Wabash Blogs President's Blog -

March 16, 2009

Tell Me a Story: Narrative and the Grand Conversation

For almost three years I have been talking about the “grand conversation” of the liberal arts. I use that term, taken from my own undergraduate days at the University of Chicago, to point to the way in which conversation about things that matter — about big ideas and hard questions of human experience — lies at the heart of the liberal arts experience.

I see and hear this grand conversation enacted in every aspect of life at Wabash, even when Bachelor writer Royce Gregerson critiques my emphasis on conversation and calls for action. Royce in his criticism of the conversation participates in it.

Yet over the last few weeks I have been struck by the power of one aspect of that conversation: the stories we tell. Story telling, as grand as that can be in our literature, theatre, and rhetoric, is a humbler, more casual craft than argumentation.

Back when I taught composition, I used to try to get the most hesitant writers to describe something, then describe an action, then tell me a story, and finally work to the level of argumentation carrying a thesis.  
 

Posted on March 16, 2009 09:33 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

February 26, 2009

A Few Late Nights at Wabash

As colleges and universities all over the country respond to the financial crisis facing our nation and affecting our institutions in various ways, presidents have stepped up their communication with students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends. There are a lot of good reasons for doing this blog, but the financial turmoil has been one clear impetus for doing this blog at this time. Yet as vital as letters and frequent communication from the leaders of our colleges and universities can be, Wabash thrives on face-to-face communication. 

When we were new to Wabash in the fall of 2006, Dean Gary Phillips and I led off the fall semester with two chapel talks emphasizing our commitment to the grand conversation that marks a great liberal arts education, noting “Wabash Always Talks.” Everyone can get impatient with conversation; we can all feel talked out at times. But no other method of communication can have such power. As we work through our response to our current situations, the conversations on campus continue to be many and varied, with faculty, staff, in departments and divisions, and in working groups in every area of college life.

Last Monday, February 23, I invited all students who were interested to meet with me for a presentation and conversation about “Wabash College and the Current Financial Situation.” It is one of the interesting wrinkles of college life that when you want to talk to students, you need to do that at their time. So we met at 9:00 p.m. Monday evening.

I was helped in organizing this by the advice and counsel of Dean of Students Mike Raters and conversations with Mark Thomas and Craig Cochran, president and vice president of the student body, respectively. I had, of course, the advice of Chief Financial Officer Larry Griffith. The rest of the President’s Staff — Dean Gary Phillips, Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Steve Klein and Dean of Advancement Joe Emmick — were present to hear the students’ questions and ideas, and to respond to questions if needed.

For about a half an hour, I laid out my view of the challenges and opportunities facing Wabash at this moment, offering a kind of primer on how our revenues and expenditures work and the key importance of the endowment and its decline with some context to the national situation and the relative positions of other colleges. I described how we as a college are responding to these challenges. Then I took questions.

I think what I said was useful, but what was more important is that there were almost 150 students there to listen, to ask questions, and to respond; Wabash men taking their role in the life of college seriously, taking their lives as citizens of Wabash and citizens o the country seriously. 

These Wabash men knew of the crisis and their questions ranged from how decisions are made, issues that we are thinking of, how the endowment is invested and managed, and the effect of the crisis on financial aid, foreign study, programs, and opportunities. But throughout the questions a steady note was sounded: how can we help? Here were Wabash men offering ideas, asking questions, and wanting to help the College they love.  We went long and some conversations continued after the meeting was over. As I walked back to my office at 10:45, I was filled with pride in our students, doing exactly what we urge, want, and demand, taking their role in the College seriously, taking their responsibilities seriously as Wabash gentlemen, as responsible citizens of this and the larger world.

On Tuesday night, the Wabash basketball team upset the number three seed, Hiram College, in the NCAC tournament. The basketball team has had a choppy year, plagued by injuries, but they rose to the challenge with great skill and determination and the commonplace courage of Wabash men.

The account of the game on the website can do more justice to that achievement, but I want to mention just one thing. I know the basketball team arrived from the triumph at Hiram at 4:00 a.m. Wednesday morning after a seven-hour bus ride. Wednesday night, Chris and I joined a packed house at the performance of the challenging Tony-award winning play, Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, in the Experimental Theatre. Behind me sat basketball players Rich Kavalauskas and Aaron Brock. I said hello and congratulated them on the win, and we watched the play. I don’t know why they were there; maybe they had friends in the play, maybe they were supporting theatre, maybe they are taking theatre courses, maybe they are theatre fans. But they were there, present, showing up when they could have said, “I am too tired.”

The play was astounding in all ways. Billed as a black comedy, the language and events of the play are violent and terrifying. With a less able director than Michael Abbott the evening could have become a broad assault on the sensibilities of the audience. But it was instead a moving, intellectually challenging, and thoughtful exploration of the complexities of human spirit, artistic creativity and the horror that humans can do to one another. The cast Spencer Elliott, Matthew Goodrich, Dan Masterman, Luke Robbins, Clay Zook, Professor Stephen Morillo, Lynne Miles-Morillo, and their daughter Dione were extraordinary, incredible even, performing at a level of excellence that made the play alive. Few college theatre departments at institutions way larger would have the guts to try this play or the talent to pull it off. I was amazed. 

Chris dropped me off at my office because I had to finish up some paper work on a grant report, and I came out to my car after 11:00 to find a note stuck to my door handle. It read: “I noticed it was 11:15 at night and your car was still here. I hope you are not too busy and working late. I also hope your job is not too stressful right now. We are all praying for you and we want you and Wabash to succeed.” It was signed with no individual’s name, simply YWabash College.

It was late. In the dark parking lot by Center Hall, in a misty foggy rain, I was tired but reading that note and thinking back over the last three nights at Wabash, I was pumped by the energy, commitment, talent, generosity, and fundamental good spirits of Wabash men, the students who are not only at the heart of what we do but also provide the heart for all we do at Wabash. I drove home feeling very lucky indeed.

Posted on February 26, 2009 01:25 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

February 11, 2009

Culture, Anarchy, College Life, and MTV

Last Sunday night I spent a half-hour watching MTV. Not my usual fare, but this was the premiere of a comedy series entitled The College Humor Show, and I was curious. The show, as it turns out, has less to do with college life than the name might imply. It is a scripted comedy series that has the feel and look of “reality” television and springs from the highly successful website CollegeHumor.com.

CollegeHumor.com was founded in 1999 by two friends, Ricky Van Veen and Josh Abramson, when they were still in their teens. The website began with films of late night fraternity pranks and “college” humor generated by participants in the site. According to Nielsen Online, the website has garnered over six million viewers. In 2008, Van Veen and Abramson sold the website to InterActiveCorp, though they remain active in the company and are guiding this new venture into television.

The College Humor Show is set in the offices of the website and features, in this first episode anyway, the workplace of a fictional rival comedy website. Hi-jinks ensue as workers pull pranks on one another, intimidate the new guy, try to outdo one another in the amenities of their offices (a ball pit out of Chuck E. Cheese is constructed in a cubicle), culminating in a beer pong tournament between the rival comedy shops. Throughout we see the fast pace and seemingly amateurish visual look of reality TV and website sketch comedy. In one such sketch the lone female staffer is “soup’d,” i.e. has her face pushed in her soup bowl during lunch; and this is repeated several times with other foods.

I watched this with dismay. Animal House, that baneful model of fraternity life from over 30 years ago is a complex narrative of characterization and social comedy compared to this. Now, I understand that my comments could sound very fussy and out-of -touch. After all, MTV or this particular show is not exactly targeting college presidents or males in the first weeks of their sixties as their key demographic. And as a guy who grew up loving Jerry Lewis films, the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, and laughing at Mr. Ed, a talking horse, I probably don’t have a judgmental leg to stand on regarding high-toned comedy.

And though long a student and teacher of film and popular culture, I have missed key trends before. In 1971 after seeing a terrific performance by a young actor in the movie Panic in Needle Park, I commented that this guy was great but he will have no future because he looks too much like Dustin Hoffman. That actor, a certain Al Pacino, has done okay for himself. So maybe The College Humor Show will be this generation’s I Love Lucy or Laugh In or M*A*S*H. I doubt it, but I have been wrong before.

But what really sinks my spirit about this show is the depiction of young people here, and particularly the view of young men. These guys make the slacker stereotypes of ’90s film look like existential heroes. The men of The College Humor Show are full of furious intensity in inconsequential competition and humorless pranks, which are not only not funny to this viewer, but bring little delight to the participants. The characteristic mood and presentation is of a tired and world-weary depression even in the midst of pranks. These men seem old and tired and sad to this much older viewer. In this comedy, no one seems to be having any fun.

And the notion that work is a continuation of a college experience bounded by “fraternity” pranks, beer pong, vulgarity of language, and gross physical humor demeans college and work, and makes them both inconsequential experiences to be endured. Now, I can hear you saying, “Lighten up, dude. It’s a comedy show.” And the world does not need to be bounded always by what the 19th century critic and poet Matthew Arnold called, in his vital book Culture and Anarchy, “high seriousness.” This I acknowledge. I have written comedy and even worked as a gag writer for some time and like to think of myself as a pretty funny guy.

Still, out there somewhere guys are watching this show and are having once again a message conveyed to them that says there is no real work worth doing, having fun means being mindless and curiously humorless, boys will be boys, and a lack of responsibility, initiative, ambition, and purpose is cool.

Maybe I am too grumpy. But I would feel better if there were more alternative images of young men in our culture. I would like to see out there images of young men that call forth from them joy in their lives and their prospects, delight in what Jim Amidon called in his Chapel Talk last week “the swagger” of Wabash men, and the delight that comes with good work done well among good friends, the kind of experience at the heart of Wabash.

I continue to talk about the ways in which Wabash is distinctive in that we call out of young men their capacity for greatness, their appetite for a mature relationship with one another, their teachers, and with the larger world. I think that is true and a great marker of this great college. But what we do is maybe even less startling and seemingly less ambitious. We call young men to a mature imagination of themselves and what it means to have a good life, with appropriate measures of Arnoldian high seriousness but also with a generous quantity of good laughter, delight in one another, kind humor, and sharp-eyed joy in life. The laughter and genuine amusement I see all around at Wabash is a college humor worthy of a website, a TV show, and even more than six million viewers.

Posted on February 11, 2009 07:23 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

January 27, 2009

Alumni Mentors and Teachers

On Saturday, January 17, student fraternity leaders and resident assistants gathered for a morning of learning together in the Wabash Housing and Education Leaders Partnership (HELP) program. For the last eight semesters, this program has helped those students most responsible for leadership in residence halls and fraternity houses to learn some of what they needed to know to effectively fill their positions, get to know their valuable partners on the staff and faculty, and share their questions and anxieties about the work that they do to guide other students.

This program was devised by Dean Michael Raters in August 2005 when he was Associate Dean of Students and directed this year by Associate Dean Rick Warner. Alumni have always been a part of this program, providing information, advice, and expertise. For this eighth iteration of the HELP program, Mike and Rick switched the schedule from midweek to Saturday to enable even more participation from alumni. Thirteen alumni volunteers participated, in addition to ten alumni staff and faculty.

David Herzog ’77 gave a keynote address that informed student leaders of the legal and practical issues that affect their roles regarding alcohol consumption. Breakout sessions covered essential and important matters such as Wellness and First Aid, Fire Prevention and Security, Public Relations, Housing Corporation matters, and Substance Abuse Signs and Treatment — this last session led by Dr. Scott Douglas ’84 and Dr. John Roberts ’83, our College Physicians.

Other sessions divided the students by their roles and enabled staff and alumni to help them to perform their important role as leaders of independent life on campus.

Unlike many institutions, Wabash College does not choose to have professional staff in residence halls and, less common these days, staff as “house parents” in fraternities. This choice enables young men to assume important leadership roles that have real substance and to act as powerful mentors and teachers of the men who live with them in fraternities and residence halls. This student-to-student mentoring is at the heart of the working out of the Gentleman’s Rule. In many of the discussions I have had with students over the last few months, I ask how the Gentleman’s Rule works. The response can be summed up as positive peer pressure, or put in another way, each student acting as a teacher and mentor, each student leading others to understand the right way of being a gentleman and a responsible citizen at Wabash and the larger world.

In this task of mentoring and teaching, the powerful alumni engagement with Wabash is one of our greatest assets. The men who took time on that Saturday morning to share their wisdom and their expertise acted as mentors and teachers of Wabash students. They were there to encourage, to guide and instruct, and to draw out the maturity and leadership of our young men.

At every college alumni leadership is obviously essential in fundraising; and in many, like Wabash, alumni play an important role in admissions. But the HELP Program stands as one fine example of the way Wabash alumni are committed to the education of students through action at the ground level in presentations, conversation, mentoring, and guidance.

Further, our admissions efforts involve alumni not just in connection and outreach, but in teaching potential Wabash men of the value of the Wabash experience and modeling what it means to be a Wabash man.

Last Monday on our winter Top Ten Scholarship Day, 64 students came to campus. As usual at these events, Dean Steve Klein and I offered our welcoming messages and then an alumnus gave the keynote address. This week Scott Smalstig ’88 described what the study of the liberal arts at Wabash has meant to his success and flexibility in career, family life, and service. Then two panels of five alumni each shared with parents and students perspectives on their Wabash education. These men and the additional 10 alumni who joined the parents for lunch were not merely doing the important work of putting Wabash’s best foot forward to these potential students. They were teaching them about their possibilities — helping them to see who they are and who they might become — and in doing this they were calling forth the student’s best imagination of who they are and who they can become at Wabash. They were beginning the Wabash education.

Alumni leadership is central to who we are as Wabash. Yet even more, alumni are central to what we do as Wabash, the essential teaching and learning at the heart of the College. This week the Board of Trustees and the National Association of Wabash Men Board of Directors will gather for meetings. On Friday night, these men will have dinner with scores of students. In the conversations at table, no matter what the topic, the essential discourse of the liberal arts will be enacted again. It is in those conversations — as in the discussion in classes, laboratories, faculty offices, residence halls, and fraternities — that the Wabash education lives and moves in our hearts and minds.
 

Posted on January 27, 2009 11:23 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

January 15, 2009

Wabash Always Fights!

January 15, 2009

Wabash Always Fights!

This beloved and oft-repeated cry arises out of an acceptance of challenge, a fundamental work ethic, and a determination never to give up that permeate life at Wabash. We hear “Wabash Always Fights” in athletic contests, in difficult discussions of the Gentleman’s Rule, and in Chapel Talks as a reminder of our fundamental shared commitment to one another and to demanding the best of ourselves and our college. It is a cry that is easy to say, but not always easy to live, because we often say it when we are back on our heels, when we are behind in the contest, when we might be baffled even disheartened by the challenges before us.

Wabash enters the New Year with a number of challenges before us. From one angle of vision, we wouldn’t have it any other way. Complacency is not a Wabash trait, and not one on which the College has built its greatness. But the economic challenges that face Wabash — that face all of us — are unusual, to say the least. The descriptive word that comes up in conversation is “unprecedented.” No liberally educated student should be surprised by a downturn in the economy; but one of the suddenness, character, and severity we now are experiencing is a shock and threatens some of our deepest assumptions about Wabash’s strengths.

When you meet people who know just a little about Wabash, they might say, “A great college with a great endowment.” In the rapid decline in the financial markets over the last year, Wabash remains a great college, of course, and our endowment remains among the highest per-student endowments in the country. Still, we must recognize the challenge we face as we look at an endowment that has lost about 30% of its value in the last year, over $130 million.

Now that sounds catastrophic, and believe me, it is scary, but we need to remind ourselves that the College withdraws usually between 4-6% of the endowment’s value calculated on an average of the values over the trailing 12 quarters. So, as dire and sudden as this drop in endowment has been, its impact will be felt most severely as the 12-quarter trailing average begins to reflect the past year’s experience more fully. The investment committee of the Board of Trustees monitors and adjusts our investments with great care, and we all hope the economy improves and then the value of our holdings should increase. Yet, we must plan carefully to minimize the effect of the last year and to anticipate slower growth ahead.

As important as the endowment is for Wabash, our greatness does not reside in the size of our endowment, but in the kind of education it has helped to make possible, in the choices that we have been able to make to enrich our students’ experience. Over the last few years there has been a lot of national attention drawn to endowments like Harvard’s, but whether in Cambridge or in Crawfordsville, the endowment of any college is a means to an end. We must keep our eyes on the strengths of a Wabash education. We will need wisdom, inventiveness, and courage to navigate the current waters and make careful and realistic financial plans for the College.

As I have talked with other college presidents, we all share the worry that the economic impact of higher unemployment and increased insecurity will affect enrollments in fall of 2009 and beyond.

Grand economic questions often come down to the fundamental decisions that we make as individuals, as families, and as institutions. Right now families all over the country are considering college choices and wondering how they will be able to pay for college. This is the quiet conversation that takes place around kitchen tables and in living rooms, shaped by hopes and expectations, parental income, and family needs. Our applications for the Class of 2013 are up 19%. This is good news, and the hard face-to-face work of our admissions and financial aid staff will support families in these difficult times. Since its founding, Wabash has invested in bright, motivated young men, regardless of their financial circumstances; and we remain committed to working with students to help make a great Wabash education possible for worthy young men.

As we all think about Wabash and look to both the immediate months and the farther future, around the virtual living room of our Wabash community, we need everyone’s help, ideas, and energies. We are working hard on fund raising. Increased revenue and a larger percentage of alumni donors will add stability to our finances. Gifts to Wabash will help lessen our losses from endowment revenue and help keep financial aid strong. Now is certainly a critical time to invest in Wabash.

At the same time, we at the College will work together to adjust our current operating and capital expenditure budgets. Some of the additional points we will consider include: extending the timetable for the upgrades of our athletics fields; determining the optimum timeline for implementing the priorities of our Strategic Plan; evaluating all current and future vacancies in faculty and staff positions; and looking at whether or not we can offer salary increases to current College employees. We have had campus-wide conversations with the faculty and staff, and we will meet with the Board of Trustees soon. These discussions enable us to bring the best wisdom together to address the challenges that confront us.

We must move ahead with courage and care, with caution and with speed. These seemingly contradictory attitudes are necessary. I have asked all to keep a sharp eye on our mission and core values and to consider in all of our choices how we might leverage positive movement ahead for Wabash at the same time we examine how we make the hard choices to assure our financial stability.

One hundred seventy-six years ago, Wabash was founded to meet the “wants of the country.” Today, Wabash stands poised to again serve the needs of the country by producing liberally educated men who can think critically, act responsibly, lead effectively, and live humanely. In times like these, those are precisely the most necessary qualities.

Together I know we face the future with hope, confidence, and steady resolve. The many strengths of the College continue to ensure Wabash’s future, invigorate our present, and guarantee our continued positive importance in the larger world.

Wabash Always Fights!

Posted on January 15, 2009 09:10 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

December 31, 2008

Happy New Year!

December 31, 2008 — Happy New Year from Crawfordsville!

Welcome to the first edition of “President’s Blog,” an online journal that I hope you will make a regular part of your web browsing.

I have long thought that a college president’s vision must be both a mirror and a lens — holding up a mirror to our best imagination of ourselves and a lens to discern more closely or at greater distance special strengths and promise we have yet to understand. I hope through this blog to share with readers a new lens and a new mirror for seeing Wabash and that you’ll in turn come to think about Wabash in a new way, sharing with me your ideas and observations about the College. The blog offers in short, informal, and regular postings some of what I am thinking and seeing, but also invites us to confer, to talk together using the comments feature outlined below.

At our best, Wabash is always learning and growing from the grand conversations. I hope this is one way I can help spark ideas and conversations about Wabash, especially conversations that take place far from campus.

This time between Christmas and New Year’s Day is a good time for reflection and planning. The first semester grades are in, the second semester looms ahead full of possibilities, and we are preparing to ring out the old year and ring in the new. In these traditional Twelve Days of Christmas, I wish you all the best. As we look ahead, there is much that we cannot know, but we must do our best to see where we are and where we are heading even when the present is troubled and the future looks murky indeed.

It has been a difficult fall on the Wabash campus. Students, faculty, staff, and alumni have been on a roller coaster ride of emotions ranging from great triumph to great tragedy. October and November began and ended with two very different but shocking losses. We began October with the death of freshman Johnny Smith and ended November with the loss of Bill Placher ’70, legendary professor, scholar, teacher, and consummate Wabash man. The Wabash community has been reeling with these shocks and the sadness of losing our great friend Ginny Hays, as well. The experience of these losses has compelled us to refocus on who we are and what is the best that we can become.

Though the grief we have felt together has been sharp indeed, an even deeper bass note of the last 90 days has been heard in the downturn of the nation’s economy and our particular decline in the value of the College’s endowment. Like many colleges and businesses, we face enormous challenges, but our slogan, “Wabash Always Fights!,” is not just for the court or athletic field. It marks our way of being in the world.

Wabash has been through trying times many times since its founding — who would have thought that small group of men kneeling in the snow in 1832 would create a college that prospers and endures despite periodic financial crises, a fire that destroyed South Hall, and the especially difficult challenges to enrollment during World War II.

We do not promise Wabash students an easy path. We tell our students from our earliest communications with them that Wabash will be tough, rigorous, and demand their very best. Nor do we promise ourselves an easy road. We trust in our students to rise to meet the challenges of our times and the needs of the country, and Wabash, too, assumes its rightful role in serving the needs of the country and the world. All our work is aimed in that direction as we march forward with the resolve and integrity embedded in the values we hold dear and our mission to prepare young men to think critically, act responsibly, lead effectively, and live humanely. These are not mere fine words. Like the Gentleman’s Rule, the mission demands from us all a tough commitment to the road less traveled, with perseverance and independence that stand as hallmarks of this College.

We move forward knowing that Wabash men are hungry for knowledge and opportunity, and young men now in high school stand ready to join the class of 2013. For the ninth year in a row, Wabash has surpassed 1,000 applications for admission and done so at the earliest date ever. Campus visits by prospective students were up over 20 percent throughout the fall. These numbers tell me that the College continues to attract interest from young men who want to be challenged, who want to work hard, who want to push themselves beyond their wildest dreams.

Wabash has always provided the rich liberal art education on which many of our graduates build enormously successful careers in business. Now, thanks to a $375,000 grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., Wabash will offer students a Business Leadership Program to augment the traditional liberal arts experience. In an earlier Lilly Endowment initiative, we experimented with a range of internships, externships, immersion learning opportunities, networking events, and speakers. We’ll incorporate the best of those ideas into the new program to enhance our students’ promise and opportunities in business.

The Schroeder Center for Career Development, which will lead this program, is now the third-ranked career center in the country offering an array of programs and guidance to help students interested in law school, medical school, and graduate school, as well as career opportunities in every sector.

I wish us the gifts of the season and the Twelve Days of Christmas. Though I honestly don’t know what I would do with eleven pipers piping, I know Wabash could make good use of five gold rings. But the greatest gift of the season is hope and trust in one another and faith in our mission, promise, and commitment. I know you will enact that mission as you take up the mantle of leadership in your communities, even in difficult, uncertain times, and drawing on the work ethic you honed at Wabash, help others look ahead and move forward with resolve and integrity.

Let us work hard together to make 2009 a great year for Wabash.

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In the next week or two, I’ll share my thoughts on the downturn of the economy, its impact on Wabash, and our direction moving forward.

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About this blog:  Pat White is in his third year as Wabash's 15th President. An accomplished writer with a Ph.D. in English and American literature, the President writes an occasional blog from the most unique perspective at the College.

Posted on December 31, 2008 09:03 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)