‘A Catalyst for Good’

In her inaugural address, President Susan R. Wente calls on the University to leverage what makes Wake Forest distinctive to have the greatest impact.

Photography by Ken Bennett, Lauren Martinez Olinger ('13) and Tsing Liu ('23)

Summer 2022

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M

y thanks to all of you for being here today. I’m so honored to stand before you as Wake Forest’s 14th president.

There are many people I would like to recognize and thank — please forgive me for not mentioning everyone by name.

First, our Board of Trustees. Thank you for your love of — and service to — Wake Forest University … and for the trust you have placed in me.

To the Wake Forest alumni delegates from each graduating class, led by Provost Emeritus Dr. Ed Wilson, Class of 1943. Thank you for being with us today.

To the institutional delegates from colleges and universities, who traveled from across the state and around the country to join us, I am humbled by your presence here. Thank you.

To those who gave such special welcoming remarks — Your warm and heartfelt words are truly appreciated.

And to our staff, students, faculty, alumni and friends gathered here. Your presence makes this occasion all the more special. And please, look around — look at who has held the mic today. This is Wake Forest. This is our community. Together we are Wake Forest.

Today is also significant for me personally — and I would like to thank those who have been with me throughout my journey.

First to my parents, Harold and Betty Wente, who instilled in me the virtues and values needed to navigate life. As first-generation students themselves, they showed me how the transformative power of education results in opportunity. In their respective careers as an educator and a nurse, they also demonstrated how education is essential in the cycle of service to the community.

My dad is also the one I turn to for the Sunday roast recipe, and my mom for gingersnaps (though she won’t share the secret recipe).

To my brothers, Dennis and David — even though I am the big sister, you challenged me to keep up and be strong; and your support and encouragement have been constant and true.

To my husband, Chris — thank you for never doubting my path, for sacrificing your own wants and needs to support mine, for being my partner in this Wake Forest chapter. We have hiked many mountains together, even gotten lost on a few — literally— remember Trinity Alps? But we are always together.

Chris, I’m also proud that we as two scientists have raised daughters who love the arts and humanities, and are committed to public service. Lindsay and Allison, you inspire me on a daily basis with your passions and creativity — and it’s amazing to see the fiercely independent, strong women you have become. And don’t worry — we’re going to get that gingersnap recipe. …

Susan R. Wente with her family: left, her husband, Dr. Chris Hardy; back row, from left, her brothers, David and Dennis, and her daughters, Lindsay and Allison; front row, her parents, Dr. Harold and Betty Wente, and her aunt, Jeannie Norfolk.

To my mentors — especially Nick Zeppos, Chancellor Emeritus of Vanderbilt University, who is present here today — thank you. I stand here today because of the opportunities they created for me. And to all my friends and colleagues across the arc of my career: From Iowa, to Berkeley, California, to New York, to St. Louis, and Nashville — we have learned and discovered so much together.

I am grateful for those who believed in me so that I could believe in myself, and I am forever indebted. Your support inspires me to “pay it forward” — I have been furnished with great opportunities through the transformative power of education, and thus, I am driven to create avenues for others to achieve their very best.

My academic journey has crisscrossed the country, but it began in the middle, at the University of Iowa. Scholarships enabled me to go to Iowa, and along with Pell Grants and campus jobs, made college affordable for me.

When I arrived on campus, I knew I loved science, but I hadn’t figured out all the ways it might translate into a career. I needed to broaden my perspective. Thankfully, I had incredible academic advisors, teachers and mentors who believed in me and shepherded me along my academic path. Their advice and inspiration changed my life.

While an undergraduate, I discovered my passion for biological research. People often ask what working in a lab is like. The truth is, it’s a bit like cooking — which Chris and I also share a love for. You’re juggling different ingredients, equipment and timelines all at once. And usually, you aren’t juggling alone. Labs are collaborative, immersive spaces full of both discovery and camaraderie.

I loved developing hypotheses based on the history of other experiments; being right, being wrong, searching again for answers, and the trial and error of lab work. And I loved being the first to make a discovery and contribute new knowledge.

I went to UC Berkeley for my Ph.D. eager to expand my understanding of cellular proteins. My studies focused on aspartate transcarbamoylase — an allosteric enzyme formed from a dimer of trimers and a trimer of dimers that catalyzes the first committed step in pyrimidine biosynthesis…

Really. I know that’s a mouthful — so I’d like to spend the next couple of hours walking you through my findings and after that, there will be a test.

Seriously — this is a theme for us today. The transformative power of education requires enzymes.

Stay with me — enzymes are catalysts. And looking back, it’s easy to see how my experiences fueled an interest in catalytic processes. College was a catalyst for me. So were my parents, my husband and my family. So were my academic advisors, mentors and peers. In their own distinct ways, they each sped things up for me; lowered barriers; enabled and encouraged me; and helped to unlock my potential.


WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A CATALYST?

As a faculty scholar, I focused on the function of proteins and enzymes in cells, the very building blocks of all living things. Cells are home to many different types of chemical reactions; and enzymes are critical because they catalyze those reactions.

Without enzymes, biological pathways break down, restorative processes stall and fail, and potential remains dormant. In fact, this is often how viruses spread — by assailing or hacking the cell’s enzymatic processes for their own reproductive purposes. Many health issues can be traced to defective enzymatic processes — understand and fix a misfiring catalyst and you are on the road to recovery.

The beauty of enzymes is that they do their work without diminishing themselves — meaning the process can be repeated again and again. This is the heartbeat of life on the cellular level.

So today, I want to talk about being a catalyst. When I look at Wake Forest, I see catalysis everywhere because education is the heartbeat of society.

For example, through learning and discovery, we catalyze the imagination and curiosity of our students. As a collaborative academic community, we catalyze knowledge through research and scholarship. Through our partnerships, we catalyze innovation and entrepreneurship. Wake Forest is catalyzed when our alumni and friends invest their time, talent and treasure in our vibrant community.

As I look back across our institution’s history, I see leaders who catalyzed bold decisions for good.

I think of the move to Winston-Salem, and how this beautiful Reynolda campus is at the heart of what catalyzes our unique academic community.

I think of Ed Reynolds becoming Wake Forest’s first Black student 60 years ago in 1962. I think about the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit the same year, and how along with campus activism, these events were catalysts for positive change.

I think of the women who enrolled at Wake Forest in 1942 and their educational journeys — catalysts who paved the way for me to stand here today.

I think of Wake Downtown, Wake Washington, our work with Atrium Health, our global presence in Venice, Vienna and London — all activities and partnerships that continue to propel us forward and expand our impact.

When I arrived in July, I began posing a question for all of us to consider: What is expected of a great university today? From all of your answers and voices, it is clear to me that all great universities, like Wake Forest, are expected to be catalysts for good in society.

So this leads to a new question for us as we forge ahead: What does it mean to be a catalyst for good?

What does it mean for Wake Forest to be a catalyst for good?

Today, I want to share three ways we are positioned to be a catalyst for good because of our unique identity as a great university.


“As a great university, we are going to be a catalyst for good — for learning and discovery, for access and opportunity, for innovation and society.” — President Susan R. Wente


1: TRANSFORMATION THROUGH BINDING

Let’s begin with the concept of binding. In catalysis, an enzyme catalyzes a chemical reaction by binding with another molecule — called a substrate — and allowing it to transform based on its own intrinsic chemistry. The transformed molecule then moves on and another substrate binds to the enzyme, with the process repeating again and again.

We see this concept in action at Wake Forest. The institution binds to students, and they bind to the institution. Students choose their own paths, leveraging our collective excellence, our teacher-scholar model and our commitment to the whole person. And then … catalyzed by learning and discovery, they graduate. Another class of students comes in and the binding process happens all over again.

I should point out: binding isn’t strictly a sequential process. As in a cell, binding and transformation are happening all the time, and in every corner. Just as it does here on campus. We are in the business of binding, and as such we must be willing to define — and then redefine — the value of a college education.

A call to catalyze is a call to enable binding and transformation as we help students take their next steps. Through immersive education, ethical inquiry and experiential learning; from the fine arts to the social sciences; to offering exceptional opportunities for scholastic, athletic and personal development … Wake Forest catalyzes the imagination, intellect and creativity of our students.

This is how leaders emerge from Wake Forest … with the character, integrity, knowledge and training needed for a dynamic, changing workforce in an ever-changing world.


“In 2034, 12 years from now, Wake Forest will be 200 years old. Where do we aim to be then?” — President Susan R. Wente


2: LOWERING THE ACTIVATION LEVEL

The second concept I want to discuss is lowering barriers to activation. The idea of catalysis often brings to mind acceleration. But acceleration of a chemical reaction only occurs because an enzyme lowers the amount of energy required to make something happen. In other words, enzymes make things easier by making activation easier.

So I’m calling on Wake Forest to be a catalyst for opportunity. We proudly hold ourselves to higher and higher standards of excellence. And so we must provide even more just and equitable access to the extraordinary education we offer. We do this not by lowering the bar, but by lowering the barriers to each person’s potential here.

As we confront socio-economic, political and existential challenges, we need Wake Forest leaders of character, committed to making an impact with integrity in the world.

I believe innate talent and capacity to achieve are universally distributed across society… Opportunity is not. That’s why we are devoted to expanding access through new scholarships. I am pleased to announce today an ambitious goal — by the end of 2022, we will raise the funds needed to support 100 new scholarships. This will be called the For Humanity initiative. I respectfully ask all of our supporters and friends to partner with us. When we create opportunities at Wake Forest and share the transformative power of education, we deliver the mission of Pro Humanitate to the world.

In addition to creating more scholarships, we must continue to cultivate a greater sense of belonging on campus. We want everyone who comes to Wake Forest to not simply feel welcomed, but to know that this is truly their university. Here, we bring people together from a diversity of life experiences and perspectives to learn from one another. We must continue to foster environments where we engage in open, respectful dialogue and debate.

We also need to make it easier for people to get here. And we need to make it easier for people when they get here. By doing so, we are lowering the barriers and ensuring that everyone has the energy they need to achieve their full potential.


3: SMART ENZYMES MODULATE AS WELL AS ACCELERATE

The last concept I want to discuss is modulation. Catalysts speed things up — but they can also modulate their activity at different rates, depending on the circumstances.

Remember aspartate transcarbamoylase? I told you there would be a test. … It’s an allosteric enzyme. Like other enzymes, it works by binding to a substrate, facilitating transformation. But allosteric enzymes have another site as well — think of it as the partner site — where a different molecule can bind. Depending on which molecule and when, the catalytic rate is different.

The point here is that enzymes can be smart. They do only what is needed. They can listen and react. And they can therefore respond to a range of circumstances to have the needed impact at the right time and right place.

With this in mind, I’m calling on us to be smart catalysts. And specifically, this means leveraging what makes Wake Forest distinctive. Our pursuit of excellence, our history of bold decision making, our incredible alumni and supporters, and the way Pro Humanitate is lived and breathed, attracted me to Wake Forest.

We intentionally place the liberal arts at the core of undergraduate education. And through our College, graduate and professional schools, we further differentiate ourselves in the higher education landscape.

One of our greatest points of pride at Wake Forest is the impact our research and scholarship has on the world. From business and policy experts sharing their expertise through think tanks and legal clinics; to artists, writers and curators who challenge our perceptions of the world through performances and exhibitions; to medical, engineering and environmental discoveries … our academic output makes a real-world difference. It must continue to do so.

Our locations and our partnerships also give us distinct opportunities — in the Piedmont Triad; in Winston-Salem and the Innovation Quarter; in the Pearl District in Charlotte; and with the colleges and universities who are our nearest neighbors.

With our size and connectivity, we can be nimble.

Being a smart catalyst means embracing all these distinctions. We should lean into them. And it means making thoughtful and strategic choices about where and how we invest in our strengths to have the greatest impact.

That’s why, beginning in the fall, we will launch an inclusive process to develop our future strategic vision.

In 2034, 12 years from now, Wake Forest will be 200 years old. Where do we aim to be then? We have a strong foundation, and we also have limitless potential. Let’s dream together. And then let’s act, led by our values and harnessing our power as catalysts for good.

To summarize, the transformative power of education requires enzymes … enzymes that enable binding, that accelerate by lowering barriers and that are smart and targeted.

So we know what we are called to be — as a great university we are going to be a catalyst for good — for learning and discovery, for access and opportunity, for innovation and society.

And we know how we are going to do it — through radical collaboration and trust and transparency.

Which brings us to the “why” — Why?

Our answer is found in our motto. Pro Humanitate.

As we look at our nation, and around the world, we see misfiring catalysts everywhere — broken processes, stalled progress, pandemics of inequality and injustice. And sometimes, as a university, we underestimate our ability to play a role in healing and renewal.

In an age where truth, science and civic virtue appear continually under threat — even in retreat — in a global society that is increasingly complex and intertwined; where war and injustice remain stubbornly persistent; we need great universities today, now more than ever before.

For humanity, for the good of society, Wake Forest must heed the call of our time. We must step further forward and lead by example — by reckoning with our past to inform our future; by curating brave spaces for respectful dialogue; and by lowering barriers to opportunity for an even greater diversity of people and perspectives to live, learn and work here. We must eliminate that which precludes us from paying it forward. The value of Wake Forest must always be found in the value we bring to others.

Soon, one of our students is going to read a poem by a renowned and beloved Wake Forester — Maya Angelou. In this beautiful poem, Dr. Angelou implores us to believe that we:

“Have the power to fashion for this earth

A climate where every man and every woman

Can live freely without sanctimonious piety

Without crippling fear”

For me, this is a beautiful vision of Pro Humanitate in action. This is why we collaborate. This is why we catalyze — this is why we will come together as founders for the future. For humanity is our strong foundation and is also key to our limitless potential.

Today, as I look around, I am full of excitement and anticipation when I think of our future. Thank you for entrusting me to lead this university. I am humbled and honored to serve. In the spirit of Pro Humanitate, together for humanity, we will heed our call to be catalysts for good.

Thank you.


Read next:

Entrusted to Lead | Dr. Susan R. Wente is installed as Wake Forest’s 14th president, sharing her transformative journey and charting a historic course for the University.

Inaugurations Revisited | Of Wake Forest’s 13 presidents preceding Susan R. Wente, only seven had official inauguration ceremonies. 

Highlights from Inauguration Week | March 23-27

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