Building on our Conversations: From Economics to Education

University Budget discussions take place over several months, with a variety of committees weighing in before the final document is approved by the Board of Trustees at its May meeting each year. Since 2008, we have tried to make much more information available to faculty, staff and student representatives. There is a budget priority committee, a compensation and benefits committee, a budget working group, and then the Finance Committee of the Board of Trustees. There are students, faculty, staff, alumni and parents on these different committees so that we can benefit from their input. The Board, mostly Wesleyan alumni with student, faculty and staff representatives, approves the final budget.

We have been discussing the budget with faculty, student, alumni and staff representatives all year — with a series of focused conversations since February. Of course, not each and every member of these groups has been personally consulted, but representatives have had access to all the data we have. These discussions have been reported on in the Argus, Wesleying, and on this blog.

There have been some folks who want to cut the arts, or athletics, or research support, or sabbaticals, or landscaping, or food quality, or the level of air conditioning. Any meaningful cuts are cuts to compensation levels or to the number of employees at the university.

There have also been folks who want to increase revenue. Come to think of it, nobody has been against increases in revenue! But there are people who are against hiking tuition even more aggressively than we have done in the past, against increasing the number of students leading to crowded classrooms, against selling buildings and land, and against the further commercialization of the university.

There are people who think we shouldn’t worry about the endowment. Rather than put money into the endowment for the future, worry about the needs today. This view has played an important role in Wesleyan’s history, but in recent years we have asked our donors to direct their gifts to the endowment even as we have reduced spending from the endowment. I think this is especially important given the significant losses our investments sustained in 2008. We have yet to recover from those losses, and we still must prepare to begin repaying the $200 million of debt on our books from the early 2000s.

Despite all of these issues, Wesleyan is in an enviable financial situation. We have a balanced budget every year, a beautiful campus and great facilities. As compared to our peer institutions, we are very lean in regard to administrative expenses, thanks to our hardworking staff. Our faculty is second to none: dedicated teachers who also advance their own fields through research and creative practice. We have many resources on which to draw, the most important of which is an extraordinarily talented group of people who care fervently about the health of the institution.

I believe we have charted a sustainable path to maintain for the long-term the highest quality educational experience for our students. This includes supporting the teacher-scholar model that has served us so well, and seeking a diverse student body whose talents, independence and work ethic will enable them as graduates to build on the transformative impact of their Wesleyan years and make a lasting contribution to the world around them.

We will continue to discuss this path, and how we can improve it, with all members of the Wesleyan family. Beginning again in the fall we will continue to meet on campus with student, staff, alumni and faculty groups to gather their best ideas, and we will  integrate these into our planning. We will post information online, and we will meet with alumni groups around the country. We will be discussing more than university finances. We will be discussing how Wesleyan’s approach to liberal arts education can continue to make a positive impact on our graduates and on our society. We will be discussing how our curriculum should respond to the challenges and opportunities of today, so that our alumni are in a position to help shape the culture of the future.

I look forward to these conversations, and I expect to learn from them. After all, there is a lot at stake — not just for Wesleyan but for the future of progressive liberal arts education.

Financial Aid: Now More Than Ever

In my previous post, I described some of the steps Wesleyan is taking toward what I called “sustainable affordability.” One step is almost uncontroversial: we will no longer raise tuition rates in excess of inflation rates. Over time, this should mean that we will no longer be among the most expensive schools in the country. Some commentators have suggested that we more aggressively charge those families who can most afford to pay. I don’t think this is a serious option. We can (and we will) ask families with economic capacity to contribute to our financial aid scholarship funds.  Their philanthropy is more important than ever, but we will not build philanthropy into price.

The most controversial step I described was being only as “need-blind” as we can afford to be. Many people believe that being “need-blind” is a sign of quality — educational quality and moral quality. As I’ve said before, we could be “need-blind” and spend less money on scholarships. It’s easy for schools to choose metrics of student quality (like SAT scores) that correlate with wealth. They can say they are “need-blind” while having a more homogeneous student body. Schools can also remain “need-blind” by increasing loan levels or expected parental contribution. We will not do this.

This is what we will do: Wesleyan will continue to seek a diverse student body,  continue to meet full need, and continue to hold down student debt. We will continue actively to seek students who have great academic potential and very high need — families whose incomes make them eligible for our no-loan program, students who will receive full scholarships. And we will strive to find ways to make Wesleyan more affordable to middle class students. I am grateful for the suggestions in this regard in the blog comments, and we will study them and other ideas throughout the next academic year. These will be discussed on campus and with alumni in various parts of the country. Following up on suggestions in the comments, we will be making more of our financial planning documents available on the web as updates to the Wesleyan 2020 site.

The third step I described in my previous post is a three-year option for the BA. This idea has generated considerable discussion across the country. The three-year option may be an affordability choice for many students. It does not require overloads, nor does it steer folks to particular majors or jobs. The three-year option is not, though, for everyone, nor is it a form of financial aid. It’s a choice of how to get a great education in a more affordable way.

I want to be clear: As we increase our endowment levels, we will spend even more money on financial aid. Financial aid endowment and endowing key academic programs are the highest priorities for our fundraising efforts. Our generous parents and alumni have been donating tens of millions of dollars so that we can continue to meet the full economic needs of a very significant percentage of the Wesleyan student body. Labels aside, we are more dedicated than ever to supporting our students so that they can get the most out of their education. Labels aside, we will continue to use a holistic admissions process that strives to create a diverse class of talented students from different parts of the world, from all walks of life.

We will not pursue economic policies that undermine the long-term viability of alma mater. We want our university to be stronger over time, not for the sake of our endowment, but so that future generations can benefit from a Wesleyan education. Financial Aid — now more than ever.

We have been discussing these ideas about sustainable affordability over the last year with students, faculty, alumni and staff, and we will continue to gather ideas about how best to proceed. We do not expect these to be easy conversations. These questions can look very different from different perspectives. But to all of you who care deeply about Wesleyan, be assured that we will redouble our efforts to find ways to hold down costs, enhance diversity and increase support for scholarships. We want to increase access to Wesleyan not just for the near term, but also for the long term. Financial aid — now more than ever. Wesleyan — now more than ever.

 

Sustainable Affordability

Just before Reunion-Commencement weekend, I discussed changing some of our assumptions for budget planning with the Board of Trustees. This followed several months of discussions with faculty, students and staff on campus. After the February board meeting, I met in an open session with the Wesleyan Student Assembly, as did the treasurer and chair of the faculty in subsequent weeks. I also led a discussion of budget priorities in an affordability meeting with students, and reported on our economic planning to faculty at various meetings. Throughout the year, Joshua Boger and I have been discussing these ideas with alumni groups.

At the Board meeting we discussed planning the 2013-2014 budget with some new assumptions, which are described below. Our goals are to make Wesleyan more sustainable and affordable while maintaining our commitment to providing the very best liberal arts education. In the fall, I will continue discussions with the various members of the Wesleyan family. Together, we will chart a path that creates the conditions that will enable the university to thrive long into the future.

Over the last few years there has been a marked increase in attention given to college affordability. As the cost of higher education (both public and private) has continued to climb, and as the prospects for economic growth continue to dim, many have wondered about the value of an undergraduate degree.

Despite this disquiet about college generally, during this same period the number of students trying to gain admission to Wesleyan has increased dramatically. Thus far this year we’ve accepted fewer than 20% of the students who applied. Our total student charges will increase by 4.5% next year, reaching $58,000, which provides about 74% of the revenue it takes to run Wesleyan. Our financial aid budget is projected to increase by 15%, which means we will be allocating about $50 million to scholarships in 2012-2013.

For years, we have followed this same pattern: tuition increases well above inflation, and financial aid increases that go far beyond that. Although this works well enough for families from the highest and lowest income brackets – the former don’t worry about a budget and the latter don’t have to pay – we’re squeezing out middle and upper-middle class families. Furthermore, this budget model isn’t sustainable.

Over the past 20 years, the percentage of the tuition charges that goes to financial aid has risen steadily. In the past, Wesleyan has dealt with this issue by raising loan requirements (replacing grants with loans), and by taking more money out of the endowment (or just spending gifts rather than directing them to the endowment).

One way to change this dynamic is to cut costs, and we have substantially reduced expenses without undermining the academic core of the institution. In my first year as president in 2007-2008, we canceled almost $200 million in planned capital expenditures. We also made difficult decisions that resulted in $30 million in annual budget savings and increased revenues. We have improved energy efficiency and re-negotiated our health insurance coverage.  We have also reduced our exposure to increases in our debt service costs while developing a program to begin repaying some of the debt the university incurred in the 1990s.

But I have also introduced measures that increase pressure on the operating budget. In 2008, we reduced loans for most students by about a third, which I still believe was the right thing to do given our claim to “meet full need.” And we also began placing a much higher percentage of the money we raised each year into the endowment. Our endowment per student is well below most of our peer schools, and it seemed vital to build Wesleyan’s economic foundation. While we do this, it is also essential to have funds to run a great university right now.

This year I have proposed a plan to trustees and the campus with three new components to make Wesleyan more affordable in ways that can be sustained. The first is to establish a “discount rate” that is as generous as possible, but that is also one we can afford. The discount rate refers to the amount of tuition the university does NOT collect, and it is the key measure for financial aid. For Wesleyan this means just under a third of our tuition charges will go to financial aid. This is approximately the percentage of the budget devoted to aid from 2000-2008.

We remain committed to meeting the full financial need of the students we enroll, and to do so without increasing required student indebtedness.  This may mean that we will have to consider the capacity of some students to pay, as we do now with transfer and international students. We will read all applications without regard for the ability to pay, and we will be need-blind for as many students as possible. Currently we project this to be about 90% of each class (depending on the level of need). We could retain the label “need blind” by raising loan levels or shrinking grant packages – but this is the wrong thing to do. We feel it is crucial for the education of all our students to meet the full need of those who are enrolled without increasing their debt. As we raise more funds for the endowment, we will be able to build a more generous and sustainable financial aid program.

The second component of our affordability effort will be linking our tuition increases to the rate of inflation. We have already moved into the realm of the country’s most expensive colleges, and this is not a list on which we want to remain. Restraining tuition increases will require us to maintain our search for efficiencies while also investing in educational innovation across the curriculum.

The third component is to emphasize a three-year option for those families seeking a Wesleyan experience in a more economical form. We will help those students who choose to graduate in six semesters get the most out of their time on campus. The three-year option isn’t for everyone, but for those students who are prepared to develop their majors a little sooner, shorten their vacations by participating in our intensive Summer Sessions, and take advantage of the wealth of opportunities on campus, this more economical BA might be of genuine interest.  Allowing for some summer expenses, families would still save about 20% from the total bill for an undergraduate degree.

I am convinced that these measures will enable us to preserve access to Wesleyan for capable, creative students while preserving the essential qualities (great faculty, diverse community, excellent facilities) that these students want. We are justly proud that so many who are so talented want to be part of the Wesleyan educational experience. With thoughtful planning, which will involve continued discussions with students, faculty and alumni, we can ensure that this remains the case for generations to come.

Why Colleges Should Offer a Three Year Option

As I prepare for my commencement speech this year, I remember vividly when I first realized that I could graduate college in three years rather than four. As a freshman, I was certainly in no hurry to leave. Indeed, I loved being in college: I was excited by the combination of freedom and opportunity to work hard on subjects I loved with faculty I admired. I didn’t want to leave – even for vacations!

But I realized that graduating in three years would save my family lots of money. Neither of my parents had attended college, and they had sacrificed for years to send my brother and me to the schools of our choice. My father was a furrier, and my mother had given up a promising singing career to raise us (while earning money selling clothes in our basement). They were proud that they were able to afford good colleges for us, and they would never have asked me to skip a year.

But I was proud, too, and I wanted to show my father that all the studying I had done had paid off in some way. I had accumulated credits through APs and a summer program, and with a little extra effort I could save almost a year of tuition – over $6,000! I loved my alma mater, but it seemed expensive even in the 1970s, and so I became a sophomore during my first year. The campus offered me countless opportunities, and I ran after them: I was president of my (co-ed) fraternity, published fiction, took music lessons, held down more than one job, and sought to excel in my classes. At the time, I thought that given the fact that I was going to be at school for only three years, I’d better take full advantage of everything there that I could.

Well, I have now been back at my alma mater as its president for five years, and I still find it an amazing place full of opportunities for learning. Recently, I have spoken with the trustees here about measures we can take to make the university more affordable while still ensuring the quality of an education that comes from face-to-face learning with accomplished scholar-teachers. Wesleyan, like many universities, has gotten ever more expensive, and even though we have a robust financial aid program, we know that many families who don’t qualify for large scholarships have great difficulty paying the high tuition we charge. We use these high fees to maintain the quality of our campus and our instruction – and to provide more funds for financial aid.

But in the last year or so, I’ve come to believe that this model is unsustainable. In a new model we are developing we will be committed to spending almost a third of our revenue on scholarships while meeting the financial need of our students without requiring excessive loans. We will also commit to linking tuition increases with inflation, rather than depending on the much higher rates of increase to which Wesleyan (like most colleges and universities) has been accustomed for decades.

We will also make more visible — and provide more support for — the “three year” route that I chose in the mid 1970s. That is, we will help those students who choose to graduate in six semesters (along with some summer work) get the most out of their time on campus. The three-year option isn’t for everyone, but for those students who are prepared to develop their majors a little sooner, shorten their vacations by participating in summer sessions, and take advantage of the wealth of opportunities on campus, this more economical BA might be of genuine interest. In our case, allowing for some summer expenses, families would still save about 20 percent from the total bill for an undergraduate degree. At many private schools that would be around $50,000!

Some have said to me that students think of their undergraduate experience as among the four best years of their lives – so why would they only want three? That’s the question I faced in 1975, and my decision then was that the economic trade-off was worth it. My appreciation for the remarkable experience had at residential liberal arts colleges has only grown since then, but that does not mean that I came to regret my decision. Three marvelous years here were enough to set me squarely on the path of a lifetime of learning.

Again, by no means is the three-year option for everyone. But if we can offer families the same quality undergraduate degree at a significantly reduced total price – and I think we can – why not do it? Our professors will continue to advance their own fields as they mentor young people whose curiosity, idealism and ambition are unleashed. By making this experience a little more accessible, I am betting we will only add to the diversity and quality of the experience for all our undergraduates.

Cross posted from the Washington Post

How to Choose Your (Our) University

It’s that time of year again: the time when high school seniors previously anxious about whether they would get into the college of their dreams, now get to worry about choosing the college that is just right for them. In the last few weeks applicants have found out where they’ve been accepted, and now they are trying to envision where they will be most likely to thrive. Where will I learn the most, be happiest, find friends that will last a lifetime? How to choose? I thought it might be useful to re-post my thoughts on this, with a few revisions.

For many high school seniors, the month of April is decision time. Of course, for many the decision will be made on an economic basis. Which school has given the most generous financial aid package? Wesleyan is one of a small number of schools that meets the full financial need of all admitted students according to a formula developed over several years. There are some schools with larger endowments that can afford to be even more generous than Wes, but there are hundreds (thousands?) of others that are unable even to consider meeting financial need over four years of study.

After answering the question of which schools one can afford, how else does one decide where best to spend one’s college years? Of course, size matters.  Some students are looking for a large university in an urban setting where the city itself plays an important role in one’s education. New York and Boston, for example, have become increasingly popular college destinations, but not, I suspect, for the classroom experience. But if one seeks small classes and strong, personal relationships with faculty, then liberal arts schools, which pride themselves on providing rich cultural and social experiences on a residential campus, are especially compelling. You can be on a campus with a human scale and still have plenty of things to do. Wesleyan is somewhat larger than most liberal arts colleges but much smaller than the urban or land grant universities. We feel that this gives our students the opportunity to choose a broad curriculum and a variety of cultural activities on campus, while still being small enough to encourage regular, sustained relationships among faculty and students.

All the selective small liberal arts schools boast of having a faculty of scholar-teachers, of a commitment to research and interdisciplinarity, and of encouraging community and service. So what sets us apart from one another after taking into account size, location, and financial aid packages? What are students trying to see when they visit Amherst and Wesleyan, or Tufts and Middlebury?

Knowing that these schools all provide a high quality, broad and flexible curriculum with strong teaching, and that the students all have displayed great academic capacity, prospective students are trying to discern the personalities of each school. They are trying to imagine themselves on the campus, among the people they see, to get a feel for the chemistry of the place — to gauge whether they will be happy there. Hundreds of visitors will be coming to Wesleyan next week for WesFest (our annual program for admitted students). They will go to classes and athletic contests, musical performances and parties. And they will ask themselves: Would I be happy at Wesleyan?

I hope our visitors get a sense of the personality of the school that I so admire and enjoy. I hope they feel the exuberance and ambition of our students, the intelligence and care of our faculty, the playful yet demanding qualities of our community. I hope our visitors can sense our commitment to creating a diversity in which difference is embraced and not just tolerated, and to public service that is part of one’s education and approach to life.

We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into (even more difficult this year!). But even in the group of highly selective schools, Wes is not for everybody. We aspire to be a community committed to boldness as well as to rigor, to idealism as well as to effectiveness. Whether in the sciences, arts, humanities or social sciences, our faculty and students are dedicated to explorations that invite originality as well as collaboration. The scholar-teacher model is at the heart of our curriculum. Our faculty are committed to teaching and to shaping the fields in which they work. Earlier this week, Henry Abelove gave a stirring lecture at the Center for Humanities call “What I Taught and How I Taught It.” I was Henry’s student in the mid 1970s, and members of his first-year seminar from a few years ago were also in the audience. His care for students and his dedication to the material being taught were everywhere in evidence. How proud and grateful I am to have been his student and colleague!

The commitment of our faculty says a lot about who we are, as does the camaraderie around the completion of senior theses this week. We know how to work hard, but we also know how to enjoy the work we choose to do. That’s been magically appealing to me for more than 30 years. I bet the magic will enchant many of our visitors, too.

Occupy Wall Street and Education

Students have asked me about how I feel about the protests going on under the banner of Occupy Wall Street. I know several who have been participating in New York, and others who plan to join in during the fall break just about to begin.  Today I posted the following piece on the Huffington Post.

 

The Occupy Wall Street protests have become an important topic on college campuses. At Wesleyan, some of our students have joined the group in Zuccotti Park in New York, and others have found a variety of ways of expressing their support. Given the mainstream media’s treatment of the movement, it’s easy to mock the lack of clear policy initiatives or to roll one’s eyes at the absence of leaders to express a neat list of demands. But in talking with students and reading some of the statements from the Occupy Wall Street participants, it seems to me that we get a pretty clear picture of their discontent. Like many Americans, they are revolted by how huge infusions of money are corrupting our political system. And, they are aghast at the trajectory of increasing inequality.

There is plenty to protest. There is no question that our politicians now spend enormous amounts of time raising money; we all get the robocalls and the junk mail to prove it. And there is little doubt that elected officials make decisions about particular legislation or policy initiatives while considering how those decisions will affect the willingness of their donors to contribute. At least in this way, money is eating away at our increasingly dysfunctional political system. This is not something that other representative democracies accept as a necessary part of politics. We can try to show how the money flows – that’s been one of the tasks of the Wesleyan Media Project – but we don’t stem the tide.

Meanwhile, economic inequality in the country is accelerating in frightening ways. Here are three representative facts from Nicholas Kristof’s column from last Sunday’s New York Times:

The 400 wealthiest Americans have a greater combined net worth than the bottom 150 million Americans.

The top 1 percent of Americans possess more wealth than the entire bottom 90 percent.

In the Bush expansion from 2002 to 2007, 65 percent of economic gains went to the richest 1 percent.

Add to this that in many parts of the country 1 in 5 children are growing up in poverty, and you begin to have a sense of what is fueling the anger of protestors who feel they have to “occupy” public spaces in their own country – a country they feel is being stolen from them.

How have these trends concerning money and inequality affected life on a university campus? We can see it at either end of the college experience, beginning with access and ending with jobs after graduation. More of our students need financial aid than ever before, and they often need bigger scholarship packages to get through school. We also see the effects of rising inequality in the choices students face when looking for jobs as graduation nears. They hope to have had practical internship experiences to bolster their resumes while undergraduates, and they often worry that the first job they get after college will set them in an income bracket that will frame them for life. They worry that if their education doesn’t seem like job training, then it isn’t education at all.

But in the campus’s classrooms, concert halls, theaters and sports facilities, I see little evidence of the pernicious economic-political trends poisoning the country at large. That’s because the educational enterprise assumes a core egalitarianism linked to freedom and participation; that’s because as teachers we are committed to equality of opportunity for our students and to their freedom to participate as they wish in the educational enterprise. In big lecture halls, students can’t buy the best seats or arrange for extra help sessions with their parents’ checkbooks. In small seminars, there is a face-to-face equality altered only by the talent, ambition and creativity of the discussion participants. Differences often quickly emerge, but these are the differences of performance —  variations able to emerge exactly because of the environment of equality and freedom.

As a university president, I do spend a lot of my time fundraising. And I am grateful for the generosity of alumni and foundations who support our financial aid and academic programs. But I am also a professor, and this support has no impact on my teaching role or on the role of my colleagues in the classroom.  Now I know that this will strike some readers as impossibly idealistic.  After all, some of our students  have had great help along the way, while others have had to struggle alone. Some come from wealthy families, others from backgrounds of poverty. There is  no doubt that some students are better prepared than others, and that some of that preparation was facilitated by wealth. Still, in the campus culture at schools like Wesleyan, these advantages of birth or luck don’t mean much over time. In order to learn, you have to park your privilege at the classroom door. In order to teach effectively, we try to ensure that our students have an equality of opportunity that doesn’t erase their differences. Furthermore, in those schools that have protected the autonomy of professors, students come to see intellectual freedom modeled by their instructors in ways not dependent on wealth.

When inequality is a charged political problem, as it is right now in the United States, it is because efforts to scale back disparities of wealth are seen as an assault on freedom.  Increased state power is often needed to redistribute wealth, and many (and not only those with the money) see this as the growth of tyranny. Of course, increased state power is also used to protect wealth, which creates its own assaults on freedom. Universities and colleges are lucky insofar as they still have an ethos of equality that is linked to freedom in the classroom and around campus. You don’t need strong central power to ensure this. That’s why efforts to control speech with university regulations, are rightly seen (by either the Left or the Right) as anathema to the educational enterprise.  But graduation into a world in which inequality is ever more powerful comes as a rude awakening.

The campus as a place of equality and freedom has deep roots in America, at least as far back as Thomas Jefferson.  Even with all his prejudices, he favored education at the public expense to prevent the creation of permanent elites based on wealth who would try to turn the government’s powers to their own private advantage. Jefferson believed strongly that given the variability in human capacities and energy there would always be elites —  his notion of equality was an equality of access or opportunity not an equality in which everybody wins. But he also believed strongly that without a serious effort to find and cultivate new talent, the nation’s elites would harden into  an “unnatural aristocracy,” increasingly privileged, corrupt and inept.

From Jefferson to our own day, we have preserved the belief that education allows for the experience of freedom as one’s capacities are enhanced and brought into use. The author of the Declaration of Independence wanted university students to make these discoveries for themselves, not to be told to study certain fields because their futures had already been decided by their families, teachers, churches or government. Jefferson saw education as a key to preventing permanent, entrenched inequality.

Citizens are feeling they have to “occupy” the public spaces of their own country because they believe their land is being appropriated by entrenched elites. The call to “occupy”  is very similar to the Tea Party cry to “take back” our country. Can we find a way to take the experiences of freedom and equality we find in education at its best and translate them to the sphere of politics and society more broadly without at the same time increasing governmental tendencies toward tyranny? Of course, higher education has its own dilemmas of fairness and of elitism, but that does not absolve us of the responsibility to connect in positive ways what we value in research and learning to our contemporary political situation.  To make these connections productive, universities must at the very least serve as models: they must continue to strive to be places where young people discover and cultivate their independence and must themselves resist the trends of inequality that are tearing at the fabric of our country.


It’s Time to Choose Your (Our) School

Each April I enjoy seeing the increased traffic of visitors to campus who have come to see what makes Wesleyan such a magical place. Some are high school seniors who have already been admitted, others are juniors just starting their college search. They have heard about Wesleyan: its great faculty and its creativity, its activism and its research opportunities. They may have heard about the vibrant music scene at Eclectic, or the spring evenings on Foss Hill. They want to check us out.

Most of the students who visit Wes on their campus tours have already seen or are on their way to see other liberal arts colleges and highly selective universities. Last year I blogged about whether the distinctions that are so important to the students, faculty and staff of these schools come through to visitors. With WesFest (our annual celebration for admitted students) starting today [Thursday, April 14], I thought I’d reprise some of that post.

If a student has been admitted to Wes, then he or she probably has other fine options. How to choose? For some, the decision will be made on an economic basis. Which school has given me the most generous financial aid package? Wesleyan is one of a small number of schools that admits students irrespective of their ability to pay, and which meets the full need of students, according to a formula developed over several years. There are some schools with larger endowments that can afford to be even more generous than Wes, but there are hundreds (thousands?) of others that are unable even to consider meeting a student’s financial need over four years of study. I am proud of our financial aid program, and we work hard to strengthen it.

After answering the question of which schools one can afford, how else does one decide where best to spend one’s college years? Of course, size matters. Some students are looking for a large university in an urban setting where the city itself plays an important role in one’s education. Campuses in New York and Boston have become enormously popular. But if one seeks out small classes and strong, personal relationships with faculty, then liberal arts schools, which pride themselves on providing cultural and social life on a residential campus, are especially compelling. You can be on a campus with a “human scale” and still have plenty of things to do. Wesleyan is somewhat larger than most of the liberal arts colleges, but much smaller than the urban or land grant universities. We feel that this gives our students the opportunity to have a broad curriculum and a variety of cultural activities on campus, while still being small enough to encourage regular, sustained relationships among faculty and students. You can always meet new people, and you are unlikely to get lost in the crowd.

All the selective small liberal arts schools boast of having a faculty of teacher/scholars, of a commitment to research and interdisciplinarity, and of encouraging community and service. So what sets us apart from one another after taking into account size, location, and financial aid packages? What are students trying to see when they visit Amherst, Yale and Wesleyan, or Tufts, Brown and Middlebury?

Knowing that these schools all provide a high quality, broad and flexible curriculum with strong teaching, and that the students all have displayed great academic capacity, prospective undergrads are trying to discern the personalities of each school. They are trying to imagine themselves on the campus, among the people they see, to get a feel for the chemistry of the place — and they wonder whether they will be happy in that particular context. Hundreds of visitors will be coming to Wesleyan this weekend for WesFest. They will go to classes and athletic contests, musical performances and parties. And they will ask themselves: Would I be happy at Wesleyan?

I hope our visitors get a sense of the personality of the school that I so admire and enjoy. I hope they feel the exuberance and ambition of our students, the intelligence and care of our faculty, the playful yet demanding qualities of our community. I hope our visitors can sense our commitment to creating diversity in which difference is embraced and not just tolerated, and our commitment to civic engagement as a key part of one’s education and approach to life. Even in a short visit to campus, I want students to get a sense of the opportunities here for doing intellectual work at the highest level. Our students publish their undergraduate research projects, develop shows and make films that travel the country, create sustainable organizations that make a difference in the lives of people all over the world. And they do so with the enthusiastic support of their friends and teachers (and president!).

We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into. And even in the group of highly selective schools, Wes is not for everybody. We aspire to be a community committed to boldness as well as to rigor, to idealism as well as to effectiveness. Whether in the sciences, arts, humanities or social sciences, our faculty and students are dedicated to explorations that invite originality as well as collaboration. The celebration of senior theses completions at the library this week said a lot about who we are. We know how to work hard, but we also know how to enjoy the work we choose to do. That’s been magically appealing to me for more than 30 years. I bet the magic will strike many of our visitors, too.

Preserve Excellence in Connecticut by Investing in College Students

This morning I met with some of our state legislators to talk about topics of importance for higher education. Wesleyan is a member of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges, and our sector provides significant opportunities for students across the state. About a third of Connecticut undergraduates attend not-for-profit private colleges and universities, but we award about half of the degrees in the state. The students we enroll are much more likely to graduate! An educated workforce is one of our state’s great resources, and our sector is a large contributor to this environment.

One of the issues we are most concerned with these days is cut to the state’s support for students with financial need — the CICS program. Connecticut residents have been eligible for grants at private institutions, and for many this support has been crucial. Governor Malloy has deep fiscal challenges to meet, and I have a great deal of respect for his efforts to visit citizens throughout the state to hear their responses to his budget plans. He has rightly noted that all citizens will have to sacrifice in order to put Connecticut back on the right economic track. Unfortunately, the plans announced for CICS go beyond shared sacrifice. In just a few years they would decimate the program on which so many of our students depend. About 14% would be cut next year, and the proposal is to cut 50% in year two! That’s just taking a hatchet to a very successful program. We need a scalpel.

We have been making our case in Hartford, and this morning we made it again at breakfast. Support for higher education in Connecticut is a crucial investment in our long-term economic health, and helping state residents stay close to home to complete their degrees makes a lot of sense. I am hopeful that the governor and our state legislators will find a way to preserve more of the financial aid going to undergraduates. This aid pays real dividends in the long run by promoting excellence in Connecticut.

Speaking of excellence in CT: Congratulations to the Huskies on an amazing run to the National Championship!

 

Education and Women’s Health Care as Investments in the Future

This past weekend Wesleyan was visited by two of our leaders in Washington, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro and Senator Richard Blumenthal. Our representative in the House stopped by briefly to talk with our Trustees about threats to the financing of education, and Connecticut’s new senator was a featured speaker at a rally on campus in support of Planned Parenthood. Although their topics seemed very different, by the end of the weekend I began to think they were in fact closely intertwined.

Rep DeLauro has long been a friend of the university, and Wesleyan awarded her an honorary doctorate in 2007. She serves in the Democratic leadership as co-chair of the Steering and Policy Committee, and she is the ranking member on the Labor, Health, Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, where she oversees our country’s investments in education, health, and employment. She stopped here on her way to a series of events at which she discussed the effects on Connecticut citizens of the budget cuts proposed by the House.

She reminded us that these cuts would reduce the maximum Pell Grants, monies that go to the neediest students. Wesleyan would lose more than $1 million of Federal support for our students least able to afford a college education. Our Upward Bound and AmeriCorps funding for low-income and first-generation students would also be dramatically cut. Rep. DeLauro, like me a first generation college graduate, emphasized that these reductions in support would further compromise the ability of our educational system to be a vehicle for cultural and economic mobility. Without financial aid, elite schools just reproduce a static status quo. Education is an investment in the future, and undermining this investment is a counterproductive way to reduce government spending.

Senator Blumenthal is a newcomer to Washington, but he is already becoming an important figure in the defense of health care for women and families. He and the other speakers at the Planned Parenthood rally spoke eloquently about the importance of reproductive rights. Student organizers of the rally – including  Susanna Banks ‘12, Zak Kirkwood ‘12, Alex Ketchum ’12, Elijah Meadow ‘13 and Hannah Adams ’13 – did a great job of bringing together hundreds of men and women to demand access to quality information and health care with regards to  sexuality, birth control and parenthood. One in five women in the country use Planned Parenthood’s services at some point in their lives. Cancer screenings, STI testing, accurate information…these are just some of the essential services offered by Planned Parenthood. Sen. Blumenthal pledged to fight in its defense with “every fiber of his being,” and he praised students for “showing America what it means to stand up for American values in the 21st century.”

How are the cuts to education and to women’s health care related? Some would say by an urge to reduce the budget deficit that threatens our economic future. But even if you think that deficit reduction is a priority, these cuts are cultural and political choices, not just economic necessities. And these particular choices would reduce the social and economic mobility of vulnerable members of our society. The attack on education for low-income families and on low-cost health care for women would limit the abilities of these people to direct their lives – to change their lives, if they so desire.

That’s why as a university president I think it important to speak out on these cuts. I usually try to avoid overtly partisan public stands, but this assault on financial aid and health care for women is an assault on what we are trying to provide our students year in and year out: the possibility of transformation through education. There is still time to reach out to our friends, neighbors and elected officials in Washington to let them know what we stand for. Don’t let Congress undermine our future by limiting our capacities for learning and health.

Wesleyaning into the Future!

Last weekend the Wesleyan Board of Trustees was in town for its annual retreat. The trustees, almost all alumni along with several parents of Wes students, gathered this year to focus on two major topics: building the long-term economic health of the university, and imagining how Wes will look 30 or 50 years from now. We were joined by faculty, staff and students, and the discussions were animated and productive.

On Saturday we looked at the general profile of the endowment — past, present and future. There are three key ingredients to building an endowment strong enough to provide annual revenue for the operations of the school: gifts, spending, and investment performance. Over the last three years we have shifted our fundraising priorities so that we now invest more of the gifts we receive rather than spending them, and we have reduced the percentage that we draw from the endowment. Finally, we have hired Anne Martin, formerly a Director in the Yale Investment Office, to provide wise stewardship of our investment portfolio. Anne led the retreat participants in some exercises that explored how we choose the asset classes in which we invest, and how we choose managers within those classes. Everyone left with a greater understanding of how our investment operation works.

We also discussed endowment fund raising at some length, since all trustees are active friendraisers and fundraisers for the university. Chair Joshua Boger led us in some creative exercises in which we thought about our highest aspirations for Wes and how we might envision taking steps to act on them. One trustee suggested that we find a way over the next decades to do so much good for our students and the world that Wesleyan becomes a verb!

This week we had our inaugural faculty meeting of the year. Department chairs introduced more than a dozen new professors who are joining our ranks across all divisions. These are extraordinary scholar-teachers who have already begun making their mark. Listening to the descriptions of their research and the classes they are teaching filled me with confidence in the ongoing rejuvenation of our curriculum and of our ability to shape scholarly fields through original contributions.

I was Wesleyaned!

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