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'The greatest privilege that we've had': Nathan Hatch talks about his 16 years at Wake Forest University
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'The greatest privilege that we've had': Nathan Hatch talks about his 16 years at Wake Forest University

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These are strange days for Nathan O. Hatch, the soon-to-be-former president of Wake Forest University.

His Reynolda Hall office has been boxed up. A couple of months ago, he and Julie, his wife, moved out of the president’s house where they lived for the past 16 years. A day after commencement, his last as a full-time academic, Hatch turned 75.

For a few more days, Hatch will conduct presidential business from his study in his new home that backs up to Graylyn, the former estate of Bowman Gray that Wake Forest now operates a hotel and conference center.

That ends Wednesday, when Hatch will retire after a remarkable run of 16 years at Wake Forest and 30 more before that at the University of Notre Dame. Susan Wente, now the provost of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, becomes Wake Forest’s 14th president Thursday.

In his tenure in Winston-Salem, Hatch — known as “Natty O” to his students and “President Hatch” or “Dr. Hatch” to most everyone else — has made Wake Forest stronger and certainly a lot bigger. Wake Forest has more students, more money, more programs and more campus buildings than when he arrived in 2005. The university also occupies a much larger footprint in Winston-Salem and has expanded its interests in Charlotte.

Hatch spoke with higher education reporter John Newsom about the university’s recent growth and expansion, the Atrium Health deal, athletics, the failed first attempt to rename Wingate Hall, his trademark patience, what’s next for him and several other topics. This interview has been edited and condensed from a nearly hour-long Zoom conversation earlier this month.

Let’s start 16 years ago when you were at Notre Dame. You’d been there for 30 years. You had worked your way up through the ranks, and then Wake Forest comes calling. Why did you leave?

When you’re in one of those jobs, you get feelers about other kinds of positions. Julie says that, when I was provost at Notre Dame, I said at one point Wake Forest is the kind of institution I’d love to go to. We love Notre Dame, but (Wake Forest) is high quality. It’s a place that has great attention to students, great attention to values. It was very attractive. My experience is mostly in private education, so that made sense.

Each year, Wake Forest gathers for Founders’ Day Convocation to observe the University’s founding in February 1834. This year's convocation program includes a student oration, musical performances, the awarding of the University's Medallion of Merit, and a keynote address by Dean of the Divinity School Jonathan L. Walton. President Nathan Hatch also makes important remarks confronting aspects of the University's past.

I have very deep roots in North Carolina. There are Hatchs in a cemetery in Pittsboro down below Chapel Hill that go back to the 18th century. My parents both grew up in Charlotte. My dad went to Duke. In some ways coming back to Wake Forest was a kind of coming home. It was not something that I was necessarily aspiring to do, but the opportunity was great.

When you got to Wake Forest, what were your marching orders from the board of trustees? What did they want you to do?

In some ways it was to make Wake Forest fulfill its potential. There were certain financial issues. There were some serious problems with faculty pay. The university had never met certain established goals. But it was to look at the overall university. Medicine was an issue because of a separate medical school and the North Carolina Baptist Hospital. The way modern medicine works, that’s not very efficient, so that was a big challenge. It was a challenge with management education. We had two business schools, undergraduate and graduate, which was a historical development. The faculties didn’t want to get together.

But overall, Wake Forest had a wonderful tradition of excellence and community. How do we enliven that? How do we make it relevant for the 21st century?

During my time, we’ve increased the undergraduate student body by over 1,000 — from 4,000 to about 5,200. That was necessary. We’ve been able to do that without diminution of quality.

In some ways as one of our trustees put it, Wake Forest was a university built on a college chassis. We were the smallest school in a (Power) Five conference. We worked very carefully and strategically with how new resources would be used. But it was critical to expand the student body.

Wake Forest University 2021 Undergraduate Commencement Ceremony. Begins Sunday, May 16 at  8:30 p.m.

I live in Greensboro, and my impression of Wake Forest is that it sometimes seems walled off from the rest of Winston-Salem. Is that accurate? Or am I misperceiving that?

I think there’s been a tremendous evolution of engagement with Winston-Salem. If you look over time, Wake Forest broadly considered — including the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, which is the (city’s) largest employer — plays a much more formative role than it once did. At the end of the Second World War, Winston-Salem was the largest and most prosperous city in the state, with banks and textiles and tobacco. As much as those anchor industries have gone away, I think the importance of Wake Forest to the community has grown.

We’ve tried to take that very seriously. That has a number of dimensions. The whole building of Innovation Quarter has done a lot to revive the inner core of this city. We’re deeply involved in a renovation project now in the Boston-Thurmond neighborhood, which is part of the Purpose Built Communities network. We’ve been very active in United Way. We’ve been very active in helping public schools.

That can always be improved, but we see a deep responsibility to the community of which we’re a part. That distance of being up on the hill — we still have work to do but the evolution is in a positive direction.

With the Innovation Quarter, you took several programs that could have been on the Reynolda Campus and put them three miles away downtown. Was that because you didn’t have the space on the main campus, or was this an intentional we-need-to-do-something-in-downtown decision?

It was an opportunity because those old tobacco factories were being renovated using historic tax credits, federal and state, so you could build for almost 50 cents on a dollar. So since we could get essentially a new lab (the Wake Forest Biotech Place, which opened in 2012) down there cheaper than we could build it — so that was one reason.

The second thing, we wanted to be down there. In starting our first undergraduate engineering program, we wanted to be proximate to our School of Medicine, which gives a doctorate and has a whole department of biomedical engineering in conjunction with Virginia Tech. As we did a study considering it, a consultant said this will act enhance the attractiveness for undergraduates to have a suburban campus and a downtown, more edgy, urban environment. It’s not that far away. We have shuttles that run every 15 minutes. Overall it’s been a terrific advantage.

Is that something you intend to do more of? Expand more in downtown?

I’m not sure. Wake Forest as far as universities go is comparatively small in terms of its number of colleges. If you look out 10 years, I could see Wake Forest establishing other kinds of academic programs. I’m not sure exactly what those would be.

In my time, we’ve tried to make Wake Forest a very innovative place. I’ve always talked about being radically traditional about certain things and radically innovative so that we’re very traditional about what our mission is — we call it a collegiate university. We’re not Duke. We’re not Davidson. We’re a university but at the same time we take teaching very seriously, mentoring very seriously and want to get brilliant professors who are deeply engaged with students. That’s a niche that has proven very successful. In my time we’ve become much more of a national rather than a regional university.

Institutions need to be distinctive. You don’t back away from being distinctive. You have to know what others are doing. You have to compare yourself, but that’s not just to copy them. You have to shape a distinctive entity.

I think Wake Forest has a wonderful niche in higher education. Working on seeing students as whole people. We talk about educating the whole person. We’re not just thinking beings. Trying to think about having excellence in the fields we offer education but also larger lessons — how are these students going to lead in the modern world?

I would also say that in my time we’ve become a national leader in the whole college-to-career transition. We brought in a decade ago Andy Chan — he had been at Stanford — and he sort of blew up the traditional model of career services. It’s become a national standard. We’ve had scores of schools that have come in and looked at how we put that together. In some ways it’s a great defense of the liberal arts. Study what you’re passionate about — that which expands your mind — but also you can explore if you want to be a designer, if you want to go to Wall Street, if you want to be a journalist, whatever.

I think our core mission is solid. But you need to continue to attract great people on the faculty. You need to continue to attract great students. You need to continue to raise money for scholarships and other things. And clarify your distinctives.

Wake Forest has done a lot in Winston-Salem over the years, but recently you’ve shown a tremendous interest in Charlotte. What’s up with Charlotte?

It’s obviously a burgeoning city, a major metropolitan area, probably the second most important center of finance in the county after New York. We have a huge alumni base there. Our idea of a School of Professional Studies — which is something that many quality universities have done, Harvard has done it, Northwestern, Brown, Georgetown — we’ve looked at those models. You need a population base if you’re going to educate young professionals, and Winston-Salem is not big enough for those kind of formative programs.

We’ve been planning for this for about three years, and the whole idea is that Charlotte is the logical place to have it. We’ve had an MBA program in Charlotte for about 25 years and other modest programs. But what’s happened over the last two years is this affiliation that’s culminated now with Atrium Health and putting a medical school in Charlotte. In a sense that accelerates the effort.

Wake Forest is staying here. But for us to have in a variety of fields major educational efforts in Charlotte — it’s just a great opportunity.

Speaking of the Atrium Health deal, how is that benefit the university and Winston-Salem?

The affiliation with Atrium greatly strengthens our medical school and puts us on a tremendous financial footing.

In some ways it’s not a diminution of what we do here. There will be a medical school there, but this one (in Winston-Salem) will not be any less. Biomedical research and education are expensive. Our system was small and constricted, and we had a hard time supporting the needs of academic medicine. We have five hospitals around here. But Atrium has 44.

In the deal, there’s a substantial funds flow that will come back this way. There will be a new $400M (hospital) bed tower here. There are new endowments for research. There’s a sort of financial undergirding of what we do that will actually enhance and expand what we do here.

Was this a case of the health system, if you didn’t do the deal, would be damaged over the long term? Or was it too good a deal to pass up?

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We’ve talked to every health system in North Carolina. We knew long term we were too small. There was no marriage that worked out, and this one did because Atrium wants to be a premier health center (and) wanted academic medicine at the heart of it. They also wanted a medical school in Charlotte. So Julie Freischlag, who is our CEO (of Wake Forest Baptist Health), becomes the chief academic officer for their whole system. (Freischlag also is dean of the Wake Forest School of Medicine.)

They have great momentum. Hugh McColl (former chairman and CEO of Bank of America) is chairing (Atrium’s) development committee. He thinks this is the most important thing that’s happened to Charlotte in a generation — to have a medical school.

During your tenure your football team has had a couple of pretty good runs, but men’s basketball hasn’t really lived up to expectations. Are you happier that the football team has done so well or more disappointed that your basketball team has been not so hot?

It’s wonderful to see any of our sports do well. We won a national championship in (men’s) tennis (in 2018). We’re always usually top five in (men’s) soccer. We won three national championships in field hockey (from 2002 to 2004, before Hatch arrived). That’s great.

It’s been disappointing not to have a premier basketball team. I’m a great basketball fan. I played basketball in high school. It’s been wonderful to see the flourishing of football, but I do hope basketball can get back. These things are never easily controlled. The sudden death of (men’s basketball coach) Skip Prosser (in 2007) was a tragedy and in a sense, I think, was a tremendous jolt to our basketball program. I’m confident that that can be rebuilt, but traditionally we’re a basketball school and we need to continue to work on that.

It seems like Wake Forest, like a lot of predominantly white institutions, has struggled with issues of race and anti-racism. On one hand, I think you got a lot of credit for your apology a year ago for the university’s involvement in slavery. However, your former admissions director showed up in an old yearbook standing in front of a Confederate flag, and then you had to walk back the renaming of Wingate Hall. Why is this so tough for Wake Forest?

I think it’s been tough for any university. It’s not just us. I mean, look at Chapel Hill or the huge turmoil (over building names) at the University of Richmond or the University of South Carolina. It’s complicated terrain, and universities like ours are trying to come to terms with their history and to build hospitable, equitable, inclusive kinds of programs. We have made substantial progress at Wake Forest. We have a long way to go.

In this most recent thing, the administration and a naming committee co-chaired by the former chair of our board and by the dean of our divinity school, Jonathan Walton, made a recommendation that I accepted and the board accepted. It was a very progressive move to say that we wanted to name a building in ways that would promote memory and questions about what this history was. What happened in a complicated community like this African American alumni and students raised questions of whether that was a good name. So we said, OK, we’re going to pause and reconsider that.

The new name won’t be your decision, is that correct?

Right. I had set up two years ago a commission on race and equity. We had done a lot of work, and the board and I thought it was important we try to come to conclusion before the (presidential) transition. Everything being equal, we probably could have taken more time, but it’s not the kind of thing I wanted to leave (new president) Susan Wente, who’s a terrific leader. It’s not the kind of thing that’s helpful to have as the first thing on your plate.

So the new president will have to deal with it?

Yeah, but our core decision has been made in terms of the name we’re taking off and the names that we’re leaving related to the antebellum period. I think this will follow in due course and a broadly representative committee will look at all the issues around naming what has been Wingate Hall. I think it takes a lot of care. There are a number of different ideas. We’ll see what the community thinks is best.

In your commencement speech, your major theme was how the adversity of COVID-19 really shaped the class of 2021. During your time at Wake Forest, was there a time of adversity that shaped you?

The whole issue of our medical school and the North Carolina Baptist Hospital — they were independent entities when I came, and it was a three-year process to try to put those together under common management. Yeah, there were sleepless nights in that process by all concerned.

What was so difficult?

The North Carolina Baptist Hospital is a separate not-for-profit entity. The Wake Forest medical school was separate. They worked hand in glove, but they had different fiscal structures and different administrations. They didn’t always get along.

Were there any lessons you took away from that experience?

Patience. I think there are a lot of things that take time to work out. I think you have to have certain ideas of what’s the end, and then go about them in deliberate ways. I think it would have never happened had not board members, which had been distrustful in the past, come to know each other and put aside past difference and build ties of trust.

I think the whole building of Innovation Quarter — that was a tremendous local effort between government and the city, which was Democratic, and the county, which was Republican, our medical school, the university, Reynolds American and other corporate interests. They said, we’re going to do this. I can remember at least four times when it looked like it wasn’t going to happen, and we all sat down and said what do we need to do to make it happen. Those were stressful, but I give great credit to Winston-Salem as a community for being able to work together and everyone give for the common good.

You mentioned the word “patience.” Patience and deliberation seem to be your trademarks. Do you think that’s correct?

I think so. I have certain things I believe in. I use a phrase: At the end of day, you bet on people, not on strategy. I believe in hiring strong people and then letting them do their job. I think Wake has never had a more talented leadership team.

And I believe in teamwork. That certainly is a thing that during Covid — I’ve never seen such great teamwork. Covid was extremely stressful — how to have a residential campus (during a pandemic). It was like a rolling crisis. It wasn’t just one thing. It was always changing. But our senior team — it was a team. We disagree strongly, but we would come to positions. Our senior team had 22 town hall meetings with faculty and staff over the course of Covid, trying to explain what was happening, taking any questions, trying to bring people along.

Have you talked to the new president yet? Have you met her?

Oh, yes. We’re talking weekly.

What do y’all talk about?

We talk about everything — the full dimension of what this culture is, who its leaders are, what its potential opportunities are. A university is such a complicated thing. Sociologists say it’s the most complicated institution in modern society. That’s particularly true if you have medicine and sports.

Have you given her any advice about Wake?

She’s very talented and gifted and has done a tremendous job in leadership at Vanderbilt. I think like with any culture you need to listen and find out what the culture is. You can’t set strategy in the abstract. It has to grow out of what a culture is. She understands that well. She already has learned an amazing amount about Wake Forest and its culture. I think that’s what attracted her.

One initiative over the last three years is our whole effort in leadership and character. She’s deeply interested in that. We brought in a young leader named Michael Lamb, and he’s established quite a program. We have major support from national foundations, both for undergraduates and in the professional schools. How do you build that into education today? It’s a wonderful challenge. I’ve been deeply committed to it. Susan has a deep interest in that.

Going back to commencement for a minute. At the end of the ceremony, the Demon Deacon pulls up on his motorcycle and you hop on the back and go rolling off into the night. How did this whole stunt come about, and why were neither of you wearing helmets?

Because we were only going about 30 yards! (laughs) We weren’t going to the street.

We sort of decided that at the last minute. Early on (in his tenure), I rode in on a motorcycle and so, we said, why not? The motorcycle is going to come up front, so why not leave the final commencement behind the Demon Deacon? That’s such a fun tradition at football and basketball games. Students loved it.

Are you a motorcycle guy?

I once owned an Italian Vespa, but I’m not a motorcyclist.

So what’s next for you? Will you be teaching?

No. We’ll travel a lot this year. I’m involved in some other ventures in higher education. I’m certainly not going to work full time. The thing I’m most interested in possibly doing executive coaching for new presidents or new provosts.

I’ve been in one of these senior positions for 25 years, and I’ve seen a lot. I think these jobs can be very lonely. Once you get into an institution, it’s hard for someone to talk really frankly and to interact transparently with what’s happening and to have some external voice.

I know you’ll be president emeritus, but will you have any role at Wake Forest after June 30?

Not any formal role. I’ll be of whatever assistance I can to Susan Wente.

Did you give any thought to moving back to South Bend? You lived there for 30 years.

Go back to South Bend in the winter? No (laughs).

We love (our new house). It’s a place we designed. It’s a nice change. We’re looking forward to the next chapter of our life.

Being here at Wake has been the greatest privilege that we’ve had. But it’s a very stressful job — you live it 24 hours a day. Any hour of the day or night crises erupt. It’ll be nice to not have that burden.

Contact John Newsom at 336-373-7312 and follow @JohnNewsomNR on Twitter.

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