December 2012 Update

About a year has passed since I sent out an update concerning our work implementing the strategic initiatives described in Wesleyan 2020, a framework for planning passed by the Board of Trustees more than two years ago.  We have been using this framework to organize our thinking about the future, allocate resources and assess our performance. Wesleyan 2020 emphasizes three overarching goals: to energize Wesleyan’s distinctive educational experience; to enhance recognition of Wesleyan as an extraordinary institution; and to work within a sustainable economic model while retaining core values. With this update, framed by these goals, I will mention some of the things we have been doing in the effort to provide “an education in the liberal arts that is characterized by boldness, rigor and practical idealism.” Given the changes made to our economic model in the past year, the third section is the longest of this update. (These changes have spurred intense discussions in the Wesleyan community, especially with regards to need-blind admissions, and for more on those discussions, seeFinancial Aid, Now More Than Ever!)

Energize Wesleyan’s Distinctive Educational Experience

I’ve been very impressed by the faculty’s consistent efforts to build on our academic strengths to refine and refresh the curriculum. In the Arts, we have been planning to add spaces for studio and performance work so that we can meet the strong student demand in these areas. The Humanities are thriving at Wesleyan, as our scholar-teachers continue to attract talented students while also shaping their own fields. The College of Letters and the Art History Department have moved into the center of campus (in the old squash building), and both programs have been energized by the new location. The Social Sciences at the university are home to vibrant interdisciplinary explorations that employ sophisticated quantitative skills, deep fieldwork and sensitive interpretative perspectives – from religion to economics. The Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life has been an important locus for research and practice that bear upon society and politics. And the Sciences and Mathematics continue to see increased enrollments and path-breaking research.

The university has added financial resources so that students can work in the summer as research associates with Wesleyan faculty, and we have continued to support additional small classes. Our pilot faculty fellows program  – enlisting professors to work closely with particular residence halls – has been successful, and we expect to be expanding it further in the coming year. Interdisciplinary work is thriving at Wesleyan, and the Center for the Humanities and the Allbritton Center have received significant donor support.  We are building a substantial endowment for the College of the Environment, founded in 2009, and faculty are developing proposals for at least three new colleges that would give students fascinating new options for collaborative, interdisciplinary work.

Residential schools depend on environments conducive to learning. Excessive drinking is corrosive to these environments, and over the last year we have been participating in a research collaborative with other colleges seeking nation-wide solutions to this problem.  We have also been working closely with our students to understand how best to support the honor code, which expresses core institutional values.

We have had a strong focus this year on improving our performance as an engaged university. The Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship has generated considerable enthusiasm from alumni and students, and  an impressive variety of organizations is ready to tap into our programing in this field. Thanks to the support of our alumni base, we were able to add dozens of high-quality internships to our  portfolio of options for Wesleyan students. As our campus has grown more diverse in recent years, there have also been renewed tensions along racial, ethnic and class lines. Our ongoing program Making Excellence Inclusive is meant to address those tensions while building a more effective culture of learning for all students.  In my next 2020 update I expect to report on real progress in this area.

Certainly a highlight for this year was the opening of 41 Wyllys, the new home of the Career Center, the College of Letters and Art History. The students and faculty have embraced the new facility, which has mightily contributed to the vitalization of the core of campus.  From Exley to Allbritton and PAC to Usdan to the Art Center and Film Studies – this north-south axis in the heart of campus is full of life, of purpose and of increased possibilities of happy, serendipitous encounters.

Wesleyan’s distinctive educational experience has never been static, and it continues to change today. Faculty have designed a new first-year seminar program that emphasizes writing, and we have had productive discussions about how we can use online materials in lecture classes so as to free up time for close faculty-student interactions.  This fall we became the first liberal arts college to partner with Coursera, an online company that is reaching millions of students around the world through open lecture courses. Although the Wes courses are still in preparation, tens of thousands from around the world have already signed up to take them. I expect we’ll learn much from offering these classes.

Enhance Recognition of Wesleyan as an Extraordinary Institution

The Coursera partnership is a good transition to the topic of enhancing recognition of the university. It is important that we make the accomplishments of our alumni, students and staff more visible through a variety of channels, including social media. It has been yet another gratifying  year for the Wesleyan Film program, with a number of films by Wes alumni (including The Avengers and Beasts of the Southern Wild ) gaining commercial and critical success. On campus, faculty have been awarded Guggenheims and a Pulitzer and been nominated for National Book awards, and students have garnered Watsons and a Marshall (to name just two of the many high-profile scholarships that have recently gone to graduates).

Engagement with alumni has ramped up in person and online. Wesconnect is becoming an increasingly popular way for alumni to connect with one another, especially when they are preparing for some university event. I am particularly struck by the potential of Wesconnect to offer  alumni ways to engage with the curriculum, and we expect to be able to do more in this regard through Coursera and other online initiatives. Attendance at Homecoming and Reunions has been strong, and the enthusiastic support of alumni and parents has been greatly encouraging.

One of the best measures of positive recognition of the university is the strength of interest from highly qualified students who want access to a Wesleyan education. In our Admissions work over the last year, we focused on overall application growth, with particular attention to geographical areas in which we are not as well known as we would like to be: as close as Florida and Pennsylvania, as far away as China and India. We had a record number of applications overall, and achieved the best selectivity rate in the history of the university. We are building on this in the current semester and are encouraged by the record number of early decision applications.

Sustainable Economic Model and Core Values

In the past year we have made significant changes to our economic model. For decades we have followed the same pattern: tuition increases well above inflation, and financial aid increases that go far beyond that. 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 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). For the long-term health of the institution this had to change.

One way to become more economically sustainable 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 in recent years we have also introduced measures that increase pressure on the operating budget. We reduced loans for most students by about a third and began placing a much higher percentage of the money raised  each year into the endowment. Our endowment per student is well below that of most of our peer schools, and it is vital to build Wesleyan’s economic foundation. In this regard, we have put together a great new investment team to grow the endowment.  At the same time that we secure our future, it is also necessary to have funds to run a great university right now, and to do that without raising tuition to unaffordable levels.  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 burdening them with excessive debt.  This will 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 have retained 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 sustain a more generous financial aid program.

The second component of our affordability effort will be linking our tuition increases to the rate of inflation. This is a dramatic change; 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 continuing to invest in excellence and 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.

Obviously, I would prefer that Wesleyan had the endowment per student that would allow us to issue a blank check for financial aid. We do not. The actions we have taken will preserve access to Wesleyan for capable, creative students while preserving the essential qualities (great faculty, diverse community, excellent facilities) that these students want. While we cannot afford to be “need-blind” for all students, we can afford to maintain our core value of having a diverse student body. 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.

Some further thoughts

Each year I marvel at the generosity of our alumni and parent donors. They often tell me to “put this gift where you need it the most, where it will do the most good.” They trust alma mater to do what’s right by our students. In our current fundraising efforts, financial aid is our highest priority, and our donors have responded with enthusiasm and generosity. The past year of gifts and pledges was one of the best in the university’s history. Wesleyan, we have been told, inspires “loyalty beyond reason.” I like that phrase, because it reminds us that it isn’t just the classes; it isn’t just the organized activities on campus, or the parties or the concerts; it isn’t just the sports or the art, the career networking or the beauty of Foss Hill in the fall light. The loyalty stems from all these things and more. Loyalty to Wes has its reasons, but it is also beyond reason; the affectionate connection is beyond reason, extending long beyond those semesters in residence.

Every fall I meet new students and ask them how they found their way to Wesleyan. Recently a student from Louisiana told me that she found out about Wes through Questbridge, which links high-achieving low income students to select colleges, and, as she emotionally related, “I never thought you’d match with me.” A mom from rural California came up to me on Arrival Day and said that she’d never been east of the Rockies and with tears in her eyes expressed gratitude for her daughter’s scholarship.  Her daughter was being given, she explained, “the opportunity of a lifetime.” I also met students whose parents both went to Wesleyan and who are here to continue a family legacy that is an honor and a vital new beginning. These students have heard for years about great moments in classrooms, studios, labs, and on the athletic fields …and now they aim to make their own mark on our traditions of exuberant excellence.

Students may choose Wesleyan for a thousand different reasons, but they know they are choosing a progressive, pragmatic liberal arts institution that is steeped in tradition and pointed to the future. They know they are choosing a campus culture that is as collaborative as it is challenging, one that produces work at the highest level even as it nurtures idealism. After all, that’s why we all continue to choose Wesleyan. A thousand different reasons – and beyond reason.

Michael S. Roth