Wesleyan Strategic Plan Review: August 2023

Wesleyan’s Board of Trustees approved the strategic plan Towards Wesleyan’s Bicentennial [TWB] in the fall of 2021. In the semesters immediately following, the COVID-19 pandemic continued to command attention and overshadow much of the university’s work. As of summer 2023, campus has more or less settled down to the new normal, and it was a good moment to take stock of where we were with respect to the goals we set out for ourselves two years prior. This memo—organized on the three overarching goals of TWB—takes note of areas in which we have made progress and those in which objectives and action items have had to be modified or where progress has been harder to come by.

1: Enhance our distinctive educational program, capitalizing on academic strengths

In discussions with the Faculty’s Educational Policy Committee, it became clear that several colleagues objected to the statement in TWB that investment in traditional academic departments often slows curricular innovation. Rather, they saw Wesleyan’s experimental ethos in a productive balance with traditional departments. Keeping both perspectives in mind should be helpful in deciding how best to energize the curriculum going forward.

In pursuing our objective to strengthen the connection of liberal learning and lifelong learning, the Board of Trustees has created a task force on pragmatic liberal education. The point of this work will be to identify or create signature Wesleyan programs that exemplify the ways in which our liberal arts approach results in graduates who are particularly adept at putting their education to work beyond the university. As a complement to this task force, the Gordon Career Center has been developing a strategic plan.

We have also been experimenting with online classes for alumni and for students in Title I high schools. Although it seems less likely now than it did when TWB was created that we will develop a fully online liberal arts degree, we are working on a virtual frosh year. We also have been devoting considerable effort to weaving civic preparedness into the curriculum and have engaged in a working group with the Institute Citizens and Scholars to get better at measuring our progress in this area. In the coming year, we will launch Democracy in Action, the goal of which will be to promote student participation in the public sphere in general and in the 2024 elections in particular.

With respect to furthering diversity, equity, and inclusion, the University has made real progress in hiring a more diverse faculty. This was particularly true in academic year 2021–2022 where 9 out of 10 of our hires added to the racial diversity of our faculty. We have also made strides in diversifying our staff with about 50% of new hires starting in fiscal year 2023 adding to the racial diversity of our campus. Our WesThrives campus survey identified the work we need to do around inclusion, and we have committed to making progress on that front. By the end of 2023 the discovery phase will be completed and we hope to have concrete action items established by the end of the calendar year. The Fries Center has championed language study across the curriculum, and the University has increased its language offerings. We have raised an endowment for a BA/MA program aimed at diversity in the sciences, and this model is the basis for programmatic experiments in film studies. The African Scholars Program was launched in the spring of 2023, and we will welcome a cohort of 13 students to campus this semester.

Led by Provost Stanton, we made important progress last year in defining the kind of faculty ecosystem we hope to cultivate going forward. This means ensuring academic freedom for all, and a transparent and fair system of review and evaluation. We have improved the student to faculty ratio—moving toward 7:1—and have done so in a way that enhances the University’s ability to retain excellent professors.

Progress with regards to teaching, research, and creative practice was probably most visible in our construction of new academic spaces on campus. Over the last two years the University has made enormous progress on the Social Science Building and the new Art Gallery and we have broken ground on the largest facilities project in more than fifty years, the new Life Sciences Building. We have also raised money for an Integrative Arts Lab on Hamlin Street, making use of a dilapidated building long owned by Wesleyan.

After intense in-depth discussion, our new College of Design and Engineering Studies (CODES) was approved. Faculty collaboration across a number of disciplines will be key to the success of CODES which offers linked majors across all three divisions. The Shapiro Center for Creative Writing and Criticism has grown ever stronger, thanks to philanthropic and academic leadership, and is poised to have a greater public presence as it strives to link writing to work beyond the university. For its part, the reinvigorated Center for the Arts will celebrate its 50th Anniversary this year with deeper, longer residencies for artists making new work alongside Wesleyan students. Faculty and students continue to incubate interdisciplinary computational social science (as called for in TWB), and we will find the appropriate institutional structure for this work in the coming years.

Residential, co-curricular and academic learning intersect in advising in the first two years of a student’s experience, and here we continue to have difficulties. We have made a few small adjustments over the past year such as creating an academic roadmap and launching an integrative advising pilot with a small subset of students. We will be focused on the appropriate next steps in the coming year. We do have a new strategic plan from Student Life, and there is now a campus planning task force that will prioritize future investments in student residences. With respect to athletics, our teams are competing at the highest level, and there have been important steps taken to integrate athletes in the campus culture more generally. Signs of this include the high academic performance of members of our teams (11 varsity student-athletes were elected last year to Phi Betta Kappa) and the participation of athletes in the arts.

2: Build on our reputation as a leader in pragmatic liberal education.

Communications has continued to highlight what makes Wesleyan distinctive through strategic storytelling. We launched our first digital edition of Wesleyan University Magazine using documentary video, podcasts, interactive photo galleries, and video and audio soundscapes that allowed readers to immerse themselves in the Wesleyan experience. More than 9,300 new users visited our website, and we received 26,000 unique page views across the digital magazine content.

Our recent decision to end legacy admissions created a slew of media coverage that doubtless increased awareness of our university while highlighting our important diversity initiatives; we hope this will result in more applications.

In hopes of developing stronger connections between alumni and the current campus community, we created mini-courses taught by our faculty. We ran two courses in fiscal year 2022; Living A Good Life was offered over the winter and Black Phoenix Rising in the spring. Engagement of alumni in these courses was not as strong as we had hoped, however, and we will continue to explore ways for our alumni and parent population to engage in lifelong learning. We are also working to identify ways to improve alumni participation in fundraising and volunteer activities as so far, our efforts have not moved the needle—with alumni fundraising remaining at 24%.

Our Admission and Communications teams have been working hard to strengthen the reach and predictive power of the Admission team's work. We had the largest application pool in history for the class of 2026 at 14,521 followed by the second largest applicant pool for the class of 2027 of 14,500, just 22 applications shy of breaking our record.

Communications launched Many Voices, One Wesleyan, a social media video series created in partnership with Advancement to increase engagement with and support from the Graduates of the Last Decade (GOLD) alumni and demonstrate the power of pragmatic liberal learning. Employing an authentic and unscripted tone, each video presents a unique story by asking an alum “8 Questions” while filming on location in their environment. With two releases per month, the series highlights Wesleyan’s vibrant community of innovators. Many Voices, One Wesleyan received exceptional engagement during its first eight weeks (February 2 – April 10), having released half of its episodes and drawing 116,000 views, 3,000 likes, and 126 shares or reposts across the University’s Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube Shorts channels.

3: While enhancing access, make Wesleyan more sustainable through prudent management and diversification of revenue sources.

While we have not made significant progress on reducing our reliance on tuition, we have remained diligent in our spending policies. A key takeaway from our recent New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE) re-accreditation review was the significant progress we have made in our financial standing since the last review, ten years prior. As NECHE put it: “This accomplishment is due to careful financial management and strong endowment returns. The University is in a financial situation that permits it to responsibly pursue its aspirational goals.”

We have steadily increased our investment in financial aid, devoting an additional 1% of tuition revenue every year to financial aid. We have continued to raise money to support scholarship funding. Unfortunately, given high competition, we have not improved the percentage of low- and middle-income students on campus. We continue to evaluate new initiatives to improve our yield for low- and middle-income students.

We have made significant progress in becoming a more sustainable campus by fast tracking some of the work on our steam to hot water conversion. Phase 5 of the steam to hot water conversion was completed this summer and with that, we achieved three milestones: the north and south loops have been connected creating a true campus hot water loop, about 40% of the campus was converted to hot water with the completion of this phase, and the north loop of campus steam will be abandoned. Finally, through our campus planning efforts, we are looking closely at our residential housing portfolio and how we can improve efficiency especially in our wood frame houses. We expect to have a solid plan in place by the end of fiscal year 2024.

In Conclusion

It has been two years since we set out in TWB our aspirations for what we want our university to be like in 2031. We still have much work to do in many areas, including first-year advising, building on pragmatic liberal education, improving alumni fundraising participation and the reach and predictive power of Admission. While TWB’s overarching goals are essentially “forever goals,” we try to pursue them in ways that are measurable, and we will continue with regular progress reports as we head toward Wesleyan’s third century.