Celebrating Wheaton’s ninth president and next chapter

President Michaele Whelan (at the podium) shares her vision of Wheaton’s future with alumni, friends, students, faculty and staff at the Boston Public Library. (Photo by Ashley McCabe)

Alumni and friends gather to hear about transformative priorities tied to tradition of success

Wheaton President Michaele Whelan introduced herself to the 100-plus alumni and friends gathered at the central branch of the Boston Public Library by describing one of her top priorities for the first days of her presidency.

“I have been focused on learning as much as possible about the college and the community—what people love about the institution; what they value the most; and where there are opportunities to change and grow in ways that make the college better and stronger for the future,” she said. “Tonight, I’m hoping to continue that conversation with you.”

It was an admirably direct statement of purpose. The gathering in Boston on Nov. 15, 2022, was part of the “Building on Tradition, Ensuring Transformation” celebration, intended as an alternative to the usual presidential inauguration. Others were held in Washington, D.C., and New York, N.Y., and more are planned for the West Coast during the spring.

Photo of tabletop piece. A laser cut wooden Wheaton seal with Tradition and Transformation on the base.
Alumni Relations asked Brandon Witter ’20, interim coordinator of innovation programs and spaces, to design and create the centerpieces for the Transition and Transformation events. Witter worked to make 10 centerpieces out of wood and plastic using the laser cutter and 3D printers in Wheaton’s Fab Lab.

“Instead of one static, externally focused event, I want to engage the extended Wheaton community—students, faculty and staff, alumni, families and friends—to celebrate the college’s strengths and embrace the future,” Whelan said.

The idea of replacing the campus ceremony and party that typically celebrates a new college presidency with an effort to reach out to Wheaton alums, families and friends where they live aligns with the president’s view of her role, too, said Janet Lindholm Lebovitz ’72, chair of the Board of Trustees.

Board of Trustees Chair Janet Lindholm Lebovitz ’72 speaks during the Nov. 15, 2022, celebration at the Boston Public Library. (Photo by Keith Nordstrom)

“During the presidential search process, we recognized that one of Michaele’s outstanding strengths is her skill in encouraging discussion, and her willingness and ability to listen and learn,” Lebovitz said. “The Tradition and Transformation events are a wonderful opportunity for Michaele to engage and learn from a wide audience of Wheaton alumni and friends, while simultaneously sharing and celebrating with them her vision and plans for the college.”

The response from alums has been enthusiastic. More than 250 people participated in the fall events.

“This is the first time the college has sponsored regional events off campus in at least three years. Alums were excited and very receptive to the opportunity to reconnect with each other in person,” said Merritt Crowley, vice president for college advancement. “Engaging our external community is vital to Wheaton’s continued success and growth, and introducing President Whelan to our wonderful community through a distinctive series of regional events has proven to be both educational and energizing for our alumni, parents and friends.”

Indira Henard ’03, who spoke at the kickoff event on Oct. 29, 2022, in the nation’s capital, offered a personal spin on the purpose of the gathering.

Alumna Trustee Indira Henard ’03 addresses those gathered at the kickoff event on Oct. 29, 2022, held in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Justin Ide)

“These events are designed to help us all reconnect with Wheaton and learn more about the college’s exciting plans for growth,” said Henard, who is the executive director of the DC Rape Crisis Center. “I am a true believer in the transformational power of the liberal arts because—like so many people here tonight—I am an example of the transformative Wheaton experience.”

In Boston and New York, the gatherings coincided with established national celebrations of philanthropy—National Philanthropy Day on November 15 and Giving Tuesday on November 29—which inspired alums to make support for the college part of the events. An anonymous donor put out a giving challenge, resulting in contributions of roughly $107,000 on those two evenings.

During her remarks, Whelan described the priorities that have emerged from her discussions over the past year with faculty, staff, students and alums as aligning with three overarching principles: developing resources for faculty, students and staff to achieve high-quality outcomes; spurring growth in the student body and innovation in the curriculum; and embedding diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging into all the college does.

The college’s newest academic programs reflect those fundamental commitments to growth, quality and equity, including the bachelor of science in nursing and new majors in design and criminal justice, restorative justice, and criminology, she said.

President Whelan was eager to hear from alumni and friends during the “Building on Tradition, Ensuring Transformation” celebration held in Washington, D.C. More events are being planned for the West Coast during the spring. (Photo by Justin Ide)

Fall 2023 will mark the start of other initiatives as well. The WheaGo Global program will allow first-year students to start their college career with specially designed study abroad options. The college also will introduce a new intercollegiate athletics program—water polo teams for women and men. The new offering will help draw more students from the West Coast, where the sport is more common, and it will more fully utilize the college’s competition-ready pool.

Whelan also is looking beyond 2023, and she told alums that more innovations are on the way, including offerings that go beyond bachelor of arts and sciences degrees as well as programs that serve high school students. The goal is to broaden the college’s reach by serving new populations, while retaining Wheaton’s distinctive character and liberal arts values, she said. And Wheaton faculty have been exploring the options with Whelan and other senior administrators.

“We are viewing all of the strategic priorities through the lens of the traditions that have come to define our institution and the transformative impact that the Wheaton experience has on students,” Whelan said.

One initiative that builds on the college’s strengths is the proposal to take a holistic approach to helping students prepare for life after Wheaton by establishing a life and career design center. The idea formed the central recommendation of a task force that Whelan established last spring to study how to build upon the college’s longtime emphasis on combining experiential education with the liberal arts and sciences.

“The center will offer programming for all students that will help them design their four-year college career and their post-Wheaton life and professional careers,” Whelan said. “This pragmatic approach to the liberal arts has a long history at Wheaton. In 1917, Catherine Filene Shouse [a member of the Class of 1918] organized the first intercollegiate Vocational Conference for Women at Wheaton; vocational conferences were held annually on campus for decades. Our intention is to build on that tradition in a way that positions our students for success.”

One of the college’s greatest sources of strength, President Whelan said, is the support of alumni, parents and friends. The recent opening of the Diana Davis Spencer Discovery Center Dedicated to Free Speech and Innovation, as well as the new strength and conditioning center in the Haas Athletic Center—both made possible through philanthropy—illustrate the impact of an engaged and generous community of individuals who are committed to the college’s mission. That dedication will help the institution continue to evolve in ways that best serve a new generation of students.

“The challenge that we face as a community now lies in transforming the college so that we are able to sustain the quality of the education that Wheaton offers,” Whelan said, speaking to those gathered in Boston. “Given the strong foundation from which we’re starting; the sense of shared interest and support from the college’s alums, families and friends; and all the exciting changes that are already underway, it’s clear that this is a task well within our reach. We simply need to identify the opportunities for continued evolution of the college and come together as a community to make it happen. The more that I learn about Wheaton’s past and its present, the more excited I become about its future. I hope you share that excitement.”