Denison Magazine editor Paul Pegher always reminds me that the column I contribute doesn’t have to be aligned with the theme he has selected for each issue. But I was excited when Paul shared that this would be a number focusing on “identity” because Denison’s identity has been often on my mind during this last year. On the one hand, this is the year in which we have remembered Denison’s past by celebrating its 175-year history. On the other, we are just now heading into the final year of Higher Ground: The Campaign for Denison, an initiative that is all about securing Denison’s future. Past and future are both about identity.
Claiming an identity hasn’t always been an easy thing for our college. Its original name, the Granville Literary and Theological Institution, clearly signaled the intentions of the founders to prepare an educated clergy for frontier Ohio. By the time the school had evolved into Granville College, the mission had been enlarged to the development of young men for civic and commercial leadership, too. As newly renamed Denison University, it flirted briefly with awarding graduate degrees and even contemplated professional schools before its leadership concluded that Denison’s future lay with high quality undergraduate education.
For its first three or four decades, the college was exclusively for the education of young men before it was decided, in the aftermath of the Civil War, that it would do neither men nor women harm to learn together, and the boys of Denison and the girls of the Young Ladies’ Institute were permitted to share some classes. Renamed Shepardson College (this institution had its identity issues, too!), the downhill school for women began presenting its students for Denison degrees in 1901, though full merger of boards and facilities was not complete until the 1920s. With the closing of Doane Academy, Denison’s preparatory school, about the same time, Denison took on much of its modern aspect as a coeducational, residential, undergraduate college of liberal arts and sciences. This evolution was completed, in some sense, by the separation of the college from the founding Ohio Baptist Convention in the mid-1960s, establishing Denison as a national institution both independent and nonsectarian.
What impresses me about today’s Denison, even as it looks to the future (especially as it looks to the future), is that it is an institution secure in its identity. In an age in which bigger is frequently assumed to be better, we have found and kept our right size and are moving forward with a strategic plan that affirms that about 2,000 students is appropriate for what we want to achieve educationally. In the face of temptations in higher education to try to be all things to all people, Denison has focused its attentions upon the core disciplines of the liberal arts that we believe we can deliver with excellence and that we still think are the right bases for a lifetime of learning in a dynamic world. Whereas some institutions no larger, and sometimes smaller, than we have thought it prestigious to add graduate coursework, we have stuck to the premise that we are best served (and best serve students) by continuing to do what we do well and lavishing the attention of faculty exclusively upon undergraduates. Our commitment to remaining a residential college campus, far from being quaint, is central to creating an environment where students learn constantly from one another in and out of the classroom.
Knowing who we are allows Denison to move confidently into the future. Understanding that human relationships are at the core of learning, we have taken advantage of the support offered through the Higher Ground campaign to invest in new faculty positions and in growth opportunities for the professors who are building lives and careers at Denison, making certain that our students are challenged and guided by outstanding professionals. Through Higher Ground, we have been able to invest in student financial aid and scholarships, ensuring that once we have identified the young people whom we think will most benefit from and contribute to the Denison experience, we can make it possible and attractive for them to enroll and persist to graduation. Our student body, more varied in background than ever before, brings a wealth of experience and perspectives to both campus learning and living that enriches the experience of all. Because of Higher Ground, we are continuing to invest in campus facilities that allow our faculty and students to teach and learn under optimal conditions and that make possible a residential college community where we are all growing through our mutual interaction and participation in campus life.
It’s a great thing, knowing who we are. As Denison leaves year 175 behind, we advance steadily upward toward 200 and the “higher ground”!