The Deacon Blog

A magazine staff blog with news of alumni and the WFU community

Rogan Kersh

Honoring Mr. Wake Forest



For those who are fans of Provost Emeritus Ed Wilson (’43) — and there are legions — you missed a happy gathering of Ed and friends a few weeks ago at the Porter Byrum Welcome Center on campus. You would have had to squeeze in for the event at which the North Carolina Humanities Council bestowed the John Tyler Caldwell Award for the Humanities on the man known as “Mr. Wake Forest.”

“The award recognizes Wilson for his lifelong achievements as an advocate for the public humanities across North Carolina,” according to the council. The Caldwell Award is the council’s highest honor. Wilson joins Caldwell Laureates who have included newsman Charles Kuralt, novelist Reynolds Price, historian John Hope Franklin and Wilson’s wife, poet and author Emily Herring Wilson (MA ’62). In greeting the audience Provost Rogan Kersh (’86)  lauded the council’s judges for their “impeccable” judgment and labeled the Wilsons “our nation’s ultimate humanities power couple.”

The State of North Carolina honored Professor and Provost Emeritus Edwin G. Wilson ('43) for his contributions to the humanities.

The State of North Carolina honored Professor and Provost Emeritus Edwin G. Wilson (’43) for his contributions to the humanities.

It was an evening at which Wilson, 91, praised school teachers from his North Carolina hometown by name —  from the one who “taught me to write cursively” to the high school teacher who read “line by line” Virgil’s “Aeneid” with Wilson and two other students that year. “Public school teachers are still at the beginnings of all of our various journeys in the humanities, and without them we might well not have come to our own love of literature and language and history,” Wilson said. “We should never fail to honor and reward them.”

He also made clear the heartbreaking absence of one of the devoted friends of the humanities in North Carolina and at Wake Forest: Penelope Niven (’62, D. Litt. ’92). She helped make the case for Wilson to receive the award. “(Her) sudden death almost two months ago leaves us still mourning,” Wilson said. “Penny was a biographer, and she had grace and charm of a rare quality.”

I would be remiss not to mention the stellar introduction of Wilson by his former student, Marybeth Sutton Wallace (’86), who works as special assistant to President Nathan O. Hatch. Her remarks were sharp, wise and funny. I asked her to give me a copy, and despite its length I include it here for posterity. I feel certain the legions of fans of Mr. Wake Forest will recognize themselves in her words and perhaps will share in the celebratory air of an autumn evening. Congratulations, Dr. Wilson.

Dr. Wilson and Marybeth Sutton Wallace, who presented her introduction of him at the Caldwell Award ceremony on Oct. 30. (Photo by Norma-May Isakow)

Dr. Wilson and Marybeth Sutton Wallace, who presented her introduction of him at the Caldwell Award ceremony on Oct. 30. (Photo by Norma-May Isakow)

Wallace: I once tried to explain to a friend why it was students at Wake Forest never wanted to miss one of Professor Edwin G. Wilson’s classes, why it was that at 2:45 pm on a Friday afternoon, a classroom in Tribble, 216-C, was filled from front to back with students thoroughly enchanted, and that except for one deep resonant voice reading “The Song of Wandering Aengus” or “Kubla Khan” not a sound or shuffle could be heard.

“You could have been on your way to the beach — or the mountains,” my friend exclaimed, “or throwing Frisbee on the Quad.”

But how could the beach or mountains compare with the dizzying lake country of Wordsworth’s boyhood, the lush green of Yeats’s Sligo, or the romance of Byron’s Italy, Greece and Spain?

“You just couldn’t skip Dr. Wilson’s class,” I protested, “because you couldn’t bear to disappoint him.”  And you couldn’t bear to disappoint yourself either. “Young and easy under the apple boughs,” we had that feeling that what we were learning was nourishing our souls and fortifying us for the years to come.

We left his classroom believing we could be better people. We left his classroom believing we could do something to make the world more beautiful. And we were merely one generation of students that Dr. Wilson touched in a teaching career that spanned more than a half-century.

When I was teaching high school English in Raleigh a fellow teacher at Enloe, Dr. Sally Humble, recalled that same feeling of being swept away by Dr. Wilson’s classes when she was a student at Wake Forest in the early sixties.  As she prepared her own lesson on Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes” she remembered Dr. Wilson’s riveting lecture, the brilliant imagery, the rich language. She said she must have taken ten pages of notes because the lesson made such a lasting impression.  When she gleefully retrieved the dusty notebook from a box buried in the attic, eager to devour her notes and impart this wealth of knowledge to her students, she was stunned to find one sentence under “The Eve of St. Agnes”: Spellbound, she had written simply, “Dr. Wilson read the poem.”

One of the first things Dr. Wilson would do in the course of a semester was to invite each of his students by for an individual conference — just to talk — about hometowns (He loves the names of hometowns), families, favorite books, recent movies, plays — on Broadway or at the Stevens Center — perhaps even ACC basketball or Eastern North Carolina barbecue.

What struck you most in these conferences is what an attentive and interested listener he was, and how he would remember these things about you which you told him, each time you saw him. Later in the semester you would be invited to his & Emily’s home on Timberlake Lane for supper, where surrounded by rows and walls of beloved books, you might look at slides from Ireland or take an oral part in Yeats’s “Cathleen ni Houlihan.”

Ed Southern (’94) wrote an article in his student days for the Old Gold & Black newspaper paying tribute to Ed Wilson when the Wilson Wing of Z. Smith Reynolds Library was named for him in 1992. He recalls professor Bynum Shaw, who had been on the Old Campus with Wilson, saying of his classmate: “the root of it all is his great humanity.”

Now Executive Director of the North Carolina Writers’ Network, Southern says of his former teacher: “To connect so deeply with Wordsworth, Blake, Keats, or Yeats is rare. To connect so deeply with hundreds, thousands, of people, at Wake Forest and around the world, is rarer still. I don’t know anyone else who can do both. I’d be willing to bet serious money that he is the most humble, down-to-earth person ever to have a building named after him.”

caldwell copy

Dr. Wilson came to Wake Forest College at the age of 16 by way of Leaksville, North Carolina, the youngest of five children, a first-generation college student. He has referred to that time as “the start of a beautiful friendship,” echoing words from one of his all-time favorite films, “Casablanca.”  In 1943 he graduated summa cum laude and spent three years as a Naval officer on a destroyer escort in the Pacific.

“I’ve always been a Romantic, and I’ve always loved stories of the sea,” he told students in Jenny Puckett’s History of Wake Forest class. “I had never been in the ocean; I had never even been in a row boat, but the idea of going into the Navy had a romantic appeal to me.” Upon his return, he applied to graduate school, but while awaiting a response he got a fateful call from one of his much admired professors, Broadus Jones, asking him to teach freshman English for a year — and being a dutiful son of his alma mater, he agreed.

The next day he received his letter of acceptance from Columbia: Fortunately for Wake Forest and for his home state, he had already committed to teaching … and for the next six decades — with the exception of a few years at Harvard, earning his doctorate in English, he would be all ours.

In the early 1960s Dr. Wilson chaired the faculty committee that voted to end racial segregation at Wake Forest, and Ed Reynolds enrolled as the first black student in 1962. He helped establish the University’s first residential study-abroad programs in Venice and London. Always an admirer of Irish poetry and the Irish people, he helped to found the Wake Forest University Press in the mid-1970s, now the premier publisher of Irish poetry in North America. He shaped the academic curriculum, programs, and faculty at a critical time in Wake Forest’s history.

Ever gracious and generous, he never came back to the Provost’s Office on a Friday afternoon after class with an ice-cream cone in hand without insisting that all the rest of us working in the Provost’s Office have an ice-cream cone too … one of many “little, nameless unremembered acts of kindness and of love.”

Dr. Wilson is married to Emily Herring Wilson, poet, author, and Caldwell Laureate herself.  They have three children: Ed, a superior court judge in Rockingham County; Sally, executive director of Project Access in Durham, which provides access to health care for low-income patients; and Julie, Director of the Writing Center at Warren Wilson college in Swannanoa, as well as four much-adored grandchildren:  Buddy, Harry, Maria, and Ellie.

His life has been anchored at Wake Forest but Ed Wilson’s life’s work has extended to every town across this state, every corner of the country, and beyond as his students everywhere, with the force of Shelley’s West Wind, carry forward that torch for the Humanities, that acknowledgment that we are more alike than we are different. He showed us that in the most difficult times in our lives, “all hatred driven hence, the soul recovers radical innocence … and that we can “though every face should scowl and every windy quarter howl, or every bellows burst, be happy still.”

I am deeply honored to present to you the 2014 Caldwell Award Laureate, my teacher, our teacher, a man who taught us to see the “world in a grain of sand,” Ed Wilson.

The Genesis of Ode to Reynolda Gardens

The idea came to me in June when I interviewed Rogan Kersh (’86) about his returning home to Wake Forest to become provost. All these years he had been away as a scholar and administrator at Yale, Syracuse and New York University. What were his favorite spots at Wake Forest, those places he had missed? After all, he would be able to revisit them at his leisure (on the rare occasions a provost has leisure) once installed in his new post in Reynolda Hall. He said, not surprisingly: “Some of them are almost clichés, I guess. Reynolda Gardens, an extraordinary place to walk or run or lose oneself for a while when things are going poorly or especially well.”

There it was again. Reynolda Gardens topped an alumnus’ list of memorable places. Reynolda Gardens has the force of gravity, pulling our Wake Forest community to the earth as well as to the woods, the paths, the wetlands and, on certain meditative runs, tranquillity. I recalled how many times alumni mentioned to me their deep affection for the place. The latest issue of Wake Forest Magazine celebrates the gardens through the photography of Travis Dove (’04), who studied communication and studio art and now works as a freelance photographer in Durham, N.C. His work appears in the latest issue of Our State magazine. Rolling Stone, National Geographic and Newsweek have featured his photographs as well. I noticed on election day he was shooting from Raleigh for The New York Times. Having escaped to the gardens as a student, Dove understands the emotional connection many of us feel for the place. You will be delighted by his photographs in the spring issue of Wake Forest Magazine. Space prevented us from featuring them all in the issue, but we don’t want you to miss a single image. Deputy Editor Janet Williamson has prepared a slideshow of all the Reynolda Gardens photographs Dove shot for us last summer, accompanied by music from the music department’s Flute Fest. I hope you will enjoy it.

Online education — the Wake Forest way

Last month The New York Times declared 2012 “The Year of the MOOC,” the year universities wanted in on the game-changing movement toward massive open online courses. The Times called MOOCs an evolving form that combines education, entertainment and social networking. “Traditional courses charge tuition, carry credit and limit enrollment to a few dozen to ensure interaction with instructors,” Laura Pappano of the Times wrote. “The MOOC, on the other hand, is usually free, credit-less and, well, massive.” (Here marks the historic moment that helped define the higher education disruption: More than 150,000 people signed up to take Stanford Professor Sebastian Thrun’s class “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence.”)

The Times piece appeared two weeks before Wake Forest alumni received a letter from Provost Rogan Kersh and Dean of the College Jacque Fetrow announcing that Wake Forest had joined a “Semester Online” consortium of elite colleges and universities exploring whether and how to offer undergraduate students the opportunity to take online courses for credit from members of the consortium. The group includes Brandeis, Duke, Emory, Northwestern, UNC Chapel Hill, Notre Dame, the University of Rochester, Vanderbilt and Washington University in St. Louis. The company engaged as a partner that would develop an interactive platform is 2U, which Forbes named this year along with Zappos, Instagram and Airbnb as one of 10 visionary startups to admire and model.

I sat down with the provost last week to determine whether Wake Forest had joined the stampede toward MOOCs. Not at all. The provosts are working together to shape the online platform. No one has signed up yet to offer courses, Provost Kersh said. The 2U website says the company expects the first cohort of students to begin classes in fall 2013, but it is unclear when Wake Forest would begin offering courses. “The danger will be if people assume this is done. We have not been asked to sign an agreement to join yet, and we will be back to the faculty discussing this in a committee of the whole before any decision is made,” Kersh said.

Provost Kersh earlier this year

What follows are excerpts from his answers to my questions about the direction of online education at Wake Forest.

Q: MOOCs are all the rage. How is this different?

Kersh: MOOCs are all the rage. There are certainly ways I can imagine a MOOC-style course helping to supplement a student’s learning, especially about some kind of esoteric subject. But it doesn’t fit with a residential, face-to-face, grounded model of a Wake Forest education that 40 million students are taking the same course offered from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, A to Z.

The appeal of Semester Online is it’s a much more curated, focused, bounded, specific, online offering. Wake is never going to tear off after online anything because it’s the sexy, exciting thing to do. We don’t just tear off after things for their own sake. I think what we are good at is figuring out in what way do technological innovations of all kinds supplement, fit into, help to buttress the traditional Wake Forest model of education. We have a deep, abiding commitment to liberal arts, face-to-face residential as the central model. If at the edges we can provide laptops for every student, start Mac labs — when I was here in 1984 Wake Forest had one of the first Mac labs for students to go use to type our papers in the country. We’ve often been at or towards the forefront of using technology in ways that supplement our basic mission and values, and this feels like another example. Semester Online felt like the best example of an opportunity to explore what online looks like. But this is not a MOOC. I would be very surprised if Wake Forest students were getting credit for any MOOC in the near or distant future.

Q: Explain Semester Online and whether it is a definite plan for the University.

Kersh: Semester Online has evolved and continues to evolve, so any snapshot in time is going to be ambiguous. The idea here is to get a consortium of highly ranked (colleges and universities). Each will offer no more than three — or perhaps as few as one — online courses but not in a MOOC massively open online version but in the size that these institutions are accustomed to offering. …

The general idea is this tightly defined consortium will offer a collective set of courses, the first users of whom will be those university students under very specific circumstances, not students on campus taking a full load at the time but students who are overseas for a semester. In Wake Forest’s case (a student in) one of our language houses who might need a biology course or an art course to stay on track for a degree. A student who has an amazing internship for the summer and is far away and would like to take one of these Semester Online courses during the summer or for that matter has the internship of their dreams and can stay for the fall semester and continue on toward their degree using Semester Online courses.

Wake would still maintain control if it’s another school’s course or if it’s a Wake online course. Just as when I was a student here, I took a Catholic University course/experience in the British Parliament, for example, and I had an adviser here who looked at what I did and gave me credit for it. We’d still maintain that type of control. …

The other group of students who can take these courses will be at what are called affiliate universities — a larger band of elite, highly ranked universities who would like their students to have access to the courses but who will not be invited to offer courses themselves. The consortium will be closed for schools that can offer courses. A larger band of students (from affiliate schools) will be enabled to apply for admission to take courses but (their schools) will not be offering the courses. A Wake Forest faculty member who wishes to offer a Semester Online course, if we decide to join as a collective body, (could have in the online class) students presumably from Wake Forest; a big chunk of the students will be from consortium schools; and there may be students from affiliate schools as well. Those are the rings of the Planet Saturn that is Semester Online.

Q: How would the Semester Online program, if we go forward with it, avoid diluting the kind of experience we have with small class sizes, mentoring and a sense of community on campus?

Kersh: This would be a supplement designed to provide a version of the Wake Forest experience to students who are not currently on campus, who, again, are pursuing an internship of their dreams, who are away for a semester or a summer, who are ill and can’t physically be at Wake Forest.

That’s the way I think of the supplemental nature of Semester Online. Not replacing one-for-one students’ on-campus experience and outside the classroom with faculty and that kind of mentorship and connection. This is not a replacement. It is the supplement at the edges. …

The consortium right now exists as a group of elite schools’ provosts communicating with each other about what this program could look like as we begin to shape it. There are no actual schools signed up to offer courses as of yet. We had this wonderful chance to get in on the ground floor both to understand the online world more and to understand how online education fits into other elite schools’ missions and values. That helps inform our conversation.

This really is a brave new world or a bad new world; we just don’t know yet. Anyone who says: “I know exactly the future of online education at American colleges and universities” is smoking something I don’t want any of. No one knows what the revenue is like. A handful of faculty have made serious money off MOOCs, but no university has figured it out as part of the business model. We are not thinking of Semester Online principally, secondarily or even tertiarily as a source of revenue. That may happen down the road — that would be nice — but we’re much more focused on what our student demand might be for this kind of support, and (for) faculty who might want to put a toe in this area, this is a useful opportunity to do so.

An inside look at new provost’s ‘dorm parents’ digs

A link to the apartment therapy website keeps zipping among Wake Foresters’ emails since the appointment on Jan. 27 of Rogan Kersh (’86) as the new provost. I want to share it because it provides a glimpse into the student-centered lives of Kersh and his wife, Sara Jade Pesek, and offers a spotlight on sustainability, an ethos important to Wake Forest.

Kersh and Pesek's dorm apartment at NYU

The post begins, “In New York University’s Goddard Hall, on Washington Square Park, most doors open on the chaotic lairs of 200 college freshmen. But door #702, dotted with notes and nametags, reveals an unexpected oasis, the tranquil home of ‘dorm parents’ Sara and Rogan.”

Their 1,350-square-foot apartment is considered a model for sustainable campus living. The couple has not one but two compost options, the regular kitchen countertop container and a worm compost bin. Cabinets are bamboo. The paint has low volatile organic compounds.

The couple won’t be strangers to the high value placed on service learning at Wake Forest. The website notes that Kersh and Pesek led 40 freshmen on a spring break trip to New Orleans with Historic Green, a zero carbon rebuilding project in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward.

I hear the couple is shopping for a house. It’s safe to guess Kersh and Pesek won’t be able to discover a Winston-Salem home for sale to top their Manhattan building as a former residence for famed Americans. Edgar Allan Poe, Winslow Homer and Charlie Chaplin had bachelor’s quarters in the building. Whether they had worm compost bins in their bachelor’s quarters is doubtful. In that, they were not ahead of their time. Kersh and Pesek clearly are.