This past weekend the trustees were in Middletown for their annual retreat. Our theme this year was “the innovative university,” and we worked together to think through how Wesleyan might get out in front of some of the major changes in higher education. Technology, of course, is driving many of these changes, as is a strong desire (for many) to lower the cost of education while making it more vocational. In this context, how could Wesleyan preserve and build upon some of its great traditions of scholarship and learning while also creating opportunities for new modalities of education in the future? How do we expect student learning and faculty research to change over the next decades, and in what ways can Wesleyan contribute to making those changes as positive as possible? These were some of the broad issues the Board discussed with faculty, staff and student representatives.
We have been using Wesleyan 2020 and a strategy map that complements it as a framework for allocating resources and planning the future of the university. We have three overarching goals that animate all our other objectives: to energize Wesleyan’s distinctive educational experience; to enhance recognition of the university as an extraordinary institution; to maintain a sustainable economic model. At the retreat we talked about a number of possible innovations that would be “disruptive” — that would change the platform for the educational experience of students. These ranged from significantly changing the time to degree, to collaborating with other institutions for joint programs, to adding many more online opportunities to our curriculum. I am particularly interested in how we can contain the cost of a degree while simultaneously offering every student opportunities to participate in the arts, athletics, internships, and independent research. There is no doubt that doing all this while maintaining our capacity to support original work by faculty will be especially challenging. But it is a challenge we take on because of our belief that the deepest educational experience depends on the scholar-teacher model.
Like many of the trustees, faculty, and students present, I left the meeting thinking that the urge to streamline education to meet some imagined vocational standard was a big mistake. At many other institutions, under the guise of “innovation,” calls for a more efficient, practical college education are likely to lead to the opposite: men and women who are trained for yesterday’s problems and yesterday’s jobs, men and women who have not reflected on their own lives in ways that allow them to tap into their capacities for innovation and for making meaning out of their experience. Under the pretense of “practicality” we are really hearing calls for conformity, calls for conventional thinking that will impoverish our economic, cultural and personal lives.
Hearing the passionate dedication of our trustees, I felt energized to rethink how we might change Wesleyan while remaining true to its core values. The mission of universities focused on liberal learning should be, in Richard Rorty’s words, “to incite doubt and stimulate imagination, thereby challenging the prevailing consensus.” Through doubt, imagination and hard work, students “realize they can reshape themselves” and their society. At Wesleyan, we recognize that challenging the prevailing consensus can actually enrich our professional, personal and political lives. The free inquiry and experimentation of our education help us to think for ourselves, take responsibility for our beliefs and actions, and be better acquainted with our own desires, our own hopes. Our education contributes not only to our understanding of the world but also to our capacity to reshape it and ourselves. That may be the most profound innovation of all.