When I arrived at Wesleyan for my first year in college, it had been almost 10 years since Victor Butterfield stepped down from the University’s presidency. During his tenure of more than twenty years, Wesleyan had become known as one of the most progressive and innovative schools in America, and one of the wealthiest. By the time I got to campus in 1975, things had already begun to change. The University was still known for its pioneering ways, its great research output from the sciences to the arts, its demanding and productive faculty, its creative, rambunctious students. But the giddy spending of the late sixties and early seventies, the inattention to fundraising and a loss of focus on the academic mission, were already eroding the University’s foundation.
By 2008 when the financial crisis hit, spending habits had changed and fundraising had certainly picked up, but the University’s aspirations were still seriously out of sync with its economic capacity. Over the last eight years we have addressed three core components of this dilemma: spending, investment, revenue. Our goal was to increase our economic capacity so as to be able to pursue our institutional mission with renewed vigor and purpose, and in this we have made real progress. We will soon post a report detailing our work in this regard. In this brief document, I outline some of the new investments we can make to ensure that Wesleyan remains at the forefront of innovative, pragmatic and progressive liberal education.
1. Academic Core
Over the next 5-10 years, we should be building on the work we have already done to energize our distinctive curriculum while exploiting academic strengths (the first overarching goal of our Strategic Plan). In a world of increasingly narrow specialization (and badge/certificate earning), Wesleyan has made a deep commitment to interdisciplinary undergraduate education by creating four new colleges and developing intellectual centers that cut across departmental borders. These colleges and centers will require additional support and attention in the coming years, since they should be important nodes in a network of campus learning that extends from official classes to the broad range of student life. We want our academic strengths to generate projects that our faculty and students launch into the world beyond the university. Seeing the campus as an incubator, as an accelerator, will intensify the learning that goes on there and add value to the diploma.
We have made significant progress in linking community engagement and sustainability to the academic program (under the Allbritton Center); developing internship opportunities (under the Gordon Career Center); and refining co-curricular learning goals (under Student Affairs). The Equity Task Force last year recommended that we develop plans for a Resource Center, and we will do so in the coming year as part of an ongoing institution-wide effort to build greater equity and inclusion.
We must continue to find ways to ensure that a Wesleyan education remains relevant beyond the university. This will mean “breaking the bubble” by encouraging intellectual/political diversity, creating more internship opportunities and linking them back to a student’s educational goals, making the residential experience a more integrated part of a student’s learning, and teaching the value of sustainability across a variety of fields and ways of life.
We never want the liberal education prized by Wesleyans to be thought of as training, but we continue to believe that the pragmatic, broad and contextual learning we foster prepares students for the world they will face after graduation. We must ensure that our open curriculum continues to highlight things we know to be of enduring interest and value as well as things that matter to students now. We must also develop more integration between the Gordon Career Center and the academic program. That means, at least, encouraging students from their first year in college to begin considering how they will translate their education on campus to meaningful work beyond its borders.
We will build faculty strength, so that we can offer a more potent education consistent with these key competencies developed by Academic Affairs:
- Interacting with objects and information: We will develop a minor and explore creating a major program in Design and Engineering.
- Expressing and describing: We will develop a program in writing and oral expression that builds on the work of the first year seminars and moves across the entire curriculum.
- Analyzing quantitative and digital data: We will accelerate current efforts to ensure that every student has the opportunity to learn data analysis and computer coding.
- Engaging with difference and building community: We will accelerate progress in diversifying the curriculum, the faculty and staff and in ensuring that all students increase their ability to understand cultural and intellectual difference.
A key objective going forward is a targeted improvement of the University’s faculty-student ratio so as to create more opportunities for mentorship. Every Wesleyan student should complete a project larger than a classroom assignment before graduating, and we must find ways to support faculty committed to these endeavors. We should be prepared to spend approximately $2 million more annually on regular faculty positions than we are currently spending. In addition to the areas mentioned above, this should improve the diversity of the faculty, especially in those fields in which there is intense student demand. In the last few years, thanks to the close working relationship among Academic Affairs, the Office for Equity and Inclusion and several academic departments, we have been very successful in attracting more diverse applicants and in hiring more professors from under-represented groups. To maintain this momentum we have created a process for “opportunity hires” and will make more funds available for hiring new faculty who are likely to be exceptionally effective mentors to students of color and first generation students.
We will make targeted investments to increase faculty strength so as to enhance the ability of students to translate what they are learning into what they will do after graduation. Indeed, the pragmatic liberal education we offer at Wesleyan may be described as translational liberal learning—broad, contextual education aimed at giving our students tenacious yet flexible ways of thinking appropriate for a rapidly changing world.
2. Enhance Recognition
Our core messaging project grounded in our historic, evolving identity is the next important phase of our work to enhance recognition of Wesleyan (the second overarching goal of the Strategic Plan). What should be its outcomes? At least the following, which were the core objectives listed in the strategic plan of 2010: we will be able to make the work of our faculty, students and alumni more widely known and more integrally linked to Wesleyan; we will become better known around the world, especially in regions where our recognition is currently low; we will strengthen alumni and family engagement through increased pride in the institution. All of these will add value to the diploma, and they should enable us to recruit the people whom we think can best serve and benefit from our institution.
Beyond the tangible objective of continuing to build the applicant pool, we can aspire to do more: to be recognized for developing models or practices of pragmatic liberal education that are relevant well beyond our own university. Furthermore, investing in the work of our students (and young alumni) so as to allow them to have a deeper impact across a variety of fields enhances recognition of the University. Here recognition has less to do with inputs (our ability to recruit “better” students) than with outputs. We add value to everyone’s diploma and increase the prestige of the University by supporting the ongoing projects of our faculty, advanced students and young alumni. We embrace our academic core by showing its relevance beyond academia. Again, translation.
We are a small school, but we aspire to have a large impact. So how do we become relevant to people who will never set foot on our campus? An important tactic we have used thus far in this regard is our partnership with Coursera, and our online classes have attracted more than 1.6 million students. Can Wesleyan make liberal learning online a viable enterprise? What can Wesleyan do to raise the profile of liberal education and liberal arts colleges in areas with high growth potential—like many parts of this country underserved by educational institutions, and also like China and India. What other tactics should we develop to heighten our relevance?
3. Economic Model and Campus Planning
College affordability is one of the defining educational issues of our time, and it will be important to limit tuition increases so as to stay out of the circle of the very most expensive schools in our peer group. This is a key component of the third overarching goal of the Strategic Plan. The successful THIS IS WHY campaign also makes it possible to increase our financial aid budget. Over the last year we have been focused on making sure we are actually meeting the full need of the students we currently enroll. From support services to work study requirements and the level of family contributions, we are reviewing our current practices to bring resources to those who need them to really flourish at Wesleyan. We are already dedicating more resources to this endeavor and will continue to do so.
In addition to addressing pain points of those students currently enrolled, we can also set goals to have financial considerations affect fewer admissions decisions. We currently need to pay attention to ability to pay for a little more than ten percent of our acceptances. By adding more financial aid, fewer students would have to be taken off of the “accepted” list and placed on the waitlist. Furthermore, our “middle class affordability” suffers in comparison with some of our peer institutions. We can address both of these issues by increasing the discount rate. I would like to add (in addition to any normal increase to the financial aid budget) $2.5 million over the next four years to financial aid, and then add another $2.5 million in the following four-year cycle. This would be used in combination to meet the full need of our enrolled students, from those who are Pell eligible (17-20% of our students) to those who need smaller amounts to flourish at Wesleyan (20-25% of our students).
Over the past several years we have made considerable progress in maintaining a safe, attractive, accessible and sustainable campus conducive to learning. Looking forward, we have opportunities to make use of the study by Sasaki to enhance accessibility, develop more informal learning spaces and to create a sense of fluidity and transparency when it comes to the mixture of academic and co-curricular learning areas. We have continued to improve our relationship to the City of Middletown, and there are campus-learning opportunities to nurture by building bridges to Main Street. We are just now finishing the facilities for the Centers for Global Studies and Pedagogical Innovation, and both spaces should be important enhancements to our ability to advance our educational mission.
I look forward to receiving more input from faculty, staff and students on future campus planning and to working closely with a trustee task force in this regard. Now that our century bond has freed us from saving for an impending balloon payment on our debt, we are in a position to devote an additional $1 million over the next four years to our major maintenance budget. In addition, we can set aside as much as $2 million each year in which we have a budget surplus to supporting facilities projects. This would enable us to jump start projects that require $3-10 million—such as significant improvements to PAC, Olin, our arts facilities or the Film Studies Center, for example.
In approximately 5 years, we should begin putting together the financing (fundraising plus bonds) for a new science center. Meanwhile, we can make considerable improvements to the campus that support liberal learning. Whenever possible, we should invest in facilities to help our first major goal: to energize our distinctive educational experience while leveraging our academic strengths. This will include investments that impact learning outside of the classroom. We will continue to reject the amenities arms race that has led some of our peer institutions to build for building sake. I look forward to considering these ideas and others with the trustee task force on campus planning.
In the wake of our successful fundraising campaign, we should raise approximately $40 million annually, of which between $10-11 million will go to the Wesleyan Fund. It would be a mistake to return to those days when we depended on the annual fund for regular spending. It remains imperative to continue to build the endowment. In 2018-2019 we will begin planning a new fundraising campaign, and meanwhile there will be focused efforts to raise money to support: affordability and financial aid; innovative academic positions; mid-sized facilities projects.
In making any new investments in any areas, we must first ask how they contribute (directly or indirectly) to ensuring that our students have access to first-rate classes in the creative humanities and arts; that they find in the social sciences modes of research that enable them to take on core issues in public life; and that in the sciences they are involved in experimental research that advances the fields in which we teach. Our purpose, from film to physics, should be to enhance the ability of faculty and students to do work that makes a difference beyond the borders of the campus. Learning in a residential setting that translates far beyond that setting is a hallmark of the Wesleyan education.
While pursuing all of the above, this year we will also tap into the best thinking on the board, faculty, staff, students, alumni and parents supplemented by outside scholarship, to stress test our value proposition—the proposition of liberal education. We are already offering a 3-year degree. What if we were to offer many (most?) of our students Masters Degrees, supplemented with a heavy dose of connectivity to the world beyond the university?
We are establishing a task force on the board (as well as parallel groups on campus) to explore radical alternatives to current educational models. Some examples: if we were constrained to charge only $100,000 per student for an undergraduate degree (instead of our current $250,000+), how would we construct an educational itinerary we believed in? Should we aspire to spend more per student, or to make a high quality education cost less? What other degrees and certificates should we offer our students that would be relevant to their likely paths post-graduation? If someone offered us space for a campus, say, in New York, Los Angeles or Shanghai, what would we want to build there and why? …These are only some of the questions that I trust will jumpstart a conversation at the board level and with faculty, students and staff as to what alternative futures we can envision for Wesleyan in particular, and higher education in general.
Almost 10 years ago I asked the board to consider what would be missing if Wesleyan closed its doors. What do we stand for in the eyes of our own community and the broader public, and what do we want to stand for? At the end of the Butterfield years and when I was an undergraduate, for many Wesleyan was connected to what we’ve called “boldness, rigor and practical idealism.” In recent years, I have often emphasized that Wesleyan University should be known as an engine of innovation for meaningful, pragmatic liberal education. Pragmatic liberal education at Wesleyan is centered in free inquiry, experimentation and creative practice, and it depends on cultivating an inclusive learning community. Wesleyans are open to ambiguity and complexity, helping one another to think independently, take responsibility for their beliefs and actions, seize opportunities and solve problems. By translating this education into work and service that extend far beyond the campus, Wesleyans aim to understand the world while contributing to it.
It has become ever clearer to me that our university can continue to represent something relevant and admirable in American higher education—not just for our own alumni and friends but for a much broader constituency. At a time of intense pressure for vocational training, Wesleyan is poised to be a champion of “translational liberal education”—a broad education that explores contexts, concepts and their relationship to problems and opportunities that matter to people inside and outside of academia. Our “bold and rigorous” work will add substantial value to our diplomas and has the potential to make a lasting contribution to our country and beyond. We are in a much better position now than we were a decade ago to make the investments required to make this happen.
I look forward to working together to turn our aspirations into reality.