On March 25, 2022, Executive Director Michael Lamb delivered a speech entitled “What is Wake Forest For?” to a luncheon held in advance of the inauguration of Dr. Susan R. Wente as the 14th president of Wake Forest University. Dr. Lamb was introduced by Leadership and Character Scholar Rachel Edwards (’23). Here are his remarks:
“I would like to beg you . . . to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
I first read these words from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet twenty years ago this month on a spring break service trip as a sophomore in college. It was a time of deep moral and existential angst and struggle when I seemed to have more questions than answers. Rilke’s invitation to “live the questions” gave me permission to see doubts not as obstacles to belief but as gateways to deeper truths. It encouraged me not to settle for easy answers to life’s complex challenges but to draw from the well of the world’s wisdom to gradually learn how to live. The quote has traveled with me over the years, and a friend even embedded it in a work of art that now hangs on my wall.
It is also embedded in the Program for Leadership and Character. We share Rilke’s charge with students at the end of our fall retreat, and it figures prominently in the first week of “Commencing Character,” a course that pairs the ancient ethics of character with contemporary commencement speeches focused on various virtues. The course explores fundamental questions of human existence: What is a good life? Which values and virtues do we need to flourish, and which practices enable us to cultivate these values and virtues?
During the first week, we ask a more focused question: “What is college for?” We read an essay with that title by a scholar of literature. We discuss Martin Luther King, Jr.’s article on “The Purpose of Education.” We read a reflection on the meaning of the Wake Forest motto and commencement speeches by David Foster Wallace and Sarah Heidt, all to explore “What is college for?”
The question is deceptively difficult. Many of us never ask why we should go to college; we just assume that we should. Our cultural narrative often positions college as the bridge between adolescence and adulthood, so much so that students (and parents) rarely question what college is for. The reasons are assumed: to acquire knowledge and skill, to find a passion, and, often, to get a job.
At Wake Forest, we prepare students to thrive both personally and professionally. Our College and graduate and professional schools equip graduates to succeed and serve in a variety of professions, and our Office of Personal and Career Development is a national leader in helping students move from college to career. But against a dominant trend to instrumentalize higher education, Wake Forest also offers an older and, I would venture, bolder vision of what college is for, one that helps students to build not only a livelihood but a life.
An inauguration is a fitting moment to consider the purposes of a Wake Forest education, to ask the question: “What is Wake Forest for?”
I am delighted that President Susan Wente is not only asking this question but leading us in living it. Today, as we celebrate her inauguration, I have been asked to consider what values define Wake Forest. I cannot offer a definitive interpretation—that task is up to all of us, collectively—but I want to suggest there are at least five commitments—five purposes—that animate what Wake Forest is for.
The first is “humanity.” Wake Forest is pro humanitate—“for humanity.” Our motto expresses our noble mission: to use our knowledge, skill, and talent to promote human flourishing, both within and beyond ourselves.
As Professor Emeritus James Powell has suggested, the original Latin word, humanitas, refers to the “quality that makes us human.” In the ancient world, humanitas was a virtue, like kindness and generosity, that equipped us to be fully human and treat others humanely. Our motto thus joins individual character with inclusive community: it calls us to develop the qualities of character within ourselves to serve humanity beyond ourselves. In its essence and aspiration, Pro Humanitate challenges us to see those different from ourselves not as other but as part of a larger human whole.
It also calls us to continue reimagining and expanding the boundaries of the human. For too long, Wake Forest, like other institutions across this nation, had a narrow and exclusive view of who counted as fully human. For the last few years, thanks in large part to the efforts of many faculty, staff, and students, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the Slavery, Race, and Memory Project, and our participation in the Universities Studying Slavery consortium, whose spring symposium Wake Forest is co-hosting next week, we have been reckoning honestly and sometimes painfully with our history and our complicity in slavery, segregation, and other forms of injustice and exclusion. We have more work to do to understand and acknowledge the burden of this history and our responsibility for rectifying it. As Maya Angelou has reminded us:
History, despite its wrenching pain Cannot be unlived, but if faced With courage, need not be lived again.
Our motto calls us to this courage. Even if our institution has sometimes fallen short of its ideals, within our motto contains an aspiration to fully embrace all humanity, to recognize the humanity of those who have been denied it, and to ensure that our knowledge and our lives are always for humanity.
What’s more, this motto is not an empty slogan but a clarion call to scholarship and service. I witness that daily at Wake Forest: in the courses offered by faculty to help students grapple with our history and understand how best to address the challenges of our time; in the students who volunteer at Campus Kitchen, tutor at local schools, and support organizations across the city; in the Office of Civic and Community Engagement, which works tirelessly to engage our students in Winston-Salem and beyond; in Campus Life and the Office of Wellbeing, which help students “thrive” across multiple dimensions; in Wake the Arts, which shows how art can express, unsettle, and expand our imagination of the human; and in the Office of Sustainability, which is challenging us to look beyond humanity to consider our relationship to, and responsibility for, the broader natural world. These efforts, among many others, affirm that Pro Humanitate is not—and should not be—simply engraved on our seal but enacted in our scholarship, stewardship, and service.
Pro Humanitate also informs a second core commitment to holistic education. Wake Forest aspires to educate the whole person, not just one trained for a particular career.
This commitment animates our academic mission, including our rich tradition of the liberal arts and sciences. As a collegiate university, Wake Forest includes an undergraduate liberal arts college embedded in a larger research university, with a graduate school and professional schools—in business, divinity, law, medicine, and professional studies—animated by the spirit of the liberal arts.
Pro Humanitate is not—and should not be—simply engraved on our seal but enacted in our scholarship, stewardship, and service.Dr. Michael Lamb
Historically, in ancient Greece and Rome, the “liberal arts”—from the Latin root liber, meaning “free”—were the liberating “arts,” those reputed to help people become “free”—free from conformity, domination, and oppression, free to think independently, critically, and creatively. Traditionally, the “humanities” are the disciplines that enable us to understand and express what makes us human, and the “sciences” are those that equip us to observe, analyze, and understand the world in ways that illuminate, inform, and improve our lives. At a time when the liberal arts are under threat and there are increasing demands for students to specialize in one technical skill or professional field, Wake Forest’s emphasis on the liberal arts and sciences expresses a bold commitment to holistic, liberating education.
This commitment is enacted daily in the classroom. In the College, students are required to take courses in the humanities, literature, languages, the social and natural sciences, and the fine arts, and the faculty has recently approved a new set of 21st-century stewardship requirements focused on quantitative data analysis, ethical inquiry, and power, inequity, and global contexts—all to equip students to understand and engage an increasingly complex, diverse, and data-driven world.
Similar commitments underlie courses in the professional schools that help students develop the practical knowledge, skills, and wisdom to serve their patients, clients, consumers, and congregations. Even as they educate future professionals, these schools seek not simply to train technical experts but to develop wise, virtuous, and whole people who will advance the common good.
This vision of holistic education also infuses co-curricular efforts. This month, the Program for Leadership and Character took sixteen students on a spring break trip to Washington, DC, to explore “monuments, models, and portraits of leadership” in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania. We analyzed portraits of presidents and first ladies, compared war memorials on the National Mall, visited neighborhood murals that elevated leaders who are often invisible in our culture, and explored how the arts can illuminate what we value as a country and perhaps what we long to forget. Seeing students grapple with the complex legacy of our leaders, and how they applied what they were learning to how they live, revealed the power of the liberating arts to help us see and imagine in new ways, to register and resist injustice, and to promote freedom and flourishing in all its forms.
Leadership and Character
This emphasis on holistic education reflects a third commitment: to developing leaders of character. As Dr. King wrote in his college newspaper, “[I]ntelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”
Wake Forest seeks to offer a “true education” that recognizes that leadership and character are not only timeless but timely. At a moment when we are riven by division and discord, when social trust is in decline, and when the ethical failures of prominent leaders have life-or-death consequences, there is no more important time to educate leaders of character.
Strikingly, a commitment to leadership, character, and ethics animates the mission statements of the College and all of our schools, and it has deep roots in Wake Forest’s history and culture. When Wake Forest was founded in 1834, it was designed for about fifty students “of good character.” A commitment to character is part of our institutional DNA.
It is also part of our history. A hundred years ago in 1922, President William Louis Poteat, anticipating Dr. King, emphasized the moral purposes of education: “Our deepest need is to be good; after that, to be intelligent. . . . What the world needs now as always is the [marriage] of goodness and intelligence.”
Almost a century later, President Nathan Hatch affirmed the importance of this union. He founded the Program for Leadership and Character in 2017 and described a commitment to “intellect” and “character” as expressive of Wake Forest’s “soul.”
Now President Wente is embracing and expanding this noble tradition. Her support of leadership and character has been unwavering, and we are excited about how, with her leadership, we will reach more students on campus and beyond.
This commitment is shared by faculty, staff, students, parents, and trustees, many of whom see a focus on leadership and character as a reflection of our deepest values and aspirations. We have been so encouraged by the generous support for our Program for Leadership and Character, including from many of you in this room, and by the way faculty, staff, and students have embraced this urgent work.
Over the last two years, we have worked with different departments and schools to integrate leadership and character into the curriculum, and we have helped over 50 faculty develop new courses and modules on leadership and character. Combined with the courses we teach, these classes reached over 1,300 students last year. And thanks to a new $8.6 million grant, we will reach even more in the years to come.
This work also extends beyond the classroom. We have developed collaborations with over 40 campus offices and departments and offered programming in the arts, Athletics, Residence Life, Religious Life, and Sustainability, among others. We supported over 11,000 engagements with faculty, staff, students, and community members in 2021 alone.
In addition to this culture and commitment, Wake Forest has the capacity to do this work in ways that are distinctive and impactful. Thanks to major grants over the last decade, Wake Forest faculty are among the world’s leading experts on character. As a Program, we draw on their cutting-edge research to develop and assess our programs and to show, contrary what many assume, that character can be taught and also measured. As a result, we have been profiled as a national leader in this area and asked to advise universities across the US and the globe, from Canada and the United Kingdom to Australia and Hong Kong. Many foundations and universities are now looking to Wake Forest to lead.
Wake Forest has the capacity to do this work in ways that are distinctive and impactful.Dr. Michael Lamb
Wake Forest’s commitment to leadership and character offers a bold and distinctive vision for higher education. While many liberal arts colleges in America once made character central to their educational missions, few now embrace it explicitly, and those that do typically do so in word more than deed. While an increasing number of ethics centers have been established at universities, most focus on research about ethics rather than the actual formation of students and citizens. Not at Wake Forest. While we value research fundamentally, we recognize that the purpose of education is not merely to understand character but to educate and practice it.
A Community of Care
We also know that personal transformation is spurred not only by programs but by people, which points to a fourth core commitment: Wake Forest is a “community of care,” a deeply relational place of personalized, individual attention where learning is enriched by meaningful relationships between faculty, staff, and students.
As someone whose parents did not graduate from college and whose life was changed by professors who could offer advice and support that my parents simply could not, I especially appreciate this aspect of Wake Forest. Others do, too. When I speak with alumni or parents, I am struck by how many mention a professor who had a profound impact on their lives or their students. Wake Forest faculty and staff care.
I see this care in how much our colleagues do—well beyond their job descriptions—to mentor, support, and help our students. Every day, I witness the fierce care of our incredible staff in the Program for Leadership and Character—in their late-night texts when students are in crisis, in their hour-long meetings when students are really struggling, in their gentle but honest feedback when students need help to grow.
What I have seen, and what our research shows, is that, time and time again, students grow in character because they know they belong, they feel safe, and they have the support they need to thrive. Just yesterday, a student shared that her life had been changed because she’d finally found a place where she felt seen and “received.”
Such radical seeing is also evident between our students. In our Program, I witness scholars from very diverse backgrounds having hard and real conversations across difference about race, religion, gender, class, and culture, taking late-night “Walk and Talks” on campus to discuss big questions, and offering the emotional support and personal accountability that distinguishes a friend of virtue from a friend of utility or pleasure.
Their care is especially evident in the final week of our “Commencing Character” class, where students give their own commencement speeches on their vision of a good life. Students often share very personal stories with great courage and vulnerability, which is possible only because they have created a context of mutual care and trust. I am not usually one to cry in class, but each year, without fail, these student stories bring tears. They embody the power of honest, vulnerable, and courageous conversation within a community of care.
This sense of community supports a fifth commitment: to “radical collaboration,” what President Wente has described as “working in concert in ways that inspire individuals to offer the best of themselves, encourage all to seek out the opinions of others anddrive our community to develop solutions to the problems of the day.”
Wake Forest’s commitment to collaboration is “radical” in several senses. First, it challenges a larger culture that sees achievement in individualistic terms. By contrast, radical collaboration requires us to see our good in light of others’ good and to contribute the best of our knowledge, skill, and talent to create something that could not be created or achieved on our own. It directs us to a common purpose.
This approach is not new at Wake Forest, which speaks to another way it is radical. The Latin origin of “radical” is the word, radix, which means “root.” To be radical is to return to the roots, to those vital foundations that give life to an organism or, in this case, an institution. To practice radical collaboration, then, is not to abandon our traditions but to reimagine and reinvigorate them, to recognize what is vital and enduring about our common life and innovate from the roots in ways that respond to our changing world.
Collaboration, too, leads us to back to our roots. From the Latin word meaning to “co-labor” or “labor with,” collaboration is central to our university’s history. In fact, Wake Forest was first founded as a manual labor institute where students were educated, in part, by working together.
Of course, our vision of working together looks much different now than it did in 1834, but this spirit of collaboration and experiential learning remains alive across the university: in the work of faculty, staff, and students in the College and Graduate School to create knowledge across disciplines and community across differences; in the Medical Center’s combination with Atrium Health to advance medical research and heal those who are suffering; in the School of Divinity’s partnership with Gilead to combat HIV/AIDS in the South; in the School of Law’s clinics to help clients who need representation; in the partnerships that the School of Business and School of Professional Studies have forged with corporations and non-profits to educate and employ students; and in the efforts of faculty, staff, and trustees over the last two years to respond to the challenges of COVID-19.
Fostering and sustaining such collaboration is not easy. If it were, it would not be “radical.” As President Wente has emphasized, it requires nurturing an inclusive and equitable community that welcomes diverse perspectives and empowers others to share, even when they challenge the status quo. It demands listening carefully, managing conflict, and building (and sometimes re-building) trust. And, I would add, it requires exercising the virtues of effective teamwork: the empathy to inhabit diverse perspectives; the humility to recognize our limits and learn from others; the courage to speak up and also to listen, especially when the truths are hard to hear; the gratitude to acknowledge others’ contributions; and the justice to give others what they are due.
President Wente has emboldened us to expand Wake Forest’s commitment to radical collaboration, which, I believe, can also provide a way to realize our other core commitments, empowering us to create and innovate from our roots.
In her first few months, President Wente has often asked what makes a “great university.” I would venture that these five commitments—to humanity, to holistic education, to leadership and character, to a community of care, and to radical collaboration—define and distinguish Wake Forest University.
To be actualized, of course, these commitments must be not only proclaimed but practiced. True greatness will be a measure not of our status or our ranking but of our integrity—of knowing who we are and being faithful to it, of reckoning with our limits and striving constantly to be better, of pursuing excellence with the humility to learn and the courage to lead.
An inauguration is a kind of commencement—a new beginning that invites us to reimagine who we are and who we aspire to be. While our past provides some prologue, it is our opportunity and obligation to write the next chapter of the Wake Forest story.
This afternoon, we mark a historic moment in that story—the inauguration of a new leader to guide this great university. What story will we write together? What virtues and values will we enact? What purposes and communities will we serve? As we examine our past, inhabit our present, and inaugurate our future, we must not only ask these questions but live them. It is up to us to determine what Wake Forest is for.