About 30 years ago, I would be staring at my computer wondering what my column in The Torch would be this week. My Editor-in-Chief (and future wife) would be calling my house to harass me about the copy deadline, and finally I would decide on the topic. This time, the topic is easy – the future of Wittenberg.
Small, private, liberal arts colleges in America are becoming an endangered species. Why? Rising tuition, student loan debt, educational alternatives, credentialing pressures and declining enrollment are some of the reasons. Additionally, the political proposal for free public college tuition could bring another 10-15% drop in private college enrollment, according to a study by researchers at Georgetown University.
Members of Wittenberg’s community (students, faculty, administration, friends and alumni) need to have an “all hands on deck” attitude to weather this storm – but what should we do? Well, I had a teacher in high school that probably posed the question best, “Will you stand out or be outstanding?”
My answer – Wittenberg needs to be outstanding.
What does that mean – “outstanding?” Well, for students it means that they achieve academic excellence and demonstrate accomplishments that reflect a passion for making a difference. For our faculty, it means challenging their students with new ideas, and never being satisfied with the status quo. For our administration, it means being the enabler of outstanding acts of achievement, as well as providing inspirational leadership to “stay the course” of excellence.
Now comes the tough one. What about friends and alumni? Well, the phrase: “Having light, we pass it on to others” comes to mind. Now that probably sounds a little hackneyed, but let’s give it a chance for a minute. I think that friends and alumni of the university should give their support to Wittenberg in ways that help the school be outstanding – not just stand out. They should help to illuminate the path for today’s graduates to their careers, and they should help kindle the fire of curiosity and investigation across the entire Wittenberg community. They should help connect the administration, faculty and students to the world.
In my years following Wittenberg, I had the privilege of helping to grow a multi-billion-dollar company, pursue technical and scientific excellence in my field, work in countries around the world, and raise three daughters with my wife – the most satisfying achievement of all. During that time, I also had the pleasure of working with outstanding colleges and universities of all sizes. What makes these institutions outstanding is that they attract the highest quality faculty, and create an experience that is unique to their institution. What makes those experiences unique is not the physical trappings (e.g., buildings), but the intellectual and emotional development that is forged in the experience. From this unique experience, students become entrepreneurs, researchers, teachers, thinkers, administrators, artists, leaders and more.
Of course, these institutions all have administrations that are balancing the needs of their internal departments (including admissions) with the faculty, students and alumni that all have ideas that could result in the institution standing out or being outstanding. During all of this, it is important that the Board of Directors and senior leadership of the university remain focused on what is of utmost importance – delivery of an outstanding educational experience that leaves a lasting impression on its graduates and forges their character.
As the Wittenberg Board of Directors and stakeholders work to develop the new Strategic Plan for the university, I would urge them to consider choices that lead to being outstanding versus standing out. I believe that this means investments in faculty, academic programs, and experiences that elicit intellectual and emotional growth in the Wittenberg community. As just one example, I would suggest targeted fundraising activities to create key endowed academic chairs to anchor, inspire and unite the university community in the shared goal of making a difference in the world. These are not inexpensive to do (around $2M for each endowed chair), but the payoff would be a perpetually inspired and united university community.
Finally, I think that Wittenberg’s alumni should be called upon to help their former departments navigate and resource the uncertain future that faces our Alma Mater – not just with their money, but with their ideas. To current students and alumni, let me say – we all owe Wittenberg a lot. This school deserves to be outstanding.