President Doug Bennet announced his retirement yesterday afternoon to a crowd of 500 gathered outside of North College. After serving for 12 years, Bennet will leave the University at the end of the 2006-2007 academic year.
“Wesleyan is positioned well to engage new leadership, and the time is right for us to move ahead with the new phase of our lives,” Bennet said. “The work we did to define a Wesleyan education for the 21st century, to improve student aid, to add faculty, and to begin a process of campus renewal—all of these show that Wesleyan can make big decisions and act on them.”
Bennet thanked alumni, faculty, staff, and students for their generosity. He also praised the support of alumni and parent volunteers, the faculty’s excellence, the quality of the administrative team, and the Board of Trustees’ strong leadership.
“Wesleyan is doing well both institutionally and in its daily pursuit of excellence,” he said.
Dean of Natural Sciences and Mathematics Joe Bruno said he believes Bennet is choosing an appropriate time to retire.
“I think Doug has thought carefully and realizes this is the optimal time to go,” Bruno said. “We’ve just come off a successful campaign and we’re thinking of another one in the near future. This leaves us time to have a new president in place.”
Bruno also mentioned Bennet’s unabashed love for the University.
“[Bennet’s] love for the place is clear any time you talk to him,” Bruno said. “He has a strong confidence in Wesleyan’s ability to get things done.”
Chair of the Philosophy Department Professor Brian Fay pointed to Bennet’s ambitious on-campus construction program as one of his main achievements.
“We hadn’t done buildings for years,” Fay said. “I think the strategic plan that was put into place in the mid-90s that served for the basics of his capital campaign was so successful in restoring to Wesleyan a sense of direction and purpose.”
Fay also noted that Bennet repaired and improved town-gown relations.
“Wesleyan was involved in the Middletown Inn and donated four million dollars to it,” Fay said. “There was also the Green Street Arts Center initiative, the service learning center, and the community partnerships building.”
President Diana Chapman Walsh of Wellesley College, where Bennet serves on the Board of Trustees, commented on Bennet’s off-campus work.
“We all look up to him and admire and appreciate him tremendously,” she said. “I got a chance to see firsthand the impact that he’s had [at Wesleyan]. He is a remarkable leader at Wesleyan and a spokesperson with a wide understanding of public policy issues and how change happens in world.”
Walsh, who coincidentally announced her own retirement last Friday, described Bennet as someone who is “delightful and fun” with a great sense of humor.
Although many students will be sad to see Bennet leave, others question his performance at the University. Bea Lake ’06 said that Bennet hasn’t been a popular figure for a long time.
“There’s nothing to say for sure that anything will necessarily get better with him gone and I don’t know there’s anything to say it will get worse,” Lake said. “He’s stood in the way of student causes and student voices, but I have no confidence that shuffling the person occupying that place will fix things. It’s more a structural problem. In part it’s his unwillingness to listen, but also it’s the nature of the position.”
In his brief speech outside North College, Bennet described an educational community’s daily progress as ongoing and revolving on discovery, teaching, care, and respect.
“The daily work shows who we really are,” he said. “It helps individual students define their values and learn the confidence that will empower them as change-makers. It reveals how well we are making good on the potential of our diversity.”
Midge Bennet remarked that living on campus has been a happy time in the couple’s life together, and that she is looking forward to spending one more year at the University.
“Doug and I will stay close to Wesleyan living nearby, here in Connecticut, and having more time to read and go sailing and visit with our grandchildren,” she said.
The Bennets have eight grandchildren, all six years old or younger, who live around the world, from Germany to California.
“We hope to be invited to Wesleyan performances and lectures and sporting events and to lunch at the new Usdan Center, and to continue helping Wesleyan in any way we can,” Midge said.
After his speech, President Bennet reflected on the accomplishments that stand out for him at Wesleyan, which include improved curriculum, town-gown relations, strategic planning, fundraising, and reducing reliance on the endowment.
Chair of the Board of Trustees James van B. Dresser ’63 offered the Board’s congratulations and thanks, noting that the University has never been in better shape. According to Dresser, the Board will meet at the end of the month to discuss the future search for the new president.
“The Board will work alongside [the Bennets] to make this transition period not just smooth, but positive and memorable for all of us,” he said. “I promise I will keep the campus community fully informed about the process and that we will keep students, faculty, and staff fully involved.”
According to trustee Michael McPherson, the Board has not yet looked into any candidates for the new president.
“You want somebody of intellectual depth who understands what a place like Wesleyan is about,” McPherson said. “You always expect a new president to come with her or his new ideas, but a lot of things are already going well. We’ll be looking for a blend of innovation and continuity.”
McPherson also stressed that student input will be part of the design of the search process.
“I hope that the next president is younger and more in touch with the student body,” said Russell Berg ’07. “Bennet was always a little standoffish and a little aristocratic…the type that’s good at running a university, but his personality didn’t jibe with students.”
Berg also noted that much of the administration has been replaced over the last school year.
“There’s not much of a sense of continuity except maybe the Board of Trustees, the puppet masters pulling all of the strings,” Berg said. “They’re always there.”