Part one in a series on Wabash 2032
Preparing for 2032—Wabash College’s bicentennial—requires vision, commitment and strategy. As President Scott Feller concludes his third year as president, the first year relatively free of COVID-19 crisis management, he has begun to redefine the College’s strategic priorities. Feller has identified three primary strategic goals, both emerging and unfinished: belonging and inclusion, philanthropy and enrollment.
“It’s typical that when a new president comes in, they examine the institutional priorities,” Feller said. “Oftentimes that’s because a new president comes in with a mandate to lead the College in a somewhat different direction. But that wasn’t me. The College was in a period of success, and President Hess’s departure was a loss for the College. So I was able to come in without needing to change too much at first. That was good, and it took a little of the pressure off.”
As Feller explained, that grace period was all-too welcome, as he became president in Fall 2020, the first semester back on campus since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.
“No one wanted to talk about strategic priorities at that time,” Feller said. “It was very hard to talk about 2032 when we were literally talking about whether we would be here teaching next week. There just was no appetite for the conversation. And so I put the conversation off.”
Feller’s original hope was to kick his new signature goals off in the ’21-’22 year, but the ongoing problems caused by the pandemic delayed those plans until the ’22-’23 year.
The crafting and discussion process took months and incorporated feedback from the entire Wabash community. Conversations with the board began in October 2022, with faculty and staff meetings in the following months. Feller held a town hall in the Chapel on March 2 to discuss these strategic priorities with the student body.
Feller has identified three key strategic priorities: belonging and inclusion, philanthropy and enrollment.
“I wanted to make sure we were all on the same page about how we’re getting to 2032,” Feller said.
Creating a sense of belonging has been a priority since Feller took office. In his inauguration speech, diversity and inclusion took center stage. Feller has pointed to the Restoring Hope, Restoring Trust program from the Lilly Endowment, bystander intervention trainings, implicit bias courses and de-escalation trainings as some of the key ongoing steps within this priority. But Feller made clear that his goal is creating an inclusive Wabash not just for students.
“This doesn’t just mean for students—it also means a sense of belonging among staff,” said Feller.
The second strategic priority is philanthropy, a term many college administrators understandably endorse. But to hear Feller tell it, philanthropy to him means more than mere financial support.
“I think philanthropy is about relationships,” said Feller. “And we’ve got to continue to strengthen the relationships that people have with the College. That’s largely about our students and alumni, but about other friends of the College as well. Financial support is a huge part of that, but so is identifying internships and job opportunities. There are lots of ways people demonstrate their love for Wabash College.”
Feller’s third major strategic goal is enrollment, focusing on the projected demographic shifts facing colleges nationwide.
“Wabash in the future is going to draw more students from more different places,” said Feller. “We already have the highest number of international students in the history of the College. We’re going to draw our student body more nationally and more internationally. And our faculty and staff too. So we’ve got to make sure that when those folks come here, they find a welcoming community where they feel a sense of belonging. “This College is relational, not transactional.”
Naturally, focusing on enrollment and retention often goes hand-in-hand with creating a sense of belonging and inclusion.
“We know that our out-of-state students are not retained at the same level as in-state students,” said Feller. “Distance is a risk factor retention-wise.”
Part of Feller’s action steps for all three of these involves the long-discussed plans to build a campus center, a non-classroom space for students to live, play and engage with each other. Though the library currently serves a similar role, Feller believes that the student body could use a separate, non-academic and purpose-driven space for student life.
“To me, the campus center is at the intersection of belonging, enrollment and philanthropy,” said Feller.
Part 2 of this series will discuss the plans for a new campus center in further detail.
In choosing which strategic priorities to emphasize, Feller also focused on removing older strategic priorities, ones that had already been sufficiently operationalized.
“There are some that are ready to be retired, not because they are unimportant, but because we have incorporated them,” said Feller.
Feller pointed to two clear examples. The first was expanding the academic footprint. With recent years seeing the development of new majors in computer science and PPE, along with several new interdisciplinary minors, Feller found this goal to be sufficiently engaged with.
Another example was articulating the value of a liberal arts education. As anyone who has received the many informational flyers from admissions or advancement can explain, the College has certainly made this goal a reality.
“Nowadays, it’s everywhere on the web page,” Feller said. “That’s no longer a strategic priority—that’s just what we do on Mondays.”
Focusing on big-picture strategy and 2032 also led Feller to reflect on his own legacy—what exactly he hopes to be remembered for as president.
“What I want to accomplish is what I think the College needs right now, in this moment,” said Feller. “And that’s not what the College needed ten years ago, and not what it will probably need 10 years from now.”
Feller described what he viewed to be the greatest threat to small, liberal arts colleges, especially in the post-pandemic world: financial threats.
“Right now, liberal arts colleges like Wabash are facing intense financial pressures,” Feller said. “We’re committed to a style of education that is fairly resource-intense. At the end of the day, we’re more student-focused than any other college. Because we only do one thing: educate undergraduate young men.” That education comes with a high financial cost.
This is part of the rationale for Feller’s focus on philanthropy, and he hopes it will be a cornerstone of his legacy.
“I want people to remember that President Feller put us on strong financial footing,” said Feller, “so we can decide our own future. I don’t want the future to be imposed on us because it’s what we have to do to survive. I want us to be able to determine our own destiny. And a lot of that involves us having the financial resources to do so.”
Of course, 2032 is still roughly a decade away, and many of Feller’s plans may come to fruition under a different College president—after all, if President Feller remains president until 2032, he would become the longest-serving president of the College in the modern era.
Feller’s answer: taking it one year at a time.
“I’ve not been a big planner in my professional life,” Feller said. “I’ve always tried to treat my professional life as a series of opportunities. I never planned to be president because I never planned to be a dean. Right now, this is both a better job than I expected, and it’s a dramatically better job than I inherited in fall 2020. So I’m pretty happy.”
Feller explained that he has enjoyed his role more and more with each passing year. So thoughts of the horizon are off the table, for the time being.
“When they quit getting better, that’s probably when I’ll figure out what my horizon is. But I’m not putting a timeline on it.”