September 2020 Community Update from President Hanno

Dear Wheaton Community,

As September draws to a close, I wanted to recap for you a bit of what has been happening at Wheaton and share some of what might lie ahead. In the absence of weekly updates from me, I hope you have been able to keep up with Wheaton news through such vehicles as Wheaton Week. I’ll continue to connect with you at the end of each month and when any situation arises that requires more immediate outreach from me.

Given our early start to the semester, we are already in our sixth week of classes. Over that period of time we have continued to focus on maintaining a safe and healthy environment on campus while gradually expanding the opportunities for the community to connect with each other. Early in the semester we opened a variety of services such as the fitness center and library for residential and commuting students, with social distancing, mask requirements and other public health protocols in place. Dining on campus has evolved from solely grab and go shortly after the move-in quarantine to now also including indoor and outdoor dining options, with limited capacity to ensure social distancing. And student clubs and other campus program managers now have the ability to offer limited in-person events with new policies in place. The vast majority of our students have done an amazing job complying with our community commitment and testing protocols with great results, and we must continue to strive for 100% compliance to ensure the ongoing health and safety of our community. We continue to evaluate our protocols on a daily basis and if our success continues, and driven by updated guidance from public health officials, we are considering other steps we can take to create more opportunities for all of us to interact and engage with each other.

We continue to be focused on initiatives that can improve Wheaton both in the short-term and the long-term. As I have highlighted in the past, we know we have much left to do to address inequities within our community and beyond. This requires leadership and action – individuals who are truly committed to creating positive change. Since 1834, Wheaton has seen a steady stream of changemakers on this campus, starting with Eliza Wheaton founding the institution as a women’s seminary at a time when educating women was not commonplace. There is definitely no shortage of changemakers here at Wheaton today ready to take action on innovative ideas. With tangible progress in mind for our own community, our Diversity, Equity and Access Leadership (DEAL) team, in collaboration with members across campus and with the President’s Council, has developed a 10-step action plan for the year ahead to move us towards institutional equity. Thank you to the leadership of DEAL and for all of our partners across campus for providing us the confidence that we can make progress and move forward on creating an antiracist society. Much of this plan is already underway and everyone has a role to play in moving forward with this important work.

These challenging times also underscore the need to focus on the health and wellness of all members of our campus community – students, faculty and staff. The Wheaton of today and of tomorrow must have the systems and programs in place that will support and empower each individual, with the goal of enhancing individual success and promoting overall community well-being. Since, like many other organizations, this needs more than ever to be an important area of focus for Wheaton, with the endorsement of our trustees I will be forming a campus-wide task force to develop an overall strategic plan for health and wellness. I will consult with faculty, staff and student leadership in the very near future to select members of the task force and to finalize a charge to the group. It is important for all of us that we make progress in this critical area.

Especially during this election season, we recognize the need to provide opportunities for our community to engage in productive dialogue and debate on important topics of the day. We are fortunate to be able to add a unique opportunity over and above what is already happening on campus through the support of the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation, led by Diana Davis Spencer ‘60 and Abby Spencer Moffat H ‘20. We are launching the Diana Davis Spencer Debate Series that will focus on promoting free speech while modeling civil discourse and debate even when there are divergent viewpoints. The first debate, titled “Is Defunding the Police Critical to a Racial Reckoning,” is happening tonight and includes Jason Riley from the Wall Street Journal and Paul Butler from Georgetown Law. Provost Renée White will be the moderator and the audience will be student leaders of our diverse politically-focused student organizations and a current politics class of Wheaton students. Because of the pandemic, this will not be a live event, but will be recorded and shared with our community in the very near future. Keep an eye out for it and the other debates we will be scheduling in the coming weeks and months.

Also on the national scene, Wheaton joins the nation in mourning the recent loss of an iconic changemaker, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG), who was a member of our own Wheaton community. She received an honorary degree from Wheaton in 1997 and gave the keynote address at our 162nd Commencement. During that weekend, she and her husband Martin D. Ginsburg also were part of a panel discussion titled Public Lives, Private Partnerships with Wheaton alumna and life trustee Patricia King ‘63 and her husband Roger Wilkins, Jr. While you will notice some audio glitches at the beginning of the original panel recording, I do hope you can take some time to view these videos from our archives that have been digitized for your viewing. Justice Ginsberg has truly left a legacy and had an impact on our nation and on each one of us.

We celebrated Family and Friends Weekend here at Wheaton just a few short days ago. Although it unfortunately could not happen in person this year, we know many of you were able to spend time together to strengthen your bond as a family and as Wheaton community members. I was able to connect with more than 120 parents and families via an interactive Zoom presentation and Q&A on Friday and there were additional live opportunities to connect with the community and with each other, thanks to events such as virtual bingo, virtual trivia and a student engagement panel hosted by Dean Zack Irish. There are a variety of video recordings and activities still available on the Family and Friends Weekend website. Check them out to learn more about Wheaton, meet many of our staff departments, and visit Wheaton virtually and engage in life as a Lyon. 

Questions asked at Family and Friends Weekend, and that have arisen elsewhere, have focused on our plans for the spring semester. While I know you realize that it is still too early to predict what our local and state environment will be like in January, I will say that the spring semester has been an emerging topic of conversation in my weekly calls with other presidents from Massachusetts colleges and universities. Additionally, the Return to Campus Task Force has been working on scenario planning for the spring since the fall semester started, and faculty and staff committees are working on updates to the Spring semester’s academic calendar that we plan to finalize in the coming days. It appears that for now most colleges plan to continue to operate as they have this fall, and our conversations are focused in that direction. We will keep you apprised of all details once finalized and you can expect to hear more updates on this within the next two weeks.

It has now been more than six months since Wheaton shifted its operations to contend with the pandemic, and every single day seems to bring with it new challenges. There is nothing “normal” about the ways we have had to adjust, individually or as an organization, except for the fact that we continue to make our way through difficult times by supporting each other in any way we can. That’s how Wheaton has always been. I encourage any member of the community – on-campus, off-campus, alum, family or friend – to stay connected and engaged by attending our virtual and hybrid experiences, by reaching out to any department for support, and by remaining committed to each other and to Wheaton as we continue to move forward.

I hope fall has arrived for you and your loved ones with safety and health. Have a great week and you’ll hear from me again soon!

Take care,

Dennis Hanno
President
Wheaton College