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A Vision Statement for Wofford College

By: Benjamin Dunlap
February, 2012

Every morning, at or before the crack of dawn, when I descend the stairs of the Wofford President’s House on my way to get the daily papers, I pause in front of a former occupant’s portrait. It’s Henry Nelson Snyder, depicted in the style of John Singer Sargent (it was an era of triple-barrel names) at the youthful beginning of President Snyder’s forty-years in office. He looks natty and energetic, very much in command of himself and of the future, the epitome of a masterful planner. No doubt he was coming off the three or four-month vacation that presidents routinely took back in those halcyon days. My guess is that, as far as planning goes, he already aspired for Wofford to be the second Phi Beta Kappa institution in the state—that seems almost implicit in his jaunty pose and confident half-smile—but, if he’d had even a glimmer of the times that lay ahead during the Great Depression, his expression might have changed. Actually, looking a little closer, you can glimpse a hint of firm resolve that suggests how good a crisis-leader he would be.

Grasping all this as a preamble to the morning’s headlines helps me set the bearings on my own presidential compass, and the thought that repeatedly springs to mind is of how President Snyder would assess his own plans for Wofford if he could see the college today. I think he would surely be gratified at the size and grandeur of the campus. He would note with mixed emotions that many landmarks of his day are gone, but he would admire the fact that, despite our vast increase in acreage and proliferation of new facilities, Old Main is not only intact but handsomely equipped in ways that he could scarcely have imagined. An elevator? A rope-less bell that rings by itself? Teaching technology of a sort that even Jules Verne had failed to predict? It’s true he might regret the abandonment of a public declamation requirement for every student, but I think he would otherwise nod with that same half-smile, pleased that so much of his legacy still survives. I would want him to see the latest Princeton Review with its entry proclaiming our “beauty, brains, and brawn” as the elements of “an academic powerhouse” in which “everyone knows each other and is willing to help each other all the time.”
“Good,” he would nod again, indicating his approval.

I’m fairly certain he would not be astonished by the presence of women or by the size of the student body—those were more or less predictable, given the passage of time, even in 1902. His main concern would almost certainly be to confirm that the essential character of the college still depends on the breadth of a true liberal arts curriculum and that its emphasis in turn still rests on who our students become as well as what they learn. He would be reassured that John Wesley’s example continues to be affirmed by our unwavering commitment to “the unfettered pursuit of knowledge and the creative search for truth.” And he would want to thank all those who have guided this college to its present eminence, most especially those who have given so generously to keep his vision alive.

But, as President Snyder might have pointed out in one of his moral lectures, the point of our enterprise is that our young men should continue seeing visions while our old men dream their dreams. So here’s a dream I invite you to share: imagine that we ourselves might return a hundred years from today—or, even sooner, for our 175th anniversary in 2029 or our bi-centennial in 2054. What might we find on those occasions? The question matters because there can be no doubt that those who’ve taken our places by then will hold us responsible for decisions we’re going to have to make over the next few years. So where, precisely, are we headed?

To formulate a viable answer, our first task must be to agree on our goal, which—to my mind, at least—corresponds in essential ways to that of a century ago, but with a more competitive edge. As President Snyder himself would have said, we seek to instill both excellence and virtue, equipping our students for success while pointing them towards a life well lived. But today we’re more inclined to concede that excellence is a moving target, not measured solely by what we are but by what we think we might become relative to the best of our peers. Or, to put that in the simplest terms, what we seek is to be a top-tier college—a top-tier, residential, liberal arts college.

By almost any metric, we are already among the best half-dozen such institutions in the South, and, in my estimation, we should aspire over the next few years to be one of the top three. That is a tall order, realistically speaking, because our chief competitors enjoy up to ten times the financial resources that we possess and because, though we consistently compete above our heads (that is “the Wofford way”) it tends to be the same with institutions as with individuals: barring egregious mistakes, the rich get richer while, barring major windfalls, the not so rich remain where they are, at least in relative terms. Assiduous efforts can close the gap, as has happened in higher education over the past several decades, but that has excited equally determined efforts by the wealthier institutions to offer expensive initiatives that their competitors can’t afford, thus intensifying an already existing arms race and contributing to an upward spiral in comprehensive fees. And as with all attempts at mutually assured destruction, the anticipated end result is not a stalemate, but the ruin of the losing party, which then retreats to a lesser niche in the academic food chain.

Make no mistake about it, we are in such a competition now, and there are only two possible outcomes: either we consolidate our recent advances or we re-define our goals. If we choose to stay the course, we will have to build our resources further while continuing to make far-sighted decisions regarding what keeps us in the game and what we can afford to forego. What that means for the planning process is that we need to agree from the outset on what is truly essential.
Let me tell you my opinion.

First and foremost must be the quality of our academic programs and of the faculty who serve them. This concern is so central to our mission that neglecting it—or the things required to sustain it—risks making all else irrelevant. Salaries, benefits, program support are crucial aspects of this concern, but, speaking as a professor as well as a president, I can assure you that nothing matters more to those of us in the trenches than fairness and collegiality and a shared recognition of their importance. Salaries must not come at the expense of programs that define the significance of our careers.

Next, we absolutely must build our financial aid capacity to a level enabling us to maintain our targeted enrollment without diminishing the peer value of our students to each other and without diverting funds from our academic mission. To that end, we need to launch an immediate capital campaign to generate more funding for endowed scholarships. In tandem with this initiative, we need to increase the number of completed applications, drawing on an ever wider admissions footprint. We have made great strides in this direction already, but we need to go even further, both in numbers and in outreach. That effort should be supported by additional investment in our admissions staff, its facilities, and its technical resources as well as by an expanded emphasis on marketing—though I trust it goes without saying that Wofford’s reputation for authenticity as opposed to glitz is an essential part of its institutional character, which we never intend to compromise.

Now, before we ascend to 30,000 feet, we need to take stock of where we are at this moment and what immediate concerns must inevitably impinge on our long-term planning. Very briefly, we are nearing the end of a decade-long expansion that has nearly doubled the size of the campus while increasing the student enrollment by roughly fifty per cent. During that same period of time, major facilities have been added and renovated—the Milliken Science Center, the Richardson Athletic Center, Old Main, The Village and its culminating Phase V multi-purpose structure, Russell C. King Field, Lesesne and Wightman residence halls, the Joe E. Taylor Athletic Center, the Goodall Environmental Studies Center, the Anna Todd Wofford facility, the Milliken Pavilion, and the Montgomery Music Building along with numerous other projects. Grounds have been extended and beautified, turning more than 170 acres into what the current Princeton Review describes as a “stunning campus. . . designated as an arboretum” and serving as “an idyllic backdrop.” New academic majors, such as Theater and Chinese, have been added to the catalog and an Honor Code adopted. Teaching loads have been lowered and the student-teacher ratio improved to 11-1. We have become a recognized leader in academic assessment, using sophisticated methodologies to improve what we do while providing hard evidence of a richly value-added experience, earning us a coveted Best Value designation. Central to that distinction is our newly designed Center for Professional Excellence, offering every Wofford student a practical four-year bridge to future employment. To cap all this excellence off, our athletic teams are now competing with great success at Division I level while both the reputation and the reality of student experience have given rise to a widespread acknowledgement that Wofford is as good as the very best.

In fact, because of these recent investments, our programs and facilities are more on a par with those of other top-flight institutions than ever before. But we still have needs. We need to make better provision for the visual arts, for the study of Latin and Greek, and for restoring our Community of Scholars or other student research support. We need to complete the renovation of our older residence halls, to find additional parking solutions, to build a new arena and/or intramural athletic facility, and to construct a new fraternity row. Last but hardly least, our biggest near-term need is for a new or dramatically expanded and refurbished library that, in addition to its current services, will include an array of flexible, technologically equipped, interactive spaces to facilitate novel new approaches to how and what we learn. Actually, for this particular undertaking, our timing may be fortunate, enabling us to build a true “library of the future” as opposed to an exorbitant monument to the past. But, either way, the project’s price tag won’t be cheap, and, though that list of remaining needs is relatively short, the overall cost is somewhat daunting.

Here let me pause to make a personal recommendation about an imminent decision. Though we have planned the construction of a new residence hall, I would suggest that we forego, at least for the moment, any further growth in the incoming first-year class—thus obviating any immediate need for additional housing and permitting us to use at least five million dollars from our recent bond issue for one or more of the following possibilities: completing the renovation of Marsh and Greene Halls, investing in cost-saving sustainability initiatives, or paying down our bond debt (an option that we’ve carefully preserved) and thereby reducing our debt service by a substantial annual sum. Because our endowment and enrollment projections are so strong for the upcoming year, we can follow this course without in any way retarding our current momentum or jeopardizing future enrollment growth should we decide to pursue it.

So, back again to the central question: having acknowledged such near-term concerns, how and why should we proceed with a long-range master plan? We have, of course, devised them in the past—though, as far as I can tell, no one has paid them much attention. When I became president 12 years ago, I wasn’t even told of their existence, so I composed one for myself, identifying where we were most deficient in comparison with our most highly-regarded peers. In addition to existing programs and facilities, those shortcomings involved teaching loads, faculty hires, student enrollment, fine arts, career services, and extracurricular activities. Above all, they pertained to the size and management of our endowment and fundraising to expand it. But they did not involve redefining our institutional character. To the contrary, they involved preserving the sense of community and dedication that was a hallmark of the college under President Lesesne, just as they included reaffirming the college’s historic bond with the Methodist Church. It was clear that we needed to build on such institutional strengths as our Interim term and options for study abroad. It was equally clear that we needed better marketing and communications, more opportunities for professional development, and more competitive athletic teams.

When I visited with Mr. Milliken shortly after my appointment, he impressed upon me the need to be fiscally prudent, but then he asked if I had a big idea beyond preserving our current points of excellence and enhancing our reputation. I confided to him that I had a dream of acquiring property on the other side of Evins Street and converting what was then McDowell Street to a residential style of senior housing. He considered that for a moment, then said it would have to wait. We had more pressing concerns.

He was right, of course. For the truth of the matter was that the pathway for our immediate future was altogether clear in the year 2000 and that our ability to follow it depended most of all on creating greater revenue. To accomplish that, when all is said and done, there are only three possibilities: one is to enroll and retain more students, another is to raise comprehensive fees, and the third is to build the endowment. Twelve years ago, it was obvious that we needed to do all three—as we have done, quite successfully. But, at this point in our history, I think we need to concede that, commensurate with what we are and want to be, there is an inherent limit to the first and second of these strategies, and it is the third on which we must primarily rely. . . at the same time recruiting more widely, controlling the discount rate, and maximizing an already high rate of student retention.

Having reached that conclusion because of a concern for what we are and what we want to be, let me acknowledge several programmatic priorities that we ought to keep in mind:

  • Continuing to be a national leader in study abroad opportunities, emphasizing language acquisition and cultural awareness as critical parts of each student’s experience,
  • Maintaining and expanding our emphasis on civic engagement and leadership, making community service an essential component of our curriculum and providing both support and training for future non-profit careers,
  • Keeping spiritual inquiry and a search for higher meaning at the center of our mission, encouraging diversity of every sort in our student body as we continue to subscribe to “a movement of people from all faiths and traditions. . .working together to change the world,”
  • Connecting the latest technologies to an emphasis on innovative teaching and learning, most especially working in teams as well as individual research, internships, and real-life problem solving,
  • Making sustainability a central concern of both the management of the college and our students’ awareness. 

Let me clear about these priorities. It is because they’re so important today that I have such confidence that, long before 2029, we will have made great progress regarding each. But my basic premise in including them in these remarks is that we cannot hope to plan wisely without understanding who we are and how we got here. Indeed, the questions before us are precisely those in the title of the Paul Gauguin painting that Mr. Milliken had made into a tapestry and hung here on the Wofford campus: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” The first two are what we’ve been discussing. Now let’s turn to the last: where exactly are we going?

When, in 2029, our dodransbicentennial rolls around (believe it or not, that’s what a 175th anniversary is called), I will be 91 years old and might just have a chance to confirm the wisdom of decisions to be made in the next several years. About some of these decisions, I have a passionate conviction, much of which I’ve shared already. I am certain, for example, that we should continue to aspire to the very highest degree of excellence and that we have to be realistic about what it will require for us to keep that faith. We cannot shortchange the means and expect to achieve the ends. I am equally committed to the liberal arts ideal as opposed to a merely vocational or even a strictly pre-professional curriculum, for I believe that both creative minds and enlightened leaders are more often the products of the sort of education we now offer and should continue to offer as long as we exist. But that very phrase—“as long as we exist”—suggests three more decisions regarding our future direction, each of which may well affect whether we do, in fact, continue to exist.

First, how big do we want to be—and is whatever we decide tantamount to how big we’ll have to be? Though further growth may well be linked to the odds for survival, I am, like the late Vaclav Havel, prone to embrace an ideal of thinking in macro terms while living in a micro situation. So I worry about the risks to our sense of community—hence, to our essential character—if we grow a great deal larger. I understand the financial advantages of growth, but, with an enrollment of 2500 or more, we will clearly be something other than what we are. We are still, I think, essentially what we were with an enrollment of 1000, but I’m inclined to think we should stop—or pause, at least, for more than a year or two—at a number somewhere between where we are today and 2000 at the most. As I’ve already suggested, this will be a crucial decision not only regarding what we prefer but what circumstance might require. If, after careful study, we do decide to push our numbers higher, we should do so as judiciously as we can, adding a few at a time while doing our best to balance the value of community against a need for revenue.

Second, what sort of programs do we want to offer? Throughout our history thus far, all our resources have been devoted to a single mission, the teaching of undergraduates, but do we want to consider the possibility of graduate programs in business, education, medicine, theology, or creative writing? How much should we engage in developing lifelong-learning programs, both on-campus and on-line? And, as we currently host the Liberty Fellowship, an affiliate of the Aspen Institute, do we want to establish a seminar center for additional programs of this sort for business and government leaders? There are those who regard the small, private, undergraduate liberal arts college as an endangered species, both as an academic model and as a business enterprise. Do ancillary programs of the sort I’ve described represent a desirable adaptation or a loss of identity?

Finally and most unavoidably, we have to consider technology and its impact on the future. Most institutions of higher learning now have a presence on internet sites such as iTunes U on which they publish lectures and courses of study. Some of them, like MIT, are offering certification and thereby raising the possibility that our tradition of earned degrees granted by accredited institutions in exchange for fees and compliance with controlled regulations may become a thing of the past. It’s true that the Inn-on-Main continues to flourish alongside the Marriott, but will there no longer be a place, even as soon as 2029, for expensive, four-year, face-to-face education in what may have become by then “boutique anachronisms”? Should Wofford begin developing an on-line catalog of courses, and, if so, using what sort of business model? How exactly should we move from using databases to producing for and contributing to this high-tech revolution? Should we consider compressing the full undergraduate experience into shorter periods of time, and is the “full undergraduate experience,” shot through as it is with elaborate and expensive social and athletic distractions, too extravagant to sustain? More specifically, are big Division I athletic programs so over-grown and corrupt—as their critics keep insisting—that smaller institutions should return to the amateurish integrity of Division III? A change in basic epistemology, if that is indeed what is underway, may well have wide-ranging consequences. And even knowing where we want to go, what must we do to get there, what trade-offs must we endure? “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

These are sobering questions, to be sure. But, if the practice continues, in the not too distant future a portrait of me will presumably hang somewhere on this campus. I do not expect to appear either young or dapper, but I hope I will be represented as totally confident about our future. I hope some future president will pause long enough in front of it in 2054—when I will have just turned 117—and wonder if I and those around me had truly guessed what Wofford would have become by then. I trust they will understand how big and imponderable some of the questions seemed, though, of course, the outcomes will have been long since determined and we will be praised or blamed in large measure for things we can’t control. What reassures me today is the thought that, important though it is to make the right tactical moves, most important of all is knowing and defending both who we are and what our mission is. The essence of Wofford has always resided mainly in its honesty, integrity, and authenticity—we deliver what we promise, and we are what we purport to be. As President Snyder knew so well, we are here to promote self-knowledge as well as practical skills, to generate the courage to live by one’s convictions, and to make this world a better place because there is and will always be a Wofford College. Should any of us return in 2029 or 2054, that is, I am quite certain, what we will discover.