High Intellectual and Community Ideals

A View from the Hill - High Intellectual - Spring 2006

By now, there probably isn’t a Denisonian alive who hasn’t heard of Higher Ground. The $160 million comprehensive campaign to advance the college at the beginning of the 21st century is now well past its midpoint in both years and dollars. But before Higher Ground came the Strategic Plan for Denison. Finalized by the Board of Trustees in January 2001, the plan offered a blueprint for the college independent of the campaign that got underway nearly two years later. While success in the Higher Ground campaign is essential to achieve some of our most ambitious strategic objectives, many goals are obtainable within the existing resources of the college or require not resources but energy and will. I’m reminded of that every time I review one of our most important strategic objectives: “Strive for consistently high intellectual and community ideals across the campus, reflecting our commitment to academic excellence and to the integration of living and learning.”

In just the first few weeks of the spring semester, I’ve been overwhelmed by the many ways in which the activities of Denison students and faculty illustrate our progress toward this important goal. Surely it says something about the excitement so many Denison students exhibit in learning that they not only packed the house for an exceptional Vail Series concert by Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra but came to Swasey Chapel by the hundreds a day earlier to hear Mr. Marsalis’ unusually poignant tribute to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Many joined him again at an afternoon open rehearsal and, after the Vail concert, at an impromptu jam session with local musicians that filled Slayter Union with the sounds of jazz into the wee hours of the morning.

This semester, more than two dozen ambitious women and men have brought to our campus “Sustained Dialogue.” Pioneered at Princeton and the University of Virginia, Sustained Dialogue is a community practicum in “civil discourse”—civil discourse on even the most charged topics, civil discourse that respects diversity of opinion and paves the way toward consensus solutions to community challenges. This spring, our Sustained Dialogue pioneers will take up discussion of racial diversity on campus and what it means for young people of disparate backgrounds to live and grow together. We all have much to learn about conversation that builds community.

Only a couple of weeks ago, Tina and I had the extraordinary privilege of attending a special concert of Monteverdi, Mozart, Rossini, and Chu (Denison music professer Ching Chu Hu, that is!) performed by the 40 members of the Denison Chamber Choir and Orchestra. What made it special was not just the quality of the performance but the fact that the two ensembles had just returned from presenting this concert in Milan, Florence, and Venice. Who are these remarkable students? A dozen are majors in Denison’s vibrant Department of Music, but the rest are talented musicians and singers majoring in disciplines across the campus, from biochemistry and physics to English and PPE (Politics, Philosophy, and Economics).

Also in February, I welcomed participants to the first national student East Asian Studies Conference. Organized by Barry Keenan of the Department of History and supported by Denison’s major grant from the Freeman Foundation, the conference brought student researchers from outstanding colleges across the country to share the fruits of their scholarship. A panel of scholars assembled by Professor Keenan had screened a large number of proposals to select only the best for this scholarly conference for undergraduates. Students from such far-flung peer institutions as Davidson, Bates, and Colorado College joined a strong representation of Denisonians to share ambitious scholarship on the history, culture, society, and politics of East Asian nations.

Finally, I only recently received word from colleagues in the Five Colleges of Ohio consortium (Denison, Kenyon, Oberlin, Wooster, and Ohio Wesleyan) that at the third annual Five Colleges juried art show held at the College of Wooster, no fewer than 22 of the 57 exhibited works selected by an independent juror from over 186 submissions were created by Denison students—that is, almost 40 percent of the total. Denison junior Matt Messmer’s woodblock print was selected for the Juror’s Award and sophomore Madeline Mohre’s stoneware earned a Merit Award. What a salute to both the talent and the ambition of so many Denison exhibitors.

High intellectual ideals? Integration of living and learning? If our start this spring is a good indication, these are not only strategic objectives but sustained achievements at Denison. I know it makes you as proud as it does me. 

Published March 2006