It’s been just about a year since I sent out an update on our work from the perspective of Wesleyan 2020, the framework for planning adopted by the Board of Trustees in 2010. That framework continues to be helpful as we think about the university’s future, how to best allocate our resources, and how to assess the work we’ve been doing. As you may remember, Wesleyan 2020 outlines 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. Below I highlight some of the most important things we’ve been doing along these lines.
Wesleyan’s Distinctive Educational Experience
I’ve been very impressed by the faculty’s consistent efforts to build on our academic strengths to refine and refresh the curriculum. Many pundits talk about inertia in academia, but there is plenty of educational innovation at Wesleyan! Our new first year seminars have been growing in scope while maintaining the core learning objective of building writing skills. And on the subject of writing, the Writing Certificate Program has been developing capacity and the joint efforts of the Shapiro Writing Center and the English department have resulted in more opportunities for our students to learn from some of the most accomplished literary practitioners.
Wesleyan’s family of interdisciplinary colleges has two new members this year. Joining the College of the Environment, the College of Letters and the College of Social Studies are the College of Film and the Moving Image (launched last spring) and the College of East Asian Studies (approved by the faculty last month). The COFMI builds on the celebrated achievements of the film studies major, integrating it with the Film Archives, the Film Series and a new minor. CEAS combines the Asian languages department with the thriving East Asian Studies program. Philosophers will join with historians, economists, musicians and critics to offer multiple perspectives on a crucial area of the world. Wesleyan’s tradition of strong interdisciplinary work is expanding in new ways!
Over the last years we’ve been making a concerted effort to add small classes to our course offerings. We’d found that the percentage of seminar style classes had slipped, and we were determined to increase that percentage without creating course access issues. Scores of small classes have been added, and this year we surpassed our goal of having 70% of our classes with fewer than 20 students. This January we will conduct an experiment with the calendar, offering small classes to students in a pilot Winter Session.
One of the objectives in Wesleyan 2020 is to “choose students who can most benefit from and contribute to Wesleyan.” Over the last year, we have deepened our work with Questbridge and other community based organizations and come to an agreement with the Posse Foundation to bring 10 veterans a year to campus, beginning in the fall 2014. We have also developed programs to better integrate low income students into the campus community. We recognize that recruiting students from diverse backgrounds is only the beginning of a process.
Wesleyan has been experimenting with online education on a number of fronts, most notably through our partnership with Coursera. Over the past year, hundreds of thousands of students from around the world have enrolled in Wesleyan courses in psychology, statistics, classics, economics, math, film studies and history. These classes are certainly not the same as on-campus classes, but we are learning about teaching in ways that will surely influence our efforts in Middletown.
Wesleyan’s distinctive educational experience depends on our talented and hard working faculty for its success. Professors were once again this year recognized with major grants, awards, and publications that speak to broad public concerns. The faculty continues to work on improving academic advising, while also opening more spaces for pedagogic experimentation. This fall committees are reviewing more than 60 proposals for initiatives to leverage residential aspects of the campus experience so as to energize the education we offer.
Recognition of Wesleyan as an Extraordinary Institution
Over the last year, we have shone a bright light on the scholarly, professional, athletic and artistic achievements of our faculty, students, staff and alumni. Major awards, dynamic performances and significant scientific grants have happily punctuated our work over the last twelve months. From popular TV shows to stem cell research, from political powerhouses to delicate poetry, the Wesleyan community continues to shape our culture.
Alumni engagement is an important piece of our recognition efforts. Many times this year I met alums enrolled in one of our Coursera classes and enjoying this way of staying in touch with our core educational mission. And more and more alumni are participating in the networks developed by the Wesleyan Career Center – a form of engagement of great benefit to students seeking advice about how to build meaningful careers out of their studies.
We have also been trying to increase recognition of the university outside the United States. Our partnership with the Chinese Academy of Social Science continues, and this past year we hosted a delegation from China for a colloquium on comparative Enlightenments. Moreover, our scholars are finding a receptive audience in China for publications on a variety of subjects. We’ve also made trips to Korea and India to raise the profile of the university. Last year, in part because of our growing international recognition, we had a record number of applications. Our admissions pool was as academically qualified as it has ever been, and our selectivity rate was better than ever. As I’ve said before, I know of no better way to measure recognition than by the number of talented, accomplished young people who want to enroll.
Sustainable Economic Model and Core Values
This year was our first within the new economic model that I described in the update of a year ago. We are limiting tuition increases to inflation; making it easier for students to reduce costs by graduating in three years; budgeting financial aid at about a third of our total tuition revenue; and raising money for endowment, especially for financial aid. We continue to meet the full financial aid for all admitted students, and we do so while keeping loans low. (See the Sustainable Affordability site for more on these changes.)
Some worried that these changes might scare away applicants who had high financial need. This did not happen, and our applicant pool was as diverse, according to most indicators, as in prior years. However, we were disappointed that more of the high need students to whom we awarded full packages did not in the end choose to enroll at Wesleyan – our “yield” on these students (several of whom went to Ivies) was lower than predicted. Our applicant pool is very deep, and so we were able to enroll a great class, but we did spend less on financial aid than we’d expected. We’ve decided that any “savings” of this kind will be put into the endowment for financial aid, so that its payout in future years will support scholarships.
Over the past year I’ve enjoyed many, many THIS IS WHY stories from members of the Wesleyan community near and far. Our THIS IS WHY fundraising campaign isn’t about bringing more luxuries to campus, nor is it aimed at keeping up with the amenities arms race that has been so destructive to the mission of higher education. Our campaign is focused instead on building the endowment. A weak endowment per student has been the Achilles heel of our university for over thirty years, and only committed effort will put us on a path of sustainability. We are restricting spending on non-essential items and investing instead in efforts promoting greater access, inquiry and impact. We have raised more than $320 million dollars so far in gifts and pledges, and most of those funds will go into the endowment (and most of the endowment funds will go to financial aid).
Last year we were able to admit 90% of the class without concern for their ability to pay. We would like to admit all students without concern for tuition revenue. That’s an achievable goal, and the THIS IS WHY campaign will raise approximately half the funds we need. Wesleyan will require another endowment-focused campaign to raise all the endowment funds necessary to reach this goal in a fiscally responsible manner.
The Wesleyan family has stepped up in a big way during this fundraising campaign. At the beginning of our efforts some wondered whether a focus on endowment (long-term goals are so much less exciting…) could inspire the generosity so sorely needed. As it turns out, Wes alumni (and parents) have exceeded our expectations: last year was our best in gifts received. That makes two record years in a row. But it’s not just big endowment gifts that matter. Every gift to the Wesleyan Fund helps us support financial aid students and key programs in the current year. A healthy annual fund means a balanced budget, which allows us to direct more gifts to long-term financial sustainability.
For many of us this year, winning the Little Three in Football for the first time in forty years was terrifically exciting. Although I cheer on all our teams whenever I can, I found this particular achievement especially gratifying. This is partly because I recruited football coach and Athletic Director Mike Whalen to come back to alma mater and partly because so many had become invested in this team’s success. There has been a great deal of camaraderie and school spirit around our athletic endeavors this year. We have no intention of being a “jock school,” but we do aim to be a place where our talented students can excel beyond what anyone might have predicted – in all areas.
We encourage our students to aim very high – to pursue their intellectual and personal ambitions and to take on problems that others might have thought intractable. We support the aspirations of our students – whether they are mounting midnight theater in the stacks of Olin Library, tutoring local school children, helping refugees around the world find homes, or just helping their friends make the most of their campus experience.
Teamwork and solidarity have been very much in evidence over the past year. That’s true in protests, too, of course, and I have learned much from talking with students, faculty, staff and alumni who want to see us chart different courses than the one we are on. Loyalty to alma mater of those marching for their causes is deep. It’s this deep loyalty that inspires our work on campus as we “build a diverse, energetic community of students, faculty, and staff who think critically and creatively and who value independence of mind and generosity of spirit.”
Michael S. Roth