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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.

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!