WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (WGHP) — These aren’t easy times to be a university president.
COVID-19 mitigation on campus, coordinating online learning, staffing issues, the uncertain economy: they’ve joined forces with other issues to create a stressful stew that’s keeping a lot of higher education administrators up at night.
But Dr. Susan Wente is handling it in stride. In fact, you get the feeling she’s in the right place at the right time. She’s uniquely qualified to lead Wake Forest University during the pandemic.
Not only has she made history by becoming the first female president in the institution’s 187-year history, she’s also a respected biomedical scientist with a Ph.D. in biochemistry.
“From my perspective as a biomedical scientist, I think the most important thing in terms of us continuing to navigate this pandemic is teamwork,” she told me recently after I asked her where she thought we were, as a society, in battling COVID-19.
“We really need to work together and make decisions based upon evidence and data,” she said. “COVID-19 is here to stay. It’s an infectious disease that is probably going to be continually circulating like the flu and the common cold. But certainly, the hope is it’ll become more predictable and won’t bring the same levels of severe disease with it because of the tools we have to deploy.”
Tools like vaccines.
When omicron began its surge, Wake Forest decided to require students to get booster shots before returning for the spring semester. Pointing to a 97% student, faculty and academic staff compliance with vaccines prior to the holidays, Wente expects a similar response.
Indoor masking on campus is still required. Campus visitors attending events will need to show proof of vaccination or a negative test. The university’s also limiting food and drink at indoor events to encourage masking.
“We were in the Delta surge in the fall, and our faculty and students stepped up,” she said. “They will step up again.”
All this isn’t new to Wente. Prior to arriving in Winston-Salem, she was in Nashville, Tennessee serving as provost, vice-chancellor and interim chancellor of Vanderbilt University where she guided that institution’s COVID response.
But she’s also responding to challenges unique to Wake Forest, the most highly-publicized of which over the last year has been Wake Forest Baptist Health’s joining forces with Atrium Health of Charlotte. She calls this a great opportunity.
“This new partnership is going to be a key way that we can ensure that we’re going to be able to continue to provide the highest quality care and really be able to leverage all the different types of resources that come from being part of a larger, more integrated system,” she pointed out.
And with plans to open a second Wake Forest School of Medicine campus in Charlotte along with school of business programs and an uptown campus already in that city, Wente will face the challenge of assuring the Winston-Salem community Wake Forest is still embedded in Forsyth County.
“I’d say we are incredibly strongly committed and view ourself as an anchor institution in Winston-Salem and Winston-Salem as our anchor city,” she said. “I think our deep commitment to the city in one way is reflected by the Wake Downtown and the Innovation Quarter. That’s a huge commitment and represents not just our Reynolda Campus but a true Winston-Salem commitment.
Speaking of commitments, Wente is committed to what she calls “bold moves” in academics to keep the university competitive. An undergraduate engineering program that features liberal arts courses like writing and foreign languages is an example.
She’s also proud that in the late 2000s, Wake Forest became the first top-30 national university not to rely on standardized test results for undergraduate admissions.
“I want us to be producing the next generation of leaders with integrity,” she said when I asked her to describe what type of student she’d like to see graduate Wake Forest under her watch. “And they’re upholding our motto: Pro Humanitate (for humanity.) When they leave here, I want them to use their knowledge, their skills, their talents and their compassion to really benefit others and their communities.”