An Interview with President Whelan

By Emma Kiernan and Moira Sankey

The end of this semester marks two years since President Michaele Whelan joined the Wheaton community, bringing with her years of experience in liberal arts administration. There has been a sense of confusion among Wheaton students as to what exactly the president of a college does in an average workday.

The answer, Whelan provides, is a lot. She explains that as president, she participates in every aspect of the college’s enterprise, from legal issues to student affairs and admissions to fundraising and facilities.

Her days are mostly filled with what she calls “meetings and greetings.” Whelan gives welcome speeches at events all across campus and attends meetings with faculty, donors, trustees, and many others, sometimes traveling off-campus as well. “Sometimes I get to go to a class which is really exciting and fun and you know, a good break,” she said. “But otherwise I’m meeting with people or groups and that’s pretty constant.” An average workday could begin at 8 a.m. and go until late evening, depending on where she is needed.

Whelan’s duties as president often facilitate a collaborative effort with the rest of the administrative staff and the faculty on campus. “You could think of it [the role of president] like an orchestra conductor. Because there’s vice presidents, there’s faculty who have leadership roles, there’s faculty committees, we exist as a communit within shared governance, which is a very important concept.”

Whelan explained that when assisting in setting the strategic directions of the college, she doesn’t “go into a room and write them [her ideas] down,” but instead speaks with the staff and faculty to curate feedback and turn ideas into reality. “It’s very different from an executive in a company because that’s a hierarchy… that’s not how it works in a college. Well, and again, this is all in dialogue, because the truth is presidents put ideas out and then we see what the community makes of those ideas,” said Whelan.

Through this collaborative process, some of Whelan’s ideas have come to fruition or at least reached an official planning stage. This past fall, the new program WheaGo was introduced and launched successfully when 30 first-year students traveled abroad for their first semester before returning to Wheaton to finish their education.

Additionally, Whelan is working with administration and faculty to develop a master’s program for Wheaton students. She explains that the current concept for the program is that students will begin working towards their master’s in their senior year by taking courses that will count towards the program. Upon graduating, they will have the opportunity to finish the degree online from anywhere in the world in order to join their career field without building more student debt.

The president also plays a vital role in a campaign that Wheaton calls the “quiet leadership phase.” The college brings ideas to potential donors and supporters, looking to raise money that will benefit campus life. These proposals often include scholarships for students, campus upkeep, and endowed professorships for faculty.

Specifically, Whelan has focused on the struggles of maintaining campus facilities, something that caught her attention upon her initial arrival at Wheaton.

She explains that with a few exceptions, like the buildings sponsored by Diana Davis Spencer or the Mars family, most of the facilities on campus are named after admirable people but need to be provided with funding for maintenance. “It would be great if we could raise money for all of the buildings and the student dorms, which is what we’ve been focusing on. So making changes, painting, new flooring, new kitchens, the houses, a big list of what we need to do to improve the dorms. That’s been going on since I arrived and I walked around and I was like, ‘Oh… no. we need to do better.’”

Whelan reaches out to alumni and donors with the hopes that they will sponsor Wheaton’s efforts to improve the campus and make it as nice as possible for the students and community. During her time working in academic administration, Whelan developed the social and networking skills that are helpful when fundraising. Public speaking has been a constant in her career despite switching from professor to provost to college president. Her experience and practiced ease at public speaking means that it is fun for her to attend and speak at events like commencement.

Aside from graduation, Whelan enjoys many other campus events, ranking Dancefest, Winterfest, and Head of the Peacock as personal favorites. The Holiday Vespers Concert, the Loser Concert, and Symphony Under the Stars were notable mentions on her list. She particularly appreciates events that unite current students, alums, faculty, family members, and the greater Norton area.

Whelan also frequents athletic games and events, most recently Senior Night for women’s lacrosse. She recalled a particularly memorable women’s basketball game from her first year when colleges were still adjusting from the pandemic: “I was the only person in the gym besides the players, and the coaches, and the refs … so I just clapped for everyone because I felt so badly!”

Whelan’s busy schedule does not allow her the time to research or teach, like when she was vice provost at Brandeis. “I would teach at least once a year, which I really liked, and then I got to Emerson, and I was provost, and I had three campuses, and I couldn’t teach.” When she arrived at Wheaton, the English department offered the opportunity, but Whelan turned it down. “I said, well, I’d love to teach!

If I had a different job! …You know, students are here to learn and they don’t want to hear that I’ve got to go give a speech, or sit on a board … there’s not enough time to do that [teach] in a way that students deserve.”

Whelan has, however, managed to attend several different kinds of classes over the past two years. “I like to visit the classes. So I get to go to all these different disciplines including things that I don’t know like coding, and calculus, which I did take,” she said. “I do not have fond memories of calculus. But it’s taught really, really well here!”

When Whelan first began to visit classrooms, she expected to sit quietly and observe but quickly discovered that the faculty would frequently encourage her to provide feedback or contribute to discussions. She found these moments “unexpected but fun.”

Whelan shared that non-Wheaton-related activities she enjoys are kayaking and bike riding. Despite the fact that she used to dance, she is adamant that she has “zero athletic talent” when it comes to sports and activities that require hand-eye coordination.

In addition, she cares for her two cats, Apollo and Zeus. For those who are wondering, yes, they are doing well – despite a minor tick scare that came with the warmer weather.