Committed to Educating the Community

By Betsy Rogers

Robert E. Wiltenburg, Dean, University College

Washington University's commitment to the larger St. Louis community is perhaps nowhere more visible than in University College, the evening
division of Arts & Sciences, and in the work of University College Dean Robert E. Wiltenburg.

"University College has always been a kind of living interface between the University and the community, bringing the resources of the University to the St. Louis area but also bringing the community here," Wiltenburg observes. Many of the division's initiatives reflect this commitment, from recruitment among bright community college students to collaborations with corporations and agencies on needed instructional programs.

"We want to make as much of a benevolent impact on St. Louis as we can," Wiltenburg asserts, "to educate people who will become leaders in the community. We're not after every student in St. Louis, but we do want everyone who would benefit from a Washington University education. One of the University's strengths has always been the generosity in its conception of its mission."

This generosity expanded in fall 2002 with new educational benefits for University employees. Previously, staff members could take courses at half-price; now undergraduate courses are free. The respons—about 400 additional enrolled employees—has delighted Wiltenburg.

The change helps staff members, who can pursue a top-quality education at no cost, and also the University. "It helps make the University a learning community for all who work here," Wiltenburg says, "not just for the faculty and students."

Since 2001, University College enrollment has risen between 8 and 10 percent annually. Wiltenburg has presided over a number of initiatives that help students complete their education. The new "back-to-back" system permits students to attend two courses instead of one in an evening, with class sessions being two hours instead of two and a half; students fill out the required extra time in online discussions or other Web-based exercises. In courses that offer this option, about half the students take advantage of it.

University College's "AcTrack" or accelerated-track program, another innovation, permits students to earn four credits instead of three per course by completing additional work: an extra paper or project or some other added study. "Someone coming to us from a community college with 60 hours of credit can now possibly be finished in three years instead of four," Wiltenburg says.

University College offers a few online courses and plans more. Its Web presence has expanded dramatically with UC Online, a site where students and prospective students can scan the school's programs, symposia, lectures, workshops, and short courses. It also provides online registration and payment.

In all that it does, University College strives with extraordinary success to reflect the University's commitment to the highest caliber education. "We emphasize small classes, more writing, a mastery of the material," Wiltenburg asserts. "For anyone hungry for that kind of experience, we are the place in town." In the night school market, he says, "we charge a reasonable price, but in terms of quality we are incredibly affordable."

Wiltenburg found a new way to reach out to the St. Louis community when he chaired the committee planning the University's 150th birthday celebration in September 2003. The anniversary was "a way to invite the community in," he observes. "Some St. Louisans have a hard time imagining themselves at Washington University. They think of it as prestigious and elite—and they're right that excellence is important here.

"But it's also an accessible place where people are friendly and unpretentious and want to see every sincere student succeed. The birthday party was a chance for the community to see the University the way all of us see it, just made up of interesting people doing interesting things."

The celebration offered more than 220 activities, all open to the public, ranging from serious academic lectures to an organ recital to Chancellor Mark Wrighton's chemistry magic show to the spontaneous ebullience of the art school's "Operation Pandemic Joy," complete with a plane-borne banner, parachuting plastic figures, and refrigerator magnets.

Wiltenburg continues to teach, typically Shakespeare or Milton and a course on writing and public speaking. "I'm continually surprised and renewed as I teach," he observes. "And there are few things you can do better for somebody educationally than to show them what there is to love in old books."

He also teaches in the Program for the Humanities in Medicine at the School of Medicine. He enjoys the opportunity to work in this different context and to explore literature for different themes. His Physicians in Literature course, for instance, reviews essays written by doctors or about them, and includes a section on deathbed scenes—"from Socrates and Jesus on down to the present," he notes. "Students find it very compelling."

In all that he does, he seems most to enjoy helping others learn and grow, and observing the kind of personal transformation education brings. "Some years ago," he says, "Phi Beta Kappa began to accept University College students, and we've had at least one each year. Last year we had two. We're very proud of our students."

Betsy Rogers is a free-lance writer based in Belleville, Illinois.


"Bob is an old friend as well as an old olleague. From the very start he has always been somebody whose good sense you could trust consistently and who still was maginative and creative. That's a balance you don't always find. He has the kind of judgment that's just invaluable. He is a crucial university citizen, a tremendously valuable person to all of us."
— Wayne Fields, the Lynne Cooper Harvey Distinguished Professor in English and former Dean of University College

"Bob is very interested in bringing the best of Washington University to our community. He's creative and committed. He has very high standards and a great love of the humanities. He is an excellent teacher, an excellent public speaker and writer, and a superb administrator. And he's very caring—about students, about staff, about the whole community."
— Edward S. Macias, Executive Vice Chancellor, Dean of Arts & Sciences, and the Barbara and David Thomas istinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences

"I've known Bob for 20 years. He's a trusted person of impeccable character and integrity. He has a deep commitment to education as we know and do it here. He also has an extraordinary versatility. He can teach Paradise Lost, then come out and discuss administration. He helped the University put on a most unusual open house for thousands of people. And he has a marvelous sense of humor that sneaks up on you. I admire him very much."
— James McLeod, Vice Chancellor for Students and Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences

"Bob has been an extremely effective leader in many ways for Washington University. As dean of University College, he has distinguished himself both as an administrator and an academic leader, advancing the mission of our University in the community we serve. I am deeply appreciative of his leadership in helping us celebrate our 150th
anniversary with a tremendously successful community open house. Bob is an infectious enthusiast and a great friend to many. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to work with him."
— Mark S. Wrighton, Chancellor