A Community of Learning
October 20th, 2005
Inaugural Address of President Nathan O. Hatch
Wake Forest University
Today we gather to celebrate Wake Forest University. For more than 170 years this institution has provided rare service to generations of graduates. Whether in the town of Wake Forest or, for the last half century here in Winston-Salem, students found within her walls a strong commitment to liberal education, to common purpose, to faith, and to service. More importantly, they experienced at Wake Forest a community that blended these values together in life-changing ways.
For the last three months Julie and I have been privileged to become a part of this family. We are grateful to so many for the hearty welcome and warm embrace—to trustees, faculty and staff, alumni, students, and members of the Winston-Salem community. All of you have gone the second mile in your welcome and assistance. In a short time we have felt the special affection that binds so many Wake Foresters to this place.
I am also grateful for all of you who grace us with your presence today. We welcome dear friends whom we have known in times of joy and in sorrow. We welcome co-laborers from the vineyards of historical scholarship, colleagues from many colleges and universities, neighbors old and new, associates from our cherished experience at Notre Dame, and more members of our family than have ever been assembled in one place.
Julie and I have been blessed with wonderful parents, models to us of love, understanding, and service. I owe a profound debt to my father, who passed away several years ago. He may have been the finest teacher I ever heard stand behind a lectern. It is a delight that my mother, Mittie Hatch, and Julie’s parents, Vincent and Jeanne Gregg, can be with us today.
My dearest friend, best critic, and true love is my wife, Julie. She was brave, indeed, to pull up stakes after thirty years. Together, and with the blessing of our children, we decided to accept the call to Wake Forest. It is a joy to have Julie as a partner working to make Wake Forest an alma mater ever more worthy of the name.
Over the last two decades, Wake Forest has made enormous strides under the able leadership of President Thomas K. Hearn, Jr. I regret that he is not able to be with us today and pray for his continuing recovery. During this time, Wake Forest has enhanced the quality of its faculty and students, constructed marvelous new academic facilities, invested in research infrastructure, advanced its standing in professional education, sustained intercollegiate athletics at the highest level, and served as a leader in information technology.
Wake Forest has also expanded its dreams and ambitions—hopes buoyed by the magnificent generosity of so many in attendance today. Next year we look forward to celebrating a successful conclusion to the capital campaignHonoring the Promise. I should also salute Tom Hearn for his signal role as a community leader. Wake Forest has been, and will continue to be, a full citizen and good neighbor in this region. Twenty years ago it would have been difficult to imagine that Wake Forest University Health Sciences would play a leading role in creating a biotechnology research park. This expansion of intellectual capital in the Medical School can greatly assist the region’s transition to a knowledge-based economy. Today this community still benefits from the wisdom of the visionary civic leaders who sought to bring to the Piedmont a small medical school and, later, its affiliated college and law school.
Given the remarkable trajectory of this university, we face today’s challenges with confidence. For the next decade, we must ask continuously what kind of education we should provide for the gifted students who are, in increasing numbers, seeking admission here. We must help them clarify what they should learn, where they should lead, and how they should live, for these are the noble purposes of a liberal arts education.
We live today in a nation and a world that is difficult to comprehend for students and professors alike. “Experts can explain anything in the objective world to us,” the Czech leader Vaclav Havel has said, “yet we understand our own lives less and less.” One of the most vexing issues is that the world seems simultaneously more radically secular and radically religious. Globalization may be flattening the world’s economy, but it is also pitting extreme religious voices against the encroachments of the modern and the secular.
Students today face other uncomfortable realities, as well. A decade ago, as they made their way through grade school, the world was brimming with optimism––the fall of the Berlin Wall and of the Soviet Bloc, and rise of the so-called new economy of the 1990s with its burgeoning digital economy and unprecedented stock market gains.
How the world has changed. Today’s students have become young adults in a starkly realistic, even Hobbesian decade. Scandals in business, government, the professions, even the church, have shaken confidence in institutions, and the contemporary world order looks every bit as treacherous as that of the Cold War. As David Brooks has noted, “we have seen bodies falling from the twin towers, beheaded kidnapping victims in Iraq, and corpses floating in the waterways of New Orleans five days after the disaster that caused them.”
Students today are whipsawed between an ethic to serve and an ethic to achieve. Fewer come to college looking to find a philosophy of life, and fewer still find their college to be a once-in-a-lifetime oasis of learning. Having built a resume worthy of admission to a premier university, they feel doubly pressured to leverage their university years for professional advancement.
Similarly, professional life today is undergoing turbulent change as market forces threaten to overwhelm the traditional roles—and levels of satisfaction—for lawyers, physicians, accountants, and other service professionals.
Graduates also face a society more diverse than ever before, ethnically and religiously. But it is not necessarily a more integrated society or one that has more things in common. More and more Americans choose to live in neighborhoods with others just like themselves. Radio and television, magazines and books, have become increasingly segmented. In politics many decry the collapse of bipartisan collegiality and the decline of the art of persuasion.
Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul has recently suggested that our own times are so complicated, even fantastic, that fictional accounts fail to capture their essence. He concludes that non-fiction, simply laying out the facts, is more searing and poignant than any imaginative portrayal.
Given these currents, and cross currents, how best can Wake Forest prepare young adults for the future? How should we structure education in the liberal arts, in graduate programs, and in law, medicine, management, and divinity? How can we draw from the wellsprings of our own tradition to meet contemporary challenges?
Wake Forest’s finest tradition is that of a community, personal in scale, committed to learning, to character formation, and to diversity. A vibrant learning community, one that weds knowledge and experience, can also be our greatest gift to contemporary society.
Let me underscore three facets of such a community as we work together to build a premier liberal arts university.
A Learning Community
Wake Forest attempts to combine the best features of an undergraduate liberal arts college with the intellectual vitality of a research university. To the great credit of our faculty, the ideal of the “teacher-scholar” is a reality at Wake Forest. I hear repeated examples of superb mentoring and education tailored to individual student interest and aspiration.
The faculty of Wake Forest is its most valuable asset. It is through their creativity that richer learning environments can be created. It is through their research and writing that knowledge will be reshaped. And it is through their example that students will fall in love with learning and be inspired to explore in the classroom and beyond.
We must recruit and sustain superb faculty and build an enviable level of support for their work. We must be innovative in thinking about the curriculum and the academic major, comparing our programs with the best. In an age of narrow specialization, we must foster interdisciplinary engagement and integrated learning.
We must enhance our support for the library and for research, investing in certain centers of excellence. With the singular asset of Graylyn International Conference Center, we have an opportunity to place ourselves at a crossroads of discussion and debate on the pressing issues of our time. In short, our goal should be nothing less than a learning environment that is contagious for faculty and students alike. Building that kind of community in all our schools must remain our highest priority.
None of these goals can be achieved by simply sustaining our current efforts. We must be rigorous in our evaluation, focused in our planning, and bold in our building of an endowment appropriate to a University of this scope and quality.
A Diverse Community
Wake Forest continues to fulfill the ambition of a more diverse community. Our challenge is to provide an example of living together that students can apply to the world they will be called upon to lead.
In his new book, America and the Challenge of Religious Diversity, Robert Wuthnow argues that our society needs more than abstract thinking about these issues. Diversity, he suggests, must be confronted in the context of real personal relationships, the creation of a face-to-face community of hospitality and respect—even in the face of sharp differences. Forging such a community at Wake Forest will be a great challenge, but if students here, even in part, can taste the milk and honey of shalom, what a great gift they can be to a world that knows such strife and brokenness.
In welcoming religious and ethnic diversity, Wake Forest must also keep faith with its own heritage: to educate talented young people who do not necessarily come from privileged backgrounds. Wake Forest has long been a beacon of opportunity for people of modest means, who were smart and ambitious. Wake Forest has been a place of quality but not pretension. We must sustain that institutional heritage with generous scholarship support.
A Community of Service and of Faith
Wake Forest’s motto Pro Humanitate, for the good of others, has long animated this university, keeping moral formation as an important end of the liberal arts. Nevertheless, the modern university has an increasing inclination to avoid questions about ultimate meaning, about what one should believe or how one should live. One university leader has recently written that universities cannot make students into good people and good citizens, and it should give up the pretense of doing so.
I relish the fact that Wake Forest continues to uphold moral formation as essential to its mission. We need to remain a community of service and of substantive service-learning.
We meet today in Wait Chapel, whose magnificent spire rises above this campus and serves as our most visible symbol. This beautiful landmark, pointing upwards, reminds us that learning at this place should always grapple with transcendent and ultimate questions: What can I know? In what can I believe? To what should I be committed?
Wake Forest’s religious heritage, far from being a liability, provides a middle ground where vital religious traditions can engage modern thought in a climate of academic freedom. This should be a place where faith in a variety of traditions is practiced intelligently and studied critically. What a gift to our students—and to contemporary culture—if this campus can embrace respectful engagement between people of strong but differing beliefs, as well as those of secular conviction. America, and the world, is hungry for such dialogue.
Let us rekindle Wake Forest’s finest tradition: a face-to-face community, grounded in the liberal arts, passionate about professional education, and committed to living out the values we profess individually and as a community.
To hope for such a community can, at times, seem like chasing a mirage, a quaint memory more than something that rings true to experience. The modern university, increasingly specialized, chips away at learning as a shared enterprise. “Knowledge,” as James Turner has noted, “lies scattered around us in great unconnected pieces, like lonely mesas jutting up in a trackless waste.” It will take a sustained effort to make the university more than an intellectual shopping mall.
Above all, students today long for one thing: to narrow the gap between the ideals we profess and the lives we lead. They are looking for models of how to integrate the often incoherent facets of their lives: as reflective persons, aspiring professionals, consumers, family members, sports fans, volunteers, and good citizens. Can we at Wake Forest manifest a moral coherence in our common life, as we debate and learn, celebrate and play, break bread and pray together? Can we confront differences—political, ethnic, and religious—with trust and mutual forbearance? And can we balance high standards of performance with a deep appreciation for each individual?
I am confident that Wake Forest can build this kind of learning community at the highest levels of academic life. It is our heritage, our identity, and our greatest opportunity. To that end, I pledge my best efforts. Working together, we will sustain and enhance that heritage which makes the name of Wake Forest noble and dear.