President George S. Bridges delivered his inaugural State of Whitman College address to the faculty, staff and students in Maxey Hall on Friday, Oct. 12, 2012.
The speech highlighted Whitman’s successes in recent years and outlined its most important goals for the years ahead. President Bridges also discussed the challenges and opportunities facing Whitman.
“It was helpful to hear the president communicate where he thinks the college is going,” said Susan Brick, director of off campus studies. “He spoke about different issues facing the college, like boosting diversity and the challenges of admissions. These were important issues to hear about.”
In speaking about diversity, President Bridges emphasized that Whitman’s diversity efforts have significantly increased faculty, staff and students of color. He also noted that a major shift in the proportion of women faculty is likely to result in women holding a majority of tenured or tenure track positions in the near future.
He highlighted Whitman’s success in developing a campus where students from all backgrounds and traditions are able to attend Whitman. He said the percentage of students of color at Whitman has doubled from one in 10 to one in five in the last decade, nearly 15% of Whitman’s students come from families who qualify for Pell grants and one in 10 of Whitman’s students are the first members of their families to attend college.
“That these students are enrolled here and performing successfully given the obstacles that many overcame just to get to Whitman is inspiring,” President Bridges said.
President Bridges also spoke about four goals that the college had accomplished in close partnership with Whitman’s trustees, alumni and close friends since he took office as Whitman’s 13th president on July 1, 2005. These were goals, he said, that were of vital importance to the college’s future and to preparing its students for their futures. These were as follows: “enriching our already strong academic program; building a more diverse campus community; increasing Whitman’s national stature and recognition; and increasing the financial strength of the college by leading a comprehensive fundraising campaign.”
At the heart of these goals, “is the commitment to continue educating our students in small, challenging classes; the commitment to continue the tradition of enabling students to form close relationships with faculty and other students; and the commitment to enhancing the already welcoming environment – making sure that we support all people regardless of their backgrounds, beliefs, orientations, or status,” said President Bridges.
A recurring theme of the president’s address was how proud and honored he felt to be part of a college where the trustees, faculty and staff worked closely together to weather the recent, national economic tumult. President Bridges noted that Whitman did not escape the economic decline that started in 2008, but that the difficult years between 2008 and 2011 were among the most “profound and difficult moments of my career.”
“The speech was more serious than I was expecting,” said Doug Juers, associate professor of physics. “But I think it was very informative.”
The serious nature of the speech was due to the uncertainty Whitman faced during what many economists have now dubbed the Great Recession. Whitman managed to hold steady during this global recession, and President Bridges, to great applause from the audience, affirmed that the college was emerging from the recession stronger than ever.
He noted that despite these economic difficulties, the college has raised, through its Now Is the Time Campaign, $113 million toward the goal of $150 million. The campaign is scheduled to end in June 2015.
“The amount of support the college received through its Now Is the Time Campaign is a credit to Whitman’s reputation,” he said. “These numbers are staggering. Sixty percent of our alumni have made campaign commitments.”
The benefits of the campaign can be seen across campus. One area directly affected by the campaign is faculty. While many colleges are following the trend of hiring more part-time faculty, Whitman is committed to providing its students with tenured and tenure-track faculty. President Bridges said that since 2006, Whitman has increased the number of tenure-track faculty by 25 percent. Of these, 13 are new positions created as a direct result of the campaign.
“We hope to continue adding tenure-track lines in the near future by converting positions that are currently one-year contingent lines to permanent tenure-track appointments,” President Bridges said.
The lifeblood of Whitman College is the students. President Bridges said that Whitman’s commitment to adding to its tenure track-lines was paying off substantially in improving the college’s national profile, which in turn attracts the nation’s top students to Whitman. Proof of this is that Whitman attracted students from 48 different states and 30 countries this past year. It’s these students who will continue to add to Whitman’s esteemed reputation with the prestigious national awards, grants and fellowships they receive.
President Bridges pointed out that at the end of the 2005 academic year, 12 Whitman students had won or received awards from a total of six fellowship programs. This past year, 38 Whitman students won awards from a total of 24 programs; of these, 17 awards came from the most prestigious and competitive fellowship programs in the country.
“We believed that centralizing and investing in dedicated, full-time staff for our Office of Fellowships and Grants would assist faculty and students in preparing for these competitions. That belief proved to be right.”
While arguing that Whitman was thriving, President Bridges cautioned that there were challenges the college faced in the years ahead. He noted, first and foremost, that Whitman must successfully complete its Now Is the Time Campaign, and he warned that, despite the success so far, reaching the $150 million goal is by no means a surety.
Second, he reminded the audience that Whitman is a college that relies on student enrollment and tuition dollars to support its programs and instruction. Therefore, he said, Whitman requires a steady stream of talented students enrolling in the college. To this fact, Whitman must buck the national trend of a declining number of admission applications received by liberal arts colleges.
A third and related concern, President Bridges said, is that Whitman must invest adequately and effectively in the college’s communications with respect to reaching out to prospective students, their parents, Whitman’s alumni and the general public.
“We need to inform them more fully and effectively about the quality of education we provide,” he said.
Fourth, President Bridges stressed that he wanted to continue to maintain diversity at the college among students, faculty and staff. He was confident the college would be successful in this endeavor.
President Bridges recognized the Student Engagement Center for its renewed energy and the accomplishments this past year. He stressed, however, that Whitman must ensure that the Center continues to serve students who want and need help in identifying and understanding opportunities they have after graduation. Helping students more effectively connect with people and opportunities for post-graduate studies and employment is an imperative.
The fifth challenge, he said, was that Whitman must continue to consider and discuss the new roles that technology is playing in higher education. President Bridges mentioned new technology, such as the advent of MOOCs – massive open online courses – which represent the latest development in online learning. However, he stressed that new technology like MOOCs represent no threat to the type of education Whitman offers.
“Our entire approach to education is centered on close, personal interaction and lasting relationships between professors and students,” he said.
“Online courses and material may be effective in transmitting knowledge, but they do not inspire the kind of training in critical thinking that we do, or offer the life-changing webs of connection between academic disciplines, or the hands-on opportunities for involvement in faculty scholarship and research or the extracurricular experiences that we offer.”
Challenges aside, President Bridges closed his address by again emphasizing that Whitman is on solid footing. He said the college is far stronger today than in 2007 thanks to the restructuring of the annual budget and the unprecedented success of the college’s campaign. He expressed confidence and assured the audience that the college is moving out of the recession, and that because of the budgetary measures Whitman put in place over the past few years, as well as the funds raised in the campaign, “the darker days are behind us.”
“We have resources to invest in our highest programmatic priorities and in our people: Whitman faculty, staff and students. Supporting our programs and people – the intellectual and human infrastructure of our college – remains my highest priority.
We have weathered the storm, our future is bright and Whitman College will continue to thrive and advance in guiding and transforming the lives of our students. They are the future leaders of our country.”