Finding the Passing Lane in the Midst of a Traffic Jam
As I begin my column for this summer’s magazine, I can’t help but think back one month to our Commencement and the profound emotions I felt watching our newest alumni cross the stage. That day always reminds me of the important work we do – transforming the lives of young people – and buoys my spirit even in the most challenging of times.
The past year has indeed been a very challenging and difficult one for the nation, the globe, for higher education, and, yes, also for Wittenberg. We are responding to economic forces that we would never have anticipated a year ago or certainly three years ago as we finalized our strategic plan.
In these tough economic times, the temptation is often to take a “bunker” mentality – to cut back on existing programs, eliminate new investments and wait for the economy to turn around. In driving terms this looks a little like pumping the brakes and slowing down to find oneself in the midst of a traffic jam where gridlock reigns supreme. Certainly if one looks at the landscape of higher education, there is ample evidence that a major traffic jam is developing. Moratoriums on hiring, new programs and campus construction are the norm among most institutions, including many of our direct competitors.
So what have we done? What should we do? The Board of Directors and I believe that we must continue to make smart, well-considered, strategic investments in the future of Wittenberg, and that is precisely what we are doing. In the midst of this difficult economic environment, we have made many tough decisions (no salary increases, some staff reductions and reduced benefits), but we have also continued to invest in technology, scholarships, key programs and activities envisioned in our strategic plan. These activities will ultimately propel us forward and place us in the passing lane bypassing the bumper-to-bumper traffic.
So what are these investments?
Visitors to campus will now see orange construction fencing surrounding Blair Hall as we work diligently to make the interior space reflect the dynamic, collaborative initiatives being spearheaded by our education department faculty. We are confident that this initial investment in the historic heart of campus will inspire countless education majors, encourage new and innovative thinking, and allow our education program to continue to serve as a model for others on a national scale.
We are also investing in our East Asian Studies program as we look to create the first-ever East Asian Institute on campus, which will expand global understanding by way of international partnerships in business, government and education. We will provide distinctive field-study experiences with leading firms conducting business in East Asia, and we will offer unprecedented experiential learning opportunities.
We have also created a new summer Screenwriting Institute and a new program in entrepreneurship that includes student-run businesses, where our students not only learn theory, but also put that theory to practice.
Additionally, The Center for Civic & Urban Engagement debuted this fall, shining a light on our longstanding commitment to community service and our preparation of students for lives of civic engagement. The list of examples of movement against our strategic goals goes on and on, even in this challenging time.
These are exciting and timely initiatives, but it is important that you understand them in their proper context. While generous gifts have funded a couple of these new activities, the rest have been funded through the realignment of existing resources, resources that are already stretched thin due to the economic downturn and the loss of value in our endowment. These initiatives are designed to position us in ways that will make us increasingly the first choice institution of larger, more diverse, and academically talented classes of new students. Our stewardship in working smarter and harder will have to be matched by new investments by a growing circle of our alumni and friends.
With your continued support, we will be poised for even greater success. With each gift received, we increase the value of a Wittenberg degree and move this university forward to claim our rightful place leading the race for excellence.
Mark H. Erickson