August 2019 Letter to Students
Dear Denison Students,
I am looking forward to welcoming you back to campus in a few weeks. As we get ready to start another academic year, I want to share some thoughts with you on the liberal arts, and how students can get the most from their experience at Denison. Next week, Provost Coplin and Dr. Kennedy are going to send you a second letter on priorities for the college this year.
Last year, we faced challenges related to mental health, hazing and diversity. While these are national issues that played themselves out on our campus, they led me to spend time this summer thinking critically about why I believe so deeply in the liberal arts and Denison; why I believe the liberal arts are so relevant to this moment in time; and when and how I believe Denison can be transformational for students.
Let me start with a personal reflection. The greatest gift my parents gave me was a liberal arts education. My experience at Bowdoin College in the 1980s changed my life. I learned a set of skills, values and habits that allowed me to build a life that I could not have imagined when I started college.
As a way to give that gift to others, I chose to dedicate my life to the liberal arts.
As convinced as I am about the profound value in the liberal arts, I worry. So many liberal arts colleges are struggling as a result of low enrollment and unsustainable financial models. (The Oberlin Review editorial board’s piece on these challenges provides a nice summary.) We are fortunate. Over the last few years, we have made good decisions at Denison and avoided these pitfalls.
My bigger worry is the particular set of challenges your generation faces. The pace of modern life is fast. We live in a divided political moment of both national and international uncertainty. The world of work is changing as well, and the job market is highly competitive. More students are taking on debt to attend college. And the ways we choose to use social media seem to exacerbate many of these trends and others in ways that are not helpful.
I believe liberal arts colleges are better prepared than other types of colleges and universities to help students successfully navigate the challenges and opportunities of modern life. As I listened to students last year and over the summer, it became clear to me that the college needs to give students a road map for maximizing college and launching professionally.
The power of a Denison education is developing the agency and autonomy to be the architect of your life. This happens by being highly engaged in the academic experience, focused on one or two co-curriculars, and surrounded by peers, faculty and staff who challenge you in different ways. Denison can be hard. Students are often balancing challenging classes, time consuming co-curriculars, and myriad relationships with peers. While there are lots of fun moments, much of the self-discovery, personal growth, and learning comes as a result of the stuff that does not go as planned – especially the missteps, struggles and failures.
This letter is my attempt to expand on these ideas.
What does it mean to attend a liberal arts college? Denison occupies a unique place in higher education as a highly selective, residential, nationally known, and rigorous liberal arts college. What does this mean?
It starts with a total focus on undergraduate education. We are not forced to split our attention and resources with graduate education, medical research facilities or the many other programs that larger universities juggle.
This focus is on a particular kind of education. We immerse students in a challenging, engaging and broad-based education that develops a set of attributes that allows graduates to think critically, understand profoundly and connect broadly. This includes attributes like the ability to write and communicate; work with numbers and data; weave disparate ideas into new ways of thinking; frame questions; solve puzzles and problems; connect with a broad range of people and ideas; and identify and follow a line of logic.
As worthy as those abilities are, the power of the liberal arts is much deeper. It creates a way of being in the world. Liberal arts students experience the beauty and meaning of intellectual pursuits; rigorous scholarship and sharp thinking; the thrill of knowledge for its own sake; and the impact of learning when standards are high and classmates are engaged with the course material and each other.
This type of learning extends across campus. We require students to live on campus, because we believe campus life deepens the liberal arts learning. Athletics, residential halls, the arts, campus organizations and other co-curricular activities serve as design studios for students to further develop and practice liberal arts skills, values and habits. We also believe that there is something powerful about living with high achieving peers who are committed to the liberal arts, who want to do well in life, and who bring a wide range of views, perspectives and life experiences to campus. Students challenge and learn from each other.
Core to all of this are student-faculty/staff relationships. Developing a close relationship with a faculty or staff member is one of the strongest predictors that college will be life transforming for a student. Liberal arts colleges tend to do this well because classes are small, taught by faculty (not teaching assistants) who are on campus, committed to teaching and engaged with students.
Lastly, liberal arts colleges differ from many other forms of education in that we purposefully strike a balance between the individual and community. We want to provide students with the skills, values, habits, networks and experience to succeed in life. And we seek to instill within students a sense that we all should strive to do this in ways that contributes beyond ourselves.
While it is difficult to capture Denison in a few words, we can refer to our mission statement, “to educate and inspire students to be autonomous thinkers, discerning moral agents, and engaged citizens.” I often say Denison unlocks the potential of our students to be the architects of their own lives. An alumnus said to me a few months ago that we have the soul of a liberal arts college but the opportunities of a small university. I believe strongly that the attributes above are what students need to be prepared to succeed personally, professionally and civically.
If you have not read William Cronon’s Only Connect, it’s worth doing. It remains the best statement on the power of who we are, what we do, and why it matters.
A Road Map To A Denison Education: Here is my advice on how to use a Denison education to become the architect of your life. You may have heard these before, but as I have reflected on them, my conviction has only deepened, and my view of them has become clearer:
Devote your time at Denison to four primary activities:
- Make your academic courses the centerpiece of your college experience. This is sacred. Nothing is more important. Academics are why colleges exist. The liberal arts can strengthen and open your mind and imagination in powerful and life transforming ways, but only if you take advantage of the opportunity to immerse yourself in the academics. This means taking a wide range of classes and prioritizing your academic work. Our classes are small and we use active pedagogies. But classrooms only work if students come prepared to be fully engaged. At a large college with lecture classes, participation is optional. At a college like Denison, the quality of the academic experience is shaped by the faculty, but also by the commitment and engagement of every student in every class.
Placing courses front and center is not about grades, but rather about taking a wide range of challenging classes and getting the most from each of them. Find power and joy in the books you read, the papers you write, the arguments you have in class, the conversations with faculty in and outside of the classroom, etc.
- Get involved in co-curricular activities – but not overly involved. Denison students are doers, and much learning comes from co-curricular involvements. But we need to shift from doing many things to doing a small number of things well. This means creating a culture where we value depth, commitment and excellence, not busyness. We need to push each other to focus and place boundaries on how much we can take on. And to fully commit to one or two co-curriculars where we can go deep and develop our capacity to work with others to do things well. The learning and fun from co-curriculars comes from being committed, and working with others to win games, put on performances, improve campus, and so forth.
- Savor the intellectual and cultural events. Our campus is filled with extraordinary intellectual and cultural events, including lectures, plays, concerts, art openings, and panel conversations. Many students get so scheduled that they lose sight of this amazing part of college life. It is a mistake. Intellectual and cultural experiences expand your mind, imagination and world views. With the quality of the events at Denison, you have unique opportunities to be exposed to people, ideas and artistic expressions that provide ways of seeing the world, or some part of it, in an entirely new way. This is an important part of the liberal arts. Saving time for intellectual and cultural activities is also an important value and life habit that will enrich your post-Denison life. Attend a Vail Concert, check out performances at the new Eisner Center, and/or attend lectures and events that expose you to new perspectives.
- Focus on career exploration, especially between semesters: Denison should help you develop ideas for the kind of life you want to live; an understanding for how careers allow people to build lives; and to acquire the skills, values, habits, networks and experiences to successfully get started post-graduation. Academic courses, co-curriculars and campus events are foundational elements to successful career exploration. Use them to examine unfamiliar topics and help you identify and explore interests and passions. And you should also use part of your time at Denison to engage with the Knowlton Center and focus on career related programs, connect with alumni, and have experiences that will enhance career exploration, preparation and launching. Make career exploration and The Knowlton Center a priority. This is worth reading.
Your ability to effectively do these four things will be greatly enhanced if you do the following:
- Seek out faculty and staff who will challenge you. Our faculty and staff care about our students and want to see them excel. As such, they provoke, inspire and demand, as a way to lead students in a process of self-discovery, personal growth, and learning. Faculty and staff will purposefully push you to develop both cognitive (e.g. thinking, reason, focus) and non-cognitive (e.g. social and emotional intelligence) attributes that will help you develop the agency and autonomy needed to thrive both in college and beyond. This isn’t always going to be easy, but it will be both purposeful and powerful. We believe that our students are outstanding and have incredible potential – and faculty and staff are here to challenge you to that potential.
- Develop a wide set of friendships, especially with people who are different from you. Friendships run deep at Denison. Typically, students start by developing friendships with people who have similar life experiences, but that should be the starting point, not the end goal. Denison works best when students seek out and form friendships with people who have a different set of life experiences and world views. This means proactively seeking out those peers in residential halls, classrooms and other campus venues who see and live in the world differently than you. The wider your network of friends, the more you will learn from your peers.
- Develop good life habits. Life is often hard. Ambiguity, challenge and change will be constants across your life. Liberal arts colleges are designed to develop whole people. We are uniquely suited to helping students develop the life habits needed to maintain health, and the emotional agility to manage whatever life throws at you. Life habits are crucial, especially allocating time for relaxation and sleep; committing to nutrition and exercise; and avoiding the traps of technology by putting our phones down, unplugging from social media and spending more face-to-face time with friends. Even if you stay healthy, you will have to manage stresses, disappointments, and even tragedies in your life. Emotional agility refers to a mindset that gives people the resiliency, perseverance and tools to transform challenge into success. A lot of the mindfulness and wellness programs and resources, we make available, and continue to develop, are focused on helping our students develop and practice emotional agility. To help find programs and resources, we will launch a new website before classes start. Dr. Kennedy will send you the link.
- Learn to Fail Forward. Part of a transformative college experience is learning to see and use stumbles and failure as part of the process of self-discovery, personal development, and eventual achievement. Everything is not going to go well all of the time. When things don’t go well, avoid the temptation of believing that everybody else is succeeding at every aspect of their life, while you are not. It’s not true! College is about growing as a person. This happens as you challenge yourself at a high level and in new ways. Failing is a normal, healthy and positive part of doing this well. When things don’t go well follow the advice above- seek our faculty and staff who can help you learn from the experience, participate in some of the programs we are offering across campus on developing good life habits, and be with peers. And most of all, try again.
One last comment: Doing the above is dependent on a community that is both welcoming and challenging. We generally do this well. But I want us to do it well for every member of our community. Embrace differences of all kinds while also understanding our interdependence as Denisonians. We depend upon members of our community understanding, appreciating, enjoying and respecting the differences that are a huge strength of Denison’s, while also seeing beyond the differences to find the connections that create a campus community of Denisonians. Be excited to connect with and to learn from each other, but most of all treat each other with respect and kindness as members of a single community. Connect with others who might be struggling. And express yourself in ways that are mindful of how others might hear you. Cultural competency and appreciation for cultural, political, intellectual and other forms of pluralism are core to your Denison education and to preparing for life after Denison.
Some final reflections: The education we provide at Denison can be life changing. The power comes from helping students develop the agency and autonomy to be the architect of their lives. Admittedly, that is not an environment every student wants or thrives in. Some students are looking for a different campus environment or a curriculum that is more distinctly pre-professional. Some students don’t want to be on a residential campus where learning is 24/7. For a range of reasons, some college students are not seeking the growth that comes with the intellectual challenges of a place like Denison. But, I believe that everybody deserves the right to have this kind of education if they want it. I also believe we do the liberal arts well and we are all fortunate to be Denisonians.
As I mentioned at the top, Dr. Kennedy and Provost Coplin will send a letter soon that will describe areas of focus for the college. The last few years, that focus has been on expanding the curriculum with new academic programs, being more global, supporting the arts, developing strong career exploration programs, and engaging the campus community on issues of diversity, inclusivity, respect and wellbeing. Their letter will explain that we will continue to focus on these issues, while expanding our work to address other topics.
Last year presented us with challenges to learn from. I am very excited about the work we have done over the summer engaging student leaders, faculty and staff to prepare for the upcoming year. I feel very good about the year in front of us.
What I want is for Denison to help you develop a set of skills, values and habits that allows you to build a life that you could not have imagined when you started college – a life filled with opportunities, relationships and experiences that create meaning and joy.
I am excited to welcome you back to campus in a few weeks. Thank you for being a great generation of Denisonians.
Read more of Adam Weinberg's speeches and writings.