Wooster’s Promise in the Coming Age

Inaugural Address by Sarah R. Bolton, President of The College of Wooster Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016

I am delighted to be here and to be joining this remarkable community of superb teachers and scholars, staff, students and alumni.  Thank you all for coming, and my deepest welcome to our guests from the City of Wooster and the State of Ohio, as well as those from farther afield.

I would also like to thank the Wooster staff and faculty who work so hard every day to make this a wonderful place to teach and to learn, and who have worked particularly hard to make the 150th celebration and these inaugural events possible – staff and faculty colleagues – would you please stand so that we can thank you?

This year, we celebrate the 150th anniversary of our founding.  Over these years the College has brought forward leaders in every field of endeavor: teachers, scientists, faith leaders, physicians, musicians, artists, a Nobel Laureate, poets and activists; thousands of alumni who have profoundly shaped the world around them through their lives and their work.   As I join this remarkable community at this historic moment, I’m struck by the College’s proud history, and by the particular power and courage of its founding promise.

On September 7, 1870, President Willis Lord gave the very first inaugural speech at the College.  He laid out our fundamental commitments, saying that Wooster should prepare students for the life of the mind and for work in the world, and be “not only a place of all studies, it should be a place of studies for all...” President Lord’s impassioned inaugural address (lasting about an hour!) detailed the progress he believed was necessary to attain this vision. He vigorously deconstructed the assumptions that underlay slavery and the impression that women would not be able to be equal to men in their studies at the college, making extensive references to the scriptures as well as to the founding of the nation in which “All men are created equal.” His statements were groundbreaking.  The Civil War had only recently concluded, and the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave African-American men the right to vote, had passed just six months earlier in the Ohio legislature; passed, in fact, by a single vote. Fifty years would pass before women would have the vote.

President Lord also argued strenuously for a more progressive and flexible curriculum, insisting that such a curriculum would best serve students who wanted to go on in every area of work, from theology to medicine to the trades.   He sought to lift the place of modern languages (including English), and to end the requirement that all students study Latin and Greek. He insisted, quite controversially for the time, that the study of the sciences was not in conflict with faith, and that, indeed, the closer the acquaintance a person has with the wonders of nature, the more powerfully compelled their faith will become. It was these arguments – considered quite radical in their time – that underlay the College’s motto “Scientia et Religio ex uno Fonte” – science and religion from one source.

Of particular interest to those assembled today, President Lord asserted, “I do not believe that the study of the Physical Sciences has any legitimate tendency agnostic to moral truth.” As folks who have recently chosen a physicist as your president, I can only imagine that this is a tremendous relief to you all!

President Lord was forward-thinking and determined. As a result, The College of Wooster was, from its founding, a leader – a leader in its determination to offer an excellent, modern education that would best prepare students for the challenges and opportunities they would face in a world that was changing as the nation began slowly to unwind the terrible legacies of slavery, and also a leader its commitment to equity, explicitly welcoming students of all genders and ethnicities to that education, on equal terms. These commitments of Wooster’s were powerful, and they remain so today.   A great number of faculty, staff, students, and alumni have brought the College towards their fulfillment.  I’d like to tell you a little bit about some of those people.

Annie B. Irish, the College’s first Ph.D. recipient and first woman professor, came to Wooster in 1881 to teach German language and literature. She was a strong and very determined advocate for women students, and raised funds herself to meet their needs. Hoover Cottage, the first campus house for women, opened its doors in 1897 – the fruit of her fundraising and advocacy.

Despite President Lord’s commitment to equal access, more than twenty years passed between the founding of the College and the first African-American student at Wooster, Clarence B. Allen, who graduated in 1892. Professor of Chemistry Theodore Williams, the first African-American professor at Wooster, was hired in 1959, nearly ninety years after the College’s founding.  Professor Williams was an expert in expanding access to STEM fields, nearly fifty years before that became a hot topic in higher education. He won many national awards, including the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.  A true student of the liberal arts, Professor Williams also created the Wooster Chamber Music series that continues to enrich the campus today.

Wooster was one of the first liberal arts colleges to establish Black Studies as a major, in 1973, an initiative that followed student protests.  Black Studies’ founding chair was Dr. Yvonne Williams, Ted’s wife, a renowned scholar of political science who went on to become Dean of the Faculty, and to receive countless national awards for her work on race and justice.  I am deeply honored that she is with us here today.

The College opened, also, with a relatively limited curriculum.  There were only four divisions – equivalent to our majors – Mathematics, Classics, Modern Languages, and Science.   The curriculum progressed and developed along many dimensions until the arrival of President Howard Lowry in 1944. Lowry brought the College to a great leap forward, creating the Independent Study, and thereby a closely mentored, individualized education, in which every single student creates new knowledge or artistic work.   In the years that followed, this vibrant root of the Wooster curriculum has grown and flourished, gaining national renown and becoming the College’s academic center.

We know that this approach is powerful. It drives toward excellence, in that every student reaches a very high level, building the skills, confidence, fluency of expression and problem-solving ability that will serve their lives and work.   And at the same time, it embodies equity, in that every student, no matter how strongly resourced or under-resourced their high school may have been, whether or not they struggle at the beginning of their time at the College, whether they are confident or shy, whether or not they learn in the same way as a “typical” student, will have this transformative opportunity. This is one of the keys to Wooster’s promise – that we are invested, from the beginning, in bringing every student to the place where they can (and must!) jump off from the known and wrestle with all that is involved in doing work that has never been done before.  And, as they build the vision and ideas of their Independent Study, every student will have equal access to our most precious resource, the extended one-on-one attention and engagement of their faculty.

As we celebrate 150 years from the founding of the College and consider its future, what should we learn from our history? I’m struck by two central themes.

First, the work of moving Wooster forward is vested in all of members of the Wooster community – its students, staff, faculty, neighbors, and alumni across the world. With the founding commitments of the College, the support of a superb and generous alumni family of Scots, and the work of a great many people, the College has grown to become a marvelous place, diverse and global in its scope, deeply connected to the local community here in Wooster, and distinctive for an education in which every student develops their voice, knowledge and understanding.

 Second, the Wooster Promise, rooted in our founding commitments to excellence and equity, continues to matter, profoundly.  We promise our students three things:

  • An excellent education, which prepares all students for lives of consequence.
  • A closely mentored education, through which every student creates new knowledge or artistic work.
  • An education that commits to the promise of every one of our students, and welcomes each of them to the community of learners on equal terms.

These commitments underlie the transformative power of a Wooster education. Fully realizing them in a rapidly changing global and national context will require our highest and best work, our focus and our courage. If we do this well, the work we do here will be multiplied through the lives of our students, moving out like waves through the many lives that they each will touch.  

How, then, shall we realize Wooster’s promise in the coming age?

Unlike President Lord I don’t intend to answer this question in full before I leave the stage!   Instead, I’d like to look at it more closely, to “unpack” it, as we sometimes say in class, so that we can undertake in the coming years the work of answering this question, together, as we build the Wooster of the future.

The liberal arts

We are a liberal arts college. The liberal arts were defined in antiquity as those subjects that are necessary for well-informed civic engagement.  We seek to enable our students to become ethical and inclusive leaders, with global experience and perspective, contributors to progress on the long-term pressing and complex issues we face now, and the ones of the future that we can’t yet envision.

What will be the education that students need for civically engaged lives?  What knowledge and modes of thought and expression will they need? Are there new fields of inquiry they will need to understand, or subjects we have made secondary (as the modern languages were in Lord’s time) that should rise to the top?

The subjects we teach now will remain crucial.  For example, history matters.  One cannot engage current national and global issues without understanding both our history and the close connections of that history to our present struggles, opportunities, and imperatives.  The study of a wide variety of human expression and culture through language, literature, arts and music is just as critical.   When a student has learned to sing the song of someone whose traditions are very different from their own, be moved by it, and begin to understand its meaning, then they are well on their way to being able to see the world from another’s view.  The study of faith, religious expression, philosophy, and individual and collective human behavior brings students to appreciate ethical decision making, how communities come together, and how to lead.  Science holds a part of the liberal arts as well, as President Lord so forcefully explained. It underlies our understanding of crucial civic issues that he couldn’t even imagine in his time, from global health to population dynamics, energy policy, technology advancement, and the environment.   

So, curricula in which students gain a broad knowledge of literature, human experience, faith, the sciences and the arts will continue to offer a key to lifelong work of consequence in a world where the specific skills needed for work change daily. We must continue to nourish – and champion – this heart of the liberal arts. 

Interdisciplinarity

It’s crucial, though, that we find ways to incorporate into our curriculum new areas of study as they become integral to the civic engagement of our students. We can’t know what all of these areas will be, but nearly all of them will come from the synthesis and interconnection of established fields of study.  Already, our students are finding these interconnections when they write an Independent Study in a double major, and already, many of our faculty find supervising these interdisciplinary projects to be among their most exciting work.  Public health, environmental justice, social entrepreneurship, poverty, intercultural dialogue – there are so many areas of study that would be wonderful for students to engage, and that would prepare them superbly for work in the world.  At the same time, it’s clear that we will not be creating hundreds – or even dozens – of new departments. Instead, we will need to find new ways to support our faculty as they connect across fields of study, inspiring, and inspired by, the work of students.

Making meaning  

As we evolve our curriculum, how will we ensure that students make the most of their learning?  Our students live and work in an ever-more global context, with people and facts around the world available at the touch of a button, and distant events that feel fully ‘real’ to them. They are digital natives, immersed in a sea of data, who need to learn how to make meaning, to prioritize, to pause, reflect, and build context for their decisions and opinions.  It will be increasingly crucial to help students build the skills to curate information, read deeply, dig for surprises and seek the ideas of those with whom they disagree, as they navigate a social-media world that is tuned with excruciating precision to feed them only what they agree with and what they expect. With real-time language translation becoming easier to access, students (as well as faculty and staff) will want and need to learn fluency with cultures as much as with words. Building these forms of learning into our pedagogies at every level will be ever more important.   The opportunity to deeply affect students’ lives by mentorship in reflection and the making of meaning is profound.  Certainly, this sort of learning is most powerful in a diverse and global context, where students are surrounded by a range of ideas, perspectives, and experiences among both their peers and teachers as they learn to wrestle with meanings.

The range of high school opportunities our students have is very broad – both in the US and internationally, some with great resources, and some with very little. At Wooster we are committed to the promise of every student, and so we must ensure that we meet students where they are when they arrive, and support them with academic programs that help them thrive in their classes from the very beginning. This intentional commitment to bringing all students across from their high school education to a place where they are able to do work never done before, along the way building their capacity for inquiry, synthesis and expression, is central to our mission.  If we are successful, we will substantially level the effects of the deep inequity present in high school educational opportunity, and allow all of our students to bring their potential to its fullest realization, both while they are at Wooster and throughout their lives.

Learning in the lived community

The learning that students need in order to become leaders who tackle complex problems with flexibility, integrity and wisdom can’t come only from the curriculum. It is vested in gathering a community of learners, with a wide diversity of experiences and perspectives, both inside the classroom and out of it. Together, our students consider texts, solve math problems, argue over politics, eat and pray, celebrate and mourn, and find ways to make meaning of momentous events.  In the most literal sense, these experiences allow each student to see with new eyes.  Students bring who they are, the wisdom of their home communities and cultures, and infuse them with both course work and the understanding that can only come with knowing – and weaving a life with –someone whose life before college was very different.  It’s the constant intersection of this learning in the lived community – in residence halls, dining halls, faith communities, teams and clubs – with the learning that happens through academic study that enables the transformative power of this education. We need to do all we can to strengthen those connections.  Such learning is transformative, and it allows students to bring global and cultural fluency, social and intellectual responsibility, and a range of perspectives to their lives after college.  It provides unusual, and very important, facility in addressing complex and difficult problems, and it becomes more powerful the more diverse the community becomes, and the wider the range of voices that students hear, understand, and lift.

Building a community that meets this ideal for every student requires our commitment, attention and courage.  Merely opening our doors to all determined, talented and hard-working students doesn’t make Wooster accessible to all, and bringing a mix of students from a wide variety of pre-college experiences is only the beginning of building a community where all students thrive and benefit from living and learning together.   We need to continue to approach these matters boldly, and head on. In doing so we face crucial questions. 

  • How can we continue to strengthen access to the College, so that strong students can experience the marvelous learning opportunities here regardless of their family’s financial circumstances?
  • Who is missing from Wooster’s wonderful community of students, faculty and staff, and what changes must we make to bring them here?
  • As students come to Wooster from communities across the country and around the world, how will we create an inclusive and equitable campus home that supports the learning of all students—a community that is not merely tolerant, but deeply welcoming?
  • How can we ensure that our students, who are increasingly engaged with others at a distance and through social media, make the most of their four short years together... this sacred time?

If we are to meet our highest commitments, the answers to these questions will inform and infuse every part of the College’s work, and reach every classroom and corner of our campus. We will consider how parents who speak languages other than English learn about the college that their children attend (or wish to attend); we will think about what architecture and programs in our residence halls will foster a welcoming community and encourage students to take that leap to get to know someone very different from themselves; we will think about what mentorship with chaplains, faculty, staff, and those in the local community will help students gain the ethical compass, as well as the compassion and skills needed to shape disagreements into substantive conversations, conversations that include listening and that build understanding across even deep differences.

One of the best ways for our students to develop their capacities for leadership and civic engagement is for them to practice those things, together, and with the guidance and mentorship that is our hallmark.  Those students who engage with the larger community, here in the great city of Wooster and in our neighboring towns, as contributors and as learners already benefit tremendously from doing so.  If this is a capacity we seek for every student, why would we not engage every student in this way?  And what practice in leading – engaging and facilitating dialogue, gathering of opinion and context, making hard decisions, and especially, listening – might all students gain, as part of our promise?

Finally, we must consider how students – and their parents – will understand a Wooster education.  In the face of measures of the value of a college education based on the starting salaries of graduates, a concern is regularly expressed about whether college – and particularly on-campus education and education in the liberal arts – is “worth it.”  We know that a Wooster education enriches the whole of our students’ lives.  And for many years, liberal arts colleges have said to students “just study what you love and don’t worry about it.” But we need to acknowledge the financial realties that students and parents face, and telling someone “don’t worry” is not a very effective way to keep them from worrying!  Our first generation students, for example, have very often been important economic contributors in their families, and telling them to set aside concerns about how they can contribute financially to their families after graduation simply isn’t respectful.  Indeed, every one of our students is entering an economy very different from that of even ten years ago.  So we need to share the power of this education in ways that speak meaningfully and respectfully to students, their communities and their families.

The same concerns apply once students are on campus.  When told to “just do what you love,” students often respond to the pressures around them and study only those subjects from which they can see direct routes to careers with which they are familiar – premedical work, or business for example.  But we fail our students if we allow that collapse of their range of inquiry.  Instead, we need to help our students see, from the very beginning of their connection to the College, the ways that all of their studies interconnect with many possible vocations … to understand that the way one learns to see in art history can make one a better thinker and problem solver, as well as a better graphic designer or teacher, for example.  To achieve this, we will need to enable students to connect with professionals – both in the local and broader communities – who have followed many paths. (Indeed, just last week I spoke with a successful businessperson who had majored in economics at Wooster.  When I asked him how his experience was, he said, “It was great, but I really wish I had majored in English.”)  With these connections, starting from the beginning of each student’s time at Wooster, we can hold the space that enables students to explore, knowing that such exploration will, in the end, be critical to the heart of the lives they will lead. 

We have tremendously exciting work ahead of us, and many questions to answer, as we turn to the College’s next 150 years.  Together, we can fully realize the promise of Wooster’s founding commitments in the coming age; building academic opportunities and an inclusive and equitable community that is deeply locally and globally engaged.  Meeting every student where they are as they arrive, investing in their promise, and mentoring them to reach the highest levels of knowledge, skill, and understanding.  Allowing every student to find their voice and their vocation, so that they make a powerful and positive difference in their world throughout their lives.

It is a deep honor for me to serve and lead this College, to support its faculty, staff, and students, to steward and build its resources, and especially to become a part of the family of the City and College of Wooster – to join you in becoming a Scot.  I am grateful for this work we will do together.

Thank you.