Three Magical Wellsprings

Describing Wake Forest’s commitment to bold vision for education built on the University’s noble heritage

By Nathan O. Hatch

The English poet John Masefield once noted:  “There are few earthly things more beautiful than a college.” I think he is right.  At a place like Wake Forest, we have the astounding privilege of welcoming outstanding young people, potential leaders of the next generation, into a community and a conversation that have animated the halls of Wake Forest since 1834.  What greater challenge can you imagine than “forming,” and I use that word advisedly, forming the minds and hearts of young people of such talent and commitment.  They come with all of their energy and exuberance, all of their commitments and dreams, all of their concerns and fears.

We see them read, ponder, and debate; and in that elusive but magical process of learning, we rejoice when that flash of insight crosses a student’s face; when, without prodding, their repose is suddenly awakened by the blast of a trumpet and they see the world as never before.

We watch them make friends, many for life. We watch them explore everything from theatre to Ultimate Frisbee, from student government to marching band.  We watch them learn and grow, expand their horizons, exult in the thrills of college sports.  We watch them make mistakes and make course corrections.  We are an intimate part of their pilgrimage toward becoming mature adult women and men of focus and integrity.

There is something magical about such a community of learning.  A place like Wake Forest has been a transformative force in the lives of students.  It has the potential to become even better and more distinctive in the days ahead.  Today we have focused on three related springs that well up and form the powerful current that we describe as the Collegiate University. For a few minutes, let me review these enchanted springs.

Our Students

First, our community draws its life and energy from our students.  They come from a wide range of backgrounds and chart a pilgrimage of exploration — to learn, to experiment, to grow.  We invite them into a holistic model of education.

What a joy it is to see them fall in love with worlds of physics and finance, music and literature, math and anthropology. At the same time, we are privileged to help them come to know themselves, their distinct gifts, interests, ambitions, and how they can leverage these to make a difference in the world.

Students are the essential ingredient in the magic of this place.  As we look to the future, we must find ways to help them afford Wake Forest.  At the moment our financial aid endowment per student is among the lowest of any top-ranked university.  The packages we offer students require more loan commitment than any of our peers.  We are competing against Vanderbilt and Rice, which are about $3,000; Georgetown and Emory, which are about $4,000.  Davidson requires no loans from any student.  It is essential that we recommit ourselves to the preservation of opportunity for any qualified student.

At the center of our efforts to preserve opportunity will be the Endowment for Wake Forest Scholars, which will reduce debt burden for students who fall into the gap between ability to pay and the current availability of need-based financial aid.  We must preserve the opportunity for students to graduate without crushing debt burdens.

In the short term, our key initiative for the Endowment for Wake Forest Scholars will be a twenty-five million dollar fund that will provide grants of ten to fifteen thousand dollars to at least 125 middle-income students a year, greatly reducing their debt.

Our Teacher-Scholars

If the first magical stream of Wake Forest is our students, the second is the engagement, person-to-person, that our teacher-scholar ideal makes possible.  At Wake Forest, we believe that personal attention and interest is essential to the learning process. The magic of the teacher-scholar ideal is not simply that faculty devote somewhat more time to teaching than research.  The magic of the engagement we seek is that faculty are actually interested in and committed to their students.  We know that the most powerful predictor of academic success at any level is when teachers believe that students can achieve.  Why is this the case?  Why does real personal interest often light the fire of insight and exploration?  I think the answer is simple: students come to know they matter, and that is a game-changer when it comes to motivation.

The All-American corner back Alphonso Smith made this point strikingly when, as a senior, he paid tribute to one of his coaches.  “It finally dawned on me,” Alphonso said. “It is simple; Coach Hood clearly cared more about me and my teammates as people than as players. I made the right choice,” he continued, “and I will always cherish the Black and Gold.”

I have been reading Provost Emeritus Ed Wilson’s (’43) new book, Volume 5 in the History of Wake Forest from 1967-83.  In his preface, he takes special note of one faculty member and assistant dean, Dr. Bob Dyer, who worked with Dr. Wilson for 24 years and in his mind captured the magic of Wake Forest tradition and values:  “I watched students as they came to see him.  Some came because they needed advice; he gave it freely and wisely and sometimes with startling directness and candor.  Some came because they were in trouble; he helped them find a way out.  Some came because they were lonely; he offered himself as a friend.  Some came because they were black or Asian or from overseas; he told them he loved them.  Some came because they were poor; he gave them money.  Some came because they had no place to live; he gave them a room in his house.  No one who came remained outside the embrace of his arms.  The rest of us in the office were, I think, kind and helpful people too. But Bob was more than kind and helpful.  He gave others his home, his heart, himself.”

This is an ethic — an atmosphere — that is strikingly counter-cultural.  It stands against the grain of the achievement culture in which we live.  These  are  not academic professionals merely climbing the ladder of success.  This atmosphere also challenges the ethic so evidently on display today among icons in sports and entertainment:  “It’s all about what makes me happy, what I find most fulfilling.”  We seek faculty who take joy in investing in the lives of students.  It is that genuine, heartfelt commitment that makes for a magical connection.

It will take new investment to preserve and enhance the magic of talented faculty willing to give themselves to students.  We need to be aggressive in finding the right people, in recruiting them to Wake Forest, and in establishing the very best faculty development efforts to sustain this remarkable culture.

We intend to create the Presidents’ Trust for the Teacher-Scholar Ideal, combining support from many quarters to recruit and retain the exceptional teacher-scholars who make this community distinctive.

The Presidents’ Trust will support our academic leaders in providing endowed chairs and professorships to recruit and retain the most talented faculty.  An endowed chair represents a magnificent gift to a university.  An endowed chair also is a very special gift to students because it brings another magical presence into their lives without adding a cent to tuition.  The endowment, not the regular University budget, supports the faculty member and it does so in perpetuity.

The President’s Trust will also support faculty in other ways:

  • competitive grants that inspire our teacher scholars,
  • faculty renewal grants that create opportunity for teacher-scholars to concentrate on research and develop new courses and teaching techniques, and
  • centers and institutes that enable faculty members to work across disciplines to address the most pressing problems of our society.

Our Campus

The third wellspring of magic at Wake Forest is our campus.  When I ask students why they came to Wake Forest rather than any number of other quality institutions, the most common answer is that they fell in love with our campus.  Over the last fifty years in Winston-Salem, Wake Forest has crafted a campus with a very special sense of place.  It resembles the powerful sense of community and grace of the old campus; and it draws graduates to return, not only for sporting events and class reunions, but also in highly symbolic, almost spiritual, ways.  Alumni return to think through important decisions, to celebrate times of joy and commemoration, and to gain solace when tragedy strikes.

Architect Hugh Jacobsen has said that great places are built by communities one step at a time; and when you look at them it’s like reading the hopes, aspirations, and pride of everyone who built them.  We are blessed to have a campus that has this kind of history and magical connection.

Our recently completed campus Master Plan has addressed the future of this magical place with the dignity and historic continuity it deserves.  As we care for a campus community in which many of the facilities are about to turn sixty years old, we are committed to stewarding the rich resource of the Reynolda Campus.

We contemplate two zones of transformation. The Poteat Field will be at the center of a new quadrangle that will include a new recreation center for all of campus, a new Business School, and a renewed Worrell Center for our Law School.  We will return the Davis Field road to its previous configuration and begin the Davis Quadrangle that was envisioned by our original architect.  It will include a new academic center between the Library and Scales Fine Art Center.

At the same time, we will continue to enhance our Athletics campus, which has been upgraded and dignified by the quality of Deacon Tower at BB&T Field.  Our long-term vision includes a vibrant College Town that animates the entire area around our football and baseball fields and the Joel Coliseum.

Conclusion

Tonight I have reviewed three special signatures of Wake Forest:  the magic of our students, the magic of the teacher-scholar, education grounded in personal connection, and the magic of our campus and the opportunity to renew it for this and future generations.

Our challenge is to forge an even stronger community of learning for our children and grandchildren, a place that understands them fully and offers to them an engaged community in which to be nurtured and challenged.

We do that only by moving on many fronts, one of them a major capital campaign.  Let me say that I feel a deep responsibility in the coming five years to lead this campaign and build a firmer financial infrastructure for this special place.

I could not be more confident of where Wake Forest is today, and my confidence is anchored in the quality of our volunteer leaders and our senior leadership team.

Yet I would be less than honest if I did not take note of our vulnerability.  Our position as a top-thirty private university is not entirely assured.  We navigated the most recent financial turbulence because of a previous decision to enlarge our student body by 500 students.  And we have taken tuition charges to the maximum the market will bear.  In short, we have already pulled most of the financial levers at our discretion.

Where we lag our peers is in the amount of new investment in financial aid dollars, faculty endowments, and major gifts for new buildings.  Among private universities ranked 16-30 by U.S. News and World Report, giving at Wake Forest is only about 40% of the group average.  Wake Forest is smaller and that accounts for part of the difference.  But during our last capital campaign, we did achieve about 65% of the peer group’s average, and we can do so again.

In the last month I was honored to sign a new five-year contract with the University, and Julie and I are delighted to think of Wake Forest as our ongoing home.  Taking on the challenge of this campaign is the most substantive challenge before us, and one we take on with relish and confidence but only with your assistance.

I pledge to you my best and most creative efforts.  But as with much at Wake Forest, this campaign must become a team effort.  I would ask each of you to renew your own level of commitment and resolve for this institution.  We cannot begin to achieve our dreams if they are not your dreams.  The energy for what is ahead must emanate from all of us in this room.

Will you help me rekindle the magic of Wake Forest?  Will you push us in the administration to accomplish great things on behalf of our students? Will you enlist others in this kind of commitment?  Will you help us find a set of friends who dare to dream on behalf of Wake Forest?   We need stalwarts who will invest disproportionate amounts of their creativity, time, and resources on behalf of this place.

I intend to devote my best efforts and the next years of my life to this marvelous challenge, and I invite you to join me.