Recently I wrote to the Wesleyan community about our focus on building the endowment over the next decade. I indicated that our goal now is to direct no more than 25 percent of gift income toward operating expenses. This is a significant change—past practice was more or less 25% endowment and 75% operations. Our new goal aligns us much more closely with our peers. It’s clear that if we expect to remain competitive with the nation’s premier institutions over the long run, we must do a better job of strengthening our economic foundations, and we have begun to do so.
Sound fiscal management has been essential for reducing the draw on the endowment. We now operate in the 4.5%–5.5% range approved by the Board, and we are hiring new leadership for our investment efforts. We have reduced staff positions by about 10% (primarily through attrition and a voluntary separation program), and we are implementing many other changes that will reduce our base budget by $25 million without detracting from our core educational mission. We will not add to Wesleyan’s debt, but we are taking steps to fix the rates we pay. We are committed to maintaining fiscal discipline and limiting our endowment draw.
Endowment is the means by which investors in Wesleyan have a lasting impact on the success of the institution. Through gifts to the endowment, fiscal discipline, and prudent management, we will ensure that Wesleyan continues to offer a liberal arts education second to none.
But what should a liberal arts education look like a decade from now? How should a leading educational institution shape the meaning of liberal learning for the future? As I’ve thought about these questions, I’ve considered the possibility of developing a liberal arts approach to engineering and wondered how design thinking generally could have a more prominent role in our curriculum. Integrating our arts programs more fully into our academic programs (as with our new efforts in creative writing) remains an important priority for many of us at Wes. We have long had a commitment to interdisciplinary programs, but we grant tenure almost exclusively in departments. How should we balance the importance of disciplinary integrity with the importance of creating interdisciplinary innovation?
Conversations at the Trustee meeting touched on three main areas for curricular growth: (1) public policy domestically and internationally, (2) engineering and design, and (3) the study of the impact of technology on culture and society. It was interesting to talk about new possibilities, but we didn’t have the harder discussion about areas of the curriculum to which we should devote fewer resources. Given the financial realities of the next few years, we will not be able to make significant additions to our academic programs without cutting some others.
Dean Don Moon reminded us that while it might be good to have these general conversations at the Board level, each year the Wesleyan faculty develops dozens of new courses. Here are just a few examples:
Biol 173: Global Change and Infectious Disease—Fred Cohan is currently teaching this new Gen Ed course, which comes out of his research interests in the evolution of bacterial species (and involves a significant dance component!).
Chem 378: Materials Chemistry and Nanoscience—Brian Northrop’s research is directed at understanding molecular interactions and self–assembly processes that might be used in nano–scale devices—e.g. molecular sensors or motors.
Psyc 392: Behavioral Methods in Affective Neuroscience—Charles Sanislow is currently teaching this course linked to his research in post–traumatic stress syndrome, depression and other affective disorders.
Assistant Professor Laura Stark, Science in Society Program, has proposed a course called Reading Medical Ethnography (a study of different ways of approaching the study of health and illness); Professor Ann duCille has proposed an African–American Studies class called Love in the Time of Slavery (drawing on songs, poetry, fiction, etc.) that examines representations of love, intimacy, and marriage in early African American literature); Assistant Professor Michael Nelson has proposed Government, Global Environmental Politics (which covers a variety of environmental issues, along with the design and use of international institutions for managing cooperation and conflict on these issues).
I myself have developed a lecture course for the fall called The Modern and the Postmodern. We’ll read literature, philosophy and critical theory to try to better understand how the idea of the modern came to inform our sense of ourselves and our history in the West.
The curriculum has been evolving and will continue to do so. We can thank our scholar–teacher model for that! This model must be supported by strong economic foundations that ensure small classes and research support. It’s through their scholarship and creative practice that our professors develop new ideas that energize the classroom—ensuring that a Wesleyan education remains vibrant and relevant long into the future.