Remarks to the Alumni Council
By Nathan O. Hatch
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Let me thank all of you for your most gracious welcome. It is a delight to be with you today. Julie and I are look forward to getting to know you as we collaborate in the important work of Wake Forest University. We are honored and humbled by this opportunity. We covet your assistance, your prayers, and your friendship as, together, we build upon the strengths of this place, its rich history, and its recent flourishing under the capable leadership of Tom Hearn.
The challenge that you and I face together is to dream boldly about the next decade and to fulfill the great promise that is ahead. Abraham Lincoln once gave this advice to a group trying to think strategically about the future: “If we could know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it.”
In the coming months, my goal is to become a student of Wake Forest, to learn as much as I can about this great university, its history, its momentum, its strengths, its weaknesses. My goal, with your assistance, is to locate the coordinates of where Wake Forest is today and wither it is tending. If we gain a clearer sense of our position and momentum, we can plan better about what to do and how to do it.
In beginning this journey of discovery, I have a set of questions to ask of friends such as you in the Wake Forest community: trustees, volunteer board members, key administrators and campus leaders, faculty, students, friends of the University, and leaders of other colleges and universities. I am curious about where is Wake Forest today? What are its strengths, its liabilities? Where are we better than our reputation; where are reputation and reality aligned; and where might our reputation slightly outstrip the reality of what students and faculty actually experience?
Are we willing to admit where we have problems? The biggest danger of any successful organization is to coast on success, to be lulled into complacency by valid accomplishment, what Hedrick Smith calls being “mired in the mindset of success.” Are we poised and hungry for the next opportunity? What are our greatest opportunities and, are we prepared to seize them?
What are the biggest changes in the University in the last decade; and are they likely to continue? What new changes or obstacles, fiscal or otherwise, are likely to emerge? In a time of fiscal constraint, what tough choices have to be made, and what are the core shared values that will govern our actions? Are we a culture willing to hire people better than ourselves, and to recruit those best suited for the values of this place? Do we do what it takes to nurture and retain our best people? What are Wake Forest’s centers of academic excellence, our real signatures? How do we build upon them? Where can the tremendous tradition of teaching and learning here be enhanced?
A key set of questions involves our students, their approach to learning, and the pressure points they face in sorting through the various reasons for attending a university such as Wake Forest: They face a complicated mix of aims and motives. They hope to gain a liberal education and a degree of self-knowledge, to advance professionally, to explore a philosophy of life, to develop avenues of service, and to make friends and enjoy an exciting college experience.
As we think through our responsibility to Wake Forest students, two trends are worth noting. The first is that students today are under tremendous pressure to excel, to achieve. In his new book about the American middle class, On Paradise Drive, David Brooks describes the quiet revolution in the way Americans are raising their children, what he calls the professionalization of childhood. Even grade school children are pushed into a culture of competition, with great attention given to which school they should attend, what grades they should achieve, and how many activities they should pursue. “There exists,” he says, “a massive organic apparatus for the production of children, a mighty Achievatron.” The message is loud and clear: Identity at any age is formed by what we do and accomplish.
Much of this diligence and resume-building among young people is focused on the promised-land of college admissions—the milk and honey of a place like Wake Forest. But having made it to the school of one’s dreams, do American students then relax? Hardly, Brooks concludes: “No, she kicks it up a notch. From the achievement-oriented movers and doers they were as teenagers, today’s high-achieving Americans turn, once on campus, into Junior Workaholics of America … going from one activity to another, from music to science to sports to community service to the library and do so without rest.”
The question this raises is whether or not students can find space in their college experience for serious reflection, for thinking critically about life and the world in which they live. Who am I, in what can I believe, to what ends should I devote my talents? We need to ensure that this vital dimension of a liberal arts education is not swept away in the rip-tide of achievement that besets our culture.
A second issue for students is that they inhabit a world of enlarged individual choice. George Will recently made this point whimsically about contemporary young people. When our generation wanted a cup of coffee, he noted, we just ordered up, well, coffee. Students today, when they want coffee, take a deep breath and order something like this: a venti decaf nonfat extra-hot no foam with whip three-pump vanilla latte. Vaclav Havel has noted that we live in a postmodern world “where almost everything is possible and almost nothing certain.”
In every field and by every medium, we are virtually drowning in information, but we are also thirsty for understanding, for core values and principals to give order to complexity. The modern university prescribes nothing and allows virtually everything, notes Professor Andrew Delbanco of Columbia University. This is both its splendid achievement and a growing dilemma. How do students develop moral and religious bearings in a world of radical choice? Tom Wolfe’s new novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, set here in North Carolina, is a depressing saga of high achieving students who negotiate university life without a moral compass.
I look forward to upholding the great tradition of Wake Forest to provide a liberal arts education that offers intellectual and moral orientation. The challenge is to hold together in creative tension values that often seem at odds. We want to sustain excellent teaching and research. We want diversity and continuity with the past. Wake Forest values its North Carolina roots and its identity as a national university; we are a university that prizes academic freedom and diversity of thought, and we want to be faithful to a distinct religious and moral tradition. We want nationally ranked athletic programs and student-athletes who represent the values of the institution. This is our heritage and our invitation to a very bright future.
Let me thank you again for your extravagant hospitality and for the opportunity to work together to realize the potential of this special place.