Why I Believe in Wake Forest
By Nathan O. Hatch
Wait Chapel, Wake Forest University
Let me begin today by thanking the University Senate and its President, Derrick Boone for this opportunity to address the University community. Later this year, in the spring term, as part of an effort to enhance communication, there will be two other presentations, one by Jill Tiefenthaler, our Provost, the other by Nancy Suttenfield, our Chief Financial Officer.
I want to begin my remarks today with a few words about current economic conditions. We come together today in tough and uncertain times for our national economy, times that are affecting all of us in very real ways. I know that there are some among us who are experiencing difficult circumstances and being forced to make hard choices. Let me urge any Wake Forest employee who is in need of advice or assistance to make use of the resources provided by our HR department. Associate Vice President Mike Tesh and his staff have a number of services which are available to any Wake Forest employee who may be facing new and unexpected challenges as a result of the economic downturn. If you have questions or specific needs, please make use of our HR department.
Just like every other institution, Wake Forest will be affected by the current financial situation. While our overall financial condition is strong, it is too early to know the full impact of these conditions. We do know that some of our students and their families will experience unexpected financial stresses which may alter their plans. We can also expect that some of our alumni won’t be able to support Wake Forest as fully as they might have planned. These conditions, and others, will likely affect our current year budget and almost certainly next year’s budget as well. We will undoubtedly have to do some belt tightening. Just what that means, and how we will do it, is under discussion. I am certain that we will have to make some real choices about what we can and cannot do to make sure that we live within our means this year and next year, while still fulfilling our core mission in teaching, research and service, and our commitment to our people.
At my direction, Provost Jill Tiefenthaler and Senior Vice President and CFO Nancy Suttenfield have been meeting with faculty leadership to get their input as we make these choices. Our first priority will be to our faculty, staff and students. We are committed to preserving existing jobs and working with our students to modify financial aid packages as family circumstances change. In coming weeks we will communicate further with the Wake Forest community about these matters.
It may seem terribly ironic: that we are entering this period of economic downturn just at the same time that we have launched our ambitious strategic plan. However, I am not deterred or pessimistic. Our plan is extremely important to us, perhaps even more so now than we might have imagined. It will provide a valuable guide to us as we prioritize our programs now and in the coming years.
Nearly four years ago, when I accepted the extraordinary privilege of becoming the president of this university, I spoke of Wake Forest as “a place that has a rich history, a compelling mission, and a very bright future.” I pledged to be faithful to our traditions, while moving boldly to advance Wake Forest as a leading university that nurtures the mind and the heart.
I am excited by the progress we have made so far and I am energized as we move forward.
Much of that energy comes from you, the faculty and staff who are essential to making Wake Forest a place of scholarship, service, and community. In numerous conversations, meetings, and listening sessions, the message I have received is that you are as optimistic as I am about the path we’re charting.
Wake Forest is a university in transition. Some of the evidence is physical. We are in the process of completing a campus master plan which will serve as a template for new residence halls, a new welcome and admissions center, a new recreation center, and several academic facilities. They will have to be done in an appropriate time frame, of course, as economic conditions permit.
Other evidence of transition comes from major administrative realignments, such as the decision to integrate the strengths of the Calloway and Babcock faculty under a single outstanding leader. We have also taken the bold step of realigning Wake Forest University Health Sciences and the North Carolina Baptist Hospital under a common Chief Executive Officer, another distinguished leader.
Yet these physical and administrative changes are a response to something larger happening within our community. We have evolved from a well-respected regional institution into a university of national prominence. We’re competing in a different league than we once were. It is an exciting opportunity for all of us — faculty, staff, students, parents, and alumni.
And it also presents a challenge: How do we meet this moment of growth and opportunity while remaining true to our ideals? How do we innovate on behalf of tradition, incorporating the very best aspects of a top-tier university with the student-focused, face-to-face, collegiate community we know ourselves to be?
I’ve asked this question since I arrived on campus, and with your help, our answer is beginning to take shape.
Most recently you expressed your vision for the university’s future through the development of our strategic plan. I appreciate all of your input and I believe you’ll see it reflected in the plan itself and our collaborative efforts to begin its implementation.
Last spring, I had the opportunity to outline for you the key strategies contained in the plan. This fall I want to turn more to its animating spirit. What are our underlying commitments? What do we stand for as a university?
I want to tell you why I believe in Wake Forest — in our traditions, in our current mission, and in our future direction. I believe Wake Forest offers something unique to students: what we describe as a collegiate university.
I am convinced that Wake Forest can claim a very special, even extraordinary place in American higher education. As a collegiate university, we bring a set of strengths that are increasingly rare. If we can remain true to our traditions, and leverage them creatively in a swiftly changing world, we can envision a kind of holistic education that equips our students unusually well to find their place in the world.
Today I want to explore three of these assets and why they open great opportunities for Wake Forest.
First I’ll discuss Wake Forest’s status as a deeply personal place, dedicated to community and face-to-face interaction.
Next, I’ll outline how we can enhance our commitment to helping students connect who they are with what they do — helping them to find meaning and purpose in their lives and in their work.
And finally, I’ll elaborate on how we can strengthen Wake Forest as a place of opportunity — a place that welcomes every individual with respect and opens doors to a promising, fulfilling future.
I. Wake Forest is a deeply personal place
The deeply personal nature of Wake Forest — where individuals are valued and community is nurtured — is what draws so many of us to this university.
Building connections between people creates an interwoven fabric of community that can serve as a safety net in difficult times, a spring board to launch people toward new opportunities, or a place of reflection, pursuing work we find enriching and enlightening.
These personal connections are so meaningful in part because they are increasingly rare. It seems today that in many aspects of life, relationships are thin and transactional — focused more on exchanging information than exploring ideas and building friendships.
Judith Warner, a commentator on social and family life, wrote earlier this year about her fond memories of the coffee pot in her uncle’s home in Brooklyn. The coffee pot was always on, and anytime someone entered the home, they were offered a cup of coffee and a place to sit and enjoy conversation. Family, friends, drop-ins — they would all take time to sit, drink, and talk.
Today this scene seems quaint and anachronistic. As Warner writes, “No one would dream of sitting still all day to schmooze.”
Warner laments “a world where, when people stop by your house, on the way from here to there with never a moment for here, they stand in the doorway, cell phone in one hand, water bottle in the other, too peripatetic to even entertain the notion of sitting down for a warm drink.”
Multi-tasking is a way of life; stillness a condition we avoid, even fear. We live in a society that rewards efficiency, but our lives are increasingly self-served and digitized: We pump our own gas, schedule our own airline tickets, fill prescriptions through a voice-recognition machine, and get cash and make deposits at an ATM.
One of the hidden realities of the current mortgage crisis is how impersonal the whole process has become. There is no longer a person at a local bank or savings and loan who gets to know you and follows your home and mortgage over time. Mortgages are sold, packaged and repackaged, in a stream of anonymous transactions.
In an article “The Taxi Driver” in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman noted how even cutting edge technology could separate rather than unite. As he drove through the streets of Paris, he noted that he had virtually no conversation with the driver, a young, French-speaking African. “[We] had been together for an hour,” Friedman writes, “and between the two of us we had been doing six different things. He was driving, talking on his phone and watching a video. I was riding, working on my laptop and listening to my iPod.” Friedman identifies the disease of the internet age: “continuous partial attention.”
This disease doesn’t only affect our relationships with strangers; it erodes the quality of our friendships.
Two years ago, the New York Times published an article evocatively titled, “The Lonely American Just Got a Bit Lonelier.” It highlighted the work of researchers at Duke and the University of Arizona who reported that fewer Americans have real confidants — the people to whom we might tell a very personal secret or from whom we might seek advice while making a big decision.
The authors acknowledged that email and other online communications and networking tools are helping people maintain friendships. But friendships of what quality?
As one of the Duke researchers put it, “E-mailing somebody far away is not the same as them going to pick up your child at daycare or bringing you chicken soup.”
How many times have you found yourself exchanging emails with someone and suddenly realizing it’s been months — if not longer — since you’ve seen that person face-to-face? Maybe even since you’ve heard their voice?
This is the world our students have known from the time they were in middle school. Facebook, MySpace, and text messaging are the main tools for communicating with friends. Today’s young people are perfectly at ease sharing details of their lives with the world — where they are, what they’re doing, whom they’re dating. But are they developing real human connections in a meaningful sense?
At Wake Forest, they should be. We recognize that the richest and most meaningful connections are those that develop through face-to-face communication. This is a place where students get to know each other, get to know you, get to know me. A place where faculty from different departments interact, exchange ideas, feel like part of the same team. Where staff and administrators are as much a part of campus life as the students and teachers in the classroom.
This face-to-face community manifests itself in many ways. In small classes that are the hallmark of a Wake Forest education. Small classes in which students don’t melt into the background — as much as they may try to on occasion.
The best kind of learning takes place in this triangle between students, faculty, and the ideas they share and explore together. I read recently of a long-time math professor explaining the exhilaration he feels in connecting with students through math: “Math is difficult,” he said, “and you have a talent for making it accessible. You become addicted to seeing the light go on in students’ eyes.”
My greatest joy as a teacher was the often unanticipated give and take of students: the flash of insight sparked by discussion, the clarification of thinking as one concedes a position to a better argument, the satisfaction of constructing your thoughts and finding others nodding in agreement.
Beyond the classroom, the face-to-face community is enriched by mentors. Faculty are the most immediate mentors. I have known the fulfillment of mentoring a student who takes as strong an interest in your field of study as you do — and gives you the opportunity to help her develop her own path of learning. Medical education provides wonderful examples of collaborative learning and mentoring — in laboratories and clinics, in operating rooms and hospital rounds.
Mentors are also found outside the classroom. Coaches are not only mentors but sometimes parental figures in the lives of our student-athletes. Administrators and staff can transform a student’s experience at Wake Forest by helping them learn the ropes and chart the best path toward a goal.
One area in which we still have work to do is in building stronger mentoring partnerships with our alumni network. I am delighted that the Law School has begun just such an effort. Wake Forest alumni are leaders in every field imaginable. If we can bring their expertise to campus, or have our students call on their experience and friendship when they move away from campus, we will give our students a jump start in planning their own paths after graduation.
Such a vibrant academic community must share two other important ingredients. First, our disposition must be outward rather than inward, engaging ideas and people different than our own and opening new vistas for students who must come to terms with the reality of an increasingly interconnected world. What a gift to our students if they can come to terms with diversity in the context of real personal relationships, building respect and friendship in the face of sharp differences.
Second, we must also be a community that upholds excellence in teaching and scholarship — and in all that we do. One of our greatest challenges will be to insist on high standards of achievement even as we affirm the value of each person. We would sell our students short if we were not a high-performing organization, constantly evaluating ourselves and striving to improve. Yet we must do so in ways that are transparent, and which draw from the gifts and talents of everyone.
By strengthening Wake Forest’s tradition as a deeply personal place, we will offer our students a magnificent gift. Here, relationships matter because people matter. May Wake Forest continually remember that one person is no match for two in wisdom and that at any stage in life, we learn best, not as islands, but as integral members of a community.
II. Life and Work: Connecting who we are to what we do
Helping students prepare for a rich and rewarding life requires attention to my second area of focus today: Connecting life to work. Or, to put it another way, connecting who we are with what we do.
Many people seem to view a university education as primarily a career-preparation tool. Certainly equipping graduates with the knowledge and skills to build careers after college is a fundamental part of our purpose. But it goes beyond that. The education we offer to our students should help them discover where their gifts and talents lie, what fires their passion, and how they can contribute to society at every level, from local to global.
This is a perennial quest for students and young leaders. They naturally long to know what they can accomplish, how far they can go, and in what direction. In 1841, the young Abraham Lincoln, doubting whether his life would amount to anything, confessed to a friend, “I would be more than willing to die, except that I have done nothing to make any human remember that I have lived.” All of us aspire to use our talents to do something for which others will remember that we have lived.
Yet universities today are less prepared than in the past to help students grapple with these issues. The distinguished psychologist at Harvard, Howard Gardner, has led a collaborative project called “Good Work” which hopes to address the disjunction he sees between life and work. The aim is to explore ways in which students and professionals in every field can do work that is both high-quality and imbued with an underlying sense of purpose and commitment to improving society.
Dr. Gardner has developed a seminar for freshmen at Harvard and two other colleges to help students explore their values as a first step to connecting their professional aspirations to their personal ethics.
Teaching students to do good as they achieve at the highest levels is more than simply a moral exercise. As Dr. Gardner explained in an essay, “The challenge of carrying out work that is both excellent and ethical is far more bracing than the pursuit of only one of these goals.”
In seeking to help students define a moral or ethical purpose in their lives, we will be bucking a trend among premier institutions. Anthony Kronman, the former dean of Yale Law School and a scholar of legal ethics and philosophy, suggests provocatively in his book, What is Education For, that few universities prompt their students to ask the question, “What is living for?”
Harry Lewis, the former Dean of Harvard College, also grapples with this question in his book Excellence without a Soul. Dean Lewis questions why universities today seem so hesitant to embrace values and communicate to students any sense of what they should believe and how they should live.
Yes, today’s students are asked to see themselves as part of a larger world community — from responding to environmental dangers to examining the roots and repercussions of terrorism. Yet these examinations usually come without any attempt to explainwhy students should be engaged in the world. What are values worth living and striving for? Is there a larger purpose to our lives?
In his recent book, 100 Semesters, William M. Chace, the former President of Emory and of Wesleyan Universities, offers a similar critique of America’s best colleges and universities: they are no longer committed to the kind of moral development that once produced an informed and responsible citizenry. That kind of formation, he argues, “is sinking beneath the waves of faculty neglect, administrative busyness, preprofessional frenzy on the part of students and the depressing uncertainty on almost every campus about what moral development might even mean.”
I believe Wake Forest has mostly avoided the crisis that Kronman, Lewis, and Chace describe. We are fortunate to have a rich tradition of teaching values along with the arts and sciences. As a student-oriented institution with a sense of community, we have challenged students to explore questions deeply and to think about their own place in the world and their own responsibility for making the world better. It is in the spirit of Pro Humanitate — the root of all we do.
One of the more exciting aims of our strategic plan is to reinforce connections between the liberal arts and our professional schools — spheres which at most research universities maintain jealous separation. Fortunately, the scale of Wake Forest makes this kind of active collaboration feasible; and I am deeply grateful to Provost Jill Tiefenthaler and our talented deans who are working so actively to this end.
We are committed that each of our schools excel in their respective fields, law, medicine, business, divinity, and other graduate programs, many in biomedical science. At the same time, we trust that the reflective disposition of the liberal arts can leaven our professional schools even as the distinct insights of professional and graduate education can expand the horizon of undergraduate students and departments.
To enhance such connections, we hope to establish the Center for Vocation and the Common Good. As students and young professionals enter their careers, they have never been more technically proficient. Yet they need greater guidance in how to integrate their education and skills with their beliefs and commitments. How can we form leaders who will approach work with a sense of vocation, measuring their own gifts and passions and applying them in ways that place a high priority on human flourishing and the common good? What a powerful signature for Wake Forest: to connect life and work, to assist students to think hard about who they are, what they are committed to, what is the contemporary landscape of business and the professions, and how they can lead lives that matter.
III. Wake Forest as a place of opportunity
Our final challenge is born of success. Wake Forest is one of America’s top universities, competing with some of the oldest and most respected institutions in America for very high caliber students. Yet our roots are local and humble. We have opened doors of opportunity for students who were the first in their families to attend college. Children of teachers, of farmers, of ministers. Young people who used their Wake Forest education as a stepping stone into a life of greater opportunity and more expansive boundaries.
That must remain our animating spirit. Wake Forest is at its best as a place of opportunity. A place where students of every background, from every part of the country, every type of high school, and every family are treated with respect, taken seriously, and welcomed into this community.
All our students bring something to this campus — it’s why we invited them to come here. Sometimes the history of achievement and excellence will be written all over a student — from academics to athletics to music or art. Sometimes we will see a budding leader who needs the right environment in which to thrive … or a passionate student who needs nurturing as well as teaching … or a student — like many of our early students — who may lack experience beyond his hometown and needs a place like Wake Forest to open new doors.
Our commitment to expanding opportunity often has been expressed through big ideas, such as our decision to move our campus to Winston-Salem and serve a wider community. Or our decision to aim high and join the Atlantic Coast Conference while still a relatively small school.
Our most recent bold action made headlines across America: our decision to eliminate the requirement for SAT or ACT scores in the admissions process. To borrow an often heard quote, this is a giant leap forward for an institution like Wake Forest. Small liberal arts colleges have moved away from the SAT, but no university of our stature has made a similarly decisive move away from standardized tests.
It is a decision rooted in the kind of university we want to be. Eliminating the SAT requirement mandates that we go the second mile to know our applicants as people. We have to spend extra time evaluating individuals. We have always sought to know as much as possible about the students to whom we offer admission. And now we are confirming that we will not take short cuts. We are solidifying our ethos of valuing the individual and seeking people who will be best served by a Wake Forest education. A challenge moving forward is to keep Wake Forest as an institution which can still fulfill the American dream — and this traditional Wake Forest spirit. Today there are ominous clouds above elite private higher education. According to the Educational Testing Service, only 3 percent of freshmen at the top 146 colleges come from the poorest quarter of the population. Today we run the risk of our best schools not being places of opportunity, democratic thresholds that open new vistas, but campuses reserved largely for people of means.
Former Yale professor William Deresiewicz humorously captured this paradox in his recent essay in The American Scholar, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” “Visit any elite campus in our great nation,” Deresiewicz writes, “and you can thrill to the heartwarming spectacle of the children of white businesspeople and professionals studying and playing alongside the children of black, Asian, and Latino businesspeople and professionals.”
But Professor Deresiewicz does have a more serious message. He posits that what elite institutions best prepare students for is to be part of society’s elite — comfortable only around people like themselves; afraid of failure and too tentative to take meaningful, mind-opening risks; accustomed to a world in which “gentlemen’s C’s” and rule-bending are the norm; and, on top of it all, rather anti-intellectual in any real sense of the term.
While this scenario may be a bit too dire, the trend is real. And as our university continues to grow in recognition and respect, we should be aware of the possibility that Wake Forest could slip onto a path toward greater privilege and elitism, closing off the opportunity for students of different backgrounds and divergent experiences to interact with and learn from each other. At Wake Forest we must work to sustain a proper balance of students. We must strive to make Wake Forest a place where students can fulfill their dreams. Wake Forest must remain a community that takes everyone seriously, particularly students who might feel out of place. We must remain a place where plain speaking is honored and where pretension is deflated.
My dream is that Wake Forest can be a place of opportunity for all, a place that provides healthy engagement whatever ones wealth, status, race, or religion.
Those of us who have known the transforming power of education have the great opportunity to pass the torch to a new generation.
Serving the best traditions of Wake Forest while stepping boldly into the future should come naturally to us — we’ve been doing it for decades. The challenges and opportunities we face as a university today will present themselves on a bigger stage, and perhaps with higher stakes. But I believe we have what we need to be successful.
We have a strong campus community, a deeply personal place in which people and relationships are highly valued.
We have an ethic — a philosophy of education — that is committed to shaping the whole individual; not simply preparing students for careers, but igniting a passion for living a complete and fulfilling life.
We have a commitment to opportunity for all students that is rooted in our humble beginnings and reinvigorated by our bold innovations.
This is why I believe in Wake Forest. And why I share your optimism about our future. By working together, we have set big goals for this university. And by working together, we will achieve them.
- May 18, 2020
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- May 15, 2020