A Lively Experiment

State of the University Address to Faculty

By Nathan O. Hatch

Good afternoon Colleagues and Friends.

I want to begin these reflections on the state of Wake Forest University with several expressions of thanks and appreciation.

To the entire faculty of Wake Forest I want to offer a profound word of gratitude. Thanks are in order for all the work you do at every level of the University: for the searches you conduct, the curriculum that you review, the lecturers and conferences you host, the papers and tests you grade, the office hours you keep, and the administrative assignments you assume. Making an academic community work on behalf of all of its members requires hard work, great cooperation, and much good will. For all of your efforts, I am grateful.

But I also want to take note of what you do beyond the swirl of administrative activity, as important as that is. The heart of our calling involves a precious mystery, often done in private: the life of the mind, what it means to read and ponder, to explore and experiment, to imagine and create. Today, I want to thank you for nurturing the fragile flower of intellectual life.

The academic world, after all, can be intensely lonely. It takes time to relish the wonder of a great novel, an impeccable set of statistics, a moving concerto, an elegant experiment, a brilliant case study, a complex legal brief, a rare disease. Academic success requires burning the midnight oil, the long and lonely vigil to master material set before us. Some of the loneliest hours of my life I spent hammering together a lecture or struggling to meet a writing deadline. When you stand before a new class each term, or stare at the blank page for your next article, or craft your next grant proposal, the pressure is on. The stakes are high and success depends on the quality of your work and your work alone.

On behalf of Wake Forest, let me thank you for carrying forward the torch of intellectual exploration, even when it requires going the second mile. Thank you for nurturing inquiry itself, a passion to understand — the most important torch we can pass to the next generation.

Learning is also a public process, a culture that fosters serious discussion, and debate — the contact of living minds. Studies show that students, and all of us, learn more successfully when we work collaboratively to answer questions or solve problems.

The greatest joy I have known as teacher and scholar is the give and take of colleagues and students: the flash of insight that crosses a student’s face, the clarification of one’s own thinking that follows a good discussion and debate, the joy of making a point passionately and finding others nodding in agreement. Learning is most successful, and most contagious, when it is done together.

Thank you for all the ways you continue to make this a vital learning community, in classroom and laboratory, as advisor and mentor, with colleagues and students. Thank you for keeping learning at the center of our life together.

Today, I want to express a heartfelt word of gratitude to Bill Gordon who has served this university so well over the last five years, as Provost and as Acting President. Bill returned to Wake Forest at a difficult moment in the university’s history. He worked effectively to advance academic life and to stabilize the financial structure of the University. Bill listens carefully, works collaboratively, and puts the good of the whole above personal concerns. I am grateful for all of his assistance to me personally; and for his work in the important accreditation process last year; and the ongoing work of strategic planning. Bill, I trust that the pace of your work this year will not leave you too exhausted before you begin your well-deserved sabbatical next summer.

This week the search committee for a new Provost began its work and I want to thank those who have agreed to serve from the College and Graduate School and from each of the professional schools. Let me say just a word about the search.

We need a strong academic leader who understands, and embodies, the distinctive strengths and aspirations of this campus. We need someone who grasps the diverse academic cultures that we enjoy, from the arts to the sciences, from the humanities to quantitative social science, from law and business, to divinity and medical science. We need someone who has an eye for talent, an instinct for program-building, a thirst to make this place better, and an articulate voice to advance our common endeavors. We need someone who knows how to work as a colleague as well as a leader.

The search committee is currently organizing a series of faculty forums to solicit your input about the current state of Wake Forest and the kind of person we need in this position. Those meetings will be posted on a special website that is being established for the search. We will announce the position in the Chronicle of Higher Education both before and after the holidays; and will begin examining the credentials of candidates early in the New Year. We are seeking the very best candidates both within and outside the University.

I also want to express my gratitude to Bob Walsh who is stepping down this year after 17 years as dean of the Law School. Bob, under your watch, the School of Law has recruited superb faculty and students, enhanced the quality of legal education for our students, and sustained strong connections to the bar and the bench. Thank you for your devotion to what is best and most valued in this University.

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I am pleased to report that we are making progress in redesigning our institutional budgeting process. I want to acknowledge the significant contributions that Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Nancy Suttenfield is making to this process. Since her arrival in August, Nancy has met extensively with numerous individuals and groups across campus to help her assess Wake Forest’s budgeting practices and to understand how best to design new procedures.

Let me outline the key foundations of this new process:

First, the goal will be to align budget decisions with the strategic plan and the priorities that emerge from it.

Second, faculty salaries will remain a priority. We cannot build a great university without the ability to recruit, retain and appropriately compensate a stellar faculty. My most important priority in building next year’s budget will be faculty salaries. Let me also say a word about the Presidential Trust for Faculty Excellence, a plan to raise $10 million endowment for faculty and library support. We have raised about $5 million in commitments, and over 30 Trustees have contributed.

Third, the budget development process will be a partnership between the Provost and the Senior Vice President, with the Provost establishing the academic goals and priorities and the Senior Vice President identifying financial strategies to support them. As part of this new process, Bill Gordon and Nancy Suttenfield are meeting with each Vice President and Dean during November to discuss their financial situation and goals. This is a new step in our budgeting process and one that will allow us to have academic and other institutional priorities drive our budgeting process.

Fourth, the Provost will continue to meet with his faculty budget advisory group. In addition, the Provost and the Senior Vice President, in consultation with the University Senate, are forming a new financial advisory committee. This committee will consist of representatives from the Senate, the staff, and student government. They will meet at the outset of the budget process to provide advice to them on priorities, and again near the end of the process, to review and comment on the draft of the budget. These comments, along with others from the deans and vice presidents, will be considered before Bill and Nancy present budget recommendations to me.

Finally, we have decided to postpone the tuition decision until the February Board of Trustees meeting. On the departmental level, this will mean that the work done to submit final budgets will not take place over the December holiday period.

My hope for this new budgeting process is that it will be a more transparent process, driven by our academic priorities and guided by the best practices in higher education.

* * * *

This is an important moment for 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 and whither are we tending. To use a nautical metaphor from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., “we must sometimes sail with the wind and sometimes against it,” he said. “But we must sail and not drift or lie at anchor.”

I trust you will approach the strategic planning process with hope, cautious optimism to be sure, given the realities and complications of such a process, but hope nonetheless. Let me underscore that this is a process whose end is not predetermined from the beginning. Some of our biggest questions about the future are indeed open-ended ones: Where are our best opportunities for intellectual leadership and innovation? What kind of new and renovated classroom, laboratory, and office space will be essential in the next decade? What are our flagship programs in the College and the professional schools and how do we best build upon them? We need your best thoughts on these matters and trust the planning process will provide that opportunity.

I have great hope for Wake Forest not because our problems are less than other universities. I have hope because this is an experiment, a lively experiment, that draws upon a rich history of Wake Forest people accomplishing great things together against formidable odds. Fifty years ago, Wake Forest College took the bold and controversial step to move, lock, stock, and barrel to this place. Why? So that it could expand its reach as a university. Our challenges today are not as daunting as that one, but they are substantial. Yet I am confident that, as a community, we have the talent, the commitment, and the support to make the future even brighter for Wake Forest.

I invite you to dream together to shape this lively experiment. At department and program level, what do we want to be and how do we want to get there? How should your department evolve in coming years? Whom should you hire? What moves would allow you to transform good departments into strong departments, and strong departments into distinguished ones? How do we build library resources to undergird our academic efforts? I trust you will approach the strategic planning process as an occasion to dream about the future.

In coming weeks, the University Planning Council will issue an overall strategic framework to the community for response; and then right before the holiday will issue a specific charge for planning to colleges and schools and to other cross-functional planning units. These local plans will come back to the Planning Council next summer and will be integrated into an overall University plan.

Let me add a brief word about strategic planning and the next capital campaign. This plan must lay the foundation for those development efforts and on them it will depend. We must generate ideas of compelling excellence that our benefactors will champion and support.

Wake Forest’s last strategic plan depended largely on a dramatic tuition increase. Now that our tuition has gone roughly to market level, it cannot be the principal source for bold initiatives. Most new faculty lines will need to come from endowed positions. For that reason, we must make new endowed chairs a hallmark of our next capital campaign. We should also consider endowing entry-level faculty positions. Endowed faculty positions have already enriched Wake Forest. In the next ten years, they must become even more important.

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In recent weeks, the University Planning Council has been considering a new vision and mission statement for the University. The vision statement names five aspirations for Wake Forest, and in the time that remains today, let me reflect on them.

1. Wake Forest aspires to: Integrate the intimacy of an undergraduate liberal arts college with the academic vitality of a research university.

What can Wake Forest do better than anyone else? I think it is the combination of academic distinction and personal attention. If we can advance academically, and sustain a vital, face-to-face community, strong in personal relationships and mentoring, we will build something truly notable.

In negotiating our niche in this broader world of higher education, our plan must, above all, advance the academic quality of the institution. While Wake Forest ranks 30th in the overall ranking of national colleges and universities in the latest U. S. News ranking, we stand 53rd in the “academic reputation” ranking, a precarious position for a university with our aspirations. The heart of the plan must be to strengthen faculty distinction, which will require better support for faculty in salaries, facilities, and research and teaching support as well as higher standards of accountability. Our standards in recruiting individual faculty must include teaching that is superb and scholarship that has national impact. We must be innovative in recruitment and relentless in our pursuit of the very best candidates.

2. Wake Forest aspires to: Emphasize exceptional teaching, discovery and student engagement within a dynamic academic community.

One of the greatest tensions we will have to negotiate is a drive for academic achievement and for genuine community. In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “What Has Happened to the Professoriate,” Professor Stanley N. Katz frets about the undertow that pulls academics away from common purpose. “We have lost a sense of commonality as professors,” he suggests, ‘the sense that we are all in this together.” “We have lost a belief in the relevance of teaching undergraduates for the health of our democracy. We have lost confidence that what we do in teaching and research is inherently good, and not primarily a utilitarian occupation.” I am grateful that, here at Wake Forest, the bonds and commitments that Katz discusses are stronger and more vibrant than he finds elsewhere. But we are certainly not exempt from the forces he describes. And we will not sustain our distinct Wake Forest birthright without creativity, without fresh approaches to building a common culture of learning. Given the acute pressures to achieve for faculty and students alike, how can we construct an environment that continues to exalt the joy of learning?

3. Wake Forest aspires to: Become a crossroads of discussion on the important national and international issues of our time.

Wake Forest manifests a deep commitment to this area; and honors its history in North Carolina. But we should never be provincial. 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. How wonderful in the last year to have witnessed the presence in Wait Chapel of three Supreme Court Justices. I am also delighted that David Coates and Peter Siavelis are working with others to sponsor next fall a major conference on United States immigration policy and practice, a theme of great moment in the academy and in public life. We must also be bold and engaging in encouraging our students to attend these events.

4. Wake Forest aspires to: Attract a diverse community of the brightest educators and students from throughout the country and the world.

At the end of the day the magic of this place is its people and the strength of their engagement and interaction. We need explicit strategies on at least two fronts: to bring greater diversity to this campus, among faculty, staff, and students. And second, to develop recruitment strategies to attract faculty and students better than ourselves. I welcome your best thoughts about how we continue to make this campus more hospitable to persons of color and to women. I am grateful to Nancy Suttenfield for coordinating a fresh look at the issue of day-care.

5. Wake Forest aspires to: Link intellectual curiosity, moral reflection and a commitment to service, shaping ethically informed leaders to serve humanity.

I have suggested on several occasions that one of the great opportunities in American higher education is to take seriously the deficit in moral and ethical reflection, engagement, and formation. For a university that attempts to fulfill a motto of Pro Humanitate, this has particular significance. We need to build upon and expand programs in service learning, and international service. We need more avenues, curricular and non-curricular, for students to explore questions of ultimate meaning, what they should believe and how they should live. I like very much the way Ed Wilson put this recently. We need to ensure “that moral formation remains essential to the education we offer, whether it is defined in the language of our founders or by the wisest humanistic insights of our larger society.”

One great challenge will be to coordinate and expand current efforts in service and leadership, some of which are academic, some in student affairs, and some in campus ministry.

These five aspirations are certainly not exhaustive. But I do think they are a suggestive way to capture the distinctive contours of this place.

* * * *

I have shared a view that Wake Forest today is “a lively experiment.” That term was first used by the settlers of Rhode Island in 1663 when they petitioned the Crown of England for a charter to establish Roger William’s experiment in religious freedom. In a world of kings and bishops, Williams and his small band dreamed of polity premised on freedom of conscience. Their success, against all odds, bequeathed to this nation and to the world what Judge John Noonan has called “the luster of our country”: freedom of conscience.

I certainly would not imply that Wake Forest’s lively experiment approaches anything like world-historical significance. The tapestry of our lives is far more mundane. We are called to carry out first-rate research, to exemplify outstanding teaching and mentoring, and to strive for a community of learning that nurtures young people marked by the spirit of “Pro Humanitate.” Sustaining this calling will not be simple or automatic. Our challenges, fiscal and administrative, are considerable. And, like any human community, we are not exempt from our share of foibles, interpersonal conflicts, and competitive jockeying.

Yet beyond these constraints and frustrations, I trust that all of us can live in hope. Let us lift our sights to imagine the kind of university we want to become. And may the strategic planning process serve to focus and channel this dreaming. Let us join hands as colleagues. Let us discuss and debate specific strategies for our future. Let us build together at Wake Forest a lively experiment which, if successful, will receive ample tribute from our students, our alumni, and a grateful world.

Categories: Speeches