Respect, Trust and Innovate

President’s Address to Wake Forest Staff

By Nathan O. Hatch

Thank you, Matt, and thanks to all of you for attending this afternoon. I know that mid-fall is an especially busy time of year for most offices, so I am especially grateful to see this good turnout.

People at Wake Forest have certainly lived up to their reputation in extending to Julie and me a warm welcome into this community. As I look over the audience today, I see so many individuals whom we have been privileged to meet, so many of you who have helped and befriended us during the last year, so many of you who enliven this place with your distinctive gifts and make Wake Forest a special place of learning.

The most impressive thing about Wake Forest is the astounding level of commitment that you manifest to this University, to each other, and to the purposes for which Wake Forest stands. Julie joins me in thanking you for your evident commitment to this place and for your welcoming us with such open arms.

I have given much thought to how I should approach a “State of the University” report, and it seemed to me that meeting separately with staff and faculty would be the most productive way to let you know my thoughts about how Wake Forest has fared for the past year and what we should expect for the future. While staff and faculty share many of the same concerns for the University, there are-because of the differing nature of work-questions that are unique to each group.

The best place to start with this kind of address is at the heart of our enterprise. The poet John Masefield once said: “There are few earthly things more beautiful than a college.” At Wake Forest we can certainly agree with that when we witness our overall mission to teach and to learn, to expand knowledge through scholarly research, to nurture young people in their formative years and see them mature as young adults. At a University such as this, we enjoy the high calling of seeing that a student’s mind is not a bucket to fill, but a fire to light. I can think of no greater responsibility, or joy, than of providing a liberal arts education for the next generation of leaders for our society; and also preparing ethically informed professionals: lawyers, doctors, business executives, educators and clergy. Education can have a transforming power and it is a great privilege-and responsibility-to pass the torch to a new generation. I trust that all of you take pleasure in the significance of this our core mission.

I am especially grateful to you for the important work that you do in support of our academic mission. Like many of you, my own role in the President’s office is an indirect one. I am not teaching or researching. I am not working every day with students like those who teach and mentor, listen and advise, and counsel and coach. But I am doing everything I can to make sure that this is the very best kind of climate for learning and for leadership formation.

All of us also have an important role to play in making certain that students have the same good experience outside the classroom that they have inside. From the way students are greeted and treated in administrative offices to the maintenance of our beautiful campus, staff can enhance the experience. It should be very gratifying to you to know that when I meet with alumni, they often tell me about a particular relationship with a faculty member or administrator at Wake Forest that helped transform their lives. I hope you will be mindful of the influence you have, day in and day out, on the young people who live and study here. And you support faculty in so many ways, from ensuring that grades are properly documented to making our library a dynamic academic resource, raising money for academic programs, to ensuring that our classrooms and labs are technology enabled.

I am especially grateful to the members of our new Staff Advisory Council. With your attention to important issues of concern to all staff, you will no doubt help us make this a better and better place to work and to live together. Certainly, Matt Cullinan will be working with you on a regular basis to determine what matters are most important to all staff members and to get your advice for the administration in addressing these matters. I assure you that the administration will take into account Council’s concerns and recommendations as we make decisions for the university’s future.

My vision is that Wake Forest as a workplace becomes increasingly a community characterized by three ideals: respect, trust, and innovate. Let me discuss each of these briefly.

Respect. Wake Forest has a rich history as a place that accepted people at face value and embraced them with respect — a gift that we offer each other that does not have to be earned. In defining the spirit of Wake Forest in the 1940s, Professor Hubert Poteat, the son of President Poteat, noted this quality: “There is surely no place on earth where the stuffed shirt is held in less esteem; where snobbishness is more cordially despised; … where money and ancestral prestige, unembellished by present performance, count for so little … On our campus, the spirit of friendliness … is in the very air we breathe …”

As an institution we need to respect you as employees and collaborators. As employees you need to respect each other regardless of position. The measure of a person, Samuel Johnson noted, “is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.” I trust that this community will be known as a place that listens to each other; and that treats everyone who walks on this campus like a friend we are glad to see. And I trust that more and more often we will stop and say a thank you for a job well done.

Trust. No community can prosper unless it is built on a foundation of trust. Whether in policies and procedures, or in our day to day interactions, we must be able to trust each other. When we disagree, we must do so forthrightly and with civility. As an institution we must make sure that our rhetoric does not become divorced from reality, that we face up and speak about problems rather than papering over them. We are a human community, with foibles and inevitable weaknesses. We must face our problems and attempt to correct them.

I trust we can nurture a culture that is frank in assessing ourselves, as groups and as individuals. We can never improve, nor encourage real trust among ourselves, unless there is a certain code of candor that says, yes, we are doing well, but of course in these areas we can do better.

Building a community of respect and trust does not remove our responsibility to change, to make hard decisions. Compared to our peers, or to our aspirations, Wake Forest is not a wealthy institution. In the future I am sure there are times when we will have to change the way we do business to more effectively address our strategic priorities.

Innovate. Our biggest danger as an institution is our success. Wake Forest has made great strides in recent years and the easiest thing is just to coast, to be stuck in comfortable grooves. My own view is that we need to be innovative about building this place as a very special community of learning in which faculty, staff, and students develop to the fullest extent.

Are we all reaching for excellence? And are we open to suggestions from everyone? How can we improve our procedures and systems, how can we enhance the quality of service at every level? My own view is that we must draw upon two great sources of wisdom. One is right here — in the creativity and insight of those with experience in given areas. Brainstorming among ourselves can generate a range of new approaches and solutions. There is also much to be gained from best practices at other universities and other organizations. We value our distinct culture, to be sure, but there is much to be learned from others and we need to benchmark our operations wherever possible.

Respect, Trust, Innovate — I trust these can increasingly become hallmarks of our life together.

Let me say a word about our current strategic planning process. As we look to the future, we are studying your concerns about issues such as salaries, health care, creating a productive and hospitable work environment, and child care. These are important matters, and I will give them my most serious consideration.

We are in the process now of thinking through a set of articulated standards to guide us in how we make decisions and set priorities, always using the core mission as our starting point. We know that in our strategic planning, for example, there will be many excellent ideas proposed, because this is after all a community of bright and talented thinkers. We also know that it is highly unlikely that we will be able to actually implement all of those ideas; so it will be important that you and others in our community know how we go about making these complex decisions. It is my aim to make our decision-making processes more transparent.

I am delighted that staff members are well represented in the strategic planning process and have participated so eagerly in the employee survey and focus groups. Nearly 300 staff members responded to the on-line strategic planning survey in the last few weeks, and another 150 took part in the focus group interviews that have been held. Thank you for your time and for your contributions to this important process.

I hope that the way our strategic planning process has developed gives you an indication of my serious intent to ensure that all voices are heard as we plan Wake Forest’s future.

To give you a more specific idea of what lies ahead, let me review the sequence of the planning process. Later this month, I expect the Planning Council to publish a University-wide strategic framework. Using the framework as a guide, major units will be asked to develop its own plan, reflecting the priorities in the framework.

What will emerge ultimately from our process remains to be seen, but I know that people at Wake Forest have appropriately high expectations for the University. We must also be prepared to recognize that in this process, there will be splendid ideas that may not be feasible at this time in Wake Forest’s life, for one reason or another. We cannot expect the final plan to reflect every priority or concern that has surfaced during the process, and we have to be realistic and prudent, while still aspirational, in setting forth our priorities.

As staff members, you will play a key role in helping us stay focused on the values and priorities that will define our strategic plan. Everyone-faculty and staff-will have a part in meeting the goals and objectives that are set forth. The process itself is critically important: through it we will identify many issues and priorities across a wide range of areas.

A word about the pace of changes that will come from the strategic plan: we should also be aware of the fact that even after we identify priorities, we will not be able to do them all at once. Many initiatives will require new endowed support. Part of the process will be to sequence when and how we expect to achieve our goals.

Let me leave you with these thoughts:

First, our goal should be to build a workplace marked by respect, by trust, and by innovation. My dream for Wake Forest is that students, faculty, and staff all experience at Wake Forest a rare linking of quality and personal respect and attention. That combination is our heritage and our greatest opportunity for the future.

Second, I make one and only one pledge to you, and that is that I will listen to your concerns and questions. We may not always agree, but you as staff members will be heard by the president.

Finally, the decisions I make will always be made in light of our core values and mission, and I will ask that you follow that practice as well.

I’m delighted to be with you today, and I look forward to talking with you now as we go to our reception in the lobby. Thank you again for all you do for Wake Forest.