"When I stepped on campus, I knew this was where I wanted to go to college.” That is the sentence I heard most during my first year at Denison. It made sense to me, because I experienced the same thing. I fell in love with Denison the moment I saw it.
At first, I thought it was the beauty of the Hill, but over time I have come to believe that it is the power of relationships and the values of the people who make up this great college.
In a recent book, How College Works, sociologists Dan Chambliss and Christopher Takacs empirically document the importance of relationships to a positive college experience. “This pervasive influence of relationships,” they write, “suggests that a college—at least insofar as it offers real benefits— is less a collection of programs than a gathering of people.”
Don’t get me wrong, Denison has some incredible programs and a stellar curriculum, but much of its strength comes from enduring relationships that are formed in classrooms, residence halls, athletic fields, arts studios, and faculty offices. Our students talk about our faculty with great admiration. And our faculty members talk about our students with enthusiasm, commitment, and joy. The student-faculty relationship has always been special at Denison, and continues to be so today—it anchors the student experience, faculty careers, and the college.
Relationships run equally deep between and among students. At Reunion Weekend this year, I was struck by how many students had come to Denison and built friendships that will last a lifetime. It is remarkable how many Denison friendships transcend generations and anchor the lives of our graduates and their families.
And relationships run deep between staff and students. From residential life staffers to academic department assistants, our staff members and students forge relationships that are unusual for a college and speak volumes about Denison’s values and culture.
As is typical of new presidents, I am working with the faculty, students, staff, parents, alumni, and community members on plans for the future. Our focus is on building and strengthening relationships to give students a fantastic education and prepare them to lead great lives.
To do that, we are working on new ways to bring students and faculty together. Denison Seminars—team-taught courses that have an off-campus component—will be new this year. We also have new programs that will bring students and faculty together around meals. And we are looking to expand our undergraduate research programs, allowing more students to work with faculty over the summer, including at research stations around the world.
We’ll also focus on strengthening relationships between students. Denison is a diverse place, giving our students an array of opportunities to learn to live and work with people who are different from themselves. The campus should be a design studio in which students can practice their liberal arts skills. Rather than solving problems as faculty and administrators, for example, we are focused on self-governance, giving students the responsibility to solve campus issues and problems, thereby sharpening their leadership skills.
And of course, we are focused on our alumni. You are one of our greatest resources. We need new ways to connect you with the current generation of Denison students. Denison alumni always have succeeded across the professions. As students transition from the liberal arts into the professions, they need to hear your stories, learn from your mentorship, and benefit from your networks.
I do have a few favors to ask of our alumni and our parents. Denison is a great college. But we need to raise our visibility and be on people’s radar screens more. First, bumper stickers on cars, coffee mugs in offices, and Denison pens in your house are simple but effective ways to remind others that we are educating the brightest students and producing successful alumni. If you need a bumper sticker, email me (firstname.lastname@example.org), and you can order a T-shirt or coffee mug online at denisonbookstore.com. Second, you can change a life by getting a high school student to consider Denison. Please email, call, or text people whose families include high school juniors or seniors. Encourage them to look at Denison. If you are so inclined, consider a simple Facebook post or tweet.
Encouraging a family to look at Denison is a gift to the college, to your friends, and to the young person whose life will be changed by the relationships that grow at this great college.