Office of the President

June 16, 2020

An unprecedented year reminds us that higher education can lead meaningful, lasting change

Ana Mari Cauce

This message was sent to students, faculty and staff across the University of Washington.

This weekend we celebrated a commencement like no other.

Led into Sylvan Grove by University Marshall and Chair of the Faculty Senate Joseph Janes, I presided over a physically distanced ceremony accompanied by top University leadership. Except when speaking, all of us wore purple and gold masks and were seated six feet apart in front of columns from the original University of Washington building in downtown Seattle that date back to 1861. It was the first of two ceremonies for the Class of 2020 — and I know we all look forward to celebrating next year in person — but our broadcast to thousands of graduates across the region and around the world was nonetheless steeped in an especially poignant blend of meaning and joy.

As we celebrated our distinguished faculty and staff award winners and conferred nearly 18,000 degrees to graduates from across our three campuses, the weather seemed to mirror our moods. Shortly after we began, the sky turned sad and angry, a hard and steady rain marking our collective mourning and dismay, for those who had lost family, friends or colleagues to COVID-19, and for those Black men and women, killed right before our very eyes in recent weeks, victims of a system of policing that is in serious need of reform and repair. But, as we began to celebrate the successes of our graduates and the hope for a better future that they embody, the clouds parted, and sun shone down on us all.

In the weeks, months and years to come, our community, including our most recent alums, will continue to be faced with challenges unlike any we have seen for generations. The knowledge, skills and habits of heart and mind that we practice — the ability to engage in deep and nuanced analysis, determination to work through and around obstacles and barriers, and compassion and caring for each other as well as ourselves — will be vital for the work ahead. This year, we accomplished something extraordinary, under difficult circumstances. Our University and our society urgently needs the skills, passion and energy that you bring to your mission of teaching, research and service.

As we look ahead, there are still many unknowns, but the need for equitable access to education; improved health and well-being for all people and communities; widespread economic opportunity; and learning and discovery that advances a just and sustainable world has never been more evident or urgent. While we plan to have students and many faculty and staff back on our campuses in the fall, we also acknowledge the world has changed dramatically and rapidly — and that change is still unfolding. Whatever the future holds, the University of Washington will be part of making change for the better. Our ambitions are great, but the capacity for goodwill and impact in each of and all of us is equal to the challenge. Students, faculty, staff and alumni will lead the way.

We have work ahead of us, and I look forward to undertaking it together.