Wes Coast-to-Coast

I am writing this from the airport in San Francisco, at the end of a West Coast trip to see alumni and parents. Although I am eager to get home, it is always informative to visit with our far-flung Wes community. In the Pacific Northwest, I met with grads who have been out for more than 50 years, and others who just finished up in the spring. There were lots of questions about how the international economic downturn is affecting alma mater, and plenty of generous support—despite the fact that many of these same people are feeling the crisis in their own budgets. In Seattle I was particularly impressed with the growing network of professionals in a wide variety of fields who reach out to help new Wesleyan alumni arriving in Washington or Oregon.

The San Francisco reception took place at the spectacular new Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, a great accomplishment of architect Renzo Piano. Some Wesleyan friends were kind enough to host the reception there, and we had more than 300 attendees. Here, too, people wanted to know about economic issues, and again there was great support for building a robust financial aid program for the future. We talked about the seven planning areas that I’ve written about before on this blog, and there was a great deal of excitement about the College of the Environment and the other initiatives.

It felt strange to be back in the Bay Area with a rented car, scurrying around like a tourist in the place that had been my home for 7 years. I did have a moment at the end to visit California College of the Arts and my old friend Steve Beal, now the school’s president. CCA is thriving, and it was delightful to see some of the projects we began a few years ago now working so well.

I’ll be glad to return to Connecticut for this weekend before Election Day. Many faculty, staff and students are engaged in getting out the vote. The Wesleyan Student Assembly canceled its Sunday meeting, and each member instead is spending three hours this week in community service or civic activism. WSA VP Saul Carlin ’09 reports the following:

“Here are a few examples of the types of activities WSA members may be engaged in:

My flight is about ready to board. Can’t wait to be back on campus!

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Coming Home

As I walked across campus on Friday I marveled at the beautiful, crisp fall day. The Wesleyan campus looked spectacular, and there was excitement in the air as we prepared for visits from families and alumni for Homecoming/Family weekend. Students were busy finishing midterms or getting essays written, athletes were gearing up for Little Three rival Amherst, and faculty and staff were, I think, feeling pretty lucky to be working in this charmed environment.

I had plenty of opportunities to talk with parents, grandparents and siblings throughout the weekend. One of the dominant themes in their comments to me: how happy and welcoming these Wes students seem to be! We joked about how often it is that smart young people show their braininess by also showing their discontent. At Wesleyan by contrast, students are smart, hard working, often very angry about the status quo (including the administration right here), but they display exuberance in their studies, in their sports and cultural activities, and in the way they build their constellation of friends.

The athletic contests were great fun to watch, as our competitors fought hard against a tough opponent. Our scholar-athletes improve with each practice, with each contest, and I am proud to see them strive for excellence in these competitions. And I was far from alone in my pride. At each game there were crowds of family and friends showing school spirit as we cheered on the Red and Black.

Wesleyan Women's Soccer v. Amherst, Oct. 18, 2008 ; photo by Bill Burkhart

Wesleyan Women’s Soccer v. Amherst, Oct. 18, 2008 ; photo by Bill Burkhart

There were many great events over the weekend, from seminars on the current economy, on global warming, and on various aspects of our curriculum. I only wish I could have attended more of the stimulating discussions. I heard from many that the conversations on the current economic crisis and on the presidential campaign were enlightening, and that talks about robots, about anthropology and going home, and about the forces that shape contemporary film left our alumni and parents eager to return to a liberal learning environment.

Another highlight of the weekend was the a cappella concert in the Chapel Saturday night. Several student groups sang a variety of traditional and contemporary songs with talent, precision, and lots of humor. How very Wesleyan that a student group would make up its own rendition of “Tempted by the Fruit of Another.” For this Family Weekend occasion the song was rewritten as “Tempted by the Fruit of Your Mother”! The concert helped raise money for the after-school programs at Wesleyan’s Green Street Art Center in the North End of Middletown.

Wesleyan Spirits, Oct. 18, 2008; photo by Bill Burkhart

Wesleyan Spirits perform in Memorial Chapel, Oct. 18, 2008; photo by Bill Burkhart

The sweetness of the welcome given to our families and alumni is another sign of our generous, open community. An alumnus returning to Middletown after decades of working in Abu Dhabi told me how moving it was to find he still had a home here, and that alma mater continues to be a beacon for liberal arts education. He is proud, and so am I!

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Economic Realities and Wesleyan Hopes

The economic turmoil of the last several months has shaken our confidence in the future. As we turn to see our retirement savings depleted, or as we recognize job loss and diminished expectations, it is difficult to know where to turn for a reasonable basis for hope.

At Wesleyan, I have spent a good part of the last year planning for the future, working with colleagues to put the university on a more secure economic foundation, to develop new curricular initiatives that are exciting and dynamic, and to expand our facilities in the sciences in a dramatic way. Some of these projects (the Molecular and Life Sciences Building being the largest by far) have been discussed by faculty, alumni and trustees for many years. Others, like the decision I made last year to expand our financial aid program to reduce our reliance on required loans, are new programs that promote a core university value. We have created faculty working groups to promote creativity, civic engagement and internationalization, and to develop ideas for a College of the Environment. In this time of economic disruption, what happens to all these plans?

I don’t want to minimize the impact of the economic situation on Wesleyan. A good portion of our annual budget comes from the generosity of our alumni and parent base, as well as the return on our endowment. Fundraising will be difficult this year, we expect, but we remain confident that the extended Wes family will recognize how important their gifts are in this climate. Our endowment, already down last fiscal year, has taken a hit in the first quarter of this one. Although we fully expect the investments to recover over time, there will be a period of smaller returns from the endowment going to support the operating budget.

This means there will be cuts in the Wesleyan budget, but, as I said in my last post, I will do my best to protect teaching, research and the student experience from the impact of our cost cutting measures. Over time, we will shift more of our fundraising efforts toward building the endowment, rather than supporting current spending. This will allow us to build economic capacity for the long term. We will continue to offer our community the very best liberal arts education, but we must do so in a more cost effective way. We must delay for some years our major facilities projects, like the Molecular and Life Sciences Building, and we are looking at every department at the university for budget savings. We are also looking for revenue opportunities, particularly in the summer months

What happens to the great hopes and plans of the last year? I believe we must continue to be ambitious, and that we must develop new programs through, when necessary, a reallocation of resources. We will continue to offer a robust financial aid program, and we remain committed to hiring and retaining a faculty dedicated to advancing their own fields while they make a powerful impact on the lives of their students. I believe we can continue to internationalize our campus while enhancing creativity and civic engagement in the curriculum and in the community. We will continue to focus attention on enhancing the experience of our students, especially in their frosh and senior years. And though there may be delays in realizing the vision for a College of the Environment, I am confident in the merits of developing this broad based, interdisciplinary environmental studies program.

In challenging economic times, it is more important than ever to enhance one’s core competencies and build a platform for innovation. These next few years will be difficult ones, but with the talent, energy and generosity of the Wesleyan community, we will emerge from this economic turmoil an even stronger, more dynamic institution. This is our reasonable basis for hope.

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Economic Dissonance and a Community in Tune

Sunday night I spent an hour with the Wesleyan Student Assembly, answering questions on the recent Board of Trustee’s retreat and on the general state of the university in this time of economic turmoil. I am always impressed by the WSA’s combination of organization, feistiness and school spirit. They are devoted to our university, and they are eager to explore ways of making it an even better place to live and learn. The student body can be proud of its elected representatives.

A concern of many of our students, faculty and staff is the effects of the contemporary economic turbulence on Wesleyan. We discussed this at length with the trustees last weekend. The university’s endowment declined almost 4% in the last fiscal year (ending 6/30/2008), and the first quarter of this year has been dismal. Wesleyan does not currently face short-term liquidity issues, but we are monitoring that situation closely. Over the next months we will be developing the budget for next year, and we will have to make some cuts to bring it into balance. My priority is to protect the core academic mission from serious budget cuts, but we will certainly have to delay some of our long planned facilities projects. In times of economic distress fund-raising is even more challenging than usual. However, our generous family of donors also understands that at a time like this their gifts are more meaningful than ever. We depend on their generosity.

While uncertainties in the economy rattle the world, many turn to the major political choices we face in the coming month. Well over 100 people gathered in the Usdan University Center last week to watch the recent Vice-Presidential debate, and the voter registration efforts on campus are in high gear. Wes students are finding their political voices as they debate the issues and ponder the future.

Even as we are part of the system affected by the recent credit crunch and market slide, there is a sense in which Wesleyan remains an oasis from these preoccupations. The culture here continues to thrive in so many interesting ways! For example, as I stroll around the campus on a weekend I am struck by the rich diversity of sound one hears. Whether it’s in the CFA’s Indian music and art festival, a jam session on Foss Hill, or in a raucous Eclectic dance party, there are dozens of people at any given time making music on this campus. Students, faculty and staff are picking up guitars and drums, horns and fiddles (and more than a few laptops!), joining together to create joyful sounds. When we make music we’re also making community, finding one another as we get in tune, and inviting others into our circles as listeners, dancers, new members of the band.

Speaking of joining musical groups, I am going to sit in with Busted Roses for a gig at Usdan on Oct 16. I posted a blog about this “geezer rock band” a few months ago, and now I will be challenged to keep up with these excellent musicians.

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