Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Wheaton College
Office of the President

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Inspiration, Adaptation, Evolution

Posted on August 28, 2012

Good afternoon. Welcome faculty, staff, and students to the opening convocation marking Wheaton’s 178th year. Class of 2013, I am pleased to see you in the robes you will wear again in May when you graduate. You look great! Best wishes to you as you begin your final year at Wheaton. Seniors, be certain to savor every moment, because before you know it May 18th will be here! I also want to welcome the representatives of the classes of 2014, 2015, and, of course, the very special first-year class of 2016, whose members are beginning their college career.

I also would like to recognize those 32 students who were the recipients of Presidential Awards this summer. These students maintained a grade point average of 3.90 in their academic work at Wheaton for the 2011-2012 academic year. Students please stand. I ask you to join me in applauding their achievement. (Applause).

INSPIRATION, ADAPTATION, AND EVOLUTION: CHARTING A PATH TO THE FUTURE

The start of a new academic year is always cause for anticipation. This year will be especially exciting. We have a number of new and creative programs starting. One of these programs is the MakerSpace, also known as WHALE. That’s short for the Wheaton Autonomous Learning Lab. This is a place for people who are interested in Do-It-Yourself arts and crafts, computer programming, robotics and engineering. I stopped by the other day to see exactly what was going on and watched a demonstration of their 3-D printer (specifically, a MakerBot Replicator). In fact, I even walked away with two of the Johnson Solids that had been produced on the 3-D printer (you know, the 92 convex polyhedra, identified by former Wheaton Professor Norman Johnson in 1966). I could have stayed there all day. What an exhilarating environment for experimentation, discovery, and intellectual stimulation. This is exactly the kind of program that belongs at Wheaton. What is even more exciting is that many of the students working together on projects in the MakerSpace will also be living together in a learning community in the Sem.

Another new program is the Wheaton Institute for Interdisciplinary Humanities, which will have its theme for the first two years--“The Humanities Give Back: The Role of the Humanities in Professional Fields.” And of course there are the new and enhanced minors in Business and Management, Public Health, and Jewish Studies.

Today, I would like to talk about our community’s future, the opportunities that it may present to us and the imaginative, creative collaboration in which we need to engage if we are to realize these opportunities.

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The title of my talk, “Inspiration, Adaptation, and Evolution: charting a path to the future” takes its inspiration from several sources that I want to acknowledge at the outset.

The phrase “inspired evolution of liberal education” is, no doubt, familiar to faculty and staff. It was suggested to us last spring, as a description of Wheaton’s path as a learning community, by a consultant working for the college. They interviewed a number of students, faculty, staff and alumni last year to understand better what makes Wheaton distinctive. As I recall it, our response was immediate and enthusiastic. The phrase reflects the legacy of our 178-year history, captures who we are today and expresses the institution we aspire to be.

This phrase appears as part of a larger statement that calls us all—faculty and staff, students and alumni—not only to be ready for change, but to embrace actively the opportunities for experimentation. It reads, in part:

We are proud of, and committed to sustaining and enhancing, the college’s ethos: adventurous, flexible, open to possibility. We work across borders, embrace change, challenge convention. We are the inspired evolution of liberal education.

I’m drawn to the word “evolution,” and not simply because we might use it as a point of distinction between ourselves and a certain other college in Wheaton, Illinois. Rather, it speaks to a process of incremental adaptation that seems particularly well suited to colleges and universities.

Now, I realize the peril that I could be in. To employ the metaphor of evolution is risky when your audience includes experts on evolutionary biology. But Wheaton has a long history of adapting to a changing environment in ways that have made the college distinctive … and stronger … while retaining our essential commitment to the value of a liberal arts education.

The gender-balanced curriculum that Wheaton faculty developed, beginning in the early 1980s, was a pioneering effort that brought work by and about women into the liberal arts curriculum. That work has influenced teaching and learning in colleges and universities across the country. For Wheaton, it has been a unique and powerful educational change, helping to preserve our special inclusive character through the transition to coeducation.

In fact, the gender-balanced curriculum set the stage for our current curriculum, which seeks to be even more inclusive. Through infusion, we strive to consider race and ethnicity and their intersections with gender, class, sexuality, religion, and technology in the United States and globally. What really sets us apart is that this is not a separate requirement for students. Rather, it is a requirement for faculty to integrate diverse perspectives throughout the curriculum; this approach has served as a model for higher education. It is a logical outgrowth of the gender-balanced curriculum project.

These adaptations have heightened Wheaton’s distinctive character. The college took another step in the mid-1980s that has had a profound impact in shaping who we are today. The establishment of the Filene Center in 1986 reflected Wheaton’s belief that learning takes place not only in the classroom, the lab and the library but also in work, service and internship experiences. It set us apart by integrating experiential learning into our curriculum and transcending the traditional career services center’s focus on assisting seniors with a job search. That step has led to all manner of further changes, such as the Wheaton Research Partnership, through which faculty members hire students to assist in research projects with support from Work Study funds. Or the variety of stipends and fellowships that we award for internships and research, nearly $700,000 each year.

The full story of Wheaton’s evolution is epic, and it is inspiring. The Wheaton Hymn summarizes it well at the beginning of the second stanza: “They builded better than they knew; they trusted where they could not see.”

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Now, as I understand it, evolution occurs not only due to what might be called meaningful changes within an individual or an organization, but also in response to forces in the larger environment.

Just recently, the local NPR station ran a brief series on how global warming might affect the City of Boston. A substantial part of the city sits on what was once bay or marshlands, and as you can imagine, the projected sea level rise, an expected outgrowth of global warming, could be a problem. The part of the report that struck me was a statement by planning officials that Boston and other cities had only recently changed their focus from trying to stop climate change - apparently now an impossible task - to trying to adapt to the changing environment.

Colleges and universities face a threat, too. It comes not from rising sea levels (at least not this campus, which is more than 100 feet above sea level), but from a growing disconnect between the academy and the society at large. In part, it is a function of economics. Over the past twenty years, the cost of higher education has grown faster than median family incomes. The result has been a growing gap between the actual expense of providing a college education and many families’ ability to finance that education.

This is a tough problem. I’m proud to say that Wheaton has taken a number of steps to address this issue, despite the fact that it required us to make some very difficult decisions. And we will continue to work on controlling and reducing costs, in every way possible. What we will not do is take actions that impact the quality of the education and experience that we offer to our students.

The disconnect is more than economic, however. The purpose of a college education is also contested terrain. An undergraduate degree has become increasingly essential for professional success. And that necessity often overshadows the traditional purpose of promoting intellectual growth and offering an entrée to a lifetime of learning. Indeed, it is common to encounter serious questions about the value and relevance of what colleges teach and how we teach.

The crux of the problem is the value proposition. That is: in today’s world, many families do not see the wisdom in paying more than $200,000 for a liberal arts education that may not lead to a job for their children.

We need to continue to find creative ways of making our case and demonstrating that a liberal arts education is the best way to prepare students not simply for entry-level positions, but for a life of learning and active citizenship as well as professional advancement. The short videos featured on the Wheaton website showcase great examples of the combination of professional and personal growth.

A great deal has been written on this subject over the past year, so there is no shortage of opinions about how to solve the problem. Many of the … quote … solutions … unquote that are offered present themselves as silver bullets, capable of transforming higher education. Count me as skeptical.

If you are expecting me to attempt to provide answers to addressing these issues, I suppose it is time to admit that is not my purpose today. I can’t. Even if it were possible, it would not be appropriate. This is a situation that we, the Wheaton community, need to work on together.

I believe that there is no single solution to these challenges. I hope you find that liberating, as I do. We need to be bold, ready to experiment. But we do not need to find the one, perfect solution. Strategic, thoughtful use of online learning technology may be appropriate, but it is just one possibility. There are many other options to explore. I suspect that we will develop alternatives that would not, could not, be dreamed of anywhere else.

Our great advantage is the critical and creative capacity of the Wheaton community.

We need to apply the skills of the liberal arts to solve the problem together. It will require us to to think critically about the challenges we face, our strengths as an institution and the opportunities that might exist.

We are nimble enough to be innovative and achieve that inspired evolution to which we aspire.

Over the next two years, we will be inviting higher education leaders to campus to engage us in conversations about the challenges facing higher education and the future of liberal arts colleges in particular. These guest speakers will be featured in both formal and informal settings.

It is hoped that our community’s engagement with these leaders will “prime the pump” as we prepare to enter a new planning process.

During our 178-year history, the Wheaton community has faced numerous challenges and has always found creative and innovative ways to address them. To be sure, the challenges facing higher education today—liberal arts colleges in particular, are daunting. However, I am convinced that working together as a community we will be able to address them. I invite everyone—faculty, staff, students, and alumnae/alumni to participate in this process.

“They builded better than they knew; they trusted where they could not see. They heard the sound of voices new; singing of all the years to be.” Every time I sing that stanza, I am both inspired and proud.

And so we begin a new academic year, full of promise and challenge and opportunity. May it also be full of inspiration. Thank you.

 

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