Originally published December, 2008 in Wake Forest Magazine.
One of the “guiding principles” of the new strategic plan is to strengthen student-faculty engagement.
Greater than its parts
In adopting a comprehensive blueprint for the future, Wake Forest prepares to build a ‘collegiate university.’
By David Fyten
If colleges and universities were appraised according to the standards of the architecture and engineering professions, Wake Forest would be cited for its distinctive concept combining classical and contemporary elements; its stable foundation and dynamic superstructure; and a form that follows its function. Of special note would be its synthesis of disparate characteristics — an abiding respect for its religious heritage and cultivation of character traits and values, juxtaposed with a cultivation of the pursuit of truth and personal aspiration; the intimacy and panoramic perspectives of a liberal arts college alongside the vitality and concentration on scholarship and education in the professions of a major research university; of a distinctly North Carolina culture and accent that is comfortable and conversant in the global arena; and of sound financial stewardship coupled with big ideas and bold initiatives.
But even the most functional of edifices need periodic revamping to respond to opportunity and change, which is why Wake Forest’s leaders have adopted a strategic plan for the Reynolda Campus-the first comprehensive blueprint for the future since the Plan for the Class of 2000 twelve years ago-that holds promise of making the sum of its parts greater than it has ever been.
In examining the plan’s provisions, one naturally thinks of terminology that expresses the physical principles underlying the construction process-terms such as “bridging,” “leveraging,” and “balancing”:
- It proposes to leverage the Reynolda Campus strengths in undergraduate, graduate, and professional education by building bridges-between disciplines, and that connect the College, professional schools, and Graduate School — and fostering the development of interdisciplinary courses, joint degree programs, and collaborative research projects undertaken by faculty from different fields under the auspices of newly created centers and institutes.
- It strives to achieve better equilibrium in the student body by providing enhanced opportunity for gifted students from modest backgrounds and those who would be the first in their families to attend college, as well as those with creative talents and diversified scholastic interests. To ensure that it remains competitive for these students, the University will be mounting an intensive effort to build its need-based financial aid endowment significantly.
- It proposes to strengthen the academic programs of all departments and schools by strategically adding endowed chairs and tenure-track positions; by building and upgrading teaching and research space; and by enhancing the library and providing advanced computing technology.
- It seeks to extend and strengthen the bridges that already connect faculty and students by establishing nationally recognized academic and co-curricular mentoring programs, and also to leverage its relations with dedicated alumni into the building of mentoring, internship, and employment opportunities.
- It calls for development of more consistent and targeted efforts at public engagement, proposing steps to encourage faculty and students to bring their skills and knowledge to bear on contemporary problems and to build bridges to external communities and public interest organizations.
The sum effect the plan’s architects envision is what Provost Jill Tiefenthaler calls a “collegiate university” — a diversified community of scholars, mentors, and students who freely traverse the traditional borders dividing departments, disciplines, and postgraduate-undergraduate classifications to work closely and collaboratively for the benefit of the larger community beyond campus. In that respect, the plan might be called “Back to the Future” for its vision of a faculty akin to those of a half century or more ago (when, say, a historian felt more in common with the mathematician or professor of law down the hall than with another historian in his narrow specialty half a world away, which is common in higher education today) and of developing all of a student and not simply a part.
“The most gratifying aspect of the plan is its singular focus on preserving the heart of the Wake Forest experience-personal attention, superb teaching and scholarship, and the spirit of the place as expressed by our institutional motto, Pro Humanitate,” says University President Nathan Hatch. “While the plan’s individual features look ahead, each of them also derives from Wake Forest’s most deeply held principles and traditions. It is counterintuitive but true that we will need bold actions and prudent changes to protect and nurture what is most important here.”
In cultivating the collegiate university, Wake Forest’s leadership has adopted the following four “guiding principles”:
1. The collegiate university builds exceptional student-faculty engagement.
“Most students fall in love with learning through the personal connection they develop with faculty,” Tiefenthaler observes. “Because of the nature of higher education today, not all prospective professors are as committed to teaching as they are to scholarship. Their interests lie primarily in research. Yet we know that the blend of great teaching, enthusiastic mentoring, and excellent scholarship in a faculty member has the most positive impact on our students.
“To compete for and retain the talented individuals who can balance and apply these considerable skills,” she adds, “we must establish new chairs and professorships, offer the most competitive compensation packages, enhance library and technology resources, and provide comprehensive professional development opportunities.”
2. The collegiate university sustains a tradition of opening new doors for educational opportunity.
“Our history is replete with stories of alumni whose lives were transformed because a scholarship enabled them to attend Wake Forest,” the provost says. “In each generation, there will be individuals who emerge as beneficiaries of this important principle. No future leader should ever have to abandon the dream of attending Wake Forest because of inadequate scholarship assistance.
“Never in our history has our ability to help deserving students been more critical,” she says. “We live in challenging times, when far more educational options exist for these bright young people. Institutions with which we share applicants — our competitors — are taking extraordinary steps to recruit superb students. To ensure that Wake Forest remains a place that encourages gifted young people of average or modest means to fulfill their ambitions, we must build our financial aid endowment and increase the proportion of grants and decrease the proportion of loans in financial aid awards.”
3. The collegiate university reinforces the connections between the liberal arts and the professions.
“Given the scale of our campus community, the talents of our faculty, and the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of learning, Wake Forest is distinctively well positioned to foster productive connections between the arts and sciences and the professional disciplines of law, medicine, business, and divinity,” she notes. “To reinforce these links, we will create interdisciplinary institutes and centers to bring together faculty working in areas that have topical affinity so they can enhance their own scholarship and mentor students to think deeply and broadly about complex issues and engage in research endeavors that seek to answer society’s most urgent and vexing questions.
“To help students integrate their academic and career interests and fulfill our commitment to educating the whole person,” the provost continues, “we will develop a nationally recognized mentoring program that draws on the talents of faculty, staff, and committed alumni. We also will build strong professional networks that enhance the vocational discernment and career development of our students.”
4. The collegiate university educates the whole person-mind, body, and spirit.
“Students’ interest in people and cultures different from their own has risen dramatically over the last decade, paralleling the rapid changes in our world,” Tiefenthaler says. “There are many ways to ensure that our future alumni are prepared to live, work, and lead on a planet that has grown smaller, yet more diverse. Essential to the scholastic pursuit of this value are robust programs of international study that encompass comprehensive preparation, immersion, and reflection. Increased diversity on our campus will enrich our community and offer our students even more opportunity to learn from one another-an opportunity that incoming students now eagerly seek.
“We also will be more consistent and focused in our efforts to foster public engagement, encouraging faculty and students to bring their knowledge and talents to bear on pressing contemporary problems,” she states. “Wake Forest will be a crossroads of public understanding and involvement. Having a long history of training leaders of public service in many walks of life, we must be deliberate in cultivating closer ties to local and regional organizations and in offering students new and more purposeful ways to be of service to others.”
An interdisciplinary approach
The plan’s endorsement by the Board of Trustees this past spring culminated a two-year process involving the preparation of seventy-eight plans by units across the University in 2006-07 and the incorporation of commentary by the campus community on a draft document distributed in the fall and winter of 2007-08.
One of the plan’s most striking provisions is its creation of a series of centers and institutes to encourage cross-disciplinary research around broad themes, with the ultimate target of creating richer educational benefits from existing academic assets. Michele Gillespie, associate provost for academic initiatives, spent much of 2007-08 organizing gatherings of, and personally meeting with, between 150 and 200 faculty members to identify topics of mutual interest and potential research collaboration. The Office of the Provost, through the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, also held a number of interdisciplinary planning workshops among the faculty last winter.
Gillespie and her colleague, Associate Provost for International Affairs J. Kline Harrison, point to Nicaragua as a locus of multi-project and cross-disciplinary initiatives. Holly Brower (’83), associate professor of business and accountancy, and Jane Albrecht, associate professor of Romance languages, took a group of eight students to that Central American country this summer, teaching two courses and overseeing the students in their work with eight nonprofit development organizations. Also in Nicaragua, students at the Babcock Graduate School of Management have trained local entrepreneurs in basic business practices. And there have been preliminary discussions of involving students in the biology department’s environmental sciences program with reforestation projects.
Wake Forest trustee Thomas A. Dingledine (MBA ’78) and his wife, Karyn, are generous institutional benefactors. Their Fund for Responsible Business has supported the students’ effort to help establish sustainable commerce in Nicaragua, and they have pledged $2 million to acquire property that would serve as a center for the University’s initiatives in that impoverished nation. With a $1 million-plus gift, they also have established the Karyn Dingledine Art Scholarship for students with financial need in art, one of the programs on which Wake Forest is concentrating its efforts to attract more students with special creative talents.
“Interacting with other disciplines helps make our own disciplines stronger,” Harrison states. “If business students who aspire to work in the international arena are to contribute, they must understand the histories, cultures, politics, economies, and languages of the countries in which they serve.” Notes Mark Welker, associate provost for research: “It will be the people who know about more than one discipline who will be called upon to solve our biggest societal problems — energy, the environment, health care, education, global relations, monetary stability, economic growth — as we move forward.”
The Office of the Provost this year will commence the process of establishing interdisciplinary research centers by providing one-year planning grants for proposals in Energy and Environment, Molecular Signaling, Global Humanities and Cultural Diversity, Bioethics, Microenterprise, and Functional Health. The proposals were chosen from a dozen submissions in an inaugural call for concepts. Their sponsors will develop and submit five-year operational plans; those considered workable will receive seed funding. Proposals for additional centers will be considered annually.
Over the coming decade, as funding allows, the University will establish four institutes in integrative science, public engagement, the arts and humanities, and entrepreneurship and social enterprise to provide spacial, administrative, external funding acquirement, networking, and programming support for the work of the interdisciplinary research centers.
“Much has been written recently about the abandonment of the principle of educating the whole person by many colleges and universities,” Hatch notes. “Taking courses and acquiring a credential seems to be the goal at a growing number of institutions of higher education. Wake Forest has always valued the process of education as well as the outcome — of integrating all aspects of the collegiate experience. This means making interdisciplinary connections, teaching students how to think about life and career from many perspectives and to examine and test the validity of their beliefs, and making campus life a vital part of the educational process. If this philosophy is indeed diminishing elsewhere, it means that Wake Forest has a tremendous asset that defines our niche in higher education more clearly than ever before.”