Westmont Magazine A Heritage from a Past, A Vision for the Future
by President David Winter
We face the future—and a new millennium—with a vision we inherit from our past. From the first, Westmont’s founders envisioned a Christian liberal arts college that rivaled the finest institutions in the nation. Our commitment to an academically excellent, Christ-centered college continues unchanged to this day.
We express this commitment in our mission statement, which expresses our concern for quality and our threefold emphasis on intellectual, spiritual, and personal growth.
The words we use to describe Westmont to prospective students also reflect our vision: we’re a liberal arts college with a traditional curriculum that teaches both competencies and content. As a Christian institution, we hold to the tenets of evangelical Christianity and encourage our professors to integrate their faith and their discipline in the classroom. Our program is undergraduate because we offer only baccalaureate degrees and seek to provide the finest possible educational experience for serious undergraduate college students. A strong, caring community of Christian faculty, staff, and students creates a climate conducive to personal growth. And we strive to provide a global program that prepares our students to live in a complex and diverse world.
But our mission statement and the five characteristics we use to describe Westmont don’t make us unique or even distinctive. Other colleges make similar claims. What sets us apart is the extent to which we live up to our rhetoric. We embrace more than just a vision—we have developed a strategy for making that vision a reality.
In 1997 that strategy includes continuing our uncommon approach to education, building on recent accomplishments that position us well for the future, and completing campus-wide initiatives designed to heighten our quality.
Let me begin with our educational philosophy because it certainly distinguishes us from many colleges and universities. We identify four components in our curriculum: content learning, competencies, character development, and Christian commitments—three more than most institutions incorporate. Our emphasis is holistic, embracing not only intellectual achievement but spiritual and personal maturity as well.
An adequate college education includes gaining information about ourselves, our society, and the world around us. Although all colleges and universities provide this “content learning,” many don’t communicate effectively some of the most important ingredients, such as the method and role of scientific endeavor, the great literature and accomplishments of our culture and other cultures, the American political and economic system, and the place of faith and religion in society.
Our rigorous liberal arts education challenges students not only to understand all of this, but to evaluate, organize, and apply content knowledge as they face major issues in life and develop their personal beliefs. Professors can play a key role in this process by encouraging students to consider all the implications of what they are learning.
For example, when a scientist announced he had successfully cloned a sheep, faculty in a number of disciplines discussed both the technology of this breakthrough and the ethical questions it raises for society and the church. Professors constantly look for issues like these to think through with students.
The second component is competencies, the skills students need to become effective adults in our society. Analytical thinking, clear communication in speech and writing, and the ability to apply content knowledge to solve problems all characterize a truly educated person.
Competency may be the best indicator of an excellent education and a fundamental capacity that separates leaders from those who simply follow. Our professors explicitly teach these skills through writing and speaking assignments, group projects that require collaboration and cooperation, and essay questions on tests. Such experiences are less important in the curricula of most institutions.
A third dimension of education is the development of character, which includes the ability to live and work effectively with others. Character requires discipline, responsibility, honesty, dependability, sensitivity, and unselfishness. Educators today have departed from the tradition of instilling these virtues and now see their role as limited strictly to the academic disciplines. Open and fair discussion of values (especially religious values) is rarely attempted.
At Westmont, our professors not only raise religious issues and values in class, but they present models of Christians living in contemporary society. Through the close relationships that develop on campus, students see faculty apply their faith and principles day to day. This is one of the best ways to help students develop their own personal integrity and become effective leaders.
Involvement in internships, volunteer service, and Christian ministry projects also provide excellent opportunities for building character, as do residence hall activities, relations with roommates, and participation in student government. Our students live in a campus culture that encourages them to be involved with people of all ages and to give of themselves. What a contrast this presents to the self-centered youth culture and “peer ghettoes” typical of so many college and university environments.
The final component of a Westmont education is spiritual formation, which includes knowledge about Christian doctrine and history but also a commitment of the heart to follow Christ. Authentic piety and devotion don’t come naturally to young people in our society, even those from strong Christian churches.
Just as we teach and cultivate an appreciation for intellectual knowledge, we design programs to promote spiritual growth. A regular chapel service, professors who share their faith in and out of class, and active student ministries make a vital and personal relationship with Jesus Christ the common goal and experience on campus.
Unless students develop their commitment to Christ concurrently with their intellectual and personal growth, their faith will remain immature and become irrelevant in their adult lives. As the world becomes more complex, we need Christians who can address perplexing issues related to science, technology, and culture. A rigorous Christian liberal arts education that integrates faith in every area of study and life provides the best foundation for an effective Christian witness.
Research universities give secondary importance to undergraduate programs and thus cannot provide the comprehensive, holistic educational experience we believe is essential for leadership careers. Because Westmont does, we occupy a much-needed niche in higher education. Even Christian students at secular institutions can’t duplicate our program, and we are pleased to see Christian families become more aware of the value of attending a faith-related college.
This is our heritage, and we are constantly looking for ways to express it more fully. This past year, we have enjoyed success in three major areas, and these accomplishments position us well for the future.
Completing the first 20 homes in Las Barrancas, our faculty housing project, has helped us tremendously. Fostering close relationships between faculty and students is essential to our mission. With professors living close to campus, they are spending more time with students, and I’m encouraged to hear how much this is benefiting students.
We expect a lot of our faculty. They must not only be excellent scholars, but outstanding teachers and committed Christians. Finding academics who share their disciplines, their faith, and themselves effectively presents a challenge, as relatively few Ph.D.s possess these qualities. Our new faculty homes will help us attract the best possible professors, maintain the high quality of our academic program, and provide role models for our students. After all, we can’t expect our students to develop character and maturity if our faculty don’t model these virtues.
With the addition last fall of Stan Gaede ’69 as provost, I have now gathered an outstanding management team. It would be hard to overstate the competence of these individuals. They share my vision for Westmont and are working with me to develop the most effective strategies for accomplishing our goals.
A reorganization of my staff, which puts Provost Gaede in charge of the entire educational program, including academics and student life, and Executive Vice President Edward Birch over the operational side of the college, means I can spend more time making the case for Westmont to our key supporters and representing the college in the higher education community.
Finally, our 1995 Long-Range Planning Report provides a well-conceived blueprint for our program, and we are currently completing a master plan for our campus and facilities. Together, these two documents establish priorities and direction for the future.
Last semester, a series of task forces began implementing recommendations from the Long-Range Planning Report in several key areas, including technology, ethos, diversity, and financial viability. Their work is preparing us well for what lies ahead.
For example, the role of technology in education raises fundamental questions for us. After a semester of study, a computer task force has recommended that we significantly increase the amount of funding dedicated to computer-related technology. Their report also urges the centralization of all our computer functions. We’re not at all out of date or afraid of technology. Indeed, we intend to use every technological advantage to maintain the uniqueness of our program.
The development of the Internet, the World Wide Web, and distance learning allows students to take courses entirely in front of a computer. If the purpose of a college education is simply to instill content knowledge, this kind of learning may indeed seem desirable and even preferable.
Of course, we believe colleges can do so much more, and the technological advances in our society have given us an opportunity to explain the distinctive value of our approach. How can an isolated student at a computer learn how to get along and work well with others? Where are the faculty mentors who model lives of character and Christian commitment? Distance learning may be an improvement over a lecture hall with 500 students, but it can’t begin to provide the rich experience of a residential Christian college like Westmont.
One of our most important characteristics is the campus ethos, and a second committee has recommended ways we can create an environment even more supportive of our mission. Their work focused on two areas: engagement and integration. The first refers to the healthy and robust dialogue that occurs when diverse people exchange ideas and broaden their understanding of the range of possibilities. Integration means the goal of living whole lives, both individually and institutionally. Implementing the committee’s suggestions in both these areas will enhance our ability to provide a holistic education.
A third campus-wide initiative seeks to make the entire college and its program more diverse. While increasing the number of people of color in our student body and on our staff is essential, we also want to help every student experience and appreciate other cultures. A task force studying this issue recommends that both faculty and students engage in significant cross-cultural experiences and that a required multicultural component be added to the curriculum. Other suggestions include helping underrepresented students succeed at Westmont, slowly increasing the number of these students, and tracking and assessing their experiences. While we have made some progress in creating a more diverse campus and providing cross-cultural experiences, we need to do much more.
I’m encouraged that a recommendation from a third group, the Academic Planning Task Force, supports the findings of the Diversity Committee. Charged with strengthening the curriculum and raising new sources of revenue without increasing enrollment on campus, this task force proposes that all students be required to attend a Westmont-sponsored off-campus program. As these sites could include Europe, Latin America, and the inner city in San Francisco, they would offer students a cross-cultural perspective. At the same time, Westmont would enroll more students, increase its income, and not violate the cap on enrollment.
Our financial viability remains one of our greatest challenges as we look ahead to the future. Still a relatively young institution, we are heavily dependent on tuition and greatly underendowed for the quality of the program we offer. Strengthening our financial base will occupy much of my time and attention during my remaining years at Westmont.
In accordance with another recommendation from the Long-Range Planning Report, we are currently preparing for a capital campaign that will raise money for both facilities and endowment. Additional classroom and residence hall space is needed to relieve crowding on campus.
A capital campaign will also build our endowment so we can become less dependent on tuition income, provide more financial aid, and increase faculty salaries. The endowment is a permanent fund, and the interest it generates each year supports a variety of programs. For a very young college, Westmont has done well to accumulate even our current $12 million endowment. But until it has grown substantially more than that, it will not be able to contribute very much to our annual needs.
We take our fundamental mission very seriously, so we are still at work building Westmont to be consistent with that mission. Resisting economic pressures, changing trends in society and the church, and the many political pressures requires diligence. Yet we remain focused on our historic goal: being a college with superior academic stature that offers something more—a commitment to Christ and the development of competencies and Christian character. This is our niche in the diversity of higher education, and we are determined to settle for nothing less.