Beyond 2020 – Strategies for Wesleyan

This is a crucial time for higher education in America. There is enormous achievement and promise but also great uncertainty and danger. In some ways, the vitality of our strongest institutions has never been more apparent. American research universities dominate the lists of the world’s best educational institutions, and students from across the globe have for many years now seen our country as the best place to pursue post-secondary learning. But that may be changing, and here at home things have already changed. In recent years, colleges have been increasingly viewed with suspicion, and sometimes outright hostility. Institutions of higher learning are facing enormous pressures to demonstrate the cash value of their “product,” while at the same time the recreational side of campus life is attracting more attention than ever. To meet enrollment goals or climb in the rankings, many colleges trumpet the “full spa experience,” placing more and more emphasis on the value of what young consumers are learning while enjoying themselves outside the classroom. The richness of the curriculum and high quality of the instruction may receive a nod, but they are rarely celebrated. These efforts at promotion through everything except what happens between faculty and students may be good for short-term appeal, but in the long run the result is to make the entire enterprise of higher education more fragile.

At another crucial time in higher education, Wesleyan, under the leadership of President Victor Butterfield (1943-1967), remade itself as a center of interdisciplinary learning, a reservoir of innovative research and creative scholarship, and a pioneering advocate for increased access to the empowerment of a liberal education. During Butterfield’s tenure of more than twenty years, Wesleyan had become known as one of the most progressive and innovative schools in America – and one of the wealthiest. By 1975 when I arrived as a student, things had already begun to change. The university was still known for its pioneering ways, its great research output from the sciences to the arts, its demanding and productive faculty, and its creative, rambunctious students. But the University’s foundation was eroded due to the giddy spending of the late sixties and early seventies, the inattention to fundraising and a loss of focus on the academic mission. Over the next decades, spending habits became more prudent, and fundraising did increase, but the University’s aspirations remained seriously out of sync with its economic capacity.

The beginning of my presidency coincided with the Great Recession, which lent real urgency to our efforts to bring spending in line with resources. But focusing on economics alone would not have served Wesleyan well, and over the last eight years we have vigorously pursued the core educational mission of the University while also addressing the three basic components of its economic model: spending, investment, and revenue. We did this guided by our strategic plan, Wesleyan 2020, adopted by the Board in 2010.

The three overarching goals in Wesleyan 2020 are:

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

The most important priority in our planning and operations during my tenure has been articulating and supporting our distinctive educational mission: “providing an education in the liberal arts that is characterized by boldness, rigor, and practical idealism.” At the heart of this mission is the Faculty’s guidance of students’ intellectual development in ways that enhance their creative abilities to translate academic learning to the world beyond the campus. Whether in mathematics or film, economics or literature, our students are guided toward a deeper understanding of the world and themselves and provided with tools they can use to solve problems and create opportunities beyond the university.

We do not see the program for co-curricular learning as an amenity but rather as a residential platform to develop in students both a greater sense of autonomy and a greater ability to participate in groups. Through athletic, political, artistic, social and community engagement activities, Wesleyan students are becoming stronger as individuals while developing life skills that will translate beyond the university into resources for teamwork, for participating in local communities, for engaging as citizens, and, most generally, for working innovatively with others toward shared goals.

Many universities today tend toward greater specialization. They have gotten really good at education as a form of narrowing, and the public’s only contact is the sound bite from a professorial specialist to be trusted in (at most) a small delimited area. Of course, advanced work in any area requires rigorous effort and real expertise. But we must not confuse the narrow expert or competent technician with the innovative researcher or the inspiring teacher. At Wesleyan we value those who can translate abstract complexity in terms clearly relevant to pressing human concerns. Wesleyan recognizes that in today’s culture and economy we should provide students with intellectual cross-training – an education that strengthens their independence of mind and generosity of spirit in ways that make them better equipped to deal inventively with a rapidly changing world.

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

Our work is still guided by Wesleyan 2020, but that date is almost upon us. Over the last several months I have been talking with various Wesleyan constituencies about how to extend our framework for strategic planning into the next decade. Below I outline some of the new investments we can make to ensure that Wesleyan remains at the forefront of pragmatic and liberal education.

  1. Academic Core

Over the next 5-10 years, we should be building on the work we have already done to energize our distinctive curriculum while exploiting academic strengths (the first overarching goal of our 2010 Strategic Plan). In a world of increasingly narrow specialization (and badge/certificate earning), Wesleyan has renewed its commitment to interdisciplinary undergraduate education by creating four new colleges and developing academic centers that cut across departmental borders. These colleges and centers will require additional support and attention in the coming years; they have enormous potential to be important nodes in a network of campus learning that extends from official classes to the broad range of student life. We want our academic strengths to generate projects that translate into the world beyond the university. Seeing our campus as a place that incubates ideas and accelerates their impact on the world will intensify the learning that goes on here and add value to the diploma.

We have made significant progress in linking community engagement and sustainability to the academic program (under the Allbritton Center); developing internship opportunities (under the Gordon Career Center); and refining co-curricular learning goals (under Student Affairs). The Equity Task Force last year recommended that we develop plans for a Resource Center, and we are doing so as part of an ongoing institution-wide effort to build greater equity and inclusion.

We must continue to find ways to ensure that a Wesleyan education remains relevant decades beyond graduation. This will mean “breaking the bubble” by encouraging intellectual/political diversity, creating more internship opportunities and linking them back to a student’s educational goals, making the residential experience a more integrated part of a student’s learning, and teaching the value of sustainability across a variety of fields and ways of life.

We never want the liberal education prized by Wesleyans to be thought of as mere training, but we continue to believe that the pragmatic, broad and interconnected learning we foster prepares students for the world. We must ensure that our open curriculum continues to highlight what we know to be of enduring value as well as things that matter to students now. We must also develop more integration between the Gordon Career Center and the academic program. That means, at least, encouraging students from their first year in college to begin considering how they will translate their education on campus to meaningful work beyond its borders.

We will build faculty strength so that we can offer a more potent education consistent with these four keycompetencies developed by Academic Affairs:

  1. Interacting with objects and information: Building on our ongoing commitments to the arts and to “maker spaces,” we will develop a minor and explore creating a major program in Design and Engineering.
  2. Expressing and describing: Building on the long tradition of writing excellence, and the work of the first year seminars, we will develop a university-wide program in writing and oral expression.
  3. Analyzing quantitative and digital data: Building on the success of the QAC, we will accelerate current efforts to ensure that every student has the opportunity to learn data analysis and computer coding.
  4. Engaging with difference and building community: Building on our longstanding commitment to equity and inclusion, we will accelerate progress in diversifying the curriculum, the faculty and staff and in ensuring that all students increase their ability to understand cultural and intellectual difference.

A key objective going forward is a targeted improvement of the University’s faculty-student ratio so as to create more opportunities for mentorship. Every Wesleyan student should complete a project larger than a classroom assignment before graduating, and we must find ways to support faculty committed to these endeavors. We are prepared to spend approximately $2 million more annually than we are currently spending on faculty positions. This increase of about a dozen positions should also help us improve the diversity of the Faculty, especially in those fields in which there is intense student demand. In the last few years, thanks to the close working relationship among Academic Affairs, the Office for Equity and Inclusion and several academic departments, we have been very successful in attracting more diverse applicants and in hiring more professors from under-represented groups. To maintain this momentum we have created a new process for “opportunity hires” and will make more funds available for hiring new faculty who are likely to be exceptionally effective mentors to students of color and first generation students.

We will also accelerate our fundraising for endowed internships that allow students to connect their campus learning and their aspirations to the wider world. Included will be more support for research, for career exploration, and for work with not-for-profit organizations.

These targeted investments in the academic core will (directly or indirectly) enhance the ability of students totranslate what they are learning into what they will do after graduation. Indeed, the pragmatic liberal education we offer at Wesleyan may be described as translational liberal learning – a broad, interconnected education aimed at giving our students tenacious yet flexible ways of thinking appropriate for a rapidly changing world.

  1. Enhance Recognition

Our core messaging project currently underway is the next important phase of our work to enhance recognition of Wesleyan. What should be the outcomes? At least the following, which were the core objectives listed inWesleyan 2020: we will be able to make the work of our faculty, students and alumni more widely known and more integrally linked to Wesleyan; we will become better known around the world, especially in regions where our recognition is currently low; we will strengthen alumni and family engagement through increased pride in the institution. All of these outcomes will add value to the diploma and help us to recruit the students, faculty and staff whom we think can best serve and benefit from our institution.

Beyond the tangible objective of continuing to build the applicant pool, we can aspire to do more: to be recognized for developing models or practices of pragmatic liberal education that are relevant well beyond the Wesleyan campus. Investing in the work of our students (and alumni) so as to allow them to have a deeper impact across a variety of fields enhances recognition of the power of a Wesleyan education. Modest investments in supporting students’ dissemination of their scholarly and creative projects will create positive feedback loops with the campus. Here recognition has less to do with inputs (our ability to recruit “better” students) than with outputs. We add value to everyone’s diploma and increase the prestige of the University by supporting the ongoing projects of our faculty, advanced students and alumni. We embrace our academic core by showing its relevance beyond academia. Again, translation.

We are a small school that aspires to have a large impact. So how do we become relevant to people who will never set foot on our campus? One tactic used thus far is our partnership with Coursera: our online classes have attracted more than 1.6 million students. In the coming years we will continue to explore ways of raising the profile of liberal education in areas with a growing appetite for broad and pragmatic inquiry – which includes many parts of this country underserved by educational institutions, and also parts of the world (like China and India) where economic development has allowed many more people to pursue higher education.

  1. Sustainable Economic Model and Campus Planning

Working within a sustainable economic model while retaining core values is the third overarching goal of our 2010 Strategic Plan. College affordability is one of the defining educational issues of our time, and it must be factored into our financial planning. Fortunately, the successful THIS IS WHY campaign makes it possible to increase our financial aid budget. Over the last year we have been focused on making sure we are actually meeting the full need of the scholarship students we currently enroll. From support services to work-study requirements and the level of family contributions, we regularly review our current practices to bring resources to those who need them to really flourish at Wesleyan. Past reviews have already led us to make more resources available, and we will continue to monitor the effectiveness of our financial aid packages.

In addition to addressing issues related to current financial aid formulae, we will be able to reduce the number of admissions decisions affected by financial considerations. We currently need to pay attention to ability to pay for about ten percent of our acceptances. Furthermore, “middle class affordability” has become an important problem for many applicants. We can address both of these issues by adding dollars to the financial aid budget (increasing the discount rate). We will add (in addition to any normal increase to the financial aid budget) $2.5 million over the next four years to financial aid, and then, with further fundraising, add another $2.5 million in the following four-year cycle. This would bring the discount rate over the next ten years from 32% to 38%, making it possible for approximately another 100 financial aid recipients to make the most of their education. These additional funds would meet the full needs of all our aided students – from those who are Pell eligible (17-20% of our students) to those who need smaller amounts to flourish at Wesleyan (20-25% of our students).

Guided by the recommendations of our Sasaki consultants, we have made considerable efforts in maintaining a safe, attractive, accessible and sustainable campus conducive to learning. The recently completed facilities for the Centers for Global Studies and Pedagogical Innovation, for example, are already having a positive impact on our educational mission. Looking ahead, we see more opportunities to enhance accessibility, develop informal learning spaces and create a sense of fluidity and transparency with respect to the mixture of academic and co-curricular learning areas.

We have continued to improve our relationship to Middletown, and there are campus-learning opportunities to nurture by building bridges to the city. Faculty and staff are currently developing a civic action plan. In the spring of 2017, we will open a Wesleyan Bookstore operated by RJ Julia on Main Street and we are in regular conversation with civic leaders about partnerships that work for our students, faculty and staff – and also for our neighbors.

Now that our century bond has freed us from saving for an impending balloon payment on our debt, we are in a position to devote an additional $1 million over the next four years to our major maintenance budget. In addition, we can set aside as much as $3 million each year in which we have a budget surplus for the purpose of supporting facilities projects. This pool would enable us to jump start projects that require $5-15 million.

During this year’s planning discussions we have affirmed our goal for future facilities investments: to energize our distinctive educational experience while leveraging our academic strengths. The largest project will be replacing the Hall-Atwater science building with first-rate laboratories and teaching spaces. We also expect to make significant improvements to how we house our collections and how we learn from them; expand the Film Studies center; and revitalize the Public Affairs Center. With the help of trustees, we have developed planning scenarios for this work.

These projects, amounting to more than $250 million in facilities improvements, will be pursued in stages with input from faculty, staff and students and in concert with fundraising. Although we will be doing significantly more facilities work in the next decade than we’ve done in the previous one, it remains imperative to continue to build the endowment. At one point during the Great Recession, our endowment was under $500 million; it now is over $900 million, and building it further is essential for any serious, sustainable effort to make Wesleyan affordable.

Our current plan is to raise $40 million annually, of which $10-11 million goes to the Wesleyan Fund (meaning the dollars are spent annually). Although the positive effects of THIS IS WHY are just kicking in, we are already thinking about the next fundraising campaign, and three areas of focus have emerged: facilities; financial aid and internships; innovative academic positions and programs.

Looking Forward

During the years to come, we will strive to add value to the Wesleyan diploma while critically evaluating our educational practices. Are our students finding the educational resources they take with them after graduation to be as valuable as they can be? Can we strengthen those resources? Can we provide them to students more efficiently, more affordably? The future seems more uncertain than ever, and it behooves those who care for Wesleyan to anticipate how we might react to various kinds of disruption. A task force of trustees, staff, students, faculty and alumni is exploring radical alternatives to current educational models. Some examples: if we were constrained to charge only $100,000 per student for an undergraduate degree (instead of our current $250,000+), how would we construct an education we believed in? Should we aspire to spend more per student, or to make a high quality education cost less? What other degrees and certificates should we offer our students that would be relevant to their likely paths post graduation? How much of a liberal education could we make available for credit online? If someone offered us space for a campus, say, in New York, Los Angeles or Shanghai, what would we want to build there and why? …These are only some of the questions that I trust will animate ongoing conversations as to what alternative futures we can envision for Wesleyan in particular, and higher education in general. Complacency is the enemy of learning, and we aim to build a culture of continuous improvement by testing our conventions with evidence and imagination.

Over the years, I have occasionally asked the Board to consider what would be missing if Wesleyan closed its doors. What do we stand for in the eyes of our own community and the broader public, and what do we want to stand for? At the end of the Butterfield years and when I was an undergraduate, a Wesleyan education stood for what we’ve phrased as “boldness, rigor and practical idealism.” Pragmatic liberal education at Wesleyan is centered in free inquiry, experimentation and creative practice, and it depends on cultivating an inclusive learning community. Wesleyans are open to ambiguity and complexity, take responsibility for their beliefs and actions, seize opportunities and solve problems.

It has become ever clearer to me that our university can – even more than now – represent something relevant and admirable in American higher education, not just for our own alumni and friends but also for a much broader constituency. At a time of intense pressure for vocational training, Wesleyan can be an even greater champion of pragmatic liberal education – teaching students to become translators and innovators as they explore problems and opportunities that matter to people inside and outside of academia. I see our “bold and rigorous” work adding substantial value to our diplomas and making lasting contributions to our country and beyond.

In a time of turbulence and worry, Wesleyan continues to attract and educate “fearless optimists.” We graduate practical idealists whose understanding of the challenges ahead does not diminish the capacity to envision opportunities for themselves and the communities to which they belong. I do believe that the world needs Wesleyan graduates more than ever. It needs their work ethic and their exuberance, their skills and their imagination, their leadership and their compassion, their practicality and their idealism. It needs their ability to translate ideas and dreams into powerful and sustainable practices. Our job is to meet those needs by building the very best Wesleyan we can imagine, true to its traditions and confidently facing the future.

-Michael S. Roth, President
 
March 23, 2017