Bates Community Letter: Fall 2015

web_120402_Clayton_Spencer_0611Dear Members of the Bates Community,

Yesterday, we turned out as a college community to welcome the Class of 2019. For the first time in many years, all first-year students arrived on the same day to be greeted as a class before heading off, later this week, to an expanded array of AESOP experiences and, for our fall varsity athletes, team practices.

The energy on campus is palpable, and I write to share the sense of excitement we feel, to highlight areas of focus for the fall, and to invite your engagement with, and suggestions about, all things Bates.

I am now entering my fourth year as president, and with each passing year I gain a more layered understanding of the richness of the Bates experience, on campus and over lifetimes, and even greater ambition for the college and the quality of the education we offer. With our distinctive history and mission, our emphasis on academic rigor, and our strong sense of community, we have powerful fundamentals on which to build. We also have tangible indications of progress.

Last year was a record year in admissions, with the largest number of applicants — 5,636 — in Bates history. Our fundraising has increased by more than 30 percent each of the past two years. Our academic core remains exceptionally strong, as evidenced by our students’ positive ratings of their professors, their classroom experience, and their research opportunities, and by our faculty’s success as published scholars and grant-sponsored researchers. We are a national leader in community-engaged learning — with our faculty incorporating community-engaged work into their courses and research, and our students contributing over 70,000 hours each year to the Lewiston and Auburn communities.

We are a top producer of Fulbright scholars, with a remarkable 20 this year, and we are the only NESCAC institution with a debate team ranked in the top ten nationally. Artistic life is thriving on campus, with an ever-changing series of exhibitions at the Museum of Art, music and theater performances punctuating the year, and our internationally known dance program, including the Bates Dance Festival, which just completed its 33rd year. We had a very strong year in athletics, reaching our highest placement ever in the Directors’ Cup Division III standings — 27th out of 450 institutions — and our first-ever NCAA national team championship, in women’s rowing. Finally, with the support of generous donors, this summer we greatly increased the number and variety of paid summer internships and other opportunities, with 239 Bates students doing summer work through the Purposeful Work Internship program, the Bates Career Development Center, the research grants provided by the Dean of the Faculty’s office, and the Harward Center Community Engagement Fellowships.

Even as we challenge ourselves and our students to strive for excellence in concrete pursuits of the kind described above, we understand that the long-term success of the college and the power of our educational model depend on deeper values that ground us and bind us together. Because these values are fostered through reflection, analysis, conversation, and collective discernment, an important focus of this year’s activities will be engagement by the entire Bates community in questions of how well we are delivering on the promise of our mission and how we should frame strategic goals for the future. The paragraphs that follow describe more specifically how we are organizing this work.

Looking Ahead to the New Academic Year

The “Art of Democratic Writing”

As many of you know, in recent years we have assigned to first-year students a Common Reading, which forms the basis for discussions when they arrive on campus for orientation and first-year seminars. This year, our Common Reading is Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, by Danielle Allen, eminent political theorist and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard and professor of Government and Education. In this remarkable work, Allen leads us through the Declaration of Independence, word by word, line by line, and section by section, bringing to life the underlying logic of the document, depicting the process by which it was written, and laying bare how 1,337 words could transform 13 dependent colonies into a nation of independent and united states. As she explores the Declaration and its origin, Allen elucidates the notion of “democratic writing,” whereby all members of a community are invited into the work of co-creating a shared world, based on principles and values that we hammer out together and reshape over time.

Allen will be the featured speaker at our Convocation next Tuesday, which opens the academic year. Convocation will be livestreamed on our website, and we would love to have you join the conversation about Our Declaration. I am very pleased that we, as a college community, have this rich opportunity to reflect on “the co-creation of a shared world,” because it sets the stage powerfully for our collective work, begun last year, in three major areas: student life, diversity and inclusion, and Institutional Planning.

Student Life

The distinctive value of a residential liberal arts experience is that it takes as its purpose educating the whole person. We are committed to the notion that this kind of education is grounded in academic rigor and realized in community. We encourage our students to integrate intellectual growth with personal development through the pursuit of interests and relationships within and beyond the classroom. To make sure that we are delivering on these goals, we began a series of efforts last year to assess the dimensions of student life and culture that are strong and healthy and positive — and need to be preserved — as well as aspects that need to be strengthened, or tackled in different and more effective ways.

As we began this work, students made it clear that they, like alumni, put a high value on the distinctive quality of community at Bates. They also rightly feel strong ownership of their four years on campus, and they want to be front and center in any discussions bearing on the shape of their college experience. In Danielle Allen’s terms, our students want and expect to be “co-creators of their shared world.”

With that in mind, students have been centrally involved in designing and implementing a series of improvements in student communications, IT services, AESOP, and Orientation. There is also strong consensus among students that they need a richer array of social options on weekends. To begin to address this concern, with the support of generous donors, last winter we launched Late at Bates, featuring late-night weekend activities that students initiate on a “pop up” basis. Students propose activities — “Big Prize Bingo,” bowling, “Milkshakes and Games” — for specific time slots and then run them for all comers. The program was very well-received and will continue through this academic year.

Likewise, students have been working with staff in Student Affairs to redesign the way we, as a community, approach issues associated with alcohol and drug use and sexual respect. Essential to our work on these issues is peer leadership and education, which puts students at the center of developing their own collective norms in these areas of high risk and high national scrutiny.

Finally, a major effort focused on the student experience as a whole began last winter and will continue through this academic year — the Campus Culture Working Group. Chaired by Dean of Students Joshua McIntosh, this group of nine students, seven staff, and six faculty is charged with developing actionable recommendations that will strengthen residential life at Bates, promote a more integrated student experience, and affirm, as defining features of the Bates community, the values of academic engagement, inclusion, personal responsibility, and respect for the rights of others.

When it reconvenes this fall, the Campus Culture Working Group will begin talking with students about ideas and emerging recommendations so that we understand which ones resonate with students, which do not, and how students would prioritize areas of focus.

Diversity and Inclusion

Over the past year, the nation’s attention has been acutely drawn, through events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Charleston, and through the Black Lives Matter movement, to questions of racial injustice in the criminal justice system and, more broadly, to issues of race and inequality as structural concerns in our society. College campuses have provided important venues for discussion and activism on these issues. Given our explicit commitment at Bates to social justice and the “transformative power of our differences,” it is particularly important that we provide opportunities for our students to engage rigorously with these issues, and that we pay attention, as well, to the values we reflect in our own campus community.

During the past academic year we had a series of public forums and public actions, including a student-led “die-in” in Commons, a subsequent vigil in the Gomes Chapel, and the 2015 MLK Day Observance, themed From Selma to Ferguson: 50 Years of Nonviolent Dissent. Two panels focusing on these issues were among the year’s best-attended events, filling Muskie Archives to capacity. Interest remained robust throughout the year and informed our decision to explore issues of community and citizenship through our choice of Danielle Allen’s book as this year’s Common Reading.

Building on this past year’s work, the 2016 MLK Day Observance will focus on mass incarceration, with William Jelani Cobb, associate professor of history and director of the Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut, giving the opening keynote on black citizenship and incarceration. Additionally, in collaboration with students, we have developed a new program called “Lingua Franca,” that will provide students, faculty, and staff with a forum to explore contemporary issues in a structured way, especially as they affect life at Bates.

With regard to issues of diversity and inclusion in the campus community, Associate Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer Crystal Williams has led us in significant progress over the past year in revitalizing both the space and staffing of the Office of Intercultural Education. We have developed innovative programming for students who are the first in their families to attend college, and for all students to explore issues of difference in ways that allow them to relate their own life experience to questions of building an inclusive climate at Bates. Engagement in these programs has been strong across campus, and this energetic approach will continue this year with expanded outreach to alumni.

Institutional Planning

This year we will complete the Institutional Planning process begun last year. Our goal is to produce a framework of priorities, collectively derived, that will guide the college over the next five to 10 years and enable us to establish substantive goals for a comprehensive fundraising campaign. Institutional Planning is a quintessential exercise in “democratic writing” that is explicitly designed to unlock the ideas and creativity of the entire Bates community. It is forward-looking and aspirational, yet grounded firmly in Bates’ core values as they were established at our founding and reaffirmed in our mission statement of 2010. The process incorporates a tough-minded look at data — about our finances, facilities, academic programs, student services, and measures of student satisfaction and postgraduate success — as well as analysis of broader trends affecting higher education and the world.

We hope to complete the planning process by the end of this academic year. Meanwhile, there will be a range of opportunities, beginning this fall, for faculty, staff, students, Trustees, and alumni to take part in the conversation. By late September, we will have a website reflecting the progress of the planning teams and will invite input from the entire Bates community. In the meantime, please click here for information about the teams and their formation.

And Now We Begin — Again

I am truly excited to plunge into this new academic year, which promises to be rich in both reflection and progress. I hope that each and every one of you will find moments of interest and engagement throughout the year, and, as always, I encourage you to be in touch with questions, concerns, and ideas.

With all best wishes,

Clayton Spencer

4 Responses to “Bates Community Letter: Fall 2015”

  1. Kevin Gallagher '64 says:

    You listed an inclusive dynamic to the committees exploring ways to strengthen Bates. Recognizing the difficulty involved, it was disappointing to see the alumni not included.

  2. Ed Francis '73 says:

    AESOP?

  3. Amy Moffett says:

    I appreciate the positive and exciting information about the upcoming year at Bates. I was hoping to see some reference to the many environmentally conscious clubs and activities that permeate student life. As a parent of a returning student who has been active in these endeavors, I think it is important to recognize them. Sustainability and environmentally friendly practices are becoming more and more critical and more and more important to students and their families. I believe they are worthy of recognition since a thriving and sustainable community is equally important to an academically enriched and socially vibrant one. Thank you for your continued leadership and I look forward to another wonderful year as a Bates parent!

  4. Stanley Freeman '47 says:

    While I understand the changing values and aspirations of recent generations, they might be challenged by the views of old alums. For example, I was hurt several years ago by the end-of-year “riot” by students.
    And, I miss in the new planning the previous emphasis on community service.

Reply to Ed Francis '73

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