On Nov. 11, 1868, WPI inaugurated its first president and dedicated its first building with a long day of oratory by leaders from government and education. Among the speakers was John S. Woodman, head of the Chandler Scientific School at Dartmouth, who offered some well-considered words of advice to the leaders of the new Institute. He said a good college needs money, excellent teachers and wisdom, with the last item being the hardest to find.

Widsom he said, "is needed to adjust plans and aims to means; to find the highest and best things; to aim only at just what can be well accomplished; to keep out of the way secondary, inferior and outside matters, that the money and the labor may all count upon the vigor and efficiency of the few great, central objects; and that the character of the institution may be steady, growing, and permanent."

WPI has spent the past few years in search of just that sort of wisdom. We are seeking to adjust our plans and aims, to find the highest and best things to which we can aspire, to devote our energies to the work we can do well, and to focus our imaginations on ideas and new initiatives that will help WPI grow steadily in excellence and reputation. In short, we are trying to make the big plans that Daniel Burnham talked about, and not the little plans that would result in our doing only a little better what we already do.

Big plans for WPI's future are emerging on a number of fronts. Building on the groundwork of the Strategic Planning Steering Committee of 1996-97, the Planning and Implementation Committee has been developing a number of strategic goals that it will present to the community this fall (see The Wire, June 1998). Concurrently, the provost has involved the academic departments in a self-study that will help identify new thrust areas that build on WPI's strengths and respond to the needs of a rapidly changing world. And the Alumni Association is drafting a new master plan that will be a blueprint for engaging, informing and serving our graduates in the decades ahead.

A Strong Foundation
All of these plans are being built on a foundation of knowledge about WPI's current position, the opportunities before it, and the threats and opportunities it faces at home and in the world beyond the campus. Here's a look at that foundation.

First, our current situation. One of WPI's greatest strengths is its excellent faculty. The faculty is the heart and soul of our outstanding education and research programs, and they bring national and international recognition to WPI as they are honored with major external awards and grants, election to fellow status in professional societies, invitations to speak at many national venues, and so on.

Provost Jack Carney and our academic departments invest a great amount of time and effort each year recruiting the very best educators and researchers. Their labors, coupled with WPI's growing reputation, have enabled us to attract some outstanding new faculty members to our campus in recent years. This fall, we welcome 17 faculty members, including new chairs for the Chemical Engineering and Computer Science departments. In addition, Malcolm Ray, the first recipient of the White Family Endowed Professorship in Civil Engineering, a gift of Leonard H. White '41 and his family, will arrive in January. I am impressed by the extraordinary credentials of this group of educators and scholars who come to WPI from many of the nation's finest universities.

Of the tenure-track faculty who've just joined us, two are in computer science and three are in mathematical sciences-areas where average class size has been large enough to get in the way of the close student-faculty interactions that are the hallmark of our programs. We are committed to adding still more tenure-track faculty in the years ahead.

There are many factors to consider when hiring new faculty members. We seek excellent educators with a commitment to students, accomplished researchers with interests that make a positive contribution to our overall research program, and individuals who will thrive in our particular environment. Recognizing that our faculty members can be powerful role models for our students, we also want a faculty that reflects the diversity of our student population. While there is more work to be done, we are pleased that of the 44 faculty members hired over the past 3 1/2 years, 11 are women and 14 are minorities.

We also have a dedicated staff and we have bright students, enrolled in about the right numbers and supported by several strong student services that promote retention, wellness, leadership and career planning. We have been working over the summer to enhance some of those services. Recognizing our obligation to support the growing student interest in overseas projects (see below), we have created more elbowroom in the Project Center for the Global Perspective Program. Since oral and written communications are such critical elements of project work at WPI, we've moved the Writing Resource Center to the Project Center. We've also created the Learning Center, whose mission is to help students develop positive learning skills.

One of WPI's most critical support services is the George C. Gordon Library. For the past three decades, our library has served well the needs of our students and faculty. Today, with nearly 350,000 bound volumes, more that 1,000 current journal subscriptions, hundreds of electronic resources and databases, and links through the Internet to information resources throughout the world, Gordon Library is a well-equipped research facility. But it is under two serious constraints. The first is space. The growth in the library's holdings and in the demands placed upon the facility by active research and project programs has left it in need of additional room. The other constraint is money. Rapidly rising prices for journals-print and electronic-have outpaced the growth in the library budget. Eliminating underused titles has helped, but we are still fighting an uphill battle with journal prices. In the short term, we've increased the library's journal budget for this year. With the aid of our strategic planning process, we hope to find long-term solutions to the space and money crunches.

WPI also has a well-maintained physical plant soon to be expanded through the construction of a 71,000-square-foot campus center, a 41,000-square-foot academic building, and an adjacent parking garage. In recent months we have enhanced our physical facilities through a multitude of construction projects. For example, we completely renovated Daniels Hall. The project is part of a $14 million program to refurbish and modernize four of WPI's residence facilities by the fall of 1999. Renovation and construction projects provided new and enhanced facilities for research in biology and biotechnology, biomedical engineering, chemical engineering, chemistry, and electrical and computer engineering. We made some of our academic buildings more accessible to the handicapped, spruced up the properties we own in the surrounding neighborhood, and remodeled the first floor of Boynton Hall and the entrance to the Admissions Office to provide a more attractive entryway for visitors.

But one of the most exciting projects involved renovations to our classrooms. In recent years, WPI has created a number of state-of-the-art multimedia classrooms with computers, video technology and satellite links. Over the summer, we added another, Stratton Hall 203, which was transformed into a computer classroom for mathematics education. Six other classrooms in Stratton were renovated and outfitted with new seating, ceilings, lighting and carpeting. Two classrooms in Salisbury Laboratories were also renovated, and new seating was installed in classrooms in Higgins Labs and Olin Hall.

Creating well-equipped, networked classrooms is just one aspect of WPI's commitment to giving members of our community the information tools and resources they need for teaching and learning. We've made significant investments over the past few years in our information infrastructure, for example, placing network connections in every residence hall room and installing wireless network links to our fraternities and sororities. This summer we increased the speed of our residence hall connections from 10 megahertz to 100 megahertz to help resident students keep pace with the growing multimedia capabilities of the World Wide Web. We also upgraded network connections in 11 academic buildings.

WPI has many other strengths, of course. For example, the market value of its endowment and similar funds is now $254 million, and this fall U.S. News & World Report ranked the University No. 51 among the top universities in the nation and 18th in terms of the quality of educational programs based upon cost of attendance. But some of our most significant assets as the end of the 20th century approaches may well be the remarkable opportunities that lie before us.

A Unique Moment in Time
The University is slowly gaining a national reputation and is experiencing a gradual increase in prestige. We have an established product that is in high demand and an undergraduate academic program, the WPI Plan, that anticipated by 25 years a number of national initiatives in technological education reform. In addition, our unique society and technology project (the IQP) and the potential applicability of the WPI Plan to graduate education are strong advantages.

WPI has taken a significant lead in providing students global opportunities; we have also realized great success over the past year in marketing our remarkable Global Perspective Program to our own students. Last year the Global Ambassadors, students who are veterans of overseas project work, took advantage of every opportunity to tell other students about the academic, professional and personal benefits of working on projects in other cultures. Largely as a result of their efforts, interest in the global projects program ballooned. This year we are taking steps to accommodate the many students-about half of our junior class-who wish to complete projects at our overseas sites. Our project center directors have been working with current and potential project sponsors to identify new projects. We have also been expanding our operations at some centers and working to create new ones. We will inaugurate centers in Boston, Copenhagen and Melbourne in 1998-99 and offer project opportunities in Zimbabwe next summer.

We are bolstering our efforts to prepare more faculty to serve as overseas project advisors. This is arguably one of the most demanding jobs our faculty do. Overseas advisors are on duty around the clock for seven weeks straight, dealing with the academic and social needs of students who are often thousands of miles from home and familiar surroundings. The job is not without rewards, of course, the greatest of which is seeing the remarkable personal growth students undergo at these centers.

The gains in maturity and self-confidence students realize through their global experience are among the important characteristics that distinguish overseas projects, as a group, from those completed here on campus. One of our priorities as an institution is to find ways to give students who complete their required projects locally the opportunity to realize the excitement, educational benefits and personal rewards of off-campus project work. Toward that end, we will work this year to establish and raise funds for the Worcester Project Center, where students will conduct IQPs with local agencies. The center will have as part of its mission consolidating and enhancing the services our students perform for the local community-through their projects and as volunteers. We believe that this exciting new program will enrich our educational programs and make a positive contribution to the city WPI has called home for over 130 years.

Along with those opportunities comes a host of threats that we must take quite seriously. For example, national engineering reform efforts, supported by more than $120 million in federal government funding, could remove our competitive advantage and erode the value added by the WPI Plan. Just as important, the high workloads of WPI faculty and staff make it difficult to continuously improve, which we must do to remain competitive, and even threaten our current quality.

The fact is, we've reached an inflection point, a time where we will need to decide whether we climb up, or slide down. I believe it's time to make a change-time for a great leap forward that will enable us to scale new heights of recognition and success. Historically, change occurs inadvertently; you don't see it coming. But we must either shape change, or it will shape us. British novelist Graham Greene spoke of a "unique moment in time when the door opens and lets the future in." I think we've arrived at such a moment.

Reality vs. Perception
Our great leap forward should also help address WPI's image problem. The quality of our program is high, but our prestige is not commensurate with that quality. For example, while U.S. News & World Report ranked WPI among the top 51 universities in the nation, it also said our academic reputation, while improving, was among the lowest of those 51 schools. Academic reputation is about prestige, not quality.

We need to make a change that will increase our quality and prestige, and we need to do it while we are still in the national spotlight. The spotlight is on us for a number of reasons. One, of course, is our U.S. News ranking. Another is our selection as one of the first two universities in the nation to have their engineering programs accredited under the new outcomes-based criteria adopted by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. The criteria will soon apply to every engineering program in the nation, so there are hundreds of colleges and universities that want to know about our experience and our academic programs. Another reason for the spotlight was the decision of the Industry/ University/Government Roundtable on Enhancing Engineering Education to hold a major meeting at WPI in May, its first meeting ever on a university campus. [NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin was the keynote speaker-see One Giant Leap for his remarks.]

This is the right time to make a leap. Interest in WPI is at an all-time high. Our academic programs are in demand and we're attracting record applicant pools, and our applicants require less financial aid than in previous years. Our new class, the Class of 2002, is a good case in point. Starting with the largest applicant pool in the University's history, we expect to enroll between 680 and 690 students, comfortably above our target of 675. As I write this article (before students matriculated), the class includes 22 valedictorians and 12 salutatorians. A total of 46 percent are in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. Twenty-two percent of class members are women and nearly 6 percent are minority students.

Just as we have had great success in attracting outstanding students to our campus, our graduates are finding the kind of employment for which they've prepared. The economy is strong. The jobless rate is at a 24-year low, and twice as many high-paying jobs are being created as low-paying jobs. There is an especially strong demand for employees in engineering, management and computer services-our programs. In fact, Congress is so concerned about the lack of technical skills in the U.S. workforce that it is thinking about increasing the quota for immigrants with technical skills from 65,000 to 105,000 a year to fill the void. I'd like to help fill that void with our graduates.

Making the Leap
So, just what will constitute the great leap forward I've alluded to? The answer to that question is gradually emerging and will become clear when the Planning and Implementation Committee makes its final report to the community in late October (culminating a planning process that has involved dozens of faculty and staff members, students and alumni) and as the self-study being conducted by the provost and academic departments is completed.

Judging by the content of the draft initiatives that the PIC has already shared with the community and the initial groundwork that has already been laid for WPI's next capital campaign, the leap will build upon our trailblazing project-based curriculum and involve an expansion of our trend-setting global projects program. It will seek to revitalize and expand research at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, while redoubling our emphases on teaching and learning, lifelong learning, and outreach programs. It will include the exploration of new ways of integrating learning and living through innovative residential communities, as well as the strategic expansion and renewal of our campus, including the construction of the new campus center, academic building and parking facility.

Making a significant leap forward will take considerable resources. Much of this fiscal fuel will come from the upcoming campaign. Many institutions use their campaigns to make incremental changes. But if WPI takes that approach, I believe it will become a traditional institution and will lose its edge in project-based programs, in global programs, and in the other features and characteristics that make this university distinctive.

This is an opportunity that occurs rarely in the life of an institution. The prestige we will gain and the immediate and much-needed investments we will make will help WPI become a true national university-and sooner, rather than later.

-This article is based on the State of the University address that President Parrish delivered to the WPI community on March 11, 1998, and on his recent progress report to the WPI faculty, staff and students.


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Last Updated: 11/19/98 21:15:55 EST


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