Community at Denison: A new president’s perspective

By Adam Weinberg

In my initial weeks at Denison, I have been struck by the strength of our community. Denison is an interesting and vibrant place filled with students who are smart, engaged, multi-talented, friendly, and fun to be around.

Clearly, community is a strong cultural norm at Denison. We talk about valuing friendships and striving to protect and improve Denison. Our commitment to community suggests a lot of positive things about this place and our students.

Our community is also vibrant. Denison is neither monolithic nor boring. We are a pluralistic place. Our students bring a wide spectrum of interests, passions, talents and life experiences to campus. There is no lack of things to do, people to meet, or groups to join at Denison.

Finally, our community is being stretched in good ways to embrace and leverage our pluralistic attributes.

Having just spent eight years working on critical global issues, I believe the future will be defined by people who can thrive in diverse environments, embrace rapid change, think creatively (outside boxes and across categories), and who possess humility, confidence, conflict negotiation, and communication skills.

The crucial capacity is the ability to creatively problem solve by surfacing disagreements and embracing diversity of thought, experience and skills. I see us struggling with this issue in positive ways. Let me give you two examples:

First, students have talked to me about social life. Clearly, Denison students value fun. Having said this, students define fun in all kinds of ways. I hear students eager to create a community where people can define fun for themselves, and in ways that respect the rights of others to define fun differently.

Second, students are also talking to me about breaking down cultural silos. Denison is a tolerant place. But I hear students wanting more. There is a thirst for moving beyond a toleration of difference to a leveraging of it. Students sense that we can make our community more fun, interesting and vibrant if we can let difference bring ourselves together in new ways.

As I listen to our students, I see an entrepreneurial community. I have always believed that a campus community should be seen as a series of “design studios” or spaces where students come together to invent and remix knowledge as a way to perform new ideas and approaches. This is happening at Denison.

Like all communities, Denison has challenges and controversies. This is not surprising. The issues we face are the ones that you will find on most college campuses.

What is unique about Denison is the way students are stepping up to acknowledge the issues and then to take the lead on addressing them. Students think of themselves as social entrepreneurs (I love that we use this language on campus) and problem solvers. Nobody is waiting for others to solve problems.

Consistently, I see two actions that are the mark of a healthy community. First, students are willing to acknowledge problems. Second, students are owning the solutions, working through formal student organizations and DCGA as well as informal means to create new ideas and approaches to campus life.

To do this effectively we need to better leverage the pluralistic nature of our community. This is where I see something exciting going on at Denison. In my conversations across campus, students are finding new ways to move beyond existing student organizations and friendship groupings to seek out different views.

It seems to me that this new approach is interdisciplinary and team-based (and hence very much steeped in the liberal arts). In my experience, problem solving around the “tough” stuff requires purposively creating teams who bring different perspectives, views and skill sets to bear on an issue. In short, you need diversity of thought, experience and talents.

My passion has always been around community. Community in the 21st century is being shaped as people around the world are being forced to live alongside difference (often with people they may not know and/or like) and to learn to address pressing issues that are coming at them rapidly.

Denison is preparing you to live successfully in that world. During my initial weeks at Denison, I have been impressed and inspired by the ways our students are meeting the challenge.