On March 25, Dr. Susan R. Wente was officially inaugurated as Wake Forest University’s 14th president. She began as Wake Forest’s president in July. And, if you were on campus for the first day of fall 2021 classes, you would have found her donning safety goggles for an engineering lab experiment, engaging with marketing students about the importance of the ability to communicate across disciplines and teaching a biology seminar called “Gatekeepers of the Nucleus.” In her first week, she also made it a priority to visit the Innovation Quarter. Having returned several times since, Dr. Wente shares her perspective on the Quarter, on education and on the importance of “radical collaboration.”
iQ: As a higher education leader with a biomedical sciences background, the Innovation Quarter seems like a natural fit. What does an asset like Innovation Quarter mean for Wake Forest?
Dr. Wente: I’ve visited iQ a number of times, and each time, I learn more and more about the amazing collaborations happening in every corner of this special area. The work being done here and the opportunity for future partnerships were part of my decision to come to Wake Forest. I’m so impressed by the spaces to teach, explore, discover, innovate and move research forward together.
At Wake Forest, we talk a lot about radical collaboration. We believe that major universities like us should be engines of learning and discovery that enable us to tackle society’s biggest problems. That’s why we are so excited about our Wake Downtown campus and why Wake Forest’s undergraduate engineering program is based here in Innovation Quarter. We want to educate “the whole engineer” rather than focusing solely on the technical abilities needed to succeed in the field.
“We believe that major universities like us should be engines of learning and discovery that enable us to tackle society’s biggest problems. That’s why we are so excited about our Wake Downtown campus and why Wake Forest’s undergraduate engineering program is based here in Innovation Quarter.”
Furthermore, as a university with a medical school—and one integrated with a leading health care system—I find it exciting to imagine what might be possible in the future as we seek to transform health care in our region.
iQ: The Innovation Quarter is a place built and designed to encourage collaborations and partnerships. What role does collaboration play in higher education in 2022? Do you envision collaborations happening between the various higher ed institutions here in Winston-Salem?
Dr. Wente: Since arriving at Wake Forest, I have encouraged the community to embrace radical collaboration. At its most basic level, this means inspiring everyone on our campus to offer the best of themselves for the good of one another. We cannot work in isolation; we need one another. So, we need to seek out and welcome the opinions of others. As a learning community, we encourage one another to seek out experts and find new connections to fill the gaps in our own viewpoints and experiences. We need diverse perspectives and skills to accomplish what is in front of us.
“We cannot work in isolation; we need one another. So, we need to seek out and welcome the opinions of others…We need diverse perspectives and skills to accomplish what is in front of us.“
Wake Foresters are at our best when we are contributing and teaming up together in creative ways—valuing the insights and experience of those around us.
We want to forge innovative partnerships to further our academic mission and enable access to the transformational experience of education and research. I look forward to engaging with leaders across the community and with colleagues at area institutions of higher education to help advance the pursuits of Winston-Salem and the local and regional area.
iQ: We’ve heard a lot about why you chose Wake Forest for the next chapter of your career, but can you tell us more about why you decided Winston-Salem as a community is a great fit for you?
Dr. Wente: People often ask me this, and I tell them three things. First and foremost, Winston-Salem is obviously home to one of the world’s premier universities. It is a place where academic ideas and research can come together with businesses and communities to produce innovation. Wake Forest is one of the reasons that Winston-Salem is such a vibrant community, which drives growth in the Triad and across the state.
Second, I came to learn about the bold decisions and collaborative spirit that undergirds this community. I mean, look at what has been done here at Innovation Quarter. It is remarkable how leaders and invested citizens across the city worked together to create something to benefit and bring life to this city.
Third, it was clear that people love this community. The innovation and progress that this city has made has happened because people are invested in the success of their city. To be part of a group of people working together to help the whole community succeed fits with who I am and how I hope to contribute as a leader.
iQ: Wake Forest now has a woman leading its School of Medicine (Dr. Julie Frieschlag) and now as its university president. You were Vanderbilt’s first woman provost. Innovation Quarter is constantly striving to make this a place where everyone can find their spot. Can you share some of your perspectives on the role inclusion and diversity play in innovation?
Dr. Wente: Much of my work has been toward building inclusive and equitable environments where people can thrive. I cannot underscore enough the importance of representation. At Vanderbilt, I was the first woman to serve as provost, then as interim chancellor, and the first woman to lead the university, and I think that opened doors for the institution to grow in new ways.
I hope that my leadership at Wake Forest will provide more opportunities for others and encourage women, and those from historically marginalized groups, to see themselves in similar roles. I’m proud that more than half of our engineering faculty are women. It’s important to me to do what I can to provide more equitable opportunities. And it’s critical for society as a whole; there’s good research to demonstrate that diverse teams make better decisions and come up with more innovative solutions.
“I hope that my leadership at Wake Forest will provide more opportunities for others and encourage women, and those from historically marginalized groups, to see themselves in similar roles.“
iQ: Innovation Quarter is now home to some of the best restaurants and nightlife in Winston-Salem, including Cugino Forno, Alma Mexicana and Black Mountain Chocolate. If you could only have one for the rest of your life, would you choose: pizza, tacos or chocolate?
Dr. Wente: You’ve posed a tough question here; you have just mentioned three of my favorites! But I think I would choose chocolate. I can make a mediocre pizza; I can make a mediocre taco; but I can’t make chocolate, period! And an Innovation Quarter with so many creative dining options gives me the opportunity to come back again and again to try new things.