President Hatch: Building a community of learning

With his inauguration only days away, President Nathan O. Hatch recently shared his thoughts on building a community of students and faculty, the challenges facing the professional schools, and inviting students over to the President’s House to hang out.

What are your impressions of Wake Forest after having been here three months?

It’s a community that does amazingly well at its central tasks. What has most impressed me are the reports from students about what a great experience they have here. The quality of instruction is demanding, and the personal attention they receive is amazing. Beyond that there is deep satisfaction with the overall experience here. I was amazed at the Orientation process (for new students in August); that was certainly the best I had ever seen. It involved an amazing degree of collaboration. That speaks to one of the best things about Wake Forest: the quality of the people who work here and their commitment to making the institution succeed.

President Nathan Hatch

President Nathan O. Hatch

You recently made your first visit to the Old Campus. What were your impressions of that campus and is it important that we remain connected to that past?

It’s very well preserved so you do get a clear sense of what, physically, Wake Forest would have been like. It’s a wonderful college town. When you see the streets on which faculty lived and you see the kind of campus it was, it gives you a powerful sense of what an interesting and significant community it was, and why leaving 50 years ago was painful, but necessary. Wake Forest couldn’t begin to be what it is today if it had stayed there. We tend to forget that this is an institution that’s 170-years-old and has a very deep history. We have to find better ways to remember and unpack that history here on this campus. Going down there is important, but it’s also important to keep the memory alive and the traditions alive on this campus.

In your acceptance speech last January, you said that the faculty is Wake Forest’s most important asset. How can the University better support the faculty?

A key question is how do you recruit, sustain, renew and retain outstanding people who are great teachers and scholars. It is a question of building intellectual capital, and you do that by having an environment in which scholars work and prosper. That has to do with competitive salaries and competitive research support, within a community and an environment that people want to be a part of.

Have you had much time to meet with students?

I’ve been pleased with the time I’ve been able to spend with students. Students here are bright and engaged. They wrestle with a complex set of problems: trying to learn, trying to prepare for the future, trying to find out who they are. I don’t think it’s an easy time to be a college student. I’ve been deeply impressed with how our students handle the various pressures that are put upon them, and how creative they are in taking on new and interesting challenges. I hope to spend a lot more time with them. We have this plan to turn the garage at the President’s House into a place where we can have groups of students over for relaxing, watching games, and other things that they would enjoy. The President’s House is University space, and we want to use it to entertain many from the community.

How would you characterize the “Wake Forest ethos”?

This is a place that takes individuals seriously. Part of that has to do with the scale of the place and its ideal of the teacher-scholar. It’s a community that assumes that individuals will not be treated as a number but as a person. I’ve used it on several occasions, but what Cardinal Newman said about an alma mater applies to Wake Forest: an alma mater “should know her children one-by-one, and not a mint, a foundry or a treadmill.” One sees that ethos in alumni, in the loyalty they have to their alma mater, in the deep patterns of friendship that they sustain, and their overall sense that Wake Forest stands for certain kinds of ideals and values which they hope also characterizes their own lives.

You spent some time this summer meeting with alumni groups. Did you hear a consensus of where alumni would like to see you lead Wake Forest?

Alumni are delighted at the academic trajectory that Wake Forest has been on the last two decades under Tom Hearn’s leadership. They see a Wake Forest that is far more national in scope, which appeals to a broader and more gifted body of students, but which still maintains its distinctive values. People are very ambitious for Wake Forest. They don’t want it to change its essential character, but they do want it to express that character as one of the nation’s premier universities. There’s great interest in continuing to build in line with our priorities to fulfill the kind of promise that Wake Forest has as a premier liberal arts university.

In one of your speeches this summer, you spoke of the great challenges ahead for Wake Forest, but said “where we need to go is yet to be determined, as is how we get there.” Can you give us an idea of how you will go about determining those challenges?

I’m still in the process of learning about the community and the kind of issues, whether they be financial or organizational or the overall culture, to find out what the priorities should be. Within the next six months, we will announce the next strategic plan for the University. That will be a very important time for the University to assess where it is and where it should go. In preparation for that, I think we have to be very much aware of what other universities are about, understand the environment of higher education today, how our structures compare with others, and where we need to be strengthened. I’m committed to a thorough assessment of where we are and comparing it with the best, and being willing to be innovative and an agent of change where that’s necessary. We have to be shrewd in our assessments and be willing to make hard decisions if we are to remain a premier university.

What challenges and opportunities do you foresee for the law school, the Babcock School and the divinity school?

Each of the professional schools has its own distinct challenges. The law school has a wonderful tradition, particularly here in the state of North Carolina; the number of lawyers and judges that we have trained is quite remarkable. It has improved greatly. It needs to continue to assess how to take the next step in terms of building faculty that can attract even better and more qualified students. At the Babcock School, there are a lot of strategic issues there — business schools are undergoing changes as people rethink what an MBA education should be. They’re thinking hard about what our relationship should be in Charlotte — we have an active program there now — and what kinds of opportunities exist there for the future. We need a lot of support for the Divinity School. We need to build certain anchor positions in the faculty. The greatest challenge for a new school is to find the support to build the core of a great faculty which then attracts great students.

What are the biggest challenges facing the medical school?

The medical school has also been on a tremendous trajectory and has a wonderful clinical, as well as, increasingly, a research mission. Related to that is the Piedmont Triad Research Park, which could not have happened if we had not been emerging as a national medical school with tremendous research capabilities. As we add intellectual capital there, it has the promise of spilling over to be the foundation of a knowledge-based economy in the area, so it has huge implications for Winston-Salem, Forsyth County and North Carolina. Some of the other challenges are making sure that our medical education for physicians and our huge range of residency programs and research programs remains at the cutting edge. Once again it’s all a people business. Talented people are wanted in many places. How do we create an environment to attract the most talented people in academic medical education?

Do you foresee an increase in doctoral programs?

In the Graduate School (of Arts and Sciences), we have a limited number of graduate programs. Where we have programs we want them to be superb. Once again the focus is not on size but on quality. Wake Forest’s place is to draw upon the best traditions of being a residential liberal arts college and a research university, but I don’t think our mission is to dramatically expand doctorate programs. Where we have faculty in place in the future and where it’s appropriate to begin modest doctoral programs, we can do that. But that’s not a requirement to build the kind of faculty that we need across the liberal arts. I do think we need to look at the synergies between our science faculties and those at the medical school, and some of that may lead to further doctoral education.

Looking ahead to the two symposia scheduled for Wednesday, “Why the Liberal Arts?” and “The Moral Challenges of Professional Life,” why are those topics important to you?

It’s important for us to address the educational issues that are key to our kind of mission. One has to do with a liberal arts education, and that is the core of what we do. That’s a hugely debated subject today about what universities are doing with the liberal arts and what are the main purposes. We have assembled a panel of people who are at the heart of these discussions. People like Stanley Katz and Andrew Delbanco have written superbly on this subject. The other three persons are very wise in their thinking about the nature of the contemporary university and what kind of education it should be delivering. That’s particularly pivotal as faculty here in the college are looking at curriculum issues as we try to structure a curriculum that is best for students.

The other symposium is “The Moral Challenges of Professional Life.” The professions have undergone seismic changes in recent years. Professions had a certain status, where you lived for a purpose higher than just monetary gain, but forces in the market have changed a lot of that. Doctors have far less independence, many are employees rather than independent professionals. There’s been a tremendous commercialization of the law. The profession of management obviously faces deep moral challenges with the huge scandals in the last five years, as does the church. I thought it would be interesting to bring together an outstanding panel to think about the moral challenges of all these professions today. Wake Forest should be a crossroads of engagement about pressing issues of our day. We should be a place that is having those discussions at the highest level.

Can you give us a preview of some of the themes in your inaugural address?

The great tradition of Wake Forest is a community of learning where people take each other seriously and are interested in intellectual and moral formation. I want to talk about a community of learning, a community of diversity, a community of service, and a community of faith. The theme is building a great liberal arts university as a living community.

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