As Doug Bennet said in his retirement speech, “There has been a Bennet family love affair with Wesleyan reaching back to 1929,” when his father entered the Wesleyan freshman class. Indeed, the Bennet family has a longstanding connection to Wesleyan—Bennet himself graduated from Wesleyan in 1959 and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He returned to Wesleyan in 1995, when he accepted the presidency. His tenure as president of Wesleyan has been marked by enormous change, growth, and not insignificant controversies. Under his administration, the first Freeman scholars arrived, the Green Street Arts Center was created, alumni giving and the endowment increased dramatically, chalking was banned, freshman were barred from living in X house, and gender neutral housing was put off, to name only a sampling of policies and changes that have variously drawn praise and criticism.
Before Wesleyan, Bennet served in various positions in government, including assistant secretary of state for congressional relations, the first staff director of the Senate Budget Committee, special assistant to the U.S. ambassador to India, and head of the Agency for International Development. He left the foreign policy realm to serve for ten years as chief executive officer and president of National Public Radio. Through major fundraising efforts, Bennet helped lift the station from financial crisis. Indeed, it was largely for his fundraising abilities that Wesleyan approached him in 1993, when he was assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs. After coming into office, Bennet launched his administration with an explicit focus on improving alumni giving to the University, immediately sacking the official in charge of fundraising. His efforts were not without results: by the end of 2005, his administration had raised $281 million through fundraising efforts. The endowment increased nearly twofold, from $345 million in 1995 to $631 million as of March 2006.
His campus planning initiatives have seen the renovation of Clark and Downey House, as well as the construction of the Fauver Field Residences and the Center for Film Studies, among other buildings. Since 2003, Bennet has overseen $200 million in new construction and renovation on campus. A need-blind admissions policy has been maintained, and the faculty has been expanded. The number of applications for admission to Wesleyan has increased by 25 percent since Bennet took office, up to 7,000 for 715 slots in the incoming class.
Bennet’s policies, however, have not come without incurring criticism from the student body. His administration has faced charges by some who feel it has suffered from a lack of transparency and unwillingness to include students in the decision-making process. In recent years, Bennet has drawn ire for a variety of initiatives allegedly aimed to make Wesleyan more “mainstream,” including his ban on chalking and his administration’s vacillating stance on gender neutral housing. According to some, these decisions reflect a University administration out of touch with the student community. All of these frustrations came to a head in December 2004, when a group of several hundred students barricaded Bennet in his office in South College.
A travel through time back a decade in the archives of the Argus will unearth pictures of Bennet bowling with editors of the newspaper and wiping away a tear at his inauguration as president. When he steps down next year, thousands of students will have known all four years here with Bennet as president; even his most stringent critics must admit that Bennet has become an icon while at Wesleyan, profoundly shaping our lives here. Whether one feels nostalgia for Bennet or sighs in relief at the change in administration, everyone will admit that an era at Wesleyan has ended.