Wake Forest’s Opportunity

State of the University

Good afternoon. Thanks to all of you for joining us. I appreciate your engagement and interest in the state of our University.

Thomas Edison, an inventor who held more than a thousand patents, once noted, “We often miss opportunity because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Today, I want to spend some time talking about our opportunities and the work it takes to get there.

Now, if we listen to our students, who affectionately refer to the University as “Work Forest,” then surely we aren’t missing many opportunities. And maybe they’re right. In some ways, we have boldly grasped opportunity. But on other fronts, there’s still much to do.


I am deeply grateful for the momentum that Wake Forest currently enjoys. The way we have grasped opportunity has led to an impressive energy in our community. We have problems and challenges to be sure; that will always be the case. But I do sense that whatever difficulties we face, they are ripples on the crest of a sizable wave of momentum.

Our momentum has come because we have pursued opportunities to improve our educational experience. Consider how we have pursued opportunity to create a better education for our students.


Last year at this time, we were preparing to open the doors of our new facility at Innovation Quarter. Today, we celebrate a new facility, new programs, new faculty and new students enlivening Wake Downtown.

One out of every 10 students this term is actually studying there. 508 undergraduates are enjoying courses in 11 different subjects. This new location is operational because of the tremendous teamwork of so many. I am grateful to Rebecca Alexander and Emily Neese for heading up 40 different groups working on the project. I’m deeply grateful for all of their work.

This fall, we also launched our first engineering program since the 19th century. Combining engineering with the liberal arts in the context of medical education is not typical for engineering programs, but we saw this opportunity and it has unfolded in very strong ways.

The founding four engineering faculty include the chair of the program – Dr. Olga Pierrakos – who comes from the National Science Foundation. We also welcome Dr. Elise Barrella and Dr. Elizabeth Boatman to Wake Forest. They join Dr. Michael Gross as the faculty of the engineering program. These professors are teaching an engineering class of 50 students that is 40 percent female. The national average is 22 percent.

Wake Downtown has not only increased our academic capabilities, it has proven to be another opportunity for our students, faculty and staff to engage with our local community. For example, Alana James, Associate Director of Engagement for Wake Downtown and Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, is working on behalf of our institutions to partner with our downtown neighbors in meaningful ways. We look forward to the opportunities Alana’s work will yield.


If we go beyond our immediate community, you will see the Wake Forest family growing across the nation. Just a few weeks ago, we celebrated the grand opening of Wake Washington, a hub for Wake Foresters in our nation’s capital.

Wake Washington is comprised of an academic program, directed by Dr. Katy Harriger and launched this fall with a cohort of 16 students. Thanks to Trustee Al Hunt and several Wake Forest alumni, parents and friends, our students are enjoying an immensely rich experience. They’ve already been in conversation with journalist Andrea Mitchell, civil rights activist Vernon Jordan, Wall Street Journal writer Shane Harris, Vice Admiral of the Navy Forrest Faison, former Congresswoman Donna Edwards, and just last week, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. In addition to classes, students are interning with partners around the city, including both houses of Congress, the local D.C. government, consultants, lobbyists, research institutes, think tanks, museums, performing arts venues and humanitarian NGOs.

Wake Washington Center is located at One Dupont Circle in the building that is owned by the American Council on Education. Directed by Jennifer Richwine, it is the center of activity for the Wake Forest community in Washington and will be used by all of our undergraduate programs and our professional schools.

We created a place in Washington, D.C. because we know it is where our students and alumni want to be and where we think Wake Forest should be. I am grateful to both Katy and Jennifer for their leadership in realizing this idea.


If we look even further still, beyond the boundaries of our nation, we see opportunity through our Global Awakenings program. For the first time, we have sent first-year students on a study abroad experience during their first year at Wake Forest. It was an experiment on our part, and we were pleasantly surprised by the vast amount of interest from prospective students. This fall, 17 students came to a pre-orientation on campus and then went with Dr. Saylor Breckenridge of the sociology department to study in Copenhagen. Dr. Mary Dalton of the communication department will be our next resident professor.

Our students are having hands-on learning experiences, hearing from expert guest lectures, and participating in faculty-led study tours across Europe to other Wake Forest study abroad locations, like Casa Artom in Venice.

Let me add a special word of thanks to Kline Harrison, Associate Provost for Global Affairs, for all of his assistance in launching this program and the Washington D.C. program.


In addition to starting new programs, we’re also trying to refurbish facilities on this campus. We are currently in the middle of transforming Salem Hall, the home of our chemistry department. This renovation to update a building more than six decades old will focus on teaching and research lab renewal, office renewal and code compliance. Hopefully, by this time next year, we will have a new laboratory building on this campus that resembles what is downtown with state-of-the-art classrooms, teaching laboratories and research laboratories.


We have also put significant energy into renewing historic Reynolds Gym. Walking through those doors now, you can’t help but be struck by the commitment we have to holistic wellbeing. When Chris Paul visited this fall, he stopped by Reynolds Gym and seemed delighted with its transformation.

In the first month that Reynolds Gym was open, more than 3,400 undergraduates used the facility. And I was just told that about 80,000 people have gone through it – students, faculty and visitors who come to campus. As word gets out about our wonderful new space, I think more in our community will use it, particularly as we finish the final phase, which includes the swimming pool.


Additionally, we have witnessed incredible renewal of our athletics facilities thanks to the support of generous donors, including Bob McCreary, Ben Sutton and Mit Shah. The Sutton Sports Performance Center will benefit all of our varsity athletes, and the Shah Basketball Complex will add facilities for our men’s and women’s teams. We have also seen improvements to the Couch Baseball clubhouse, Kentner Stadium, and the soccer practice complex. Philanthropy has led the way on these projects. We enjoy competing in the ACC, but we are the smallest school in any of the Big Five conferences. We rely on the generosity of donors to make us competitive. Let me thank Ron Wellman and Barry Faircloth and their team who have led these successful efforts in Athletics.

Not only have we pursued opportunity to create a better educational experience, consider how other initiatives are helping to build a stronger community.


We see opportunities to strengthen our community through leadership roles. Late last spring, we welcomed Dr. Julie Freischlag to be the CEO of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. Dr. Freischlag is a distinguished vascular surgeon, a member of the National Academy of Medicine and comes to us from the position of CEO of the Health System at the University of California, Davis, in Sacramento. Prior to that she served for a decade as Chief of Surgery at the Johns Hopkins University – the first woman to hold that position. Julie is an engaging leader of great vision and skill, and she has been warmly welcomed by our colleagues in the Medical Center where she is also serving as the Interim Dean of the School of Medicine.

This summer, our chief diversity officer, Barbee Oakes, took a position at University of Nevada at Las Vegas. Following her departure, José Villalba was appointed interim chief diversity officer. I am grateful for José’s willingness to lead in this area as Provost Rogan Kersh heads a national search to fill this position.

Additionally, in June, we announced our first Administrative Fellow in the Office of the Provost. Christina Soriano is working with colleagues across the University to enhance visibility of the arts at and beyond Wake Forest. She is also helping forge interdisciplinary connections across the arts and various departments and schools.


We are also inviting increasing members throughout the greater Wake Forest community to join us in pursuing opportunity. Under the leadership of Mark Petersen, the Wake Will Lead campaign is charged with raising $1 billion by 2020. It is obvious that people are interested in supporting us in this way.

In the past fiscal year, Wake Will Lead received more than $80 million in cash receipts, which is $20 million more than last year and our second-best year in history. We also received nearly $114 million in commitments, and that was before we learned that Porter Byrum, our generous alumnus, left $70 million in his estate for financial aid.

The work of Wake Will Lead is driving change on our campus and across the broader Wake Forest community. Inspired by the conversations that have happened on this campus, we are asking our alumni, parents and friends to join us in A Call to Conversation. Through this new initiative, we want to spark more meaningful conversations, build new relationships and strengthen communities across the nation. So far, the response from the Wake Forest network has been tremendously positive.


This fall, I established the President’s Commission on the First-Year Experience. We do this not because we think our first-year experience is weak or broken. In fact, we do it because it is very good, but we want it to be great. We can always to better.

In my remarks to the commission members at their first meeting in September, I said that while Wake Forest is small, we aren’t necessarily always well-integrated. I think we can study all the programs we offer first year students and work to provide more coherence. My sense is that we could also do a better job conducting real-time assessment and gathering real-time feedback to our wonderful staff who are involved with our first-year students.

One very disturbing reality for us, and for many other places, is the problem of alcohol and the dangerous associated behaviors. What programming and other steps could we take to continue to address this area? We also hope to study academic success, Greek life, wellbeing, and the reasons some limited number of students do not find this community a valued academic home.

Vice President for Campus Life Penny Rue and Dean of the College Michele Gillespie are co-chairing this commission. They bring deep commitment and experience to this work, and I am grateful for their leadership.


Another area where we are inviting input as we seek to be better is in college curriculum. It has been nearly 20 years since the College conducted a thorough review of its general education curriculum structure.

In August 2016, Dean Michele Gillespie announced the creation of a task force to review best practices in general education thought and practice. This committee was divided into working groups, met regularly during the 2016-17 academic year, and ultimately recommended that the College initiate a major general education curriculum review.  Department chairs in the College overwhelmingly supported that recommendation. Accordingly, in the September College Faculty Meeting, Dean Gillespie announced the formation of a College Curriculum Review Committee with faculty representation from all divisions, the office of the dean of the college, and the undergraduate business school.

The committee will offer preliminary recommendations on curriculum revision to the faculty in May 2018, and a final recommendation of revisions will be submitted to the Committee on Academic Planning by the end of the fall term of 2018. Curriculum reviews are complicated, and in advance, I thank many faculty and administrators who will be working on this important and complex subject.

Now, consider how we have integrated new ideas into our daily practices, making us more thoughtful, engaging and efficient.


Over the last several years, we have become more cognizant of our impact on the environment. The efforts of the Sustainability Office, led by Dedee DeLongpre Johnston, have started to integrate sustainability into our collective thinking. By the connections that Dedee has made all across the University, we are seeing a campus that is more interested, invested, creative and collaborative in sustainability work.

For example, the Office of Sustainability and Campus Services and Facilities worked together to ensure the proper disposal of chemical refrigerants – one of the top solutions to reversing global warming. In our construction and renovation projects, our mindset is also toward responsible stewardship of our environment. We have installed low-flow water fixtures, which have increased our water saving by 45 percent, and in the last seven years, eight of our new buildings have received silver or gold LEED certifications. The water in the new swimming pool in Reynolds Gym will be heated by solar panels. And instead of throwing away outdated furniture during our residence hall renovations, members of our residence life and housing department and our campus facilities team devised a plan for re-use.

Our students are also engaged with the Office of Sustainability in increasing ways, and we continue to work at reducing food waste, promoting a bike-sharing program, carpooling, using LED lighting and recycling.

Wake Forest has also made advances in academic study of sustainability and the environment. Professor Miles Silman and Dr. Abdou Lachgar have done path-breaking work studying Amazonian ecosystems. We are also delighted that a Wake Forest alumnus and former Acting Deputy Administrator for the EPA Stan Meiburg, has joined the University to head our graduate programs and dual degree programs in sustainability.


Another way we have integrated new ideas is through our Summer Immersion program. For several years, we had a modest program for A few years ago, we launched a summer program for high school students. It worked well, but it had limited numbers.

Two years ago, we moved to expand this program in Charlotte and in Winston-Salem. Now students are encouraged to explore fields that span the liberal arts and the professions. We now will have offerings in 15 different fields.

This past summer, Summer Immersion welcomed 820 students from 36 states and six countries. Next year, we anticipate approximately 1,200 students engaged in these programs. One great benefit is the exposure this gives these students to Wake Forest. Because of their time at Summer Immersion, 96 percent of this year’s students indicated that Wake Forest would be in the top three schools to which they would apply. I am grateful to Todd Johnson and his team for building out these programs on behalf of talented high school students.


To bring more efficiency to our daily work, we are engaged in the conversion of our financial, human capital management, budget and planning software to Workday. I’m sure this is not the first time you’re heard that. We are in the middle of transitioning and implementing this system, and expect to go live in July 2018.

Our goal is that Workday will help our institutional processes become consistent, paperless and more user-friendly. It should keep more accurate records and data more readily-available for analysis and decision-making. The challenge for all of us, of course, is that we may have to change how we do business in order to comply with the overall design of the system.

This work has been spearheaded by Hof Milam and his talented steering committee. Let me offer thanks to Hof, Carmen Canales, Brandon Gilliland, Phil Handwerk, Beth Hoagland, Mur Muchane and Emily Neese.

As we look at the opportunities we have grasped, consider the leadership that has inspired us to become better.


I don’t often talk about the Board of Trustees in these remarks. They are generally less well-known to the community. However, I do want to acknowledge the deep commitment of our board members and the extent to which their spirit of innovation has inspired and continues to motivate this university.

Not every university enjoys an engaged, unified and enthusiastic board. Their support of our administration, faculty, staff and students is remarkable.

Much of that is because they are involved often and early-on with decision-making. Each meeting, the Trustees mull over what we call a “generative question.” Sometimes it is an issue we are wrestling with that is not yet settled. For instance, several years ago, we brought them into the discussion: “What if we started an engineering program?” They talked about it, how it would affect various aspects of the University, what it would mean financially and how it might impact people. At our most recent Trustee meeting, we discussed the First-Year Experience and what their ideas were and how we can improve on behalf of first-year students.

The Trustees push us to be more innovative and entrepreneurial. Many of them were instrumental in the creation of Verger Capital Management, led by Jim Dunn, which has recently taken on outside clients, proving the concept to be a good one.

I am deeply grateful to our gifted board chair, Donna Boswell, and also to Reid Morgan, our board secretary, who does so much to organize Trustee affairs.

One very sad note: We recently lost a dynamic and deeply insightful trustee, John Medica, who passed away suddenly within the last month. John and his wife Megan, both of whom held graduate degrees from Wake Forest, were enthusiastic supporters and patrons of our debate program. John was a dear friend to so many of us and he will be sorely missed.


So, as we look to the future, how can we be better? To draw upon the language of Jim Collins, what are we passionate about and at what can we be best in the world? A place like Wake Forest has many strengths and many ambitions, and we will proceed in many of those directions. But today, I want to note three opportunities that present themselves that could be easily overlooked.

American higher education is diverse and intensely competitive. We all strive to be the best – and not only in sports. Universities go the second mile to recruit the best students and star faculty, to build ranked programs, to see that their graduates win prestigious awards and fellowships, to enlarge their research funding. Rankings and prestige are the high-octane fuel that drives most of American higher education.

But higher education also has a higher calling: to cultivate character as well as intellect, to call students to lead lives of purpose – Pro Humanitate, to serve as a moral beacon for students and the society that they are called to serve. I sometimes call these the recessive genes of higher education. They are acknowledged regularly, but are often given less attention or masked by the dominant gene of prestige and self-assertion.

Wake Forest has chosen to bring to prominence some of these recessive genes, and I would mention three of them today. These are not new; they are recurring themes and very important.


The first is what I mentioned in my opening letter to the community. It has to do with something quite simply, but profound, and that is personal attention. As C. S. Lewis said, “There are no ordinary people.” The magic of a place like Wake Forest is the people and the enormous potential they have to build up each other. On this campus, every student, faculty and staff member counts. The sheer fact of being a person and a part of this community outweighs everything else – whether you are particularly successful or struggling, whether happy or sad, whether well-known or humble, whether bold or shy. Every day each of us encounters people whom we can build up or tear down. Or we take the easier but ultimately more dangerous path – simply to ignore or snub them.

The paradox of our time is that we have the ability to connect with anyone anywhere by voice, text, or video. Yet we are lonelier and more anxious than ever. In a striking article in the New York Times this fall, columnist Frank Bruni notes that the real scourge on campus today is loneliness. In a sea of people, too many students find themselves adrift. He tells the story of a first-year student who confessed, after attending a series of parties: “There I was, alone, with all those people around.”

The value and promise of a residential liberal arts campus such as Wake Forest is the forging of close personal relationships. In the midst of our high academic ambitions and efficient work processes – holding each other to account in appropriate ways – we must rekindle what it means to take each other seriously – to care, to listen, to pay attention, to understand, to encourage, to genuinely seek the good of everyone. That spirit of affection and hospitality, to which Ed Wilson so often calls us, is a priceless treasure.


Our community mirrors the national paradox: being so “connected” threatens real relationships and being so busy endangers real community. Similarly, we have fewer voices and fewer spaces that bring together people of discordant beliefs and lifestyles. We have fewer places to interact, to understand, to find common ground.

For these reasons, we need to continue to focus on conversation as the heart of what we do – as Sherry Turkle suggests in her book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.

Conversation implies we are willing to challenge the impersonal and privatizing currents of contemporary culture. Conversation counters the polarizing forces at play in politics and culture. Conversation reinforces our long-held tradition that education must be deeply personal as well as intellectual.

I am delighted that this year we have sponsored a set of events around the theme “Rethinking Community – Global, Diverse, Polarized, Virtual.” The major conference on this theme in October was a model of bringing truly diverse voices together around common themes of importance.

I am grateful to Provost Rogan Kersh and the “Rethinking Community” committee for their work on behalf of the common good.


Wake Forest has long excelled in both of the challenges that Ralph Waldo Emerson made to the collegiate community: to take seriously the cultivation of character as well as intellect. I am delighted that our students have so many different kinds of opportunities to learn how best to live lives that matter: Academic courses that address important issues of value and meaning – such as those that come out of the Center for Bioethics, Health and Society led by Professor Ana Iltis; new clinics in the Law School that assist the most vulnerable in our community important avenues of service through the Pro Humanitate Institute, through our Divinity School and through Campus Ministry; long established traditions like Hit the Bricks, Wake ’N Shake and the many Greek philanthropies; the nurturing of holistic living through our comprehensive Thrive program; and new initiatives such as the Deacon Leader System for varsity athletes which draws upon both the Department of Military Science and the School of Business’ Center for Leadership and Character.

It’s wonderful to see so many of our students come to embody such lives of meaning and service right before our eyes – like senior Rose O’Brien. Rose has made reaching out to Winston-Salem’s estimated 400 refugees her passion. She started the WFU Student Association for the Advancement of Refugees (SAFAR), and this Saturday, November 11, will hold the second Wake Refugee Day – which, if it is like last year, will attract literally hundreds of people. Thank you, Rose.

For the past seven years, Wake Forest has also been a national leader in the study of character. The work of the Character Project, led by Professor Christian Miller and funded by the John Templeton Foundation, has involved numerous Wake Forest faculty from a variety of disciplines. That work has been continued in The Beacon Project directed by Professors Will Fleeson and Michael Furr, and that supports younger scholars who study people who are morally exceptional. I look forward to the publication in December of Christian Miller’s trade book with Oxford University Press called The Character Gap: How Good Are We. That work will bring to a broader audience much of this scholarly work on character.

I also want to take note of the work on Leadership and Character being done by Michael Lamb who joined us in the fall of 2016 to help us think through how best we can make character formation real for our students. Michael graduated from Rhodes College, studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, completed his doctorate in political theory at Princeton, and then went back to Oxford to work on the Oxford Character Project where he worked with graduate students and the Rhodes Trust that is helping young adults try to build traits of character into their lives.

We have now brought Michael to Wake Forest as a Scholar in Residence reporting to the Dean of the College and to Andy Chan in Personal and Career Development. Michael’s charge is to take stock of where Wake Forest is and what kind of programs can best serve our culture and structures. In May, a number of us were privileged to travel to Oxford where there was a scholarly conference, “Cultivating Virtue in the University,” which was jointly sponsored by Oxford and Wake Forest. The conference included presentations by Christian Miller, Jessica Richard, and Michael Lamb.

Personal attention. Conversation and community. Leadership and character. May these recessive genes continue to inform and enrich our common life together.


Opportunity. It does often look like work. One person who understood that well was Porter Byrum (JD ’42). Mr. Byrum was a long-time supporter of Wake Forest, and it was indeed a privilege to get to know him as a friend over the past decade. Having received a scholarship to attend Wake Forest when he was a student, he was intent on providing similar opportunity to those who followed him.

Mr. Byrum weathered the Great Depression, succeeded in earning his law degree, fought for General Patton in World War II, helped liberate a concentration camp, struck out on his own to practice law and tried various other ventures.

For all that Mr. Byrum saw and did in his life, there was a turning point that set him on his trajectory. It was when he went to Wake Forest on a scholarship. Out of abundant gratitude, it was that same opportunity he wanted to offer to others. In his estate, Mr. Byrum left Wake Forest $70 million – every penny to be used for scholarship aid.

In March, we mourned Mr. Byrum’s passing, and starting this fall, we honor his enduring legacy. In his final act of generosity, he provided opportunity for Wake Forest students for years and years to come.

As we end this afternoon, I want to share a brief video about our friend and the University’s most generous benefactor.

Thank you for coming this afternoon; I will meet you all in the atrium after we see a wonderful example of opportunity and gratitude.

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