Unlocking Potential: The Denison Way
by Adam Weinberg
January 15, 2018
Denison Magazine
View of campus from above

When I arrived at Denison, I was immediately struck by the way Denison unlocks the potential of students. Over and over again, alumni talked about the lives they have led and the ways Denison helped them be the architects of their own lives. They told their stories in ways that made me proud to be a Denisonian and inspired to serve this great College.

I also was struck by the array of challenges facing higher education. There is greater competition for a decreasing number of high school graduates. Financial aid is increasingly important to the decision-making process, with nearly 70 percent of prospective students and their families listing it as a major factor in selecting a college. And the job market is more competitive, as top employers and graduate programs expect students to arrive with profession-specific training, experiences, and networks. In response, we spent 18 months developing a set of strategic priorities, which we have been implementing.  

At the core, we recommitted ourselves to the relational qualities that have always defined Denison. Denison friendships are deep and enduring. Our faculty, coaches, and staff are committed and talented mentors. Our alumni stay remarkably connected and are there for each other. Colleges are bundles of people, and they are shaped by the relationships that people form with each other. We do this well. We are a deeply relational college.

Our strategic priorities build off this core-defining attribute of Denison. We are bringing together students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, and friends of the College in ways that deepen student learning while also enriching the lives of the people who are connected to this great College.

First, we have increased our emphasis across the College on mentorship. This work has unfolded in expected and unexpected ways. We have focused on first-year students through our Advising Circles that bring together a faculty member, an upper-class student, and 10 first-year students once a week to discuss the transition into Denison. We also have focused on areas as far-reaching as new faculty orientation, athletics, and training for staff. Across the College we are talking about mentorship, delving deeply into what it means for this generation of students, and learning from each other to do it more effectively.

Second, we have expanded the curriculum. Examples include new academic majors in global commerce, data analytics, and health, exercise, and sport studies, and concentrations in financial economics and narrative journalism. We also are expanding global programs. For example, we launched Denison Seminars, which are courses team-taught by two faculty members and often include a global experience. We also have developed summer travel seminars and more international internship opportunities.

We launched a new Center for Learning and Teaching and the Lisska Center for Scholarly Engagement. Both of these centers bring our faculty together in new ways to learn from each other and to focus on the teaching, scholarship, and mentorship that define a Denison professor. 

And we are giving our performing arts faculty and students the space they deserve by constructing the Michael D. Eisner Center for the Performing Arts, named for Michael Eisner ’64, Denison life trustee and former Walt Disney Company CEO. The Eisner Center will co-locate the theatre, music, and dance departments in one space. It will house a proscenium theater, named in honor of Denison alumna Sharon Martin ’65, which will seat 400, giving Denison the stage we have always lacked on campus. The building also will include a black-box theater and multiple other performance and practice spaces. Most important, it is designed to build an artistic community that is engaged in making art. Denison has always had incredible strengths across the arts. This building will work with the Bryant Art Center and other buildings and open spaces to help create a vibrant Arts Quad.

Third, we have committed to becoming the liberal arts college that gets career exploration right. We have moved beyond “career services,” which can be as simple as an office where students can go their junior or senior year to find job leads and alumni connections. Instead, we are talking about career exploration, a process that entails helping students ask three interrelated questions:

What kind of life do I want to lead?

How do careers and professions fit into that life?

How do I use my time in college to develop the skills, values, habits, experiences, and networks to get started?

The staff of the Austin E. Knowlton Center for Career Exploration are focused on getting students engaged early in their time at Denison, connecting them with alumni and parents who can be coaches and guides, and offering programs both on and off campus that give students opportunities to explore a wide array of careers and professional paths. The Center also works to close the skills gaps between what we teach and what students need to compete for top jobs and internships, to place students in internships and externships, and to support students during their first five years post-Denison through a program called Denison Connecting. 

Fourth, we are innovating through the co-curriculum. At Denison, the campus always has been a design studio for students to develop and practice liberal arts skills, values, and habits. This has become more pronounced as Denison has become a more diverse place, giving students opportunities to learn how to live and work across difference. We are focused on making sure every student feels welcomed, valued, and supported. We are also focused on creating new ways for students to learn from each other. We have launched the Red Frame Lab to expose students to design thinking as a way to support student-led, creative problem-solving across campus. We are taking a fresh look at residential living and the ways students learn civic skills, values, and habits throughout their four years on campus. And we have developed a new holistic, integrative approach to health through student-centered wellness programming.

And fifth, we are focused on engaging our alumni, parents, and friends in the life and future of the College. We have launched an Office of Alumni & Family Engagement, whose mission is to involve alumni, parents, and friends in deeper and more relational ways. One early outcome is Denison Connecting, which is a series of new programs aimed at helping Denisonians support each other professionally as their careers unfold and change. We also have sought to widen the circle of alumni, parents, and friends we are engaging in the current work and future direction of the College. We have developed regional advisory boards (our board of advisors), strengthened our alumni athletics council, and connected more deeply with the alumni council. We have also started to develop an alumni arts group, and to re-evaluate ways alumni and parents can help with student recruitment.

Simply put, Denison is built on a foundation of prestigious academics, campus involvements, deep and lasting relationships, and a commitment to the liberal arts. This is a college where students arrive and quickly make friends and find mentors. They become engaged in the classroom and involved across campus. Through this process, they figure out what kinds of lives they want to lead, while developing the skills, values, habits, networks, and experiences to launch into professions in ways that allow them to become the architects of their own lives. Our focus is to deepen and expand this work.

We are having lots of successes. Applications for admissions to Denison have surged. We had 7,540 applications last year, up from 4,898 three years ago. We are attracting students who are smart, interesting, engaged, diverse, and proud to be Denisonians. They are thriving. Students are doing incredible undergraduate research alongside our faculty. In fact, Denison received a prestigious award from the Council on Undergraduate Research this fall—the College was one of only three schools nationwide to earn the award for our undergraduate research program. Our athletic teams are winning. The campus is infused with the arts. And student-driven organizations are pushing all kinds of issues in relevant and exciting ways. 

The outcomes are impressive. Five years after graduation, 96 percent of our students are successfully launched professionally, and 93 percent say Denison prepared them well. None of this would be possible without the support of the alumni, parents, and friends of the College. Thank you for all the ways you care about and are involved with Denison.

My biggest worry as we look forward concerns the financial model of higher education. In particular, we need to remain focused on keeping the College affordable. Our goal is to meet the full demonstrated financial-aid need of every student we accept. We were able to meet this goal last year. To continue to do so, we are going to need to raise more resources to support financial aid, while also making sure we continue to manage the College in a fiscally conservative manner.   

To make this happen, we have launched the Unlocking Potential Campaign. Our goal is to raise $225 million by the end of 2020. To date, we have raised just over $130 million. The Campaign is focused on supporting financial aid, curricular innovation, career exploration, the performing arts, student life, and the annual fund. 

This issue of Denison Magazine is devoted to our strategic directions and the ways alumni, parents, and friends of the College can be engaged and help. I hope you enjoy the articles. Please feel free to send me comments, observations, and suggestions at president@denison.edu. Thank you for caring so much about Denison. This is a great College. I am proud to be a Denisonian.

Read more of Adam Weinberg's speeches and writings.