My Dreams for Wake Forest

Summer Leadership Conference

By Nathan O. Hatch

Kiawah Island, South Carolina

Let me begin today by thanking all of you, from the bottom of my heart, for all of your support, engagement, encouragement, and friendship during the last year. This has been an intense year for the Hatches, but a deeply rewarding and satisfying one. We are privileged to serve the entire Wake Forest community, students, faculty and staff, alumni, and friends. They have welcomed us with open arms. But you, as leaders of the University, volunteers and administrators alike, have gone the second mile, standing ready to lend a hand, to advise, and to encourage.

Let me also take this opportunity to thank many of you who have contributed to the Presidential Trust for Faculty Excellence, an initiative that we began this year to give the Provost and deans greater leverage in supporting their best faculty. I am deeply grateful for your support of this special initiative.

I once worked with a senior administrator whom I asked to characterize her experience after one year on the job. “Well,” she answered, “I imagined that I might actually steer the ship. In fact, I have spent most of my time bailing.” Administering a university does require a certain amount of bailing, solving immediate problems, addressing the day-to-day challenges. But our work certainly must not stop there. The ship must be steered, seas fathomed, winds charted, crew provisioned, and directions set.

This is an important moment at Wake Forest. Undertaking a strategic plan is a time for the community as a whole to take stock and to think about directions for the future: where are we, whither are we tending. If I could employ another nautical metaphor, this one from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., an early professor of medicine at Dartmouth Medical School: “We must sometimes sail with the wind and sometimes against it,” he said. “But we must sail and not drift or lie at anchor.”

This morning we want to address the broad issue of strategic planning, how we best avoid drifting or lying at anchor. I want to introduce this topic by sharing with you “My Dreams for Wake Forest,” a personal vision of our opportunities and challenges.

American universities are not only the best in the world—eight out of ten of the top universities are American—they also remain highly diverse, dynamic, and competitive for ideas and talent. Most universities outside the United States today are state-dominated and fairly narrow in their academic scope. I recently read an article about the malaise of French higher education. The example was a branch of the University of Paris with 30,000 students but with no student center, no bookstore, no student-run newspaper, no first-year orientation, no corporate recruiting system—not much to connect students and alumni to the university.

By contrast, American colleges and universities are dense and multifaceted cultures—and they are teaming with diversity. Some are secular, some religious. Some eschew sports, while others are football or basketball factories. Some colleges are, by design, isolated enclaves, others deeply involved in the economic development of communities. Some are regional, others national. Some focus on traditional students, ages 18-22, while others take up the challenges of adult learners. Local autonomy, private initiative, and competitive positioning are the animating springs of American colleges and universities.1

North Carolina is blessed with one of the finest systems of higher education in the country, public and private. North Carolina enjoys a premier liberal arts college like Davidson, a premier research university like Duke, and distinguished state institutions of national visibility like Chapel Hill and N. C. State. Our own community, Winston-Salem, reflects this strength and diversity: we enjoy the North Carolina School of the Arts, the only state-funded conservatory in the country who this week welcomed a new chancellor, the internationally renowned conductor John Mauceri. This week Salem College, a private liberal arts college for women, also welcomed a new president, Susan Pauly. The most rapidly expanding university in the state system, Winston-Salem State, is a historically black institution, which made enormous strides in recent years. Finally, Forsyth Tech is a community college that is a national leader in training technicians for health sciences and the biotech industry.

And then there is Wake Forest, which this year celebrates 50 years in Winston-Salem. Where does one place Wake Forest against the rich tapestry of colleges and universities that we see in North Carolina and beyond? I am convinced that Wake Forest has a distinct and increasingly important place. It is one well-recognized by generations of alumni and friends—and increasingly by talented students across the country. My dream for Wake Forest is that we reinforce and extend the core traditions that have long defined the mission and identity of the institution. Let me suggest briefly what some of these are and in what directions they point.

I. A Middle Ground

When one thinks of scale and orientation, it is interesting to think of Wake Forest as enjoying a middle ground. We draw upon the strengths of a residential liberal arts college and the dynamism of a research university. We are regionally rooted and nationally expansive at the same time. And this year, as part of our ten-year reaccreditation process, we designed a plan to enhance an already strong international program of study. We seek to be a place where vital religious traditions can engage secular thought in a climate of academic freedom. We aspire to strengthen both teaching and research. And we strive to be a welcoming community and a place of high academic performance. We compete in big-time athletics without apology and we insist on standards, academic and behavioral, for student-athletes. We are a university that defines its identity by a set of creative tensions. So often Wake Forest is drawn to say “both” … rather than “either … or.”

II. Academic Quality and Aspiration

First of all, Wake Forest is a place that stands for academic quality and aspiration. Our strategic plan must strengthen departments and their faculty. The heart of our plan must be to strengthen faculty distinction, to turn good departments into strong departments, and strong departments into distinguished departments. This will require better support for faculty on the one hand and higher standards of accountability on the other. We need to be innovative in recruitment and retention as we seek to build an unsurpassed learning culture. We will need to assess carefully our academic space needs. What kind of new classroom, laboratory, and office space will be essential in the next decade?

In thinking about academic life at Wake Forest, I dream of advancing on four broad fronts: endowing distinguished chairs, building centers of excellence, finding new synergy between the College and the professional schools, and making Wake Forest more a crossroads of national and international conversation.

Endowed chairs are a hallmark of a great university. They enjoy a rich legacy, harking back to 1502 when Margaret of Richmond, mother of Henry VII, established the Lady Margaret Professorship of Divinity at Oxford. The Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge was established in 1663. Its second holder was Sir Isaac Newton; its contemporary incumbent, Professor Stephen Hawking. In 1721, the first endowed chair was established in America, the Hollis Professorship of Divinity at Harvard College. The current holder of that chair is well known Baptist theologian Harvey Cox.

Endowed chairs are an incomparable gift for at least three reasons. As the highest honor a University can bestow upon faculty, they attract and retain the most esteemed faculty members. They are also a gift for now and for the future, perpetuating quality in the donor’s name. Most importantly, an endowed chair is a gift to students. They gain access to first-rate minds, faculty whose salaries do not burden the tuition budget. Endowed chairs have already enriched Wake Forest. In the next ten years, they must become central to our advancement.

Wake Forest should also develop certain academic flagships or centers of excellence—in the College and the professional schools. Some of these will grow naturally out of current academic strengths. Still others may develop opportunistically as we have the opportunity to attract faculty, or groups of faculty.

Wake Forest can also assume greater leadership in addressing important intellectual issues and urgent problems of the human community. With the singular asset of Graylyn Conference Center, and a campus hospitable to visitors, Wake Forest must look to become a crossroads of discussion and debate. What can we do on a world-class level that, on a given topic, brings together the very best minds? We need to sponsor events at Wake Forest that thought leaders in a given area do not want to miss.

Wake Forest also needs to find greater synergy among our various schools and programs. For a relatively small university, we operate in quite separate spheres. How can we gain new synergy between our two business schools, between the medical school and our basic science departments? In the arts, how do we capitalize on assets like Reynolda House and the North Carolina School of the Arts? As a university, what should we do in the exploding field of bioethics, a critical field at the juncture of medicine, religion, and law?

Wake Forest also needs to make significant investments in our library. A great university is premised on ample printed and digital resources and we must begin to raise endowed funds to support such collections.

There are two impediments to this kind of bold academic vision: one financial, the other cultural. Financially, we must address the pressing salary issues across the University and do so with a sustainable financial model. A related issue involves the size of our undergraduate student body. We are committed to preserving a certain kind of learning community, but what size of student body best allows us to do that and fulfill all the commitments that stand before us? This is a key question to address during the coming year.

The second impediment is cultural. Whatever the political leanings of their faculty, most colleges and universities are organizationally conservative. John Lombardi, the president of the University of Massachusetts, noted that absent a strong drive for change, most institutions stay more or less the way they are: stable, competitive at their level, but unlikely to move dramatically forward without significant and unusual impetus.2 Wake Forest is no exception. In fact, my own sense is we are a very traditional culture. My hope is that, in looking to the future, this community can be bold and innovative to preserve traditional values. For instance, how can we build an innovative contemporary experiment to enhance teaching and advising? How do we innovate to make this the finest example of academic community in the country for students and faculty alike?

III. Community

There is another prized Wake Forest distinctive that has great currency in contemporary America—because it is in such short supply. We live in a culture that is increasingly impersonal, market driven, and achievement oriented. Miroslav Volf, a theologian at Yale, recently put it this way: “Mainly, we’re set up to sell and buy, not give and receive. We tend to give nothing free of charge and receive nothing free of charge.”3

A recent study in the American Sociological Review notes that Americans today have a third fewer close friends and confidants than just two decades ago, a sign that people may be living lonelier, more isolated lives. One in four persons in the study had no close confidants at all, up from one in ten in 1985.4

Colleges and universities are certainly not immune from this decline in deep, meaningful personal relationships. Academic professionals are more achievement driven and students more calculating in how best to negotiate the system to their advantage.

If Wake Forest can in some measure resist this undertow, we can create what Jim Collins calls “a pocket of greatness,” something we are deeply passionate about and can do better than others.5 If we can sustain a vital, face-to-face community, if we can build authentic relationships, genuine mentoring, and bonds of understanding and trust among diverse people, we can serve as a real oasis in a parched culture. If we can sustain excellence without pretense, if we can take everyone seriously, not just the prizewinning student, then we can honor what may be Wake Forest’s most cherished distinctive.

How do we do this? We must seek out people who want to live their lives in this kind of community. We need to acknowledge and reward great teaching and mentoring and enhance our Teaching and Learning Center. I would love to see a set of new endowed chairs where we seek out outstanding teacher-scholars from around the nation. Where do we find the next Ed Wilson? I would love to see the campus have a place where faculty could gather for lunch or for afternoon tea and discussion together. I would love to see a new residential college where students could commit themselves to a more intentional community of discussion and debate. We need to make our campus more hospitable to women faculty and staff, including exploring afresh the issue of day-care.

As I suggested in my inaugural address, Wake Forest must also become a more diverse community, giving students the opportunity to live and work among people of differing beliefs and cultures. If they can learn that kind of diversity within a face-to-face community, where friendship and trust can transcend sharp differences, they will be much better prepared to serve the world which they will be called upon to lead.

To realize this kind of community, Wake Forest must continue to build scholarship support for students. We have long been a place of quality but not pretension, of opportunity but not privilege. Wake Forest must continue to be a beacon of opportunity, to build a community of talented and diverse students who are economically, ethnically, and religiously diverse.

We should also think creatively about how better to fold Wake Forest alumni into an ongoing community of learning and service. Particularly in areas of major alumni concentration, such as Atlanta, Washington, New York, Charlotte, and Raleigh-Durham, we need to think about more robust programs and how to develop clearer pathways by which alumni can use their expertise and contacts to strengthen the University.

IV. Educating the Whole Person

If contemporary American culture is starving for personal connection and intimacy, it is also hungry for moral coherence. Structurally, modern higher education has increasingly divorced learning and character, a point made with deep regret by academic leaders, including Harry Lewis, the former dean of Harvard College. His new book, Excellence Without a Soul, bluntly states that Harvard “has lost, indeed willingly surrendered, its moral authority to shape the souls of its students … Harvard articulates no ideals of what it means to be a good person.”6

The New York Times columnist David Brooks has written perceptively about the values of American students. In his latest book, On Paradise Drive, he describes the achievement ethos of today’s students, the lengths they go to manage their resume-building lives. His conclusion: “On the whole, college students are articulate on every subject save morality. And in that quest, they are left largely to themselves.”7

Brooks has also reflected on Tom Wolfe’s novel I am Charlotte Simmons, the story of a young woman who leaves Sparta, a small town in North Carolina, and enters an elite university. She finds there all the rules of life are dissolved.

“Wolfe describes a society in which we still have vague notions about good and bad, virtue and vice, but the moral substructure that fits all those concepts together has been washed away. Everybody is left swirling about in a chaotic rush of desire and action, without a coherent code to make sense of it all. Charlotte’s only compass is racking up accomplishments and she is unprepared to face the moral tests thrown up by her sexuality and the sheer formlessness of her college life. When moral judgment and courage are called for, she’s unprepared.”

The great opportunity and challenge for Wake Forest is to take up the challenge of moral as well as intellectual formation. Drawing upon the best of our religious tradition, I am confident that we can do so in a climate that is ecumenically rich. Professor Harry Stout of Yale University attended a weekend retreat at Graylyn this spring brainstorming about the future of Wake Forest. He challenged us to be a “post-secular” university, one of moral gravitas, one of the middle ground, one that goes beyond knowledge for the sake of knowledge.

Toward this end, Wake Forest should expand and consolidate a wide variety of activities that have come under the mantle of our revered motto Pro Humanitate. We should become richer in service and service learning, in international service, and mission opportunities. We should develop creative new avenues—curricular and extra-curricular—for students to explore questions of ultimate meaning, about what one should believe and about how one should live. How can we give students occasions to define and defend what their values actually are and how they correspond to important choices that they are making? How can we establish certain interdisciplinary centers that address pressing issues of the moment such as bioethics or themes such as religion, pluralism, and democracy?

We should enhance the wonderful and diverse work that our campus ministry does. Sometime in the future, I would love to see a new worship space on campus for three to four hundred persons and available to all religious groups. I would love to see this campus host great religious and moral leaders of the world, from all walks of life, to tell their stories and engage our students with big questions about meaning and purpose. Wake Forest should be a diverse, morally rich kind of campus.

In conclusion, let me suggest that Wake Forest’s finest tradition is that of a community, personal in scale, committed to learning, to character formation, and to diversity. I dream of a vibrant learning community, one that weds knowledge and experience. This can be a great gift to the next generation of students and to contemporary society.

Today, and throughout the coming year, I invite all of you to share with us your best thoughts about how we continue to build Wake Forest as an exceptional place of education and service. “Make no small plans,” Daniel Burnham counseled, “They have no magic to stir men’s blood.” I trust that our plans will not be small, our commitment faint, or our endeavors half-hearted. Thank you for your partnership in bringing shape and substance to these dreams. I look forward to the days ahead.

1 See David Brooks, “Our World Cup Edge,” The New York Times, June 22, 2006.

2 John Lombardi, The Top American Research Universities (University of Florida, 2001).

3 Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Grand Rapids, 2005), p. 14.

4 Henry Fountain, “The Lonely American Just Got a Bit Lonelier,” The New York Times, July 2, 2006.

5 Jim Collins: Good to Great and the Social Sectors: Why Business Thinking is Not the Answer (Boulder, CO, 2005).

6 Harry R. Lewis, Excellence Without a Soul (New York, 2006).

7 David Brooks, On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense (New York, 2004).

Categories: Speeches