August 2020 Letter to Students
Welcome to the start of a new academic year. Every academic year has its own opportunities and challenges. This year will be shaped by three significant events that we will navigate together:
- The COVID-19 public health crisis
- A contentious election cycle
- A challenging job market for our students
My goal is to work together to manage this moment and the challenges it presents, and to give our students a great year. Let me start with some observations that are not new but are important.
Why liberal arts colleges matter. Denison is a highly selective, residential, nationally known, and rigorous liberal arts college. Unlike most universities, we are solely focused on undergraduate education. We do not have graduate education, medical research facilities, or the many other programs that larger universities juggle.
We offer a particular kind of undergraduate education and occupy a unique place in higher education. We immerse students in a challenging, engaging, and broad-based education that develops a set of attributes like the ability to write and communicate; work with numbers and data; weave disparate ideas into new ways of thinking; frame questions; solve problems; connect with a broad range of people and ideas; and identify and follow a line of logic.
The power of this kind of education is the way it allows our students to be in the world. Liberal arts students experience the beauty and meaning of intellectual pursuits; rigorous scholarship and sharp thinking; and the thrill of knowledge for its own sake. And we purposefully strike a balance between the individual and community. We prepare students to succeed in life. And we instill within students a sense that we all should strive to do this in ways that contribute beyond ourselves.
In our best moments, Denison is a deeply relational and challenging college filled with highly-motivated students and engaged faculty and staff who push and catalyze our students to develop their talents and interests as a way to learn to excel and launch quickly and successfully into lives and careers.
As we get ready to start the academic year, I am going to ask every student to do six things.
First, create a road map for the year. There are so many opportunities afforded to you by Denison, but sometimes it can be hard to know how to best take advantage of them. Last year, I wrote a long letter that presented a road map. Please read it. Talk with your academic advisor and come up with a road map for how you want to take advantage of the year. What do you want to accomplish? How will you take advantage of Denison to make those things happen?
Second, help us manage the COVID crisis. We need everyone to do their part. We have two options available to students: you can return to campus or study remotely. It is very important that students make the decision that is the right for them. For those who have made the choice to return to campus, you should be doing the 14-day self-quarantining and completing the virtual symptom monitoring tool. Not doing these two things puts the entire community at risk and reduces the chances we can keep campus open. Also, you must sign and be fully committed to the Community Care Agreement. If you come back to campus and are not committed to the actions listed in this document, we will ask you to leave campus. For those studying remotely, we are working hard to create a great and engaging experience both inside and outside the classroom. We ask that you commit to doing your part by participating in virtual opportunities and staying connected to your faculty, peers and friends. We all need to be in this together.
Third, embrace academic freedom and understand the importance of intellectual differences. This will be a contentious election cycle with the potential to further polarize a divided country. As a country, we are having a hard time hearing views that are different from our own. Our campus needs to be a different kind of community. A liberal arts college depends upon faculty, students, and staff being able and willing to voice views and to hear competing perspectives. We are a community that embraces new ideas, that tests ideas with data and theory, and where people have the freedom to explore ideas and theories that might be controversial. A few years ago, the Denison faculty wrote and approved a Statement on Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom. The statement is self-explanatory and captures some core principles of Denison. It states in part:
“Academic freedom is essential to the aims of higher education and to the University’s goals of fostering critical thinking, moral discernment, and active citizenship among its members. It is the responsibility of the faculty and the administration to protect academic freedom. Furthermore, because Denison is a residential, liberal arts college, academic freedom must be extended to all members of the university community in the broadest of contexts. Indeed, academic freedom is a core value of liberal education and is essential to the transformative power of that education promised in our mission statement.
Academic freedom is the right of all members of the University to exercise the broadest possible latitude in speaking, writing, listening, challenging, and learning. It applies to opinions and inquiry regarding political, cultural, religious, scientific, and social matters, as well as to those regarding the University itself and its policies. Academic freedom is especially critical in the classroom, in research and publication, and in all educational activities.
Academic freedom applies to views and ideas that most members of the University may consider mistaken, dangerous, and even despicable. The ideas of different members of the University community will often conflict, but it is not the proper role of the University to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive.”
There are colleges where only one view is welcomed. And there are students who purposefully seek out those colleges. Denison is not one of them. We intentionally recruit students and hire faculty and staff who bring a wide range of worldviews, intellectual frameworks, and life experiences to our campus. Denison is a place where you will be exposed to a wide range of intellectual and political perspectives.
Fourth, work proactively to create a culture of respect, belonging and anti-racism across campus. Earlier this summer, I sent the community a letter on anti-racism which read in part, “We have two choices: either we are complicit in permitting racism to persist or we are proactively working to dismantle it and construct a different world. The latter category is where we stand as a college.” Vice President for Student Development Dr. Alex Miller will be sharing details of our plans and planning process soon, and you will be hearing more about ways we need you to be involved. This work is a priority for every area of the college, and we will be sharing updates and reporting out on our progress throughout the year.
Fifth, devote some time to career exploration and preparation. Our goal is to launch you quickly and successfully into lives and careers. Stated most bluntly, while we want you to have a great Denison experience, we want you to come back for your 50th Denison Reunion in the 2070s and say that your life turned out better than you could ever have expected and that Denison played a large role in that process. It is a tough job market that is not likely to get better over the next few years, but students graduating from places like Denison should do well. Take advantage of what the Knowlton Center has to offer. Along these lines, we will have some new programs available between the semesters in January. More information will be coming later this fall.
Sixth, focus on the opportunity afforded to you by Denison and be okay that the experience this fall will be different. There are lots of things that we won’t be able to do this year because of COVID. Your memories of this year won’t be of large parties, concerts or gatherings. We will have to do athletics and the arts differently. Some of you will not be on campus this semester. All of this is a loss. Despite the things we can’t do, we have the agency to make this a great year by focusing on the opportunities. Some of the opportunities are not new – they are the same as every other year. You will make great friends. You will be taking amazing courses with world-class faculty. You will have chances to develop important skills, values, and habits through co-curricular involvements. The Knowlton Center will help you launch your life.
And some of the opportunities are new. This can be a year of innovation. One example will be in the curriculum. The college has been very clear that faculty have a choice, just like students have a choice. They can teach in-person, remotely, or someplace in between. We fully support whatever decision faculty are making. We will try new styles of teaching. Lean into them. Some of them will work well. Some of them will work less well. And we will learn from them all and use those lessons to make our curriculum even stronger. I see this as a huge upside of this year. I am appreciative of the work our faculty have put into all of their courses, and I respect their right to also make decisions they need to make about their own safety and wellbeing.
The same holds true for social life. It will be different this year. To be blunt, some things that students look forward to won’t be possible in the COVID environment. Large parties and social gatherings, especially early in the year, will not be possible. But we are at our best when we are deeply relational. Smaller gatherings can be more personal. Virtual events will keep us connected whether on campus or remote. And perhaps we’ll find new ways of socializing that are surprisingly fun and that will endure as traditions for generations to come. The administration can’t do this for you. We need students to own it and create it.
Reflections on COVID, our plans and this year: I want to be as clear and upfront as possible. Our plans continue to be very fluid and will continue to be so. We are continuously examining a wide range of data points, emerging research on COVID, and the state of the COVID virus in Ohio. As we prepare and then move through the term, our data and campus situation will be monitored on at least three different levels: our campus COVID team, the Licking County Health Department, and a team of scientific and public health experts. As we have said from the beginning, we will be guided by data and science. We have a set of interlocking strategies that include testing, contract-tracing, quarantining and reconfiguration of spaces. A crucial element is cooperation with behavior that includes social distancing, mask wearing, and hand washing. The college needs to be flexible and agile. We can and will pivot as we need to do so.
I continue to believe that we can open campus, welcome students back, and manage the virus on our campus. But, COVID is very present in the State of Ohio and in Central Ohio. To date, most colleges and universities in Ohio plan to have their campuses opening in some hybrid format of in-person, remote, and other kinds of courses.
Final Reflections: COVID is hard. The election season is going to be difficult. The job market is challenging. All of these things are true. Here is what is also true – Denison is a great college. The liberal arts is about finding opportunity in challenge. And we are all committed to making this a year of growth for our students that moves you forward in your life journey. I have confidence in our community, and I believe we can and will rise to this challenge.
I am proud to be a Denisonian and to be the president of a college with students like ours.
Adam S. Weinberg
Read more of Adam Weinberg's speeches and writings.