State of the College: What You Might Have Missed

Wheaton College MA
Wheaton College MA |

This year’s State of the College panel discussion was created to give students a space into which they could bring up their concerns with Wheaton’s administration and the state of the campus. On April 1, 2021, student and faculty leaders in the Wheaton community joined together to collaboratively participate in a three-hour-long discussion of the current higher education system. Wheaton College President Dennis Hanno spoke about his strategic plan modeled around diversity, equity and inclusion that he headed the creation of when he began his position of president at Wheaton College. He began the panel discussion by addressing the students and faculty that attend the event.

The panel was made up of members of the President’s Council and other faculty leaders: 

  • Renee White, provost and professor of sociology 
  • Zack Irish, the head of student affairs, Dean
  • Shaya Gregory Poku, equity and Belonging, Associate Vice President for institutional equity
  • Gene Begin, vice president for marketing and communications
  • Merritt Crowley, vice president of advancement, alumni relations corporate foundation relations
  • Kelsey Andrade, assistant to the president and secretary of the board of trustees
  • Walter Caffey, vice president for enrollment, dean of admission and enrollment
  • Meghan Kass, vice president for finance and administration 
  • Caroline Moholland, Title IX/bias response
  • Rachel Pauze, senior director of compliance and policy & Title IX coordinator
  • Shaya Gregory Poku, associate vice president for equity and belonging 

All quotes from the session were taken directly from the transcript created by live captioning during the full duration of the event. 

“You represent to me what got me into this, what excites me as an educator,” Hanno said to the students and faculty. He also mentioned that this event would be the last state of the college that he would be leading, as his time at Wheaton is slowly coming to an end this year. Hanno highlighted his commitment to spending quality time with his family after completing his term at Wheaton. 

Hanno touched on the three main topics of financial pressures that Wheaton is facing, which included finances, systemic bias, and the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the biggest challenges at colleges today is the declining number of students able to pay tuition to attend college. Generating resources to support students with financial aid needs has been a constant struggle and Wheaton is continuing to overcome this challenge. Hanno highlighted Wheaton’s focus on combating racism, social justice issues and the systemic bias that exists within the campus community and the outside world.  

“Financially we are challenged, but we are strong.”

Dennis Hanno

The community commentary session began after Hanno’s opening words, and students brought up subjects about which they are currently concerned about and believe should be highlighted in such a panel discussion. 

Angel Bird ’21 brought up the topic of lack of funding for African African American diaspora studies (AAA DS) and the need for more of an ongoing effort to support students of color on Wheaton’s campus. 

Renee White spoke to Bird’s question by highlighting Wheaton’s welcoming of more students on campus as an ongoing effort to increase the diversity of students and faculty on campus. 

“This is a challenge to all of us to really think about how we take what Angel is saying and move it forward.” White continued by saying, “I’ve already reached out to AAA DS faculty to set up a meeting, so we can talk about exactly what that means, what needs that they have and what plans we can put in place.”

Marcelle Zaccour Cabal ’21 asked a question about steps that the administration is taking to improve community safety – being mental, physical and emotional.

Hanno highlighted the recent change in campus security from Public Safety to Campus Security. Rob Winsor also responded with an explanation about the reasons for the events that happened this academic year with a physical safety threat on Wheaton’s campus.  

Benjamin Gold asked what the Fall Semester will look like. Hanno responded with a bit of humor in his tone.

“Let me reach on my shelf and get that crystal ball I’ve been using over the last year, which, which actually has it hasn’t been bad.”

Dennis Hanno

Hanno suspects that there may continue to be testing on campus for those who have not been vaccinated yet. He also said that though he hopes for a full in-person semester, he and the rest of the faculty are planning on being flexible depending on the need of students who may not be able to attend in-person classes due to personal reasons.

Caroline York Pike ’23 had asked others on the campus what they wanted her to bring up during this panel discussion. She brought up a few rumors and sexist/racist behavior that have been brought up about which occurred in campus dining halls in the past few semesters. 

Hanno did clarify that the staff in the dining halls are not Wheaton employees. Meghan Kass also commented about the future switch to a new food service provider. 

“Food is central to a lot of events, so it is important to make sure that we partner with someone who reflects the values that we embrace here on campus,” said Kass.

Caroline Moholland and Rachel Pauze, also spoke to Pike’s questions about the uncomfort students are currently experiencing after surviving a sexual assault and maneuvering through the reporting process for Title IX. 

Pike also brought up the blame that has been passed around the student body due to the recent increase in COVID-19 cases. 

Zack Irish responded to Pike with an explanation that students can report anonymously about these issues. “We have our COVID-19 violation reports that students, faculty and staff can use to submit concerns in the community of community members, not adhering to those Policies.” Irish continued saying, “We are in the middle of an uptick and I think that we actually have more positive cases right now than we’ve had at any other single
 point in the entire year. And we haven’t rolled back any restriction on campus, because we feel confident with the processes in place, the collaboration with our contact tracing and the fact that we have really been able to narrow the outbreak down to
 two distinct social groups.” 

Hanno added that there are currently 71 students in quarantine or isolation on or off campus, which is 7% of the campus population. 

The campus isn’t restricting in-person access and freedoms of the rest of the students on the campus because the administration believes that the outbreak is being handled. They are relying on contact tracing to keep this outbreak in control. 

Rob Winsor also spoke about the cameras on campus saying, “We continue to add cameras to campus. It’s a costly proposition to do.
 And so we want to make sure that they’re going in the right places.”

Anonymous questions were also typed in the chat to be read out loud by Student Government Association President, Aba Lypps ’21. 

A student asked about the lockdown training the college can do for faculty and students in the case of an emergency lockdown similar to others that have occurred in the past on campus. 

Tapiwa Muvavarirwa ’21 addressed the problem that many students have been facing when professors have not been understanding or supportive when students have been negatively impacted by current events on and off-campus. He explained that professors weren’t acknowledging that students were going through hardships that are affecting their schoolwork and grades. Muvavarirwa highlighted his point that asking for mental health days has been a challenge for many students and they have seen a lack of support from professors during this time.

Renee White responded to Muvavarirwa’s comments saying, “I will be absolutely communicating to the faculty as a whole, but I wanted to say to all of the students here that if you have specific examples of professors that you would be willing to identify to me, I will reach out individually to folks when I hear these complaints.”

An anonymous question read out by Lypps asked if students would be hearing more information about the extra support funding that students have recently applied for. Walter Caffey answered with a simple, “yes.”

Sofie Weston ’22 asked about the plans for the renovations of the old science center on campus. 

Kass responded with, “It will become home to the innovation IDEA Lab –I think that’s the new name of– or at least close to it. So basically what was the Win Hub space will be moving over there.”

An anonymous question read out by Lypps and a question made by Cabal asked what the official college statement about the podcast incident was. This brought up the podcast that was hosted last week by a few Wheaton Students that included language labeled by students as misogynistic.

Learn more about the podcast by reading these other Wire articles:

Hanno and Moholland addressed the concerns of this and many other students about the podcast saying that because it is an ongoing investigation, they cannot speak on behalf of the college on it at this time. According to Moholland, the Bias Response team is currently working on efforts trying to get a message out to the Wheaton community.

Moholland further clarified saying, “The bias Incident Response Team does not determine if something meets the threshold of a policy violation. That determination was not made by that team.”

An anonymous question asked, “Will the school require vaccinations for both the flu and covid in the full and will Wheaton have a vaccine clinic for students next semester or this semester; possibly with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and finally in the vein of public health, why does public safety carry Narcan but not epi-pens? What if a student has a severe allergic reaction and doesn’t
 have an epi-pen.”

Another anonymous question asked if online learning will be continued next year.

Students brought up questions about updates around the class of 2020. Irish responded with, “We are working very closely with that class leadership and we have not forgotten the class of 2020. They will be receiving communication very soon from their class leadership.
 Nicole is in particularly close communication with them.

Another student asked about the furniture currently behind the science center. Kass responded by saying that they are repurposing a lot of it and that they ask that students don’t take the furniture. 

Sarah Simkevich ’22 addressed the privileges of sports teams, saying that they have been able to participate in their activity and break social distancing guidelines and visit other schools
 to play against their teams and have other schools come to Wheaton as well. “I know that a lot of our cases have been from student athletes and just, as a person who is a member of the arts here, it’s very frustrating seeing them be able to participate
 fully in their activity when I, as a member of an acapella group as well as an orchestra, have to practice social distancing.

Simkevich also presented a statement saying, “A lot of the uprisings in cases, like for example the one that we had that was majority lacrosse team, have been from sports teams.

Irish responded by saying, “These are ongoing conversations, unfortunately, we have to follow the guidelines from the state, but are happy to have these conversations with you and your club members and
 your group members and I just want you to know you do definitely have advocates around the table and we are constantly in conversations about how we can make these opportunities exist for you.”

Hanno responded by saying, “You know, we are actually quite a bit behind athletics in terms of what other schools around the country are doing. Turn on your TV set and you can see the NCAA playing right now.

White responded by saying, “My commitment, and I think the commitment of faculty
 and staff, is to do what we can to safely allow as many opportunities for you to be able to do that because it’s a vital part of being here and it’s a vital part of being who you are.”

Hanno reverted the conversation back to the topic of the current podcast issue on campus. 

Bird prefaced the conversation by asking the community to make their statements with discretion. 

Rosie Hanks said, “I would truly, truly like to see more done on behalf of members of the administration to support the students when these sorts of things come out instead of just an email being sent to cover your assets in terms
 of liability but actually engaging in these conversations with us and attending these events and further understanding where we’re coming from instead of holding one community forum, once a semester There needs to be more feedback
 and transparency and you need to understand the hurt that this has caused to everybody.

Julianne Morse ’24 spoke about the need for more training on combating bias incidents.

Cabal voiced her wish for the students and creators of the podcast to be educated. She continued saying, “This should not have been the way our college experience was. It was bias incident report, behind bias incident report, behind bias incident, behind bias incident and it’s not fair.

Sophie Waters ’23 expressed agreement with the importance of creating bias incident training for faculty and students. Ervin Williams ’24 also expressed their opinion of the importance of civil discourse. 

“We can’t necessarily change the world around us, but we can change our institution.”

Sophie Waters

“I think there needs to be a civil discourse, and there needs to be a lot more openness, between both faculty and the students. Civil discourse cannot live inside the vacuum of just the student body.”

Ervin Williams 

Hanks asked the faculty on the panel to each respond to the rest by describing the steps they are planning and committing to take in order to make a difference on campus in this upcoming year.

Caffey is working to create a partnership outside of Wheaton to increase financial aid. Irish is looking at ways he can be more proactive and less reactive with student issues and engagement on campus. He is looking at the opportunities the administration can collaborate with students to create more inclusive training and education. Moholland committed to coordinate and formalize what a multi-disciplinary holistic approach looks like across faculty and student affairs and athletics and counseling. 

White will work with AAA DS faculty on identifying their current needs, increase the diversity in faculty, and support students with individualized outreach from faculty in terms of mental health and coursework. Kass will work on incorporating safety training on lockdown protocols and on improving the dining services overall. Gene Begin is going to build more community engagement communication and information sharing to help the administration become more transparent in future affairs. 

Hanno made a commitment to meet with the administration every week to work on combating the issues that were brought up in this panel event and to work with the trustees to maintain the school’s connection with them. Shaya Gregory Poku is going to focus on making sure to identify the patterns of equity and belonging concerns on campus.