Looking Beyond 2020

In the week before spring break, Donna Morea, Chair of Wesleyan’s Board of Trustees, announced that I had agree to extend my contract as president of the university through 2023. I am very grateful to the board for this opportunity to continue to work with faculty, students, staff and alumni on behalf of the school I care so deeply about.

Since the summer of 2016 I have been in discussion about an addendum to our 2010 strategic plan, Wesleyan 2020. At the end of the fall semester, after several discussions with various Wesleyan stakeholders, we posted a draft of that addendum. I have continued to receive good feedback on our plans, and at its March meeting the board had an opportunity to see a new draft of what we are calling Beyond 2020. The document remains organized around the three overarching goals of the strategic plan—energizing the distinctive Wesleyan education experience; building recognition of the university; maintaining a sustainable economic model. The current draft, available here, has more specificity about investments in faculty, financial aid, and facilities. Thanks to the generosity of the Wesleyan family through the THIS IS WHY campaign, we have already added significant funding to financial aid, and we are creating new faculty positions that should facilitate research and project-based work for our students. In regard to facilities planning, we are developing a priority list of projects that will improve care of our art collection, enhance the Film Studies Center, dramatically improve the Public Affairs Center and replace a good portion of our science facilities with up-to-date labs and teaching spaces.

I’ve re-written the beginning of Beyond 2020, which I am pasting in here. There is still time for input, as we hope to have this guideline for planning complete before the Annual Meeting in May.

This is a crucial time for higher education in America – full of promise but also of dangers. In some ways, the vitality of the best universities in the United States has never been more apparent. Not only do American research universities dominate the lists of the world’s best educational institutions, students from across the globe have increasingly looked to our schools as the best places to pursue post-secondary learning. At the same time, here at home colleges are often viewed with suspicion if not outright hostility. American universities are facing enormous pressures to demonstrate the cash value of their “product,” while at the same time the recreational side of college life is attracting more attention than ever. To meet enrollment goals or to climb in the rankings many colleges offer the “full spa experience,” while being sure to emphasize the value of what young consumers are learning while enjoying themselves outside the classroom. The curriculum and high-quality instruction may be tolerated but rarely celebrated. These efforts at brand promotion through everything but what happens between faculty and students may be good for short-term appeal, but in the long run it only makes the educational mission of universities more fragile.

At another crucial time in the history of higher education in America, under the leadership of President Victor Butterfield, Wesleyan redefined its role as a center of interdisciplinary learning, a reservoir of innovative research and creative scholarship, and a pioneering advocate for increased access to the empowerment of a liberal education.

When I arrived at Wesleyan for my first year in college, it was almost 10 years after Butterfield had stepped down from the university’s presidency. During his tenure of more than twenty years, Wesleyan had become known as one of the most progressive and innovative schools in America — and one of the wealthiest.  By the time I got to campus in 1975, things had already begun to change. The university was still known for its pioneering ways, its great research output from the sciences to the arts, its demanding and productive faculty, and its creative, rambunctious students. But the giddy spending of the late sixties and early seventies, the inattention to fundraising and a loss of focus on the academic mission, were already eroding the university’s foundation. Over the next decades, our spending habits changed and fundraising did increase. However, the university’s aspirations were still seriously out of sync with its economic capacity.

The beginning of my presidency overlapped with the Great Recession, and since then we have worked to overcome this disjunction. Over the last eight years we have supported the organically developing educational mission of the university while improving the three core components of its economic model: spending, investment, revenue. We did this in conjunction with our strategic plan, Wesleyan 2020, which was adopted by the Board of Trustees in 2010.

The three overarching goals in Wesleyan 2020 are:

  • Energize Wesleyan’s distinctive educational experience
  • Enhance recognition of Wesleyan as an extraordinary institution
  • Work within a sustainable economic model while retaining core values

Although economic issues were at the forefront of our concerns after 2008, the most important priority in our planning and operations has been articulating and supporting our distinctive educational mission: “providing an education in the liberal arts that is characterized by boldness, rigor, and practical idealism.” At the heart of this mission is the faculty’s guidance of students’ intellectual development in ways that enhance their ability to translate academic learning to the world beyond the campus. Whether one is studying mathematics or film, economics or literature, our faculty guides students toward a deeper understanding of themselves and the tools they can use to solve problems and create opportunities beyond the university.

The program for co-curricular learning in a residential setting also aims to develop in students both a greater sense of autonomy and a greater ability to participate in groups. Through their athletic, political, artistic and community engagement activities, Wesleyan students are becoming more independent while also developing life skills that will translate into resources for teamwork, for participating in their local communities, for engaging as citizens, and, most generally, for working with others toward shared goals.

Many universities today tend toward greater specialization. They have gotten really good at education as a form of narrowing, and the public is treated to the spectacle of pointy-headed specialists great at one thing but not to be trusted beyond their small subfield. Of course, advanced work in any area requires rigorous work and real technical competence. But we must not confuse being a competent technician with being an innovative scientist who can make discoveries or a teacher who can inspire students by translating complex technical issues into terms clearly relevant to pressing human concerns. Wesleyan recognizes that in today’s culture and economy we should provide students with intellectual cross-training – an education that strengthens their independence of mind and generosity of spirit in ways that make them better equipped to deal with a rapidly changing world.

Since developing Wesleyan 2020, we have increased our economic capacity so as to be able to pursue our institutional mission with renewed vigor and purpose. In December 2016, we posted a report detailing our progress and where we need to do still more.

2020 is almost upon us, and over the last several months I have been talking with various Wesleyan constituencies about how to extend our framework for strategic planning into the next decade. In this brief document, I outline some of the new investments we can make to ensure that Wesleyan remains at the forefront of pragmatic and liberal education. Through the dedicated work of faculty and staff, we will continue to provide our students with a variety of tools to explore the world, to create opportunities and to solve problems. Wesleyans have long found ways to embrace particular traditions while being open to innovation. Whatever one studies at Wesleyan, one is deepening one’s ability to translate from a campus culture of immersive learning to a life beyond the university.