Twenty-two years after graduating from Wheaton College in 1988, Philip Ryken returned to campus as President Ryken in July 2010. This May is the end of Ryken’s fifth academic year as president, and his leadership has led to changes in many areas of campus. Most visibly, Ryken’s strategic priorities, developed from a Green Paper submitted to the campus community after his first year as president, reveal both growth and areas still in need of change five years later.
“The Green Paper was a sketch or a study and now we’re maybe halfway through putting a painting onto campus,” Ryken said. “Although there’s a lot of work still to be done, some things are coming into focus.”
Enhance Music and the Performing Arts. The strategic priorities identify a new Conservatory building as the “most pressing facility need” at the college. This new center for music education and the performing arts is planned to meet the needs of a growing Wheaton College Conservatory of Music, including classrooms and space for performances. The fundraising goal for the new facility is $60 million.
“To date, over $27,000,000 of cash and commitments have been made by our donors to this goal,” said Kirk Farney, vice president for Advancement, Vocation, and Alumni Engagement. Funds for the new building will continue to be raised through the “From the Heart, For the Kingdom” capital campaign.
“We’ve made very substantial progress in fundraising for a new conservatory building and performing arts center,” Ryken said. “But really the way to measure progress is by actually constructing a new building.”
Deepen Ethnic Diversity. The next step for deepening ethnic diversity at Wheaton is a planned campus-wide audit by outside reviewers of Office of Multicultural Development (OMD) programming and the campus climate toward diversity. The evaluation will point out areas in which Wheaton needs to improve and provide new practical ways to engage with this strategic priority.
Ryken cited specific examples of progress made toward this priority over the past five years, including the relocation of the OMD to lower Beamer, the Shalom Community and the implementation of the Alvaro L. Nieves Scholarships, which provide two full ride awards for Latino students annually.
According to Ryken these are “small but meaningful steps toward the bigger goal” of building a diverse campus that reflects the body of Christ as a whole and where people from all backgrounds feel safe and respected.
According to the Office of Institutional Research Enrollment Report for Fall 2014, from 2010 to 2014 the number of Black Non-Hispanic students decreased from 70 to 56 undergraduate students. In the same time frame, the number of undergraduate students from Asian or Pacific Islander background increased from 186 to 208, the number of Hispanic undergraduate students increased from 94 to 129 and the number of students from two or more races increased from 14 to 116. In 2010, there were 2,012 white undergraduate students on campus. In 2014, the number of white undergraduate students on campus was 1,834.
Diversity is a topic frequently addressed at Wheaton, and conversations surrounding the strategic priority of deepening ethnic diversity are likely to continue far into Wheaton’s future. “I think that’s going to be a work in progress at Wheaton College for a long time,” Ryken said.
Promote Liberal Arts Excellence. Under the strategic priorities, promoting liberal arts excellence includes investing resources to renew Wheaton’s liberal arts identity and clarifying Wheaton’s definition of educational excellence.
“The approval of the new general education curriculum that actually enriches and enhances liberal arts education at Wheaton … is a huge accomplishment,” Ryken stated, referring to the new general education curriculum, Christ at the Core, which passed in November 2014. The new curriculum was approved last fall and is the result of years of faculty debate and collaboration on general education reform.
New programming dedicated to preparing students for a variety of vocations after college, like Opus: The Art of Work, also demonstrate progress in building up liberal arts values, according to Ryken.
Globalize a Wheaton Education. One of Ryken’s initial goals within his strategic priorities was to continue to globalize Wheaton’s education through expanding scholarships, revising curriculum and doubling the number of students who receive academic credit through off-campus and cross-cultural experiences.
These steps include appointing a dean of global and experiential learning, developing a campus-wide task force advisory group on global and experiential learning, making funding portable for BestSemester programs and adding the Wheaton in Mexico program.
Ryken noted that Wheaton has seen a growing number of students who have taken advantage of for-credit opportunities in cross-cultural context. However, these numbers remain below the level that Ryken would like to see.
Complementary Priorities. Several complementary priorities accompany the four main strategic priorities. The first, refreshing Wheaton’s mission statement, was accomplished in August 2013, marking the first change to Wheaton’s mission statement since the 1980s. The other priorities are to nurture a vibrant Christian community, maintain affordability and strengthen graduate education.
“I think the strategic priorities have been a big success in there’s wide campus awareness and buy-in … that lead to people making their own decisions in their own departments about how to make progress,” Ryken said.
Five years in, he still sees these priorities as the right way to go. “The big picture, fundamentally it hasn’t changed,” Ryken said.
Changing Culture. Ryken’s leadership style has also created a unique campus culture distinct from that of his predecessors. Coming in to his position as president, Ryken was greeted by a particular Wheaton culture that had been shaped by the leaders before him, most recently, President Emeritus Duane Litfin.
“When there are leadership changes, communities and organizations often look forward to new leadership with a review of the past,” David Malone, campus archivist and associate professor of Library Science, wrote in an email. “For Wheaton this has created what may seem like a pendulum effect that can be seen when Jonathan Blanchard passed the reins of the college to his son Charles.” Malone explained that while Jonathan was a driven leader who aimed to fight social ills, Charles was more interested in building relationships within the statewide educational community.
But though presidents may have different leadership focuses, Malone said, “Each of Wheaton’s presidents have filled a need for the time that they served.”
Malone said one way that Ryken has changed Wheaton’s culture is by taking steps to create a more open community.
“He hasn’t shied away from documenting the negative elements of Wheaton’s past,” Malone said. “As he has said publicly, there is no place where the gospel is more needed than at Wheaton.”
According to Marilee Melvin, who served as Litfin’s executive assistant beginning in 2006, and who currently serves in the same role to Ryken, “Dr. Litfin’s leadership style was ideational and principled, where his principles and ideas guided his relationships.” Under Litfin’s leadership Wheaton’s mascot was changed from the “Crusader” to the “Thunder.” Additionally, Litfin sought to address societal shifts that occurred in the early 1990s, creating task forces to guide him in the areas of ethnic and gender diversity, environmental safety, the HIV/ AIDS crisis and sexual identity.
Coming in to a Wheaton culture shaped by the leadership of Litfin, Melvin explained that Ryken’s leadership style “synthesizes community ideals and principles as reflected in the individuals who are in relationship.”
Melvin explained how Ryken’s leadership style within his office and his cabinet has extended to the Wheaton campus communit y in an email: “I think what had been an intense pace already has intensified. Part of this is just the nature of higher education in general, part of it is generated by the needs of a residential community of young adults, and part of it flows from Philip Ryken’s vision and capacity.”
From his inauguration, Ryken has emphasized his desire to establish a “community of grace” on Wheaton’s campus. This community becomes most evident in “how we respond to disappointment and failure in relationships in our community,” Ryken said. Progress in creating this community is measured by whether there is a redemptive response to sin and failure within the community.
Wheaton College also sits within a broader cultural context, and has become directly involved in larger cultural dialogues, including the Health and Human Services Mandate lawsuit and LGBTQ topics on campus. Ryken said that often, “(Wheaton’s) institutional response is a reactive one to events as they develop.”
Ryken does aim to keep his board well educated on issues that surround the context of higher education. At their upcoming bi-annual retreat in Washington, D.C. this June, the board will be meeting with politicians, journalists, lobbyists, demographers and others who can help Wheaton’s leaders better understand the full range of legal, social and educational issues that surround higher education.
For most college students, five years is more than the difference between freshman orientation and standing on stage at graduation. But in the view of a long-standing institution like Wheaton College, President Ryken’s new directions are setting the future of the college and the experiences of future Wheaton students. While students will only see some aspects of Ryken’s strategic priorities and leadership style unfold, they will still glimpse the outcomes of new leadership on an evolving institution of higher education.
See also a Q-and-A with President Ryken, where he shares his favorite day of the year and about the burdens of leadership: Q-and-A with President Ryken five years in