A View from the Hill

A View from the Hill - Spring 2009

True to Our Mission in Demanding Times

At the beginning of a recent faculty meeting, I think I surprised my colleagues–just for a moment–by describing Denison as a “missionary” college. Missionary is a word we usually associate with religious activity, and Denison has not been affiliated with a religious denomination for two generations. Denison’s founders, of course, really did understand themselves to be involved in a missionary enterprise. They believed that they were bringing to a society just past its frontier stage the means for educating leaders for communities, commerce, and congregations alike.

The point of my remark was not to recount this history, but to remind us all that Denison remains a mission-driven place. Our mission has certainly evolved since the time of the founders. It embraces things they scarcely thought of–like preparation of leadership for a global community. And it extends notions that they certainly, at least in a rudimentary way, had in mind–that Denison should be as inclusive as possible of qualified young people from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences and should strive to reduce the economic barriers to achieving a college degree. Moreover, our mission undoubtedly has evolved to take on a qualitative aspect: we aim to achieve a special excellence in the undergraduate educational experience that Denison provides.

It is commitment to mission that guides the college through this unusual and challenging time in our nation’s economic circumstances. As Trustees, administrative leadership, and faculty have put their minds to navigating Denison through this period, we have all been attentive to maintaining our mission. This has meant not only committing ourselves to sustaining what we do but also to how well we do it. The result is that we remain true to ourselves as an institution and true to our students.

We have built the college operating budget for the year ahead on the premise that we would not add to tuition and fees anything beyond the inflationary cost of things that the college has to buy: from library books and data bases to scientific equipment, insurance, and utilities. Denison will have the smallest fee increase in years. At the same time, we have added $2 million more to our budget for financial aid, which this year already totals $36 million. Although these measures mean that we have $4.5 million less to apply to other operating activities than we might have projected a year ago, we think it is the right thing to do to assist our students and their families when so many are feeling stretched.

The challenge is to make good choices about how to expend our resources in ways that ensure that we are observing the mandates of our mission. Above all, we want to deploy resources to maintain the excellence of Denison’s educational experience. We will remain fully staffed, retaining our ideal 10 to 1 student/faculty ratio, continuing to renew the faculty with the best new hires as positions become open, and investing in the professional staff in units–from computing to the library to student life–that strengthen the academic mission. Denison will sustain its commitment to demanding, participatory classes, to student research, to fine arts instruction, and to visiting scholars and artists who bring to campus the intellectual resources of the world. We will fully support the co-curricular experience of our Denison men and women in residence life, student organizations and leadership, athletics and recreation, and civic engagement on- and off-campus.

Obviously, Denison has been assisted in this by the remarkable generosity of its alumni and friends. The recently completed Higher Ground Campaign allowed the college to add new permanent faculty positions, to endow additional student research fellowships, to perpetually underwrite key lecture and arts series, and to invest in student life opportunities. Likewise, the $177.7 million campaign provided millions for scholarship endowments and permitted the college to make major investments in new and renovated facilities. The last of the campaign-funded buildings, in fact, the Bryant Art Center in completely rebuilt and expanded Cleveland Hall, is due to open late this summer.

If we are foregoing some potential revenue, increasing financial aid, and sustaining our core mission of educational excellence, where are we doing some belt-tightening? Well, we’ll make sure that our annual summer renovations budget focuses exclusively on those things that are mission-critical. Our dollars will be spent on projects that encourage energy efficiency, protect infrastructure, and promote better learning experiences. We’ll complete the detailed planning we have underway for extensive renovation of Ebaugh Chemistry Laboratories and of our athletics and recreation center but will be cautious about moving forward on any construction until we feel that from both a financing and operating perspective, the time is right for Denison. We’ve asked departments to spend less on operations next academic year, and we’ll hold our salary and wage budget flat. In short, we’ll be prudent.

Having a clear sense of mission is a good thing. It gives us direction in all kinds of weather. Denison’s commitment, as always, is to its students–and to the graduates they become.

Published November 2020