Courtesy of Wake Forest
May 16 marked the end of Dr. Susan Wente’s first year in office as president of Wake Forest. The 2021-2022 Academic Year was a time of great change for the university, as it shed COVID-19 restrictions, navigated a fertilizer fire, celebrated an inauguration, continued to reckon with its racist past, and announced new scholarships and was called to address systems of interpersonal violence on campus.
On Friday, May 6, the Old Gold & Black spoke with Wente to reflect on her first year. Our conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity, is below.
Aine Pierre, Online Managing Editor: So to start off, what were some of the high points of your first year? What were some of the low points?
Dr. Susan Wente, President of Wake Forest: Of course, this is my first year, which comes with a lot of high points and excitement. I get a lot of positive energy from meeting new people and learning new things. I chose to pursue science because I love making discoveries, so the highs have been meeting people and learning about Wake Forest.
I see myself as a member of the Class of 2025 because we were all new to campus. I think the highs were the times when we were together through lots of different celebrations and also, when we pivot to the lows, through times when we’ve had to do hard work, too. And so I’ve appreciated how the Wake Forest community has come together and engaged in dialogue and taken opportunities to both celebrate and deliberate.
I am proud of the fact that we started both semesters on time and in person, which took radical collaboration. Not every university was able to do that, but the students were able to stay in person throughout the year, which I’m very proud of. I know it was difficult at some points, but staying fully in person was a high point for me.
When I think of high points, I think of the landmark times when I had to address the whole university community and share with everyone what I was learning: whether I was speaking to first-year students at convocation and telling them I was going to keep asking, “what have you discovered today?”; or my presidential address in November which was framed around the conversation of “what’s expected of a great university?”; to Founders Day, when I was asking “what will we found together?” And then, finally, in my inaugural address, pivoting to “what does it mean to be the catalyst for good in society?” So I felt those were highs in terms of bringing everyone together and focusing us on thinking ahead.
AP: Did you have any specific low points that you wanted to touch on?
SW: Low points are usually when there’s a surprise or a challenge you don’t have control over. So of course, I would have to cite the Weaver Fertilizer plant fire. But in reflection, I also think the fire showed how we work together, from everyone pitching in to help the students who needed to evacuate, to advising on how to navigate the decision-making, to addressing concerns that were being raised in real-time when we weren’t in control of the information or the situation. But I think again, it’s about turning low points into a high point and learning point. I’m proud of our emergency management team, emergency operations, the police department and how Campus Life and the faculty helped our students navigate. I’d handled natural disasters before, such as floods and tornadoes that impacted a campus and community, and of course COVID-19, but I’d never had to deal with a fertilizer plant fire before.
AP: Going back to the questions that you were asking this year and the answers that you’ve gotten, what questions did you have coming in, what questions were answered and what questions do you still have?
SW: Some of my questions had to do with how the Pro Humanitate motto is lived and breathed by the community. I had heard about it and read about it, but when I got to Wake Forest, I was learning about it firsthand. I could see Pro Humanitate in everything from Hit the Bricks to Wake N’ Shake, which are very specific fundraising events, to the care expressed by individuals for members of the community and how Wake Forest creates an environment where everyone has an opportunity to thrive.
The answers I heard to the question “what’s expected of a great university?” resulted in the question “what does it mean to be a catalyst for good in society?” Because what I heard a great university should be doing is catalyzing access and opportunity, accelerating learning and discovery, and being a place that lowers the barriers to inclusivity and the barriers to society thriving. And so, I heard those answers from all different kinds of stakeholders, whether it was students or faculty or staff or alumni or parents or friends, which was very heartening.
Now, in terms of “what do we found?” I think we should all think about how what we do today makes a difference for the future, which is what we’re going to be doing next year in our strategic planning. When I say “what does it mean to be a catalyst for good?”, it means “what actions are we going to take?”, and “how are we going to enable access and opportunity; inclusion, discovery and learning in ways that are distinctive to Wake Forest?”
AP: What questions do you still have, if any?
SW: A lot of my questions now are the “how” and the “why” questions. How do we foster more access and opportunity? How do we foster inclusion and equity? How do we ensure that our students are thriving?
AP: You touched on the strategic plan. Would that plan take us to 2034, for the 200th anniversary?
SW: I feel that strategic plans should allow for flexibility and nimbleness because we don’t know what might come up in the next five years or 10 years. There may be things we can do in the future that we had no idea would be possible in 2022. There might be things that we might need to do because of new situations we have to address.
I’ve also often said that a strategic plan shouldn’t have a year-based timeframe on it. A strategic plan should be able to be adaptable and expandable, and in some way, it should even have a stamp on it that says “draft” so it continues to evolve. But it needs to be framed so we are all confident in what our vision is and confident in what we’re working toward under a set of specific objectives. The strategic plan will not include everything we need to do, but it will be a framework for the future.
AP: Before we move on from the Strategic Plan, I was wondering if you got a copy of the People’s Strategic Plan, which was introduced at the recent speak out. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on it.
SW: I read the article about the speak out in the Old Gold & Black. And I know Vice President for Campus Life Dr. Shea Kidd-Brown and Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Dr. José Villalba are working very closely with the students regarding the questions and the proposals they spoke about and put forward. I’ll be relying upon both of them and relying on students to continue engaging on those important questions. And I appreciate the students’ passion and interest and the ways in which they are engaged in dialogue.
AP: What are some of your main takeaways from this year? What would you say were your main lessons?
SW: One takeaway is that this is a campus and a community where people want the very best not just for the university, but for the students, faculty, staff and alumni who are associated with it. That sincere passion and commitment is a big takeaway.
I also found Wake Forest is willing to make hard decisions and also to lead in areas. For example, in 2009, we went test-optional. And I get asked many different times in different places, “oh, well it’s been test-optional for the last year. Are you going to keep going test-optional?” And we’ve been test-optional since 2009, but it was a hard decision when it was made and a decision no other university in the top 30 was making. I’ve definitely been able to see evidence of Wake Forest’s willingness to embrace change, which I think is not common at every university.
We have change coming in terms of new leadership. I was a new leader this year, and another one of my big takeaways was that people were excited about the next chapter, which sometimes isn’t common, either. I’ve recruited some very key positions, such as Dr. Shea Kidd-Brown for Vice President of Campus Life. And next year, the business school and the college will have new deans and there will also be a new provost. There is a recognition at Wake Forest that these are the types of things universities often have happening and that these changes are opportunities. I think those are some of my key take-home messages.
I also had several observations in my November address to campus, and I think those observations still hold. One of those was that Wake Forest is truly committed to the student experience and to the teacher-scholar model, which I fully embrace. I’ve gone to sit in on different classes throughout the year to see the teacher-scholar model in action. I also saw that Wake Forest is committed to reckoning with its past, in order to inform the future. I’ve seen it by participating in Founders Day, participating in the symposia our Slavery, Race and Memory Project co-hosted with Guilford College and in the University Studying Slavery Consortium. I saw it in the inclusive teaching conference. When I went there and found out 70% of our faculty were taking part in the conference during the day, I thought to myself, “that couldn’t happen anywhere else.” I truly don’t think the level of participation we had would happen anywhere else.
And then finally, I observed that Wake Forest strives to be, and is, highly competitive, and that that is reflective of our embrace of academic excellence and excellence across everything that we offer as opportunities to our students.
AP: Thinking about Wake Forest on the path forward, what are the things you see Wake Forest not having a tolerance for and trying to leave behind in its past? You’ve mentioned a lot of the things that it would be bringing forward, but is there anything in particular you would like to see left behind?
SW: I want Wake Forest — and I think I’ve heard this from all the voices who have answered the question “what’s expected of a great university?” — to continue to expand access to students who are from a wide range of lived experiences, identities and socioeconomic backgrounds. I want to continue expanding that access and then also, I want to ensure that everyone who comes feels like they belong and are thriving. And so, if it hasn’t been true in the past that students belong and thrive, we want to leave that behind and find new ways to ensure it is true going forward.
AP: What’s next for Wake Forest? And how will it be communicated?
SW: I think the reason why I’m talking about the fact that we’re doing a strategic plan is because I want everybody to know what’s going on. I don’t want it to be “oh, surprise, here’s our new plan,” but “here’s the process we’re going to use and here’s how to learn about it, and here’s how to give input” all along the way. I don’t want what comes out of next fall to be the administration’s strategic plan, but our strategic plan. And I do think communication is the real critical aspect, which is a huge challenge. I think, in real estate, they say it’s “location, location, location”; in leadership, it’s “communication, communication, communication”. You just can’t do it enough, especially when you’ve got your 1000s of students and then 1000s of faculty and staff, who are in all different nooks and corners of the campus.
But I am very proud that, in the aftermath of the protests, when I found out there hadn’t been a campus-wide sexual misconduct campus climate survey, I made a commitment to conduct one. It happened this spring, and 40% of students responded, and I’m so proud of the students’ leadership in terms of rallying a response of that magnitude. I’m looking forward to how we’re going to continue being very transparent about the survey results and recommendations of actions to take. Reporting out on that will be a priority in the fall semester.