By Nick Erickson
Even as he answered a question about the increasing need for students with interdisciplinary perspectives and providing education across academic boundaries, George Washington University President Mark S. Wrighton couldn’t hide his inner chemist.
In a one-on-one discussion Thursday with moderator and GW School of Business (GWSB) Dean Anuj Mehrotra in front of a packed live crowd at the Charles E. Smith Center for a George Talks Business episode, Wrighton brought up how a simple chemical reaction—the combustion of fossil fuels—is the leading source of the problems faced surrounding climate change.
A distinguished chemist with an abundance of awards, published work and patents, Wrighton broke down his own research as it pertains to renewable energy—joking that it doesn’t land him sustained conversation at a cocktail party. He said that a chemist alone cannot implement the change without a team effort from business leaders, social scientists, politicians, marketers and international diplomats.
“What we need is people who are highly educated and have depth of understanding and are willing to work across disciplines,” Wrighton said.
He sees an encouraging formula at GW, mentioning how pleased he has been with the collaboration across campus the first few months on the job. Wrighton believes there is an opportunity in each of the university’s 10 schools to make significant progress in what is shaping up to be an even more interconnected era ahead.
“We need to develop our own elements of uniqueness and build our quality and impact to serve the world,” he said.
Even the event itself Thursday was a collaboration as GWSB and the Department of Athletics co-sponsored the event. “I value our partnership as it truly demonstrates what makes us one GW,” Mehrotra said. Director of Athletics Tanya Vogel, B.S. ’96, M.S. ’99, M.B.A. ’06, was originally slated to co-moderate with Mehrotra but was unable to attend.
Wrighton also discussed another effort that will take multiple groups coming together in the proposed Penn West Equity and Innovation District, as the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District is working with GW and the D.C. government to create a hub for aspiring entrepreneurs. It has particular interest to him because he has seen his previous institutions, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., launch innovation centers.
“I’m really excited about the prospect of encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship,” he said. “I’ve met many talented students who have great ideas. Many faculty are at the forefront of their research, making important contributions that could be developed into new enterprises.
“I believe we do have the potential to be the anchor institution. Every one of our schools wants to be involved, and I think that’s quite exceptional.”
Whether it’s the innovation district or elsewhere, Wrighton said what’s exciting about being at a research university is that students can be involved in creating new knowledge that can be valuable to society.
He stressed the importance of making sure students of every background can have the opportunity to maximize their efforts and strengths at GW, doubling down on the university’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.
“We need to be focused on not just seeing the face of America or the face of the world at our institution, we need to be proactive in making sure that people not only are included but feel included and can have a setting where they can reach their potential,” Wrighton said.
Wrighton mentioned how philanthropic efforts can help with this mission, especially on the heels of GW’s second-annual Giving Day on Wednesday where nearly 2,500 donors raised more than $1.6 million. He believes opening doors to even more students who want to be a part of GW’s collaborative culture will only benefit both the university and society.
“We have tremendous people who are creative, dedicated, and I know I’m not going to make a mistake in making an investment, because we are going to get a big return,” Wrighton said.
A year ago, he was comfortably sitting in St. Louis wrapping up his 24-year tenure at Washington University without much of a thought of being the leader at another institution. But when GW came calling, especially since his daughter—a GWSB distinguished alumna—and granddaughters live in the D.C. area, it was too good to pass.
Now that he’s here, Wrighton seems more than happy to be part of the GW equation.
George Talks Business is hosted by the GW School of Business, interviewing C-Suite executives, government leaders, entrepreneurs and alumni. The program runs each semester and is available on YouTube.