President Scott Feller – sheep farmer, Oregonian, and Better Call Saul enthusiast – will ring in the Class of 2026 today, and he offered new students a word of advice: to surround themselves with fellow students that make them better.
“A real strength of our College is fellowship. I know ‘brotherhood’ seems to be preferred word for the students. Lean into that – get to know the people around you.” Feller applauded the mentorship from faculty and coaches, but he explained the even larger role that peer relationships play, particularly at the beginning of the college experience.“A real strength of our College is fellowship. I know ‘brotherhood’ seems to be preferred word for the students. Lean into that – get to know the people around you.” said President Feller.
“At the end of the day, you spend more time with your peers than with the grownups,” said Feller. “Choose the people who are going to push you towards the goals you want.”
Feller, himself a parent of two college graduates, also offered advice to parents of new students. “I think you really just have to trust your student to make his own way at college – including making some mistakes,” said Feller. “I think there can be a tendency for parents to want to keep their kid in the slow lane. But at some point, they need to accelerate. I think we need to become comfortable with seeing our kids out in the passing lane.”
“Choose the people who are going to push you towards the goals you want.” said Feller. One way that incoming students begin to accelerate into the fast lane is through greek life – but recent years have seen the number of incoming pledges declining. Feller described his views on the recent decline as “the watchful waiting phase.” He pointed to two possible explanations for the apparent decline in freshman fraternity membership: the continued impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and a reflection of national greek life trends.
Feller pointed to pandemic-related issues with rush. In March 2020, the College canceled both Admitted Student Weekends, often a key event for incoming students to explore houses and receive bids. Similarly, the entering Class of 2021 had exactly zero overnight visits.“We just couldn’t encourage the type of interactions where someone could see the fellowship and brotherhood, the key aspects of fraternity living,” said Feller.
He connected those canceled events to current numbers, describing a building effect from two consecutive years of students without rush experience. However, he also mentioned an increase in the number of students who pledged after their freshman year as a sign of a potential rebound. Beyond pandemic-specific effects, Feller connected Wabash numbers to national greek life trends. “Going back a decade or so, there has been this long-standing trend of fewer students choosing fraternities,” said Feller. “So I don’t discount that this trend may have just been a late arrival to the College. “That’s why I call it watchful waiting,” said Feller. “We can’t just sit around and blame it all on the pandemic, because I do think those things that drove some students away from fraternity life across the nation, those things happen here.”
Addressing both causes, the pandemic and the national trend, will be key.“We need to focus on both causes,” said Feller. “Even if this was pandemic related, it’s still a good idea to be reflective and improve our processes.“I’m not at ‘code red’, but I don’t think we could put a green dot next to this,” said Feller. “We’ve got to be watching this because for many of the students, fraternity life is an important part of their Wabash experience.” The bulk of Feller’s tenure as president has been marked by COVID-19 response.
While pandemic restrictions have receded, frightening monkeypox headlines have surged, inciting growing fears of a new type of outbreak. President Feller, who has vaccine research experience with the FDA, outlined his perspective on monkeypox and the College’s preparations.“Don’t panic,” said Feller. The overreaction could be worse than the actual threat.” “Don’t panic. The overreaction could be worse than the actual threat.” said President Feller.
Nevertheless, Feller emphasized the importance of being prepared for a potential outbreak. Currently, monkeypox testing can be difficult to receive. Feller mentioned that he health center has a plan for isolating students until test results can confirm suspect cases. Feller pointed to the College’s recent successes mitigating the spread of COVID-19 as experience for this strategy.
There is also a short supply of vaccines that can be used for people who are known to be exposed – but again, these are in limited supply and can be difficult to obtain. Feller said that the College is developing a plan for securing vaccine access. But above all, the administration’s role will be educational.“Education is a big part of what we’ll do, said Feller. “Educating people on the risks associated with monkeypox, how to reduce those risks and how to monitor your health.” Though the risks are daunting, they seem to be milder than the risks from COVID-19.“This is not March 2020.” said President Feller. “This is not March 2020,” Feller emphasized. Monkeypox is far less contagious than COVID-19, and someone exposed to monkeypox does not need to quarantine in isolation – a major difference in potential disruption to the academic semester.Feller described how the pandemic altered the College’s broader growth strategy.
Prior to the pandemic, the next stage of the 15-plan capital project was renovating the Lilly Library. However, priorities have shifted. Now, the focus is creating a new student center.“My personal change in thinking was driven by the early weeks of the pandemic, when everybody went home. I was the dean of the college at that time, and I would talk to students occasionally on Zoom. I would always ask how it was going, and what I heard over and over again was, ‘I miss my friends. I miss what happens outside of class.’ That kind of pushed me towards a space that was more student-centered than the library.”
Feller further explained his thinking behind the shift. The library has served as a de-facto student center because there has not been a formal student center. But at the end of the day, the library is for working. Looking at the many work spaces around campus, Feller began to think that the greatest need was a location for students to gather informally. “The past couple of years have convinced me that this new center is where the college’s energy needs to be focused on,” said Feller.
From focus groups, surveys and meetings with an architectural firm, Feller identified three priorities for the new center: a campus living room, adaptable event space and an improved dining hall for independent men.A campus living room, according to Feller, would be a place for students to come together. Whether playing games, watching movies or chatting over a beer at Wally’s, students from different living units would find space to build relationships.
Feller also acknowledged the demand for an on-campus convenience store, which students voiced repeatedly in surveys. Adding campus event space would address an ongoing need. Currently, the main available spaces are classrooms or gymnasiums – with no size in between. A purposeful event space would provide such a space, along with improved audio and visual equipment and comfortable seating.
Feller recognized that the third priority, independent dining, was not a new creation, but an improvement upon the existing Sparks Center. Among other issues, the Sparks Center notoriously lacks air conditioning. Feller acknowledged this and added a slightly different angle.“One of the things people don’t think about,” said Feller, “is that all of our staff who are working in the kitchen also don’t have air conditioning. I’ve been back there – it’s really hot.”
The new student center would address this problem and more, improving the dining experience for students and staff.Of course, implementing visions of a new student center will take time. Feller explained that his timeline for the project was “as soon as possible” – but it will not be completed this year.
To implement his vision for the College, including actualizing a new student center, Feller outlined three key goals in his strategy: building a sense of belonging on campus, continuing strong enrollment and harnessing philanthropy.Feller’s goal of building a sense of belonging on campus is tied to his vision for a new student center. Such a space would be a physical space where all are welcomed, where all students have a sense of ownership.Additionally, Feller hopes to continue the College’s strong trajectory on enrollment.
This year’s entering class is larger than normal, with most of the growth coming from outside Indiana. Feller attributed out-of-state growth to new remote recruiters in Chicago and Dallas. Overall, he aims for the College to continue attracting strong students who are excited to be at Wabash.
“I’m focused on the experiences of students who haven’t walked on campus yet,” he said. Feller emphasized that philanthropy, his third goal, will be key to securing other priorities, such as the new student center.“Most capital projects at Wabash are funded through philanthropy,” said Feller. “We just don’t expect student tuition and room and board to generate the funds to build new buildings.”
Feller explained that his “big job” at the moment is to talk with potential donors. “The money to build the new student center will not be found in Crawfordsville,” Feller said. “I’m going to travel more this year, and that’s out of necessity.” More broadly, Feller’s philanthropy strategy includes a strong finish to the Giant Steps campaign, which will end this year.“I’ve got a clock running in the back of my head to finish Giant Steps – the biggest fundraising campaign in Wabash history.
”When asked about what will follow the Giant Steps campaign, Feller first described a campus-wide celebration of such a successful capital campaign. But he also pointed to the next milestone on the horizon.“We need to start thinking about 2032, the College’s 200th Anniversary,” said Feller. No doubt, philanthropy and belonging will be key features of that future celebration.