Input, Innovation and the Residential University

Yesterday I sent messages to faculty, staff and students asking for new ideas to enhance the distinctive educational experience of Wesleyan students by making the most of our residential dimension. Our new Provost, Ruth Striegel Weissman, will be working with other Cabinet members to vet the short proposals we will receive. When I asked for input for big projects six years ago, we received ideas that enabled us to create new writing programs (eventually the Shapiro Writing Center), research stipends, and the College of the Environment. I can hardly wait to see what new ideas come forward this time!   

Here’s the faculty version of my email:

Dear Colleagues,

At last week’s faculty meeting I announced that we are inviting faculty members to submit 1-2 page proposals for initiatives that have the potential to significantly improve the distinctive educational experience of Wesleyan students by leveraging its residential dimensions. What kinds of programs should we strengthen or create to offer our students deeper opportunities for learning? What kinds of programs should we create or strengthen to extend the impact of the years spent on the Wesleyan campus?

Someone pointed out to me that I barely mentioned MOOCs in my remarks to the faculty. That’s because although our experiments in online education continue in modest ways, these are in no way substitutes for innovation on campus. Rather, they put into sharper relief what is so very valuable about residential education. I realize that our curriculum evolves organically, and that many departments are regularly renewing the offerings. But Ruth and I agree that this is a particularly propitious time to launch experiments aimed at enhancing our work as a residential liberal arts university. From advising to the First Year Seminars, from interdisciplinary programs to capstones, our work here should build on our residential foundations. How can we do so more effectively?

We need your ideas. We hope to receive 1-2 page proposals from faculty members by November 1. Proposals may be submitted to We will also be soliciting ideas from students and staff. The Provost’s Office will convene a group to evaluate faculty proposals and choose a short list of contenders. At that point we will request more detailed proposals.

Thank you in advance for thinking about how we might even further energize the distinctive educational experience of Wesleyan students.


Wesleyan 2020 Update

Today I sent an email to the Wesleyan family with an update on our progress in meeting the goals set out in our framework for planning Wesleyan 2020. You can find the link to the current update here. The update is organized under the rubric of our three overarching goals: Energize Wesleyan’s distinctive educational experience; Enhance recognition of Wesleyan as an extraordinary institution; Work within a sustainable economic model while retaining core values.

Over the last 12 months we undertook a major self-study as part of the regional Accreditation process. I don’t explicitly discuss that process in the update, but I can say we were very pleased with the first response of the Accreditation Committee that came to campus. We will be releasing the official Accreditation materials when they are available in 2013.

Over the last year we have been involved in extensive (and sometimes intense) discussions with faculty, students, alumni and staff about our present operations and our plans for the future. This is as it should be. Receiving the most attention so far is the change in how we will budget for financial aid (leaving us about 90% need blind), and in this update I review the rationale for the change.  Affordability, accessibility, and financial aid are key challenges for Wesleyan, and in the fundraising campaign we are launching, financial aid endowment (complemented by gifts to current scholarships through the Wesleyan Fund) is our highest priority.

We also added a button to the homepage that makes it easier to direct donations to financial aid. The site also collects links related to our conversations concerning financial aid and the university’s economic model.

As classes end and finals approach, campus life is in its end-of-the-semester mode. Study and practice spaces are full, and creative energies are being unleashed. Professors are holding extra review sessions, and expectations for strong performances to close out the semester are running high. Artists are planning exhibitions, scientists are conducting experiments…data is getting crunched, and wild interpretations are being molded into forms that will seem powerfully compelling. This is why (well, some of the reasons) we love to be here.

It’s almost the end of the fall term. The work will get done!

First Day of Summer: The Work Continues

Wandering around campus on this first official day of summer, I see signs of the increased use of our facilities that we have been encouraging these last few years. The Summer Session, now in its third year, has continued to grow, and the students I’ve spoken with are enjoying the small classes and the intense focus. The double-course on filmmaking and film studies seems to be going really well, and I suspect we will be adding resources in this area in the future. Speaking of film, our summer series of free films linked to our archive will begin in a couple of weeks. This year the focus is on some of Paul Newman’s greatest roles, and the line-up (with introductions by Mark Longenecker) is impressive. The series begins on Tuesday, July 10 at 7:30 with Cool Hand Luke, and it continues each Tuesday through July.

Paul Newman - Cool Hand Luke

Heading over to the Exley science center, I am likely to bump into some of the scores of students working in labs. For many years our undergraduates have been able to participate in high-level research and get financial support in the summers for doing so. Much of this support has come from the Hughes Foundation, and we recently learned that we will have to raise our own funds to continue this work in the future. I am working closely with our science faculty and trustees to raise the funds to support mentored summer research. Research support for students is a crucial complement to our financial aid program (about which I am posting more information on the Wesleyan 2020 site).

On the left above is Claire Palmer ’14, and Lisle Winston ’14 and grad student Upasna Sharma are on the right. They were busy working in Scott Holmes’ molecular biology lab when I interrupted them. I also spoke with some students doing exciting work on protein expression and on bacteria from Death Valley and from Slovenia (I didn’t know bacteria had “zip codes”).

Olin Library

I stop in to Olin Library from time to time to pick up books that might prove useful for my own research regarding the development of liberal education in the United States. Olin in summer is an oasis of serenity, as it is (relatively speaking) throughout the school year. Wandering around the stacks, I always find more books than I came looking for. Now all I need to do is find the time to read them! When I leave campus for a break, I will continue my book project on the intellectual history of liberal education in America. The tension between learning for its own sake and learning for practical goals runs like a red thread through the history of American higher education. Rather than try to dissolve that tension, I believe we should cultivate it to generate deeper scholarship and more productive enterprises. The mistake is to think we must choose between liberal learning and an expansive pragmatism.

Summertime is here with intensity today, but the livin’ ain’t easy. The work continues in classrooms, labs, offices and studios.




Working on Wesleyan’s Curriculum

In Wesleyan 2020 we have listed several objectives under the overarching goal of “energizing Wesleyan’s distinctive educational experience.” The first of these has to do with refreshing the curriculum by building on strengths. Here is a list of the specific ways in which we’ve committed to do that, with brief comments on how things are going.

1. Develop vibrant first-year program

    I have been working with Academic Affairs to develop a consensus on the core elements of what we want students to learn in their first-year seminars. Next year we will able to ensure that our seminars are structured so as to achieve these learning goals, whatever the specific content of the course.

    2. Develop meaningful capstone experiences for all students

    Last year the faculty passed a resolution to encourage all students to participate in a meaningful senior academic experience. All departments have offerings in this regard, and there are cross-departmental opportunities as well. This semester we have been working on making capstones more visible to students so that everyone has a chance to work on a project that is a transition from Wesleyan to whatever is next.

    3. Spur creativity and innovation across the university

    Over the past year we have had a series of structured conversations with the board, faculty and students about creativity and innovation at Wesleyan. There are differences of opinion (no surprise) about what counts as creativity and innovation, though everybody seems to think that our university can become even more imaginative and inventive. We will soon post a report on creativity across the curriculum, which may lead to more specific proposals.

    4. Develop civic engagement opportunities across the university

    We’ve been focused on this for some time now, and I’m pleased with the progress of the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life, the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship and the development of a variety of internship possibilities.

    5.  Bolster interdisciplinary work in ways that complement departmental strengths

    The past few years have seen the flowering of certificate programs that cut across departments, and this year the faculty is considering the possibility of adding minors. This semester I met with the directors of COL, CSS and COE to talk about the strengths of these interdisciplinary colleges. Should we have more interdisciplinary colleges? We’ve also received a major endowment grant to support the Center for the Humanities.  But there are difficulties in having the same faculty serve disciplines and these various programs. One person can have many interests, but that person can only be in one place at one time! We are working with Academic Affairs and faculty groups on this tough problem. (Maybe we’ll find a way of bending the laws of physics!)

    6. Extend global reach of the curriculum

    During my trip to China with Wesleyan colleagues the value of international partnerships became even more apparent. But how should we measure success in this area? Faculty and students are doing more international study. Even American Studies defines itself as “post-national.”

    7. Invest in technology to support and inspire academic innovation

    We heard some great reports recently on how the Quantitative Analysis Center is  using technology in the classroom in very interesting ways. Across the curriculum, are we using technology in a robust way to enliven our classes? We are searching now for a new Chief Information Officer, who should be of help in this regard.

    8. Improve assessment mechanisms to regularly monitor student learning

    Every department has been asked to consider this issue, and some of them have developed interesting protocols for understanding how students regard what they’ve learned in and out of the classroom. We are also running a pilot with advisors to think about assessment within the advisor-student exchange.

    9. Improve course access

    We are a university that prizes the learning that goes on in small classes, but that also means that many students won’t have access to the particular class or instructor they want. We have been adding many classes to the curriculum to deal with this issue, but we know there is more work to be done. We are particularly focused on ensuring that students have early access to gateway courses in the most popular areas of the curriculum.


    The work to refresh Wesleyan’s curriculum happens every day of the semester as faculty and students work hard at the joint endeavor of learning. Students begin their final exams today, and faculty are already busy writing comments on papers or evaluating experiments and performances. They are already enlivening the curriculum with their creativity, rigor and engagement. 

    Innovative University

    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.



    A Framework for Planning

    In the spring of 2009 I had extensive discussions with faculty, students and staff about the distinctive aspects of the Wesleyan experience, and then I spent the summer developing a framework for strengthening these aspects. In the fall of 2009 we posted Wesleyan 2020: Preliminary Reflections on Planning. Since September, responses and suggestions have been coming to us regularly from faculty, staff, students, and alumni — mainly through a number of fora and other meetings devoted to discussion of the plan. On the basis of these discussions, we have a revised document Wesleyan 2020: A Framework for Planning which is posted below.  As a “framework for planning” it is not so much a checklist as a flexible paradigm to guide our decision making. It will doubtless engender more responses in the future, and we are prepared to revise it as a “living document.” I hope that the trustees, who have been deliberating on the goals and strategies in this plan for some time, will agree that this revised document broadly reflects the ideas of those who care about the future of our university and that it will help us make the right decisions going forward.

    To all of you who responded to Wesleyan 2020 formally or informally, directly or indirectly, I express my thanks.  To all who care about Wesleyan, I look forward to your help in building Wesleyan’s future.

    [tags]Wesleyan 2020: Preliminary Reflections on Planning, Wesleyan 2020: A Framework for Planning[/tags]

    Supporting Student Research

    Faculty have been holding open meetings, organized on a divisional basis – Humanities and the Arts, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences and Mathematics — to discuss the framework for planning, Wesleyan 2020. Over the next month I will blog from time to time on some of the themes that emerge in these conversations. Today it’s support of student research.

    In each of the meetings so far, faculty have called for more funding for student research. Wes professors (in all Divisions) feel that an emphasis on independent research projects is one of the important characteristics of the academic experience here, and they want to give ambitious undergraduates the opportunity to bring serious projects to a successful conclusion. Our graduate students receive support while they are here, but they, too, do their best work when given the freedom to focus on their dissertations and journal articles.

    I’ve talked with a group of seniors this year about their senior theses, and I look forward to reading them.  Chan-young Yang is writing for CSS on the idea of the end of history; Emily Rasenick is exploring the relation of history and memory in films that deal with WWII for Film Studies and History; and Katie Boyce-Jacino in intellectual history has been investigating a group of theory driven French intellectuals who tried to situate themselves in relation to but outside of Communism. Other students are writing stories, conducting experiments or planning recitals as their capstone experiences. At this time of year students are  feeling both the pressure and the pleasure of pulling together complex, substantial projects.

    The faculty have let us know that they would like to see students be able to draw on funds that would support their need for research trips, equipment or collaboration to bring their projects to fruition. In addition to our efforts to raise endowment for financial aid, we will be seeking donors who will make it possible for our students to conduct their scholarly and creative practice at the highest level.

    This is one part of the framework for planning on which there is an enthusiastic consensus.

    [tags]student research, Wesleyan 2020, Chan-young Yang, Emily Rasenick, Katie Boyce-Jacino[/tags]

    Admissions and Recognition

    As January is coming to an end, I am writing this on a plane back to Connecticut from Texas. I’ve been in Houston and Dallas the last couple of days, meeting with alumni, parents and even a few pre-frosh. When I began my presidency in 2007, we  increased our communications efforts in areas of the country where Wesleyan wasn’t as well known as it is on the Coasts, and we placed a special emphasis on Texas. We have many alumni there who work in the technology, education, medicine and energy fields, to name just a few. We’ve held well-attended events in Houston and Dallas the last two years, and this week’s gatherings were energetic and popular. The Roff family, our host in Houston, has had six family members at Wes, and the Barth clan there can count seven! We discussed the planning framework, Wesleyan 2020, in both cities, and even the torrential rains in Dallas didn’t dampen the high spirits at the reception hosted by the Wolins (P ’12).

    I was pleased to report that in the last three years we have tripled the number of applicants from Texas. This is one chapter in a very impressive admissions story. Last year applications were way up, and so a reasonable person might have expected some pull back from these numbers in 2010. But the application pool has increased again, this year by about 6%. That means that our pool has grown about 30% in two years! Most important, the quality of the pool is very strong, and we are meeting our goal of increasing geographical diversity. Early decision applications are at an all time high. It’s a tribute to our community that so many talented people want to be part of it!

    Why are so many more people applying to Wesleyan? It isn’t easy to point to any specific factors with confidence. Clearly, we have benefitted from positive press thanks to the great work of our faculty, students, staff and alumni.  Our admissions and communications departments have been in high gear making sure that we get the word out about what makes Wesleyan an extraordinary institution. The campus looks great, and investments in our physical plant have had compelling results. We have been emphasizing some of the distinctive aspects of a Wes education, and above all, students and their families have been talking to others about their own experiences. Enhanced recognition  is important not only because it allows us to put together ever more diverse and talented classes, but also because it increases the value of  Wesleyan diplomas for all our alumni.

    We don’t need to “sell Wesleyan,” or develop some slick marketing messages. After all, by emphasizing our distinctiveness we are also saying that Wes isn’t for everybody. The culture of openness and experimentation, exuberance and achievement, creativity and focus…this culture is different from  the ones that have developed at other fine schools. We want to get the word out, but we don’t need to present ourselves as just another highly selective school for successful high school seniors.

    Now that we have well over 10,000 applications for next year’s class, the admissions staff has to read each one of them with the time consuming care that comes with a holistic application process. I thank them in advance for all the hard work that will go into putting together the class of 2014!

    [tags]applications, Wesleyan 2020[/tags]

    They’re coming home!

    Just a quick note to say how wonderful it is to see the campus beginning to fill up with the smiling faces of Wesleyan parents and alumni. This morning I met with the Athletic Advisory Council, a group of dedicated alumni who have helped us to raise the profile of our sports programs at the university and to strengthen the quality of the students’ experience on all our teams. This afternoon I met with a group of parents and alumni who talked with me about Wesleyan 2020. It was most interesting to hear from this group about the distinctiveness of the Wes experience, and how to make its lifelong learning aspects more visible and compelling. One of the key ingredients emphasized by all the participants is the extraordinary quality of the faculty-student interaction. Our Scholar-Teacher model inspires new ways of thinking that permanently and positively affect our community.

    The link on the Wesleyan homepage shows the full range of alumni programs this weekend. Of course, there is big game in football against Williams tomorrow, and we are hosting the NESCAC Conference Championship in men’s soccer. There are great seminars, screenings and exhibitions. I am particularly excited about Majora Carter’s talk tomorrow at 4 pm in Memorial Chapel. Majora has been a force for good things since graduating from Wesleyan in 1988, and her work on sustainable community development has been widely celebrated. Given our plans for the College of the Environment and for Civic Engagement, she is the perfect speaker for the Dwight Greene Symposium.

    The College of Letters and the College of Social Studies are celebrating their 50th anniversaries this weekend. These great, innovative programs have introduced students to literature, philosophy, and history, economics, political science and social theory. The demanding comprehensives, the expectation of independent thinking, and the forging of close personal ties have been hallmarks of these programs that helped to define the very meaning of interdisciplinarity. HAPPY 50TH to COL and CSS!

    If you are not able to get back to Middletown for Homecoming, I hope that our webcasts, videos and blogs give you a taste of what its like to be here on this beautiful Fall weekend.

    [tags]Athletic Advisory Council, NESCAC, Majora Carter, College of Letters, College of Social Studies[/tags]