On the 50th anniversary of Wake Forest’s move to Winston-Salem

The Business Journal

By Nathan O. Hatch

Guest Column

As Wake Forest University prepares to celebrate a truly golden half-century in Winston-Salem in festive fashion this weekend, we can pause to reflect on the many blessings and benefits the university’s presence here has brought to both itself and the city. Sixty years ago, when its trustees made the decision to move from the town near Raleigh, Wake Forest was a small sectarian college — vibrant socially and intellectually but also in tenuous fiscal circumstances, with uncertain prospects at best in a highly and increasingly competitive educational and fundraising environment.

Today, it is a national university on sound footing, with a future that could scarcely be brighter.

Conversely, in the wake of the war, Winston-Salem — standing as it did on the shoulders of its manufacturing behemoths — was robust economically, but also suffering from social and educational disparities and lacking a sizable middle class. Today, it is fair to describe Winston-Salem as a well-rounded community culturally, socially, and educationally, even as it retools economically.

My point is to highlight the wonderful synergism of town and gown — how neither would have become what they are today, and promise to become in the future, without the other. Clearly, Wake Forest never would have acquired the financial wherewithal to grow and prosper without the largesse of the Reynolds-Babcock family and the generosity of its many other corporate and private benefactors in the Triad. Likewise, much has been said about Wake Forest’s significant impact on the region’s economy as the city’s largest employer and its leadership role in cultivating and growing the biotechnology sector that is flowering as our future flagship industry.

All of this is true enough. What I would invite our attention to here, however, are just a couple of the subtler ways in which city and school nurture each other.

Put simply, Winston-Salem is a wonderful place to live. Its parks, its cultural attractions, its historic sites, its lovely neighborhoods, its modest scale, its lack of traffic congestion — you can enhance the list — make it, from the University’s perspective, an amenity with which to recruit and retain a first-rate faculty and staff. A world-class institution of higher education is developed not overnight, but incrementally and over time; professional longevity of an institution’s very best people is essential to ensure continuity, institutional identity, and broad-based commitment to its mission and purpose. I am struck by how many of the faculty members, junior and senior, I have met in my relatively brief tenure as president genuinely like it here-not just Wake Forest, but Winston-Salem. If environment is a prime factor for growing something special, then this city is a warm incubator indeed.

In some conversations, I have heard the perception that Wake Forest is somehow aloof and apart — even isolated — from the community. The evidence suggests otherwise, even beyond the obvious example of the University’s involvement in the city’s economic development. Each year, Wake Forest students and faculty present or stage more than three hundred concerts, plays, and exhibits, almost all of which are open to the public, and many free. Additional lectures, symposia, and other events — again, mostly free and open to the public — further enhance Winston-Salem’s intellectual and cultural milieu. But Wake Forest doesn’t just open its campus and invite its neighbors in; it goes out into the community to serve its various constituents. No estimate would do justice to the hundreds of faculty, staff members, and students who volunteer their time and talents regularly in the city’s homeless shelters, hospitals, churches, extended care facilities, hospice centers, cultural institutions, animal welfare agencies, political and community betterment organizations, schools and day care centers, adult literacy programs, and so forth. If a university is defined, as I believe it is, not by brick and mortar but by people, then truly, Wake Forest is, far from being isolated, intimate with its greater community.

Let all of us — the residents of Winston-Salem and the greater Piedmont Triad from all stations of life, as well as the faculty, staff, and students of Wake Forest University — join in celebration of a marvelous and joyful fifty years of mutual support and growth. Let all of us continue to build a bright future, for town and gown, on the strong foundation created by this community and this university.