Preliminary Reflections On Planning

President Michael S. Roth
September, 2009


Preliminary Reflections On Planning (September 2009)

Education should be directed with reference to two objects-the good of the individual, and the good of the world.
-Wesleyan President Willbur Fisk, Inaugural address, September 21, 1831

I have organized these reflections in eight sections. The Introduction provides my sense of the immediate historical background of strategic planning at Wesleyan. Values and Culture offers brief descriptions of the university as a locus of teaching, research and citizenship. Mission is simply the current draft of the brief mission statement that has already been responded to by faculty, staff and students over the past several months. Context and Challenges describes four aspects of our environment that present obstacles to fulfilling our mission. Overarching Goals presents three major targets for our planning, and Specific Objectives and Strategies offers a series of specific steps we can take to reach our targets. I have put a few examples under Benchmarks and Peer Institutions for evaluating our progress in these areas, and this will have to be developed as part of a planning document. Finally, I briefly add a few words by way of a Conclusion on how Wesleyan might look in 2020 if we successfully pursue the goals and strategies herein.

I. Introduction

During the period when Victor Butterfield was president of Wesleyan University (1943-1967), higher education in the United States went through a dramatic transformation. The modern research university came into its own as a center for scientific and cultural innovation, and undergraduate education became for the first time a realistic possibility for men and women from all sectors of society. The best schools in the country took on the dual task of specialized instruction based in advanced research and general education based in the traditions of the liberal arts. During this period Butterfield guided Wesleyan to a distinctive model of higher learning: liberal arts education based in advanced research and open to students regardless of their ability to pay. Wesleyan was at the forefront of interdisciplinary programs that defied departmental boundaries in the service of cultivating a passion for lifelong learning, and it created support for research that allowed its faculty to contribute to advancing their chosen fields. Sophisticated experimentation in the sciences and in the arts was meant to be a catalyst for new thinking and experimental pedagogical practices, and it was. A commitment to access for groups previously excluded from higher education was meant to disrupt the “finishing school” atmosphere pervading many undergraduate programs, and it did. These developments were wedded to the ethico-political commitment to the “good of the world” enunciated by Wesleyan’s first president, Wilbur Fisk. Wesleyan University became known as a leader of progressive liberal arts education in the United States, attracting distinguished scientists, artists and scholars who saw their role as educators as a key part of their professional lives. Wesleyan also attracted a diverse community of students eager to learn from faculty who boldly pursued research and artistic practice and from fellow students who were committed to extending the lessons of that work beyond the borders of the campus.

During the tumultuous years of the late 1960s and 1970s, Wesleyan was often at the forefront of efforts to open higher education to new fields of study and to students from previously under-represented groups. President Colin Campbell worked closely with students, faculty, staff and alumni to ensure that Wesleyan would carve out a distinctive niche as an inclusive institution dedicated to advanced research and strong mentoring. The university’s programs and facilities expanded during this period, and new interdisciplinary centers were developed. The Center for African American Studies, which grew out of the African American Institute (founded in 1969), was established in 1974. The Center for the Arts, home of the university’s visual and performance arts departments and performance series, was designed by prominent architects Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo and opened in the fall of 1973. By the mid 1970s, however, it was clear that strong fiscal discipline would be needed to prevent the university from spending its way into bankruptcy. Campbell and his successor, William Chace, introduced a series of difficult budget cuts along with plans for fundraising. Interdisciplinary work continued to thrive despite the budget difficulties. The Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies was established in 1987. The Center for the Americas, which combines American studies and Latin American studies, was planned in the 1990s and inaugurated in 1998.

In the late 1990s President Douglas Bennet led a strategic planning process to ensure that Wesleyan would confidently pursue its commitment to liberal arts education into the 21st Century. As part of that process, the university affirmed the following:

The task of liberal education, as we see it today, is to instill a capacity for critical and creative thinking that can address unfamiliar and changing circumstances, to engender a moral sensibility that can weigh consequence beyond self, and to establish an enduring love of learning for its own sake that will enable graduates to refresh their education throughout their lives.

The plan adopted in 1998 and modified in 2005 identified ten “essential capabilities” Wesleyan intended to foster in its students: Writing; Speaking; Interpretation; Quantitative Reasoning; Logical Reasoning; Designing, Creating, and Realizing; Ethical Reasoning; Intercultural Literacy; Information Literacy; and Effective Citizenship. In addition to a major field of concentration and an expectation of breadth, students have been expected to complete courses to enhance these capabilities.

The Strategic Plans of 1998 and 2005 also emphasized creating a community that developed diversity as an academic asset in the context of a campus infrastructure that supported learning in and outside the classroom. Moreover, those plans articulated the development of partnerships between the university and the public sphere (starting with the city of Middletown) meant to foster the ability to “weigh consequence beyond self” and to develop the attributes of effective citizenship. Wesleyan graduates test their education in the world, and they are encouraged to re-fresh that education by using alma mater as a resource for life-long learning.

As we organize our thinking and our resources in preparing for the next ten years, we are guided by many of the main themes embraced by previous generations of Wesleyan students, faculty, alumni and administrators. We are more committed than ever to Butterfield’s vision of a university in which professors are expected to advance their fields through research, publication and performance, and in which teaching regularly stimulates this productivity. We are also committed to maintaining a robust financial aid program that ensures that talented students will be able to afford a Wesleyan education. We believe that all students benefit from being part of a learning community that includes members from different geographical regions and different socio-economic, racial and ethnic groups, who approach the world from a variety of perspectives. We are committed to maintaining a beautiful and productive campus that is a stimulating home for students while they pursue their degrees and a cherished locus of learning after they have graduated. We are committed to providing the infrastructure for a learning community that extends from classroom to library, from residence hall to athletic field.

II. Values and culture

As a learning community

Wesleyan educates students to become independent thinkers capable of continuing to learn and translating that learning into effective work at the highest level. The education on campus is characterized by combinations of freedom and productivity, experimentation and evaluation, and exuberance and responsibility. This stimulates students to discover what they love to do and get better at it. Wesleyan creates an environment in which students can strive for excellence through hard work that is joyful and satisfying. Alumni of the institution continue to draw on their learning experiences for the rest of their lives and remain devoted to the institution.

As a center for research and creative practice

Wesleyan attracts faculty and students who find enormous value in independent research, scholarship and creative practice. Professors find stimulation in the classroom to advance their various professional fields, which in turn invigorates teaching and curriculum development. The university’s small graduate programs in the sciences and music facilitate collaborative research. Undergraduates are given opportunities for advanced independent work through which they increase their intellectual capacities and discover aspects of themselves and the world that will remain meaningful to them long after graduation. Members of the Wesleyan community address scholarly issues of import to their respective fields and regularly produce work that goes beyond academic realms to have a positive impact on public life.

As an institutional citizen and leader in education

Wesleyan inspires faculty, staff and students to play active roles as neighbors and citizens. The university contributes economically and culturally to Middletown, and it instills in its graduates a sense of civic possibility and purpose. Wesleyan alumni create opportunities to integrate service into their professional and personal lives and generously support the educational enterprise on campus. The university supports the continued evolution of a liberal arts education and makes a case for its importance in the public sphere. Members of the Wesleyan community regularly go on to distinguished careers in public service, and the university provides support for disseminating scholarship that can have positive public impact.

III. Mission [community draft]

Wesleyan University is dedicated to providing an education in the liberal arts that is characterized by boldness, rigor, and practical idealism. At Wesleyan, distinguished scholar-teachers work closely with students, taking advantage of fluidity among disciplines to explore the world with a variety of tools. The university seeks to build a diverse, energetic community of students, faculty, and staff who think critically and creatively and who value independence of mind and generosity of spirit.

IV. Context and challenges


In recent years urban schools have become more attractive to many students seeking a strong education and the active cultural life a large city can provide. On the other hand, very rural schools, often quite isolated, continue to attract students eager to “get away” from the environment that they had been used to. As a small city in central Connecticut, Middletown offers neither isolated rural life nor big city charms. The challenge for Wesleyan is to show the many positive aspects of the Connecticut River Valley and of Middletown, while emphasizing access to cultural opportunities from beyond the immediate vicinity.

Relevance of liberal arts education

Only a modest 4% of American high school graduates pursue their undergraduate education at a liberal arts college, and the disciplines most closely associated with these institutions have seen a significant decline in their enrollments over the last decade or more. Obviously, many very talented and accomplished high school seniors do not consider a liberal arts education as they chart their future professional and personal paths. Making the case for the vitality and relevance of a liberal arts education is an important challenge in this context.

Competition and prestige

For decades, Wesleyan has been regarded as one of the top group of elite liberal arts institutions focused on undergraduate education. Over the last twenty years, the US News and World Report rankings have had an important impact on the public’s sense of “the best” colleges in America. Wesleyan’s ranking has generally slipped, from 6th in the late 1980s to 13th in 2009.

These rankings reflect a more fundamental shift in Wesleyan’s capacity to compete with other schools for faculty, students, and public recognition. While Wesleyan was the wealthiest school in relation to the number of students in the late 1960s and early 1970s, today the university does not have the ability to sustain the levels of spending per student that one finds at some of our peer institutions. This has an immediate negative impact on the rankings. As American education has focused on endowment as a measure of education capacity, Wesleyan has seen its competitive standing erode. Prestige plays an important role in student choice, and reclaiming a leadership role is an important challenge in this context.

Economic pressures

There are at least two sorts of economic pressures that will affect all planning for the next five years. The first is long-term habits of spending and saving; the second is the result of the recent economic crisis. After spending a higher percentage of endowment returns than its peers, there followed a long period of failing to put significant amounts of money into the endowment. By the mid 1990s, Wesleyan lagged dramatically behind other schools in endowment per student, and began to raise more money annually and to borrow significantly to support its programs. The successful fundraising campaign in the first decade of this century proved that alumni would offer generous support, but most of the money raised was quickly spent. In recent years, Wesleyan finds itself with one-third of the economic capacity (measured by endowment per student, net of debt) of the average school in our peer group, and one-tenth the capacity of the group’s economic leader. Wesleyan has the challenge to break from this tradition of spending and invest more fundraising dollars for long-term use.

The second economic pressure results from the recent economic downtown, which will make philanthropy more difficult and tuition more challenging for many families. Significant tuition increases to support its programs may prove difficult, and so Wesleyan has the challenge of reducing spending without compromising the quality of the educational experience.

V. Overarching goals

  1. To energize Wesleyan’s distinctive educational experience by encouraging a spirit of experimentation and freedom with an expectation that work will be created at the highest level.Context:
    • The university selects students on the basis of merit not wealth
    • The university hires and retains faculty who are effective teachers and regularly contribute to the advancement of their respective fields
    • The university develops a curriculum based in the freedom to develop an educational itinerary that fosters focused independent work, breadth of learning and the enhancement of essential capabilities within a framework of strong advising
    • The university has developed graduate programs in the sciences and music that facilitate research by faculty and students at all levels
    • The university cultivates a campus culture—including athletics, the arts, and co-curricular programs—conducive to adventurous learning and effective civic engagement
  2. To work within a sustainable economic model to ensure that Wesleyan will be able to offer a quality education for generations to come.Context:
    • The university relies on a mix of tuition, endowment support and annual fundraising to fund its operations
    • The university recruits first-year students without regard to their ability to pay, devoting almost 20% of its operating budget to financial aid
    • The university maintains competitive compensation for faculty and staff in relation to a “peer group” of highly-selective institutions
    • The university supports the research activities of its faculty and students
    • The university maintains a campus in Middletown CT appropriate to curricular and co-curricular needs
  3. To broaden and deepen the recognition of the quality of a Wesleyan education.Context:
    • The university disseminates the work of its faculty and students
    • The university maintains ongoing communications with alumni and student families
    • The university is known for attracting students with intelligence, integrity, and a desire to make a positive difference in the world
    • The university is recognized as a locus of path-breaking scholarship and creative practice
    • The university is recognized for articulating the importance of the liberal arts in contemporary contexts

VI. Specific objectives and strategies

The following are the key specific objectives and strategies Wesleyan will put in place to assure progress on the three overarching goals.

Goal 1: To energize Wesleyan’s distinctive educational experience

  1. Objective: Develop university-wide curriculum that exploits programmatic and interdisciplinary strengths.Strategies:
    1. Develop vibrant first-year program and meaningful capstone experiences for all students
    2. Develop a program to enhance creativity and innovation across the university
    3. Develop civic engagement opportunities across the university
    4. Enhance work in Environmental Studies through a College of the Environment
    5. Enhance the global, international reach of the curriculum
    6. Invest in technology to support and inspire academic innovation
    7. Enhance assessment mechanisms to regularly monitor student learning
  2. Objective: Improve faculty’s capacity for mentoring students and for producing research.Strategies:
    1. Improve course access and ability to work closely with faculty
    2. Enhance support for faculty research and increase opportunities for collaborative faculty-student research
    3. Develop opportunities for more faculty participation in co-curricular programs and advising
  3. Objective: Enhance co-curricular programs to support the personal and academic learning environment.Strategies:
    1. Promote excellence beyond the classroom—from athletics to the arts
    2. Support an ethos of service and social engagement with the development of citizenship skills
    3. Develop internships across a wide variety of fields that support learning and professional opportunities
  4. Objective: Increase selectivity so as to choose students who can most benefit from and contribute to Wesleyan.Strategies:
    1. Increase the size and enhance the quality and diversity of the applicant pool, including geographical diversity
    2. Employ nuanced selection criteria to ensure that all Wesleyan students have the talent and desire to get the most out of their time on campus
    3. Raise endowment funds to support research and co-curricular opportunities for students

Goal 2: To develop a sustainable economic model

  1. Objective: Increase the size of the endowment while restraining the growth of the annual budget.Strategies:
    1. Increase the percentage of annual fundraising that is invested in the endowment
    2. Complete a successful fundraising campaign
    3. Maintain the annual spending draw on endowment between 4.5% and 5.5%
  2. Objective: Maintain current “need blind” admissions policy while raising endowment support.Strategies:
    1. Raise significant endowment support for financial aid by 2015
    2. Control financial aid costs for transfers and international students
    3. Develop revenue streams tied to new programs (e.g., Wesleyan Summer Program)
  3. Objective: Increase resources for attracting and retaining faculty who are productive scholars, first-rate teachers and contributors to campus community.Strategies:
    1. Maintain competitive salaries within peer group
    2. Support faculty research and its dissemination
    3. Enhance the conditions for faculty involvement on campus beyond their teaching and advising duties
  4. Objective: Maintain resources for attracting and retaining talented, hard-working and dedicated staff.Strategies:
    1. Maintain competitive salaries within peer group
    2. Support personal and professional staff development
    3. Enhance conditions for staff involvement in campus community
  5. Objective: To maintain the integrity of campus buildings and grounds while developing appropriate resources for renewal.Strategies:
    1. Enhance science facilities
    2. Maintain historic structures
    3. Replace run-down “wood-frame” housing with suitable residences on a regular basis

Goal 3: Enhance the recognition of the quality of a Wesleyan education

  1. Objective: Make research of faculty and students more widely knownStrategies:
    1. Support scholarly publication efforts
    2. Develop audiences for this work in professional networks
  2. Objective: Develop opportunities for the discussion of Wesleyan’s strengths in geographic areas in which we are currently not well known.Strategies:
    1. Coordinate efforts among Admissions, UR and the Communications departments
    2. Expand international applicant pool
    3. Develop partnerships with appropriate liberal arts schools (Little Three?)
  3. Objective: Enhance lifelong alumni engagement through relevant communication and ongoing faculty ties.Strategies:
    1. Develop robust digital networks for continued social interaction and ongoing learning
    2. Create exciting opportunities to return to campus for special events
    3. Deepen lifelong ties of mutual support between alumni and alma mater

VII. Benchmarks and peer institutions

Wesleyan regularly compares its performance with liberal arts colleges and small universities. From admissions statistics to graduation rates, from salaries to financial aid packages, Wesleyan uses comparative data to set specific goals and to assess its competitive position.

Goal 1: Distinctive educational experience

Some examples:

  • Departmental Reviews
  • Selectivity
  • Faculty-Student Ratio
  • % of classes under 20 students, etc.
  • # of internships
  • curricular reform

Goal 2: Sustainable business model

Some examples:

  • Fundraising Campaign
  • % of Financial Aid Supported by Endowment
  • Cost containment measures

Goal 3: Expand recognition

Some examples:

  • Media placements
  • Applications and inquiries
  • Partnerships

VIII. Conclusion: Wesleyan in 2020

This planning document has articulated some broad themes to guide planning in the next five to ten years. Although there will surely be unexpected opportunities and challenges during this period, if the university is successful in following the strategies laid out here Wesleyan will build on its best traditions to be more widely recognized as an international leader in progressive liberal arts education.

In the next five years the Wesleyan community should become more mindful and supportive of the distinctive elements of the educational experience it offers to a highly motivated and talented student body. Over the next decade this work will bring more positive attention, applications and financial support to the university. Students enrolled will benefit from a curriculum largely determined by faculty interests, and which provides curricular and co-curricular opportunities for integrated learning and community building. The hallmarks of creativity and civic engagement will be anchored in our academic and co-curricular programs, and community building will extend from the campus to bonds with alumni reinforced by continuing education programs. Within the next ten years, the student body will have become more geographically diverse within the United States, and with more than 12% coming from outside the country. The university’s interdisciplinary programs will become more robust, and there will be a College of the Environment added to them. The virtuous circle of research and teaching will continue to allow the Wesleyan faculty to offer a transformative experience to their students while they advance their own fields.

By 2020 we will double the number of scholarships supported by the endowment. As fundraising continues to grow, each year a greater percentage of dollars raised will be invested in the future of the institution. Improvement in course access and in the percentage of classes offered capped at 15 will be achieved, and new spending for non-academic initiatives will be restrained. Research by faculty and students will be supported and disseminated by a university increasingly known for its contributions to the sciences, scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, creative practice and our public life.

In 2020 Wesleyan will continue to fulfill the mission laid down by Wilbur Fisk in the 19th century, and re-energized in the 1950s and 1960s: to teach students to think critically and creatively, and to develop the independence of mind and generosity of spirit that will enhance their lives and contribute to the common good.