Denison's Courage and Creativity

A View from the Hill - Fall 2012

“Creativity & Courage” is our campus theme this year, the intellectual spine running through campus lectures, art exhibits and performances, individual classroom courses, and student activities. Because a big part of my job is to think institutionally about Denison, I have become convinced that creativity and courage can be demonstrated in institutions as well as in individuals. Let me offer a reflection on a historical time and the present moment at Denison.

When Daniel Purinton became Denison’s president in 1890, he arrived with an expansive vision. Although Denison had awarded almost exclusively undergraduate degrees since its founding, Purinton noted that it was called a “university”and that it had a couple of small master’s degree programs on its books. He quickly added a music conservatory, a school of art, and a school of military sciences to the existing undergraduate college, and in 1893 he announced plans for Ph.D. programs in biology and philosophy. In addition, regional extension education centers were opened in Newark, Zanesville, and Canton.

Only a handful of M.A.s were ever awarded and the departure of just one key scientist, Professor Clarence Luther Herrick, made it impossible to staff the biology Ph.D. program or award a single degree. Apparently no one enrolled in the Ph.D. program in philosophy. What suited Denison was undergraduate education.

It took Purinton’s successor, President Emory Hunt, to state the obvious: “It ought to be our purpose to make [Denison] a first class college in every respect, and to resist the tendencies toward work which properly belongs to the university.” Over time, he closed the separate schools and ended the last of the graduate programs. Between 1908 and 1913, the Board of Trustees wrestled with what to make of the “university” in Denison’s name, concluding that it was worth keeping primarily for historical reasons and in recognition of the fact that in 1901 Denison had effectively absorbed the neighboring Shepardson College for Women. At a meeting with new president Clark Chamberlain in 1913, the board affirmed that Denison’s future revolved around being an “[undergraduate] college of the first class.” At a time when the temptation was to grow and become a university indeed, this decision was an act of courage—and of creativity, setting the course for the modern Denison.

Today, it often requires courage to make the right decisions for Denison. Many colleges and universities, faced by competing demands for resources, have backed away from robust support for students through scholarships and financial aid. Denison hasn’t. The extraordinary philanthropic support of alumni, parents, and friends has assured that. As you’ve seen in the press, more than a few places have substituted part-time, adjunct faculty for full-time, permanent professors. Denison won’t. Some institutions have allowed class sizes to grow and sought alternatives to direct, interpersonal exchanges between faculty and students. Denison is committed to participatory, engaged learning. We face, like other colleges, temptations to grow, but we’ve taken maintenance of a 10-to-1 student/faculty ratio as our touchstone and are committed to retaining a special kind of intimacy in the classroom and in campus life. When budgets are stretched, it is easy for higher education administrators to scrimp on investments in buildings and campus and to allow the accumulation of deferred maintenance. Believing that Denison is very much about “place”—place for learning and living alike, the Board of Trustees has been scrupulous in budgeting for constant reinvestment in college facilities. And we have regularly introduced new facilities to the campus when we believe they are necessary to providing an undergraduate education of the “first class.” Even in admissions, we’ve tried not to get comfortable with finding students where we’ve always found them but have looked for talent in new communities and among new cohorts across the country and even around the world. It is that broadly representative, highly talented student body that makes learning at Denison, in the classroom and out, so energizing. And while there are temptations to add narrower, more vocational subjects to the curriculum, we continue to believe that Denison graduates are advantaged by an education in the liberal arts and sciences that prepares them to be reflective and resourceful throughout life.

Some of the decisions that face the modern Denison faculty, administration, and Board of Trustees are easy and obvious, but many require courage and a commitment to enduring values. And, often, out of them springs the creativity that keeps Denison moving and adapting to a dynamic world.

Published October 2012