contacts with the community. The university's endowment has grown from $147 million to $1.7 billion during his tenure. A five-year campaign that ended in 1988 raised $630 million; about $200 million of that came through the Danforth Foundation.
Academia has been undergoing a rapid change, and Danforth's job has grown increasingly complicated over the years, he says.
``One of the things that's happening is that knowledge is continuing to expand at a terrific rate,'' he says. ``That means that it takes more people to cover any subject. In order to have a critical mass for an intellectual enterprise, universities need more people, and more books in the library, and more equipment. No university can afford to do all that anymore. So institutions are having to specialize more.''
Danforth identifies some of the forces for change in higher education as ``new technology, more library materials, burgeoning spe- cializations, students coming ... with different kinds of expectations and different kinds of backgrounds, [and] the change in federal priorities having to do with research.''
``We've been solving all these problems, I think, quite well,'' he says. ``But we've been solving them with more money. Now that era is over and people are tired of hearing about higher tuitions in the private sector and large appropriations in the public sector. They are asking what they're getting for their money.''
Danforth has compared the great universities of the modern world to the Gothic cathedrals of the late Middle Ages. ``I imagine that in the late Middle Ages, people thought that the highest aspiration for human beings was to get closer to God,'' he explains. ``And those cathedrals put into physical form their aspirations and their beliefs. In this era, when we're trying to cope with the world through learning and understanding, universities represent the highest aspirations of our society to pass on knowledge and understanding to coming generations so that they can make the world better than it is today.''
As Washington University begins a nationwide search to replace Danforth, the chancellor is giving the board of trustees some advice. ``In my view,'' he says, ``character and capabilities are more important than specific backgrounds. The challenge is to get someone who can develop a vision for the university and be able to implement that vision.''