Almost a year and a half has passed since the Board of Trustees adopted Wesleyan 2020 as a framework for strategic planning, and we have been using the document to organize our thinking about the future, allocate resources and assess our performance. Wesleyan 2020 emphasizes three overarching goals: to energize Wesleyan’s distinctive educational experience; to enhance recognition of Wesleyan as an extraordinary institution; and to work within a sustainable economic model while retaining core values. With this update, framed by these goals, I will mention some of the things we have been doing in the effort to provide “an education in the liberal arts that is characterized by boldness, rigor and practical idealism.”
Energize Wesleyan’s Distinctive Educational Experience
New initiatives have built upon our long tradition of interdisciplinary and politically engaged work. The College of the Environment has started with a great burst of energy, with scores of majors already participating in its programs and a new Huffington Family Foundation endowed professorship. The COE is happily housed on High Street, and it is becoming a locus for interdisciplinary research that is connected to social and political concerns. We’ve established the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship, and a Civic Engagement Certificate will provide students the opportunity to reflect upon their civic activities and integrate them with their academic work. We also have a new endowed chair for community engagement. A $2 million challenge grant from the Mellon Foundation for the Center for the Humanities is both a recognition of its interdisciplinary achievements of the past and an investment in our future efforts to link humanistic research at the highest level to pedagogical practice and public discourse.
Wesleyan’s great tradition in writing continues both within the English Department and across the curriculum with a new Writing Certificate. Our new Kim-Frank Family University Writer in Residence, Amy Bloom ’75, is a valuable mentor and colleague, adding importantly to our ability to provide students a deep engagement with creative writing. The recently opened Shapiro Creative Writing Center, where Amy works, and the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life offer superb spaces for students and faculty to pursue their analytical and creative work in the heart of the campus.
The scholar-teacher model is key to the Wesleyan student experience, and in the last year we have taken a number of steps to increase resources available for faculty scholarship, student internships and faculty-student collaborative work. We are running a pilot program to enhance academic advising and assessment of student learning, and we have begun a residential faculty fellows program to provide more opportunities for professors to work with students in co-curricular activities.
Essential to the distinctive educational experience at Wesleyan is recruiting students and faculty who make a vital contribution to our campus life. Admission has maintained its high standards while improving our outreach into areas of the world where Wes has not been as well known. Academic Affairs has made 22 exciting faculty hires and devoted more funds to research support so as to help retain productive scholars who are also first-rate teachers.
Enhance Recognition of Wesleyan as an Extraordinary Institution
Since the development of Wesleyan 2020, we have redesigned the Wesleyan website and greatly increased our capacity to produce timely, high quality video for the web and social media. We have made greater efforts to shine a bright light on the scholarly achievements of our faculty and to showcase the academic, athletic and artistic accomplishments of our students. A student University Outreach Committee, class blogs and strategic media placements of scholarly work and commentary have all contributed to our goal of enhancing recognition.
We have sought to deepen the university’s engagement with alumni. The annual Wes event for the film community in Los Angeles continues to draw hundreds of alumni each year and has inspired a parallel event in New York. New York is the hub for our digital media group, bringing together a considerable number of Wes family members working in this sector. Alumni networks of lawyers and individuals working in philanthropy and public service are active across the country. We are bringing alumni back to campus to talk to students about their careers, and for those unable to get together in person, we now offer Wesconnect, with its news, social networking and other services for the Wesleyan world.
Wesleyan continues to build on its strong reputation for academic leadership. We have hosted a significant number of important scholarly conferences over the last two years, from the annual international ethnomusicology meetings to a special conference on carbon pricing that attracted world-wide attention. The journal History and Theory has taken the lead in organizing a series of colloquia with philosophers in China. The first meeting is to take place in Beijng this semester; in two years it will be in Middletown!
Sustainable Economic Model and Core Values
In a very difficult economic environment, Wesleyan has made progress in building our economic foundation. Our fundraising efforts, now focused in the quiet phase of a new capital campaign, have yielded more than $200 million in gifts and pledges in the last several years, and we are putting a greater percentage of these dollars into the endowment. At the same time we are reducing our draw from the endowment. These measures will help Wesleyan secure a future that includes a robust financial aid program. We admit domestic students regardless of their ability to pay tuition, and we don’t burden our graduates with excessive loans. After two years of very restrained compensation budgets, we plan to return to annual increases to support our talented faculty and staff.
The Wesleyan campus today is a safe, attractive and increasingly sustainable environment for learning. We have made significant investments in our science facilities and are repurposing the old College Row Squash building as a home for Art History, the College of Letters and the Career Center.
Wesleyan has been growing stronger in a difficult environment, and there is much of which we can be proud. But there is also much we can and will do to improve the educational experience we offer.
Our enemy is complacency. This is a year in which the re-accreditation process will be ramping up. We are being asked to consider how we know what our students are learning and whether we have in place the mechanisms to ensure that they are getting the most out of their undergraduate experience. This is a great opportunity to take stock of our practices — to build on what we do well and prune away those things that are not contributing in important ways to the education we offer.
Our enemy is complacency. This is also a year in which we ramp up our fundraising campaign, which we trust will add significantly to our endowment. Our goal is to ensure that our financial aid program remains on a sound footing and that our core academic programs continue to receive the support they require. We must energize the Wes family to understand that this is the time to strengthen the financial foundation for the school we love.
I see Wesleyan in the years ahead as an ever more remarkable locus of “boldness, rigor and practical idealism.” Our cultivation of diversity will have less to do with the celebration of identity and more to do with leveraging the creativity that diverse groups can generate. Our commitment to civic engagement will have less to do with the volume of our protests and more to do with the depth of our commitments to make a positive difference. Our respect for creativity will have less to do with fabulous idiosyncrasy and more to do with the sustaining curricular innovation and compelling artistic practice. In moments of hubris I have said that “America needs Wesleyan,” and I believe that even more strongly now. By becoming the best institution we can be, by becoming our best self, we can be a deep resource for progressive liberal arts education around the world.
Michael S. Roth