Sometimes you just have to step back and remind yourself of what really matters. Perspective can be everything.
The academic year at Beloit College kicks off with a half-day faculty and staff retreat that we call Fall Conference. Of course, the sole topic of conversation this year was the work of the Beloit Forward Teams. As you know, these are the teams that spent the summer responding to the enrollment declines of the last two years. Fall Conference was less than 24 hours after the campus (and alumni) had received updates from those teams, so there were billions of details—large and small—that people at the retreat had questions and concerns about. You can imagine Richardson Auditorium jam-packed with anxious community members.
Yet, I had been asked to start off the morning with a short set of remarks focused on why we do what we do? How smart. The team of faculty leaders who are collectively serving as the college’s acting provosts had asked me to kick off the day with some perspective.
So instead of wading through a fraction of the thousands of details connected to the Beloit Forward teams, I am also going to attempt to offer some perspective in this space.
At a nearly filled Eaton Chapel, five days before Fall Conference, new students and their families congregated to be welcomed by several of us. This was just a few hours after the new class had moved into their new homes in the residence halls. One of the presenters was Professor Lisa Anderson-Levy. The thesis she took up was “What is it that Beloit College does best?” What she said was that Beloit College’s secret sauce is its ability to meet students where they are and provide them with pathways to imagine themselves and their futures in new ways; to help them see what they cannot yet see.
How important is that? To meet students where they are and to help them see what they cannot see.
As it turns out, I had recently received a note from an alumnus of about 10 years ago who was reflecting on his Beloit education. He wrote: “Beloit understands where young people are in their journey.” From this he writes about being prompted by his advisors to take a Chinese culture class, and from there, several Chinese language classes, and from there, a job living and teaching in China, all the while expecting to return to the States for a secondary school teaching position in the sciences, which he has now. Then his reflection makes a beautifully Beloitish turn:
“One of the best interview questions I have been asked in the hiring process as an educator was, ‘What else are you a teacher of, besides science?’ Thanks to Beloit College’s understanding of where I was on my journey, and moreover, where I could go and with whom I could learn from on that journey, I can proudly say that I am a teacher of character, of listening to others with empathy, and keeping an open mind in the face of something new, even if there is a degree of fear or uncertainty. While Beloit certainly kindles the flame of students’ passions, the light cast by the glowing fire reveals new and unexpected paths that beg to be explored.”
And then, a couple of days later, I got another reflection from a Beloiter about five years out: “Beloit changed my worldview, period … I was challenged both within my friendships and in my classes because of people who were different from me with different experiences. I needed that because I’d only known one United States. I didn’t even know that I only knew one United States until someone told me … Beloit College students, faculty, and staff helped me in a way that I do not see [other institutions] doing for their students. Beloit College is selling more than an education; they are selling a way of being. A way of moving through this world.”
I get reflections like these regularly, as faculty and staff will attest. I read notes from our students and alumni to them over and over. I read them at Commencement. I read them at Fall Conference. I read them at the annual employee recognition breakfast. I read them at Academic Senate. Why? Because the words of our students and our alumni are the most genuine reminders of why we do what we do.
What is so striking to me is that these are the same stories, with only slightly different words, that I hear from Beloiters across all generations. Over and over. And that means, importantly, across massively different college financial resources at different points in time. The financial history of this college is one of great variance. I promise, promoting variance should not be an objective. Quite the opposite. But, it is what it is, and the DNA of the college transcends that variance. This is really important to understand.
Yes, we have to go from a college with a $49 million budget to one with a $42 million budget. That is very, very painful. But, from the perspective of the 1,200 students who will be advised and mentored and cajoled and challenged and prompted to imagine their futures in ways they cannot currently see, in all the ways that have made all the difference to generations of Beloiters, their reflections on their Beloit experience, I predict, will sound much like those I just shared with you. There is nothing in the transition from a budget of $49 million to a budget of $42 million that gets in the way of what Beloit College does best, what Professor Lisa Anderson-Levy argues is the secret sauce to a Beloit College experience.
Perspective can sometimes be everything. As I sit at President Chapin’s desk in the President’s House and look out the window, I see Beloiters walking to advising meetings and back to their friends in their residence halls and over to the library and into Java Joint—all the time learning “a way of being.” Just like you.
—President Scott Bierman