Dr. Wente delivers first Presidential Address

On November 19, 2021, Dr. Susan R. Wente delivered her first presidential address as the 14th president of Wake Forest University. In her remarks, she shared about her journey of discovery, engagement and initial observations. Watch the video or read the text of the speech below the video.

Text of address; as prepared

Thank you, Professor Phillips and the Faculty Senate, for your invitation to speak today. And thank you, Chi Rho, for your performance. I know I speak for all of us here that after a long COVID year without much live music, it is simply wonderful to hear you sing. Thank you.

I am also pleased that Dr. Ed Wilson, Wake Forest’s first provost, former professor of English and former dean of the College, has joined us today. Dr. Wilson is also a proud Wake Forest alum, Class of 1943 and a World War II veteran. Dr. Wilson, thank you for your incredible service to our country and to the University.

I am delighted to welcome everyone here in person and those joining us via live stream.

LEADING WITH GRATITUDE

President Wente at the lecternAs we near the Thanksgiving holiday, I want to begin our time together this morning with gratitude. My husband, Chris, and I have felt so warmly embraced by Wake Forest students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends here in Winston-Salem and beyond.

I am so grateful for the energy and care you have invested in welcoming us, and for the graciousness shown during this transition.

While presidential transitions are never necessarily easy, completing one during a global pandemic presents a whole new level of challenge. I can’t emphasize enough how thankful I am to have joined a community that promotes and values the health and safety of all its members.

Your commitment to each other, and to our mission, is remarkable. We are able to gather here today in person because you have chosen to do the things that keep us as safe as possible – getting vaccinated, wearing masks and taking care of yourselves and one another. Thank you.

I know this commitment has not been easy. We have worked to uphold our collective wellbeing while at the same time pursuing the highest standards of academic excellence. Many of you have also shouldered extraordinary responsibilities supporting family and friends. I am keenly aware of the toll that this commitment has taken.

With your input, our University leadership team continues to evaluate how we can best support the needs of our incredible staff, faculty and students.  Today, I am most pleased to share new concrete actions we are taking now.

We know the pandemic has had a significant impact on the mental and emotional wellbeing of college students across the country. To further address this, Wake Forest is making a major investment in our students’ access to mental health support through a new partnership with TimelyCare, a student-first telehealth provider.

Starting the Monday after Thanksgiving, this partnership will increase available mental health resources and appointments for students to ensure additional timely, quality care. With our devoted in-person professionals, TimelyCare will also be part of the spring semester’s expanded counseling center care model and our wellbeing resources.

We also know that over the past 20 months many employees have put off taking time for themselves to support our continued operations during the pandemic, and many have taken on additional responsibilities.

I am pleased to announce that this year we will enact a four-day extension of the University’s winter break, which will begin on Monday, December 20 and continue through Monday, January 3. During this time, the University will be closed.

We know some colleagues will not be able to take immediate advantage of the extended winter break due to their roles supporting critical University processes and priorities. Managers in those areas are working to identify opportunities in the future for their team members to take advantage of this extra time away and will communicate directly with their teams about their options.

Our Human Resources colleagues will offer further guidance regarding the details of this plan later today. My sincere hope is that you will use this additional time and these resources in ways that are meaningful to you.

These important actions – for both students and employees – are the result of radical collaboration and teamwork, and a reflection of our commitment to one another.

PERSPECTIVES ON VISION AND STRATEGY FOR WAKE FOREST

In preparing for this address, I read all the questions you submitted in advance. And while I cannot promise I will be able to respond to every single one this morning, there were several common themes.

Many of you asked about my vision and strategy for leading Wake Forest.

Today, in the spirit of transparency, I will offer some insights into my journey of discovery, how I have engaged this community so far, and some of my early observations about Wake Forest.

Then, I will talk about the steps we will take together as we create a shared vision for the future.

Journey of Discovery: Listening and Learning

As a scholar and a scientist, I am energized by the journey of discovery. That is why I am being so intentional about listening and learning as I begin my journey at Wake Forest. If you were able to see the slideshow of photos earlier, you saw that I have truly been all over the campus and in the wider University community, meeting with many different groups in many different settings.

(Coming from Nashville, let me quote the country music icon Johnny Cash: “I’ve been everywhere, man.” Or at least I’m trying to be!)

I have visited and participated in Faculty Senate meetings and engaged with faculty across the College and the graduate and professional schools, including visits to classrooms and labs.

I have held informal lunches and attended many gatherings with staff in a variety of campus areas – and know I have many more to visit!

And, I have engaged with our remarkable students in so many settings – at poster presentations for Undergraduate Research Day, in Tedford Theater for “The Normal Heart” performance, in my regular check-ins with student leaders, while walking laps at Hit the Bricks, when cheering on the sidelines at sporting events, and in my impromptu conversations with students as I venture across campus.

I have traveled to Charlotte and Greensboro, and visited the Wake Washington Center to spend time with our students, faculty, staff, alumni and community partners.

This journey of discovery has been helpful on several fronts – I am getting to know Wake Forest, and the Wake Forest community is getting to know me.

It has also been a crucial time for starting conversations about how we will all work together in the years ahead.

I know that I still have more to learn, but across my engagements, I have experienced so much warmth and welcome from undergraduates and College faculty who have long formed Wake Forest’s center, to the richness of the graduate and professional schools that are critical to the depth and strength of this community of learners and scholars, to our tremendous alumni and friends.

Our motto of Pro Humanitate was part of what attracted me here – and I am pleased to say that through these engagements, I’ve seen firsthand how we live it. I am eager to continue learning, and I view ongoing and careful listening as essential to my leadership as president. At the same time, I am also eager to begin tackling our challenges and seizing opportunities to strengthen and advance this excellent institution. We are in an incredibly strong position, with limitless potential.

Engaging with the Community: The Great Universities Question

The work we do in higher education is complex, and its scope is broad. Therefore, I believe we need a robust framework to guide our efforts as we develop a vision for our future. In my listening sessions with campus stakeholders, I have posed one big, critical question to all: What is expected of a great university today?

I ask this important question for several reasons.

First, I strongly believe institutions like Wake Forest are called to uphold a higher standard of academic excellence. We are viewed as leaders, not just within higher education, but in society at large.

Second, when we consider the deep commitment that students, families and communities make when they choose us, we have a responsibility to deliver on the transformative power of education and research. We must continually push further to live up to that commitment.

Third, it is not enough to be good. A place like Wake Forest must be great – given its history, calling and mission. Thus, it is especially important for us to think hard about our shared answers to this question: What is expected of a great university today?

The reason I have asked this question of so many Wake Foresters is to hear all members of our community – in their own words – articulate the expectations, aspirations and responsibilities of a great university.

So, this is my homework for all of you. I invite you to reflect on this question and then share your thoughts with me, either by submitting your answer via the president’s website, or by letting me know the next time we see each other. Your answers to this important question will result in themes that help frame our vision for moving forward.

Three Initial Observations

I am often struck by how my academic experience shapes my administrative approach. As a scholar and scientist, I find myself leaning on the first steps of the scientific method – careful observation and background research – to understand new situations. And, so far, three initial observations have crystallized for me that I’d like to share with you today.

I will frame each observation by acknowledging the advantages I see for Wake Forest, as well as some inherent challenges.

I believe you’ll come to know me as a data-driven decision-maker, but also one who values leveraging data in real time to inform actions that are people- and mission-centered. So, I will also share some initial actions I am taking in step with each of these three observations.

OBSERVATION No. 1:

Wake Forest has a strong community identity and commitment to the student experience.

This community speaks about itself in one voice through one motto – Pro Humanitate. There is such a powerful sense of identity and connection when people talk about Wake Forest – more so than at any institution I have been part of. Individuals often identify as Wake Foresters first, and clearly care about and value the institution as a whole, rather than identifying solely with one or more of our many parts – be it majors, schools, academic disciplines or affiliation with particular groups.

Further, the teacher-scholar model is deeply valued here. This is apparent in our longstanding commitment to meaningful student-faculty interaction, and in the many stories students past and present tell me about the close mentorship they have received from faculty and staff alike.

Wake Forest offers incredible opportunities for students to deepen and extend their classroom learning – career development, study abroad opportunities and living-learning communities, leadership and character development and community-based learning and more. We truly exemplify what it means to be student-centered.

Advantage for Wake Forest

I view this shared identity and commitment to the student experience as distinctive for Wake Forest. There is clearly collective will to sustain this identity and to ensure we remain faithful to the many benefits it provides our students.

Moreover, there is agreement that student engagement is crucial to our identity and fulfillment of our mission. Our identity contributes to an environment that supports the success of students during their time with us, and results in engaged alumni who are committed to the wellbeing of both Wake Forest and the larger community, far beyond their time on campus.

Challenges to Acknowledge

Just as we instill in our students the importance of lifelong learning, it is important for us to challenge ourselves to continuously improve. In that vein, the challenge inherent in having a strong shared identity is that some groups might resist any efforts perceived as changing or evolving our identity. Some deeply held traditions and practices may at times come into tension with our desire to truly be inclusive in the way we live our motto of Pro Humanitate.

Action Already Being Taken

As we consider our identity and commitment to the student experience, I believe we must work together to bolster our efforts, and we have been doing so this fall. Being back on campus and in person has made the rich dialogue and mentorship opportunities among students and faculty possible again. And, we are seeking to uphold time-honored campus traditions, and have learned what we most value based on our experiences these past two years.

By creating events that truly embody the spirit of Pro Humanitate, many of you have contributed to bringing our campus back to life after a year of profound disconnection.  This fall, we hosted a festive and moving 2020 commencement ceremony on the quad; we adapted family weekend and homecoming events; and we developed new opportunities for student organizations to host social events, including tailgates! These are all examples of us coming together to uplift our traditions and open them wider so that all members of our community can experience them, even as the pandemic continues.

This commitment extends to our first in-person Lovefeast since the fall of 2019, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to participate along with you in this wonderful and unique Wake Forest tradition.

As noted in this first observation, I believe our distinct commitment to Pro Humanitate and the student experience will continue to form our core identity.

OBSERVATION No. 2:

Wake Forest is reckoning with its history to inform its present and future.

Since arriving at Wake Forest, I have heard the community’s call for us to foster a more inclusive learning and working environment. This call echoes similar ones heard on other university campuses, and in cities across the nation and around the world to address issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.

What I see at Wake Forest is a community that has engaged in substantive, difficult, and complex work over the past five years. At least 11 committees and more than 100 committee members have put forth recommendations to enhance equity and inclusion on campus. More importantly, these recommendations are being acted upon, and most importantly, there is a collective understanding that there is more work to do.

Advantage for Wake Forest

Our willingness to come together, ask hard questions and work collaboratively positions us well. We can build on this foundation of working through complex and, at times, painful conversations as we expand our narrative, navigate the present and face the future together.

Why is this reckoning with our shared history an advantage? This puts us in a stronger position to continue leading and delivering on our mission.

Population data from the census indicates that by the mid-2030s, the majority of high school graduates will be students of color. Our country’s shifting racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic profile make the work ahead clear: We must always strive to be a community that does more than welcome people from a wide range of backgrounds, identities and experiences. We must be a place where all students, faculty and staff can be themselves, belong and thrive.

This is the right thing to do, not only through the lenses of access and equity, but also because we know that diversity makes us stronger, and that diverse communities provide rich environments for deep learning, problem solving, innovating and creating.

Challenges to Acknowledge

We also need to acknowledge the challenges ahead. Diversity, equity and inclusion work is long term and requires sustained commitment. This means there is an inherent tension between our community’s desire to make significant, rapid progress and the realities of both the resources and time that real change requires.

As we seek to ensure all students and faculty and staff can feel a sense of belonging and thrive here, we must identify what contributes to, and detracts from, this desired outcome. What are the experiences of different groups, and how do we address disparities to create an even more inclusive campus community? We will have to trust each other in order to have these hard conversations.

Action Already Being Taken

Significant action has and will be taken now and in the future. Since I arrived, I have taken several steps. Most recently, I announced the creation of the University Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council. This standing council is advisory to me and charged with ensuring we are making progress toward our diversity and inclusion goals.

The work of the past committees has pointed ways forward, and we need to ensure that actions we take are having a positive impact. I am grateful to Vice President José Villalba and Law School Professor Tracey Banks for co-chairing this council, and I am thankful for those who are serving as inaugural members.

We are also continuing the work the University started several years ago, regarding how we honor and remember through our places and spaces. I asked the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, with a special planning group, to lead the next steps for engaging the community this fall in structured, open dialogues concerning our guiding principles for naming. You can share your ideas and feedback by completing the survey all members of the campus community received, or by reaching out to the planning group members.

This fall, we are also working together to ensure our campus remains a safe and welcoming place for all. I want to reaffirm my commitment that we will conduct a survey this spring about student experiences with sexual misconduct. This survey will provide us with actionable data to determine what further efforts are needed to enhance prevention and support survivors when misconduct occurs.

With respect to our diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, my thanks go to the many who are not only sharing their experiences, but also working collaboratively to make further progress. I am confident that through open and respectful dialogue, and with careful and transparent planning, our future will be stronger because we have learned from our past.

OBSERVATION No. 3:

Wake Forest strives to be, and is, highly competitive.

Across our community – from research to the student experience to recruiting faculty and staff to post-graduate success in attaining jobs and entrance to graduate schools – we aim to be highly competitive. And we are highly competitive!

In the middle of a pandemic, we had a 94.5 percent employment rate for the Class of 2020. Our faculty and staff are competing for, and winning, nationally visible grants and awards. Our applications for undergraduate early decision are up 15 percent over this time last year. And, last weekend on the athletic fields we defeated Harvard, Cornell, Virginia, Western Carolina and N.C. State.

To be highly competitive – to be distinctive – Wake Forest has made many bold moves. We have not required standardized tests for undergraduate admissions since 2009, long before many other institutions. We have intentionally integrated ethical inquiry and leadership and character into our curricula and the academic experience. We started an undergraduate engineering program rooted in the liberal arts. We have invested the teacher-scholar model and enhanced the student experience through hiring outstanding faculty and staff.  We forged a partnership with Atrium Health, will be opening a second medical school campus, and have launched the new School of Professional Studies in Charlotte to expand our impact in the region while ensuring that the core of who we are – a University very much embedded in the Winston-Salem community – remains strong.

What is quite obvious is that our students, faculty and staff – and the University as a whole – rarely do things in small ways. We go big, and we go all in.

Advantage for Wake Forest

This history of being competitive is definitely an advantage. Wake Forest is not afraid to make big, bold decisions. As a scientist, I might say that this proclivity for boldness is embedded in the DNA of this institution, and it’s one of the things that attracted me here. The mindset of being bold – being innovative and creative – is not especially common in higher education, and this has resulted in areas of distinction for Wake Forest.

New initiatives are plentiful, and we have leveraged our resources and position in the region to do things that other institutions have struggled to do. It is not easy to just “start” new undergraduate and academic programs, to create a boldly imagined downtown space, or to launch new programs in a thriving city like Charlotte.

Challenge to Acknowledge

To use a sports metaphor, when you set the bar high and clear it, the natural next step is to set the bar even higher. The more successful we are, the more we need to do to maintain that success. And today’s success becomes tomorrow’s expectation. A question we will address together is: How do we make bold and strategic choices about where and how we will compete?

Action Already Being Taken

And as we continue to answer the call to be a great university, how will we best leverage our resources and to build further opportunity?

We are taking action by aggressively pursuing and securing gifts and grants to advance our efforts. I hope you have seen some of these recent announcements about our successes: a $5 million gift to the Wake Forest Debate Program from Megan Medica in honor of her late husband and university trustee John Kevin Medica; five new National Science Foundation grants to faculty, totaling more than $1.7 million; and alumnus Bob McCreary’s generous $20 million gift toward the completion of the McCreary Football Complex.

We also must ensure our campus facilities keep pace with our bold moves and aspirations. To prepare for the future and remain nimble, we need to study our core infrastructure and space needs. In October, we hired SmithGroup to complete a campus space utilization study. The study will reveal the evolving space and facilities needs of our Reynolda campus today and for the future and take into account lessons learned during COVID-19 to forecast future trends for academic work and the administrative functions needed to support it.

This careful and thoughtful planning is critical to supporting our learning and discovery missions – to Wake Forest continuing to be highly competitive and moving our mission forward into the future.

Moving Toward the Future

I intend to continue my journey of discovery through active listening over the remaining academic year, and I expect that I will continue to refine and expand the three initial observations I’ve shared with you today.

I also want to share an overarching takeaway from the journey so far: There is a clear hunger to define Wake Forest’s vision and strategy for the future, and to understand what it will take to get there.

In tandem with my ongoing engagement with the campus, alumni and external communities, I have charged the University leadership with conducting a deep and careful analysis of our current realities. This is work that will take place between now and the end of the academic year. I believe we must truly know ourselves and where we are, in order to chart a path forward. This includes asking ourselves critical questions like:

  • What are our areas of strength?
  • What resources do we have ready to deploy?
  • Where is there room for capacity building work?

This assessment of our current realities will form the basis for a broadly inclusive academic strategic planning process, which I intend to launch in Fall 2022.

In several of my past roles, I have had the opportunity to lead academic strategic planning processes. I look forward to using what I have learned in the past to bring the rich diversity of our experiences to the table to develop our Wake Forest approach. Most importantly, please know that this timeline doesn’t preclude us from being nimble and responsive to opportunities and challenges that may come our way in the short term. You’ll hear more about this during the spring semester as we are “planning to plan.”

CONCLUSION

Throughout this journey I’ve been on for the last five months, the greatest discovery I have made about Wake Forest is the people.

Wake Foresters truly love this institution and give their best to allow Wake Forest to be its best. This is not lost on me; nor is it something that I will ever take for granted.

I look forward to working together, with a spirit of radical collaboration, and by upholding trust, transparency and teamwork, as we chart the next course for this great university.

I wish each of you a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday. And in that spirit, take a moment to share something about this community that you are grateful for before you leave, using the cards on the reception tables and in conversation with each other. Please stay, enjoy, and I look forward to talking with you.

Again, thank you for all the ways you make Wake Forest such a special place to be.

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