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I arrived in Memphis yesterday to meet colleagues from Rhodes College. Along with Ursinus College, College of the Holy Cross and Lawrence University, Rhodes is engaging faculty and students in conversations about the meaning of liberal arts education today. Many have read my recent book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, and I’ll be giving a lecture on this topic later today. Professor Jonathan Judaken interviewed me on the local NPR station about these issues, and you can check that out here.

I’ve never been in Memphis before, and I’m looking forward to checking out some of the sights before heading back to Middletown tomorrow. Last night we had dinner at BB King’s club on Beale Street.

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This is the time when I ask the Wesleyan community to respond generously to requests to support the Middlesex United Way. Although all of us have many organizations we support, our gifts to United Way raise Wesleyan’s collective voice in support of programs that help our neighbors in need. Wesleyan faculty and staff have long been known as contributors to this community endeavor – a tradition meriting renewed effort. Our goal this year is $130,000 and 50% participation – an ambitious and worthy goal. Those of you who are out of town and want to support these efforts can look here.

When you give to Middlesex United Way, your dollars stay close to the campus community. United Way’s local volunteers distribute your dollars to help neighbors in need – neighbors such as 60 Middletown families at risk of homelessness who remained in their homes thanks to one-time assistance through the Middlesex County Coalition on Housing and Homelessness Prevention Fund. Our dollars have helped the Women & Families Center’s Sexual Assault Crisis Services support more than 800 people, and have contributed to school readiness programs for young children in all 15 towns in Middlesex County. In addition to providing vital assistance locally, Middlesex United Way is an effective catalyst for change, bringing many organizations together to improve all our lives.

This year’s campus United Way campaign also will feature an online auction running from Nov. 1 – Nov. 15. If you can provide goods, gift cards or services, please contact Karen Warren (kwarren@wesleyan.edu).

Changing lives in this way depends upon our support, and your gift matters. Every gift, at any level, matters. If you are continuing your support, thank you. If you are considering a gift for the first time, I hope you will respond with a generous heart.

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It’s Homecoming weekend, and this evening the Athletic Hall of Fame will induct a new class of distinguished Wes athletes.

  • Joe Barry Morningstar ’39, a three-sport standout (football, basketball and baseball) for whom Wesleyan’s annual men’s basketball outstanding player award is named;
  • Cochrane Chase ’54, a tremendous football and wrestling talent during his undergraduate career;
  • Marion J. Stoj, M.D. ’74, a high-scoring forward in men’s soccer who earned All-America honors;
  • Thomas Vincent Reifenheiser III ’94, the most accomplished men’s tennis player in Wesleyan history, who earned NESCAC crowns and national Division III ITA titles and also played squash, two seasons as the team’s No. 1 player;
  • Sarah D. Hann, D.V.M. ’95, an outstanding distance runner for the Cardinals with a NESCAC cross-country title and All-America laurels to her credit, who went on to international repute as a runner after graduation;
  • J. Elmer Swanson, who joined the Cardinal staff in 1963 as track and cross-country coach, adding the women’s teams in both sports to his portfolio when they turned varsity during the 1970s, and served as a mentor to hundreds of Wesleyan student-athletes during his 30 years as a full-time head coach.

More alumni will arrive Saturday morning for what promises to be a glorious fall weekend. There will be plenty of competition to enjoy, and you can check out the full schedule here.

Saturday is also our second annual Middletown Day. Starting at 11 a.m., visitors can enjoy family entertainment (face painting, balloon art, a bounce house for little visitors, and a DJ), and snacks.

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And one more thing:  Beat Amherst!!

 

Yesterday I went to Middletown’s Macdonough Elementary School to read to second graders. It’s anti-bullying month, and I was to share Margery Cuyler’s and Arthur Howard’s Bullies Never Win.

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When I arrived at the school in the North End, I immediately noticed the sign-in sheet for Wesleyan people in the principal’s office. It was a long list of volunteers. I already knew that Wes students devote hundreds of hours to working with the boys and girls at Macdonough, but it was still a fine surprise to see how many were there just that day. As I walked to my classroom, I saw football players and musicians, activists and scholars…all taking time away from campus to improve the experience of these local kids.

The class I read to was attentive and curious. Who was this old guy who had come to read to them? When I was introduced, a boy from the back of the room asked in an awestruck voice: “Are you president of the whole country?” Everybody giggled as I began to explain — he was just kidding around.

I read the story to them, and we had a great discussion about why bullying was wrong — and how you could ask for help without being a “tattle tale.” As I left, I saw those same Wes students still tutoring their kids…making a real difference right here in Middletown. How lucky I am to be part of their schooling.

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This is the season when lots of families are visiting college campuses across the country — looking for the one that feels like the perfect match. Juniors start off slowly, and often with some hesitation. After all, they have plenty of time to play the field, checking out big campuses at which one can get happily lost in the crowd and small ones that promise supportive community. Seniors by now are often in the frantic stage (my daughter Sophie is a senior), trying to determine if they are really sure enough about a school to apply early decision. For parents and students alike, this can feel like a lot of pressure.

I love meeting with prospective students as I walk around campus. Their questions reveal something of their hopes for the future, and I am always interested in learning what they are looking for in a campus. I usually stress that Wesleyan isn’t for everybody, and that this is a place that values individuality, intellectual experimentation and cultural curiosity. Students who are interested in going beyond their comfort zone to meet new people, discover new fields of inquiry and learn from unexpected sources… these are the young people most likely to feel that sense of “match” with Wesleyan.

While Wesleyan has gotten significantly more selective over the last 8 years, the university has also made strong efforts to improve access. We’ve been actively seeking applicants from parts of the country that had not previously sent the university many students, and it includes making sure we meet full need without requiring heavy borrowing. Indeed, last year while significantly increasing our spending on financial aid, we expanded our “no loans” policy to include any student whose household income was under 60,000. Meeting full need with little required loans — those remain key elements of our approach to financial aid.

As students visit Wesleyan, I hope they get a strong sense of how we combine academic rigor with intellectual flexibility. I also hope they get a feel for the extraordinary student culture here: its compassionate solidarity, social engagement, and its supportive, inspiring ambiance.

Choosing the right college can feel overwhelming; its true importance lies in finding a place that will launch one into meaningful work, deep friendships and lifelong learning. When I wrote the following (the conclusion to my recent book Beyond the University), I was thinking of Wesleyan and the transformative education students can find here:

Through doubt, imagination, and hard work, students come to understand that they really can reshape themselves and their societies. Liberal education matters because by challenging the forces of conformity it promises to be relevant to our professional, personal and political lives. That relevance isn’t just about landing one’s first job; it emerges over the course of one’s working life. The free inquiry and experimentation of a reflexive, pragmatic education help us to think for ourselves, take responsibility for our beliefs and actions, and become better acquainted with our own desires, our own hopes. Liberal education matters far beyond the university because it increases our capacity to understand the world, contribute to it, and reshape ourselves. When it works, it never ends.

 

I write this from Dallas, where last night Kari, Ed Heffernan ’84 and I discussed liberal education with about 30 Wesleyans. There were alumni from the last few years, from 60 years ago — and a high school senior who told us that Wes is his “dream school.” Ed is here explaining why his big data company, Alliance Data Systems, looks for well-rounded students who can contribute to his enterprise over the long haul (they just hired a bunch of Wes grads).Wesleyan DallasEarlier in the day I met with a group of high school teachers, administrators and guidance counselors in Dallas. They had great questions about the importance of a liberal education, and I was particularly impressed by the student journalists from the Greenhill School.

On Wednesday I was in Houston, where Michelle Lyn ’84, P’12,’15, Rusty Hardin ’64 and I spoke with a group of dedicated Wes folks about how liberal education has informed our lives. Michelle is a doctor working in pediatric medicine, married to a Wes alum, with two kids who have gone here. She talked about the importance of a broad education for the work she does and for her life in her community. Rusty gave a full-throated defense of a liberal education allowing one to experiment with tolerance and curiosity.

Tolerance and a delight in inquiry and ambiguity — that’s a pretty good prescription for learning. I saw all that when Dan Routman P’16 gave me a tour of the Nasher Sculpture Collection. Here I joined a group of kids trying out the super cool chairs by designer Thomas Heatherwick.

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Wesleyan Media Project

For the past several years, Professor Erika Franklin Fowler has been conducting sophisticated research with her students on American electoral politics. This isn’t surprising; Prof. Fowler is in the Government Department, after all. Like many of her colleagues in that distinguished group, her work has reverberations far beyond campus. In this election cycle, journalists across the country are using analysis from the Wesleyan Media Project. Directed by Prof. Fowler with colleagues from Bowdoin College and Washington State University, the Wesleyan Media Project conducts quantitative and qualitative research to understand more fully the role of spending in races across the country. As the Knight Foundation puts it, “by tracking this data year by year, the project is establishing a reference point that journalists, scholars and citizens can rely on to trace the root of campaign funding and hold officials more accountable.”

More than 20 student researchers are providing real time analysis of spending patterns at a time when many are trying to hide campaign donations. In Sunday’s New York Times, for example the WMP’s work was cited in an article exploring how Democratic donors are coordinating their efforts on a few key messages while G.O.P. spending is far more diffuse. The goals of the WMP are as simple as they are important: “to develop a definitive database that tracks all advertising by source (corporation, union, interest group, party, or candidate), and to enhance the ability of scholars, citizens, and journalists to hold government accountable by providing public information on how special interests are attempting to influence American democracy in general and political campaigns in particular.”

Prof. Fowler was recently interviewed in or quoted on MSNBC, PBS Newshour, Wisconsin Public Radio, WNPR’s “Where We Live”, International Business Times, and Fox CT, among others. Other highlights include stories in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

This is engaged learning at its best! Stay tuned for more research from the Wesleyan Media Project on Oct 13. THIS IS WHY.

 

 

This afternoon I had a conversation with the wonderful Faith Middletown on WNPR about the value of liberal education at the college level. Here’s her preview:

What makes an educated person? Is it the desire to learn? The ability to be a critical thinker in any situation? Perhaps.

For me, an educated person has the capacity to be a critical thinker—and an optimist at the same time. An educated person has developed a curious mind, thinks critically, has empathy, and an optimistic view.

On our show we talk with Connecticut’s Wesleyan University President Michael Roth, author of Beyond the University, about why a liberal education matters more than ever. He argues this even in a decade of joblessness and high debt for young people or their parents.

During our conversation Faith said, let’s talk about the fear. She was referring to the fear many students have about being left behind in our very competitive economy. We also talked about the hope that is part of the educational process. Hope that through learning how to learn, we will increase our capacity to find meaning in the world and contribute effectively to the groups and networks of which we are a part. Developing the generosity of spirit and intellect through education taps into our optimism and it has, I’ve argued, real pragmatic value.

You can listen to our conversation here.

Welcoming Families!

Family Weekend comes early this year, and we anticipate a large crowd of visitors to campus. There will be lots of wonderful events, from art exhibitions featuring photographs and paintings to South Indian music, lectures and athletic contests. You can find plenty more information here.

Parents of new students are often surprised at how quickly their sons and daughters have formed intense friendships — they can sometimes feel like extended families. Whether it’s a cohort formed in sports, science labs, art studios or in a rock band… these new relationships can be profound. Some alumni remember their “Greek” experience as most important in this regard, and recently, we’ve again had searching discussions about the relationships created in these societies. We announced this week that the residential fraternities will have to work over the next three years to become fully co-educational, and we’ve already had lots of positive feedback concerning that decision. Of course, we’ve also had some strong pushback from folks who feel that fraternities represent important traditions that should be maintained. Along with the Board, I am hopeful that these traditions can find new forms as the societies welcome women members and women leaders. Sure, it will be different, as these societies are different in many ways from their incarnations in the 50s and 60s. Working together, I am confident that we can retain some of their best features while building new traditions for the future.

I think we may be creating a new tradition of launching Tony Award winning musicals. OK, we are trying. In the Heights author Quiara Alegria Hudes is now a distinguished professor of playwriting at Wes, and the creator and star of the show, Lin-Manuel Miranda ’02, was back on campus this week to meet the cast of the production that will be staged this fall. By all accounts, he gave a great talk/performance Tuesday evening. Provost Ruth Weissman, Lin and I documented the evening with a selfie:

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The vibrancy of the art scene at Wesleyan is legendary. In recent years, we’ve added another tradition to it with The Mash, our music festival on the first Friday of the semester. This year I played a little with some friends, and I was introduced to many Wes bands and individual performers. Here’s a twelve minute sampler:

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There will be plenty of music, friendships and even a little theater this weekend. It should be a great one!

This past weekend the Board of Trustees gathered for its annual fall retreat. At this meeting, Trustees and Representatives to the Board discuss a range of issues important for the future of the University. We began on Friday night with conversations about equity and inclusion. Over the last year a task force of Trustees has been discussing how we can better ensure that all people on campus feel they are full members of our community and engaged in our educational project. Everyone at the retreat had taken implicit bias tests in advance of the meeting to better understand how even when we have the best of intentions, prejudice can affect our thinking.

We resumed our meetings Saturday morning with a discussion of the role of residential fraternities on campus, based on recommendations that I had made to the Board after a summer of collecting input. During the course of the weekend, the Board and I agreed on some changes described in a message that went out from Joshua Boger and me this morning. The message reads, in part: “With equity and inclusion in mind, we have decided that residential fraternities must become fully co-educational over the next three years. If the organizations are to continue to be recognized as offering housing and social spaces for Wesleyan students, women as well as men must be full members and well-represented in the body and leadership of the organization….Our residential Greek organizations inspire loyalty, community and independence. That’s why all our students should be eligible to join them.”

Saturday’s discussion moved on to campus life generally and how we might make it as educationally potent as possible. As a residential liberal arts school, it is crucial that outside the classroom our students are being prepared for life after graduation. Trustees shared the ways in which their own experiences on campus have affected their lives beyond the university.

The retreat continued with discussions of how Wesleyan is perceived by prospective students, the campus community, alumni, parents and the academic marketplace. We had vigorous conversations about what Wes stands for today, and how we want our school to be perceived 25 years from now. What should we be doing now to ensure the brightest future for alma mater?

Over the weekend, I witnessed many ways in which loyal and hardworking trustees, students, faculty, staff and alumni are devoted to Wesleyan. It’s a devotion stemming from powerful experiences and strong memories joined with the aspiration to make our university even stronger and the experiences of students going forward even more powerful.

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