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Students Begin to Arrive

Today (August 30) international students begin to arrive. I’ve already begun to see many undergraduates working for Student Life on campus for training — and most graduate students have been around focused on their research. It’s an exciting time of year, and I’m always enthusiastic (and still a little nervous) for the start of school. Here’s the message I recently sent out to new students.


Dear friends in the class of 2019,

We are busy getting ready to welcome you to campus for the start of your Wesleyan education. I can imagine that you are experiencing a mix of emotions as you prepare to join us, and I hope your travels to central Connecticut are safe and smooth.

Most of you have selected classes for the fall, but some of you will make changes to your schedules as you get more information, meet friends and teachers, and decide to try new things. The first semester presents opportunities to discover more about what most deeply engages you, and I am confident that you will find a constellation of courses that is challenging and fulfilling. You will be encouraged to think for yourself while also sharing your views with others. Doing so should promote a spirit of inquiry that extends far beyond the coursework.

And beyond the coursework you will find many opportunities for engagement. I trust that you’ll find the Wesleyan community to be welcoming as well as invigorating and caring. We look out for one another, and we cheer each other on. The goal is a campus that is safe and inspiring. Please take advantage of the opportunities to make this community your launch pad into politics, the arts, athletics… all sorts of things that will add to what you learn at Wesleyan.

I hope to get to know many of you while you are undergraduates. My office is in South College (office hours, late afternoon on Mondays), and I live right on campus. I’ll always try to find time to meet with students, so please stop by. On September 17, the Wesleyan Student Assembly is sponsoring an open meeting in Memorial Chapel in which I will briefly discuss the “state of the university.” You can also follow me on Twitter @mroth78 and through my blog.

Some of you will choose to finish in three years, others will take four (and a few will take a break in the middle). Whatever your itinerary, I am confident that at Wes you will find “boldness, rigor and practical idealism” – students, faculty and staff who are dedicated to a broad, pragmatic liberal education.

Go Wes!

Michael Roth

Middletown’s Mayor Dan Drew has put together a great little film series at the College of Film and the Moving Image. This Saturday (August 29) Angels with Dirty Faces screens at 7:30 pm. Next Saturday, September 5, the mayor has chosen The Usual Suspects to be presented at the same time. The series began last week with The Maltese Falcon.

Admission to each movie screening is free, but we are suggesting a $5 donation, which will go to the Buttonwood Tree, a nonprofit performing arts and cultural center in Middletown.

“All these films are crowd-pleasers and the mayor made great choices,” department founder Jeanine Basinger told The Hartford Courant. “It’s a pleasure for all of us at the Center for Film Studies to be able to present these films for the community.”

On September 26, Wesleyan celebrates “Middletown Day.”  There are great athletic contests on campus that Saturday, and we are planning some family activities. More on that in a few weeks!



Fifty-two years ago today, on the day before The March on Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois died. Born in Great Barrington, Mass. just after the end of the Civil War, he had been a champion of civil rights and the pursuit of equality, a tireless advocate for African-Americans, and a writer of extraordinary power. A prodigious intellectual with a devotion to education, Du Bois had bachelor degrees from Fisk and Harvard, a Ph.D. from Harvard (the first black person to receive one there), with more advanced work in Berlin. He was a classics professor and a historian who wrote sociology, poetry, plays and fiction — to name just some of the fields in which he worked.

I wrote about Du Bois in Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. He championed liberal learning, seeing it as a vehicle for the development of humanity. As he said:

The function of the university is not simply to teach bread-winning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be a center of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.

Du Bois believed that educational institutions should aim to stimulate hunger for knowledge — not just contain it or channel it into a narrow path destined for a job market that will quickly change. Education should not teach the person to conform to a function, a repetition of slavery, but should provide people with a wider horizon of choices.

Du Bois repeatedly defended liberal education against those who saw it as impractical. In an address at the Hampton Institute in the beginning of the century, he lamented that “there is an insistence on the practical in a manner and tone that would make Socrates an idiot and Jesus Christ a crank.” At one of the centers of industrial learning for blacks, Du Bois argued that its doctrine of education was fundamentally false because it was so seriously limited. What mattered in education was not so much the curriculum on campus but an understanding that the aim of education went far beyond the university. And here is where Du Bois issued his challenge:

The aim of the higher training of the college is the development of power, the training of a self whose balanced assertion will mean as much as possible for the great ends of civilization. The aim of technical training on the other hand is to enable the student to master the present methods of earning a living in some particular way . . . We must give our youth a training designed above all to make them men of power, of thought, of trained and cultivated taste; men who know whither civilization is tending and what it means.

Du Bois believed that a pragmatic liberal education made one more human, to be sure, but it also gave one an awesome responsibility. Education, as he consistently stressed, was a mode of empowerment, and those who benefited from it should help empower others. When liberal learning worked, students became teachers, creating a virtuous circle of education.

As we prepare to begin the academic year, let’s remember Du Bois’s challenge — and his hope!


So excited to see the new Center for the Arts program announced this week. Michelle Dorrance is on the cover, and her troupe will be performing on campus Sept. 25-26. Michelle is an amazing tap dancer, and she brings a profound musicality and exuberance to this great American art form. Kari and I have seen her perform a few times at the Jacob’s Pillow summer festival, and we are really looking forward to her visit.



There are so many exciting things happening at the CFA this fall. Nicholas Payton, one of the world’s great jazz trumpet players, will be bringing his trio to campus on Sept. 18. You can find out more about tickets to this and other events here.

On the first Friday of the semester, Sept. 11, we will have the fourth annual MASH. This is a festival of the Wesleyan music scene, culminating in a picnic on Foss Hill with live music from Smokin Lillies, 5 Guys, Chef and The Rooks. I’m playing keyboards with the Lillies, and really looking forward to hearing all the bands let loose.

It’s mid-August, and I’m preparing to return to campus after several weeks away. Every week I receive lists of media updates – articles where Wesleyan is mentioned. Here are some thoughts on some that I’ve found particularly striking.

I often tell students that my hope for them is that they will discover what they’re interested in, get better at it, and share what they’ve learned with others. This is definitely the story of Lin-Manuel Miranda ’02, whose new musical Hamilton (he created it and is the star) is the toast of the town. Of course, Lin gave the Commencement address this past year, and is well known among alumni, faculty and students. We are taking over the Richard Rodgers Theatre on October 2 (already sold out, I’m afraid), for a financial aid Hamilton fundraiser, and I am delighted to see all the positive attention being showered on Lin, director Thomas Kail ‘99 and the crew.

An article from the BBC features the work of psychology professor Psyche Loui (yes it is a great name given her interest!) studying the goose bumps you can get when listening to a particularly powerful piece of music. She describes the feeling as “skin orgasms.” Her work on the erotic aspects of music is receiving a lot of attention, and it’s been speculated that these frissons can promote communal goodwill.

There’s also a comparison made here to the addictive pleasures of certain drugs, and this brings me to another of this week’s media hits from The Washington Post, one considerably less positive. It’s the tragic story of a UVA student, also a music lover, who took Molly at a concert, then collapsed and died. The article refers to Wesleyan, which became a national story when a number of students here were hospitalized last February after taking drugs. All survived, thank goodness, but the legal ramifications for the students involved in distributing the drugs continue to unfold. Wesleyan will continue to enforce our own rules as well as applicable laws. Most importantly, I ask all students to please, please make healthy, safe choices with respect to drugs and alcohol. And be helpful to those around you.

Wesleyan is a venerable institution with great traditions. In this article in the Hartford Courant, you can read about preparations for the centenary celebration of the Van Vleck Observatory. Designed by the same architect who designed the Lincoln Memorial, it crowns Foss Hill, a permanent invitation to use this university to explore the world beyond it.

Another article in The Washington Post refers to our new test-optional admissions policy, which is bringing more applicants first in their family to go college, more applicants of color, and more applicants from abroad. At Wesleyan we are serious about our commitment to access and inclusion.

Part of that commitment involves our partnership with the Posse Foundation, bringing veterans to study at Wes, and the updates include an article by one of the Posse vets on his experiences to date.

I enjoy reading about the achievements of our students, faculty and alumni – from theater to sports to research. But more, I love to be on campus to witness the exuberant process that goes into making it all possible. Very soon, we’ll all be back at it.

This year the National Endowment for the Humanities announced a new program for public humanities scholars. As per the NEH website:

These are the first awards made under NEH’s new Public Scholar grant program, which was created in December 2014 as part of The Common Good: The Humanities in the Public Square, an agency-wide initiative that seeks to bring humanities into the public square and foster innovative ways to make scholarship relevant to contemporary life.

The Public Scholar Program builds upon NEH’s 50-year tradition of supporting the publication of nonfiction works that have profoundly influenced the way we understand history, politics, literature, and society. The Public Scholar awards support books that use deep research to open up important or appealing subjects for wider audiences by presenting significant humanities topics in a way that is accessible to general readers.  

Andrew CurranThere were almost 5oo applications for the new program, and only 36 were successful. Of these, two are Wesleyan faculty!

Andrew Curran, the William Armstrong Professor of the Humanities, has taught in the Romance Languages department and just finished a stint as Dean of Arts and Humanities. He is writing an intellectual biography of Denis Diderot, the French philosophe long overshadowed by Voltaire and Rousseau. When Andy’s book comes out, that will surely change, as he shows how relevant and provocative Diderot’s ideas remain.


Jennifer TuckerJennifer Tucker has taught in the history, FGSS, and SISP programs, and not long ago was running the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life. Jennifer has long been interested in the intersection of visual culture and science, and her project on the emergence of facial recognition system technology will have broad impact. Jennifer expects to write a wide-ranging account of how the project of capturing the defining features of an individual face has led to current modes of surveillance and law enforcement, digital privacy and individuality.


I have many reasons to be proud of our faculty’s accomplishments, and I am a big fan of these particular projects. And, of course: THIS IS WHY.

Each year I send out an end of the year message to the Wesleyan community. I’ve pasted it below.

Dear friends,

In sharing some reflections on the year, I’ll begin with how it ended — with phrases from Commencement still ringing in my head. There’s the wish of Beverly Daniel Tatum ’75 for the class of 2015: “May you find for yourselves that place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”  And Senior Class Speaker Marissa Castrigno’s description of the student community as “a stronghold of dialogue, of passion, of intelligence.”  There’s praise from Daphne Kwok ’84 of Baldwin Medal winner Alan Dachs ’70 for his “unstinting commitment to the public good and to alma mater.” And, of course, the dramatic reprise by Lin-Manuel Miranda ’02 of a line from his Broadway show: “I’m not throwing away my shot.

A record 799 graduating seniors enjoyed that beautiful day. Hardly the only record set this year. Our athletes set 32! Our baseball and men’s basketball teams were NESCAC champs, and tennis star Eudice Chong ’18 was National Division III champion! There is much to be proud of in other realms of course. In the best Wesleyan tradition our students challenged complacency and advocated for their beliefs all while pursuing their studies intensely. Often study and challenge overlapped, as with CSS major Isabella Banks ’15, awarded a prestigious Watson Fellowship for her exploration of alternatives to the criminal justice system.

Our Admission results this year were excellent, especially for first-generation and low-income students. Our “yield” was the highest in memory, and the class of 2019 will be the most international ever, with a record number of applicants having made Wes their first choice.

We’ve made huge progress in getting our financial house in order, building our capacity for the future. We continue to find ways to improve access. This year we once again raised tuition much less than did peer schools, and recently The Chronicle of Higher Education pointed to progress in one of our affordability initiatives, the three-year degree. Our cohort of military veterans finished their first year at Wesleyan, all on scholarship and all successful in their studies.

Of course, not all has been rosy throughout the year. As many of you will have read, too many of our students made poor choices in regard to drugs and alcohol — putting themselves and others at risk. We remain committed to making our campus safe, equitable, and inclusive. There is work to be done — by students as well as staff — and it will get done.

One of the many joys of Commencement for me is presenting the Binswanger Prizes for Excellence in Teaching: this year to Professors Calter, Schorr, and Ulysse. Wesleyan faculty take teaching seriously, and we expect the new Center for Pedagogical Innovation to be a nexus of collective teaching intelligence. Thanks to generous individual and foundation support, we are doing more with project-based learning and exploring innovative offerings in design and engineering. Wes faculty are not only great teachers, they’re impressive researchers too, and this year many of our professors won major grants and prizes. From book publications to exhibitions, performances and scientific articles, the Wes faculty help shape our culture.

New this spring was the Riverfront Festival, sponsored in part by the Center for the Arts, which attracted people from around Middlesex County. Improving connections with Middletown was one of many recommendations from our campus planning consultants (their report will be available in a week or so on the homepage). Of special interest, I think, were their suggestions for improving informal learning spaces. Interaction among students has always been one of the joys of the Wesleyan experience, and it’s time to take a look at how our current spaces enable or inhibit participation in campus learning.

Thanks to the inspiring generosity of our community, the THIS IS WHY fundraising effort has been far and away the most successful campaign in Wesleyan history. Over 70% of our alumni have already made a gift, and we have raised over $402 million with still another year to go! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

With the gifts raised so far, 117 new scholarships have been endowed. That’s terrific, but it’s not enough. The newly admitted class has set another record, receiving more financial aid than any prior group! The need for financial aid will only grow. This is why we made endowing aid our #1 campaign priority, and this is what we are focused on in the last year of the campaign.

Our graduating seniors had much to celebrate, and so do we all who care for Wesleyan. Our collective giving — your giving — has made Wesleyan an institution where boldness, rigor, and practical idealism are apparent every day. It’s July 2015, which means the final year of our campaign has officially begun. The campaign will only be the success we want it to be if it finishes strong. I invite everyone to join in its success by making a gift during this last year.

• I’m not throwing away my shot
• Unstinting commitment to the public good and to alma mater
• A stronghold of dialogue, of passion, of intelligence
• May you find for yourselves that place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need


Michael S. Roth

Summer @Wesleyan

In some ways the summertime on campus is calm. After the recent rains, Andrus Field is a lovely green, and you have to look hard to find the traces of the “This is Why” sign that was written onto Foss Hill for Reunion Weekend.

But there actually is lots of work going on once you look around. There are the Summer Session courses, including Writing Creative Nonfiction, Legal Thinking, Introduction to Programming, and Developmental Psychology. Our Biology Institute allows students to complete a full year of biology in less than 2 months in very small classes. The Wesleyan Writers Conference earlier this summer finished four days of powerful, professional workshops and readings. And there are a few hundred students doing research on campus in many different fields and through special programs like Mellon Mays and McNair.

Maintenance and construction is going on all over campus. This includes replacement of the steam pipe between the power plant and campus (you couldn’t miss the trench under High Street); roof replacement on Exley Science Center; new classroom furnishings, finishes and lighting; sidewalk repairs and replacements campus wide; patio installation at the Center for the Humanities; roof repair on Usdan University Center, etc.

Lots of creative events are happening — from poetry readings to a film series focused on Jimmy Stewart. The Center for Creative Youth hosts hundreds of middle and high school age kids who live in dorms and make art on campus. The ICPP (Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance) is going strong, providing a professional education for curators working with performers of all kinds.

The Wesleyan Math and Science Scholars Program (WesMaSS) will take place the last week in July for pre-frosh  who come from historically underrepresented groups in the sciences. At the end of that week Wes is hosting a large math and science symposium. Wesleyan’s Green Street Teaching and Learning Center is holding its Girls in Science Camp, August 3-7.

I started off this post noting the calm on campus. Clearly, there is a lot happening just beneath the surface!

One of the most stirring speeches I know was given by Frederick Douglass for Independence Day: “What to the Slave is the 4th of July.” It was delivered in Rochester, New York on July 5, 1852. You can find the full speech here; below are some excerpts.

To say now that America was right, and England wrong, is exceedingly easy. Everybody can say it; the dastard, not less than the noble brave, can flippantly discant on the tyranny of England towards the American Colonies. It is fashionable to do so; but there was a time when to pronounce against England, and in favor of the cause of the colonies, tried men’s souls. They who did so were accounted in their day, plotters of mischief, agitators and rebels, dangerous men. To side with the right, against the wrong, with the weak against the strong, and with the oppressed against the oppressor! Here lies the merit, and the one which, of all others, seems unfashionable in our day.

What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light? Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man? That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it. The slaveholders themselves acknowledge it in the enactment of laws for their government. They acknowledge it when they punish disobedience on the part of the slave. There are seventy-two crimes in the State of Virginia, which, if committed by a black man, (no matter how ignorant he be), subject him to the punishment of death; while only two of the same crimes will subject a white man to the like punishment. What is this but the acknowledgement that the slave is a moral, intellectual and responsible being? The manhood of the slave is conceded. It is admitted in the fact that Southern statute books are covered with enactments forbidding, under severe fines and penalties, the teaching of the slave to read or to write. When you can point to any such laws, in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may consent to argue the manhood of the slave. When the dogs in your streets, when the fowls of the air, when the cattle on your hills, when the fish of the sea, and the reptiles that crawl, shall be unable to distinguish the slave from a brute, then will I argue with you that the slave is a man!


At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.


You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot and kill. You glory in your refinement and your universal education yet you maintain a system as barbarous and dreadful as ever stained the character of a nation — a system begun in avarice, supported in pride, and perpetuated in cruelty. You shed tears over fallen Hungary, and make the sad story of her wrongs the theme of your poets, statesmen and orators, till your gallant sons are ready to fly to arms to vindicate her cause against her oppressors; but, in regard to the ten thousand wrongs of the American slave, you would enforce the strictest silence, and would hail him as an enemy of the nation who dares to make those wrongs the subject of public discourse! You are all on fire at the mention of liberty for France or for Ireland; but are as cold as an iceberg at the thought of liberty for the enslaved of America. You discourse eloquently on the dignity of labor; yet, you sustain a system which, in its very essence, casts a stigma upon labor. You can bare your bosom to the storm of British artillery to throw off a threepenny tax on tea; and yet wring the last hard-earned farthing from the grasp of the black laborers of your country.

Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together…

Frederick Douglass, who himself escaped from slavery, found reason to hope for the future even as he would “pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke.” He saw a future worth fighting for. On this 4th of July, so should we!

Last week was full of conference talks for me. I’m not really a fan of these sorts of meetings, but I was asked to speak on liberal education at Aspen and Cambridge and thought I’d take the opportunity to wave the flag. Both meetings turned out to be really interesting, full of ideas that might be relevant for Wesleyan in the future.

Aspen meetings

Aspen meetings


Aspen outside the meetings

At Aspen, I was particularly impressed by talks I heard by Donald Berwick on health care and continuous improvement; by Eric Mazur on innovations in the flipped classroom; by Maya Jasanoff on globalization and educational quality; and by Robert Putnam on educational inequality. Don Berwick has run Medicare and was a major figure in the planning and implementation of policies that led to the Affordable Care Act. He gave a powerful talk on how to create a culture of continuous improvement in an organization. This is not done through heroic individuals but through an entire workforce acting as a team to offer better services while holding down costs. He knows it can be done because he has seen it work! I am still thinking about how the analogy might work with higher education.

Eric Mazur is a legend in innovative pedagogy. You can check out his flipped classroom ideas here. At Aspen he reminded the audience that even a great lecturer (he is one) can create a better learning environment through the use of readily available technologies that in the end support peer learning. After giving us a simple physics lesson, Eric had us on the edge of our seats as we debated with one another an answer to a basic question about the heating of hard solids. Really! And project-based learning can work, he suggested, in any discipline.

Maya told us a historical tale of globalization, focusing on shipping. Having herself taken a cargo ship from Hong Kong to Europe, she described the ways in which globalization in the beginning of the 20th century drove down the price of goods but also increased certain basic forms of inequality. Will the same thing happen today with the globalization of education? Will we lose the research and preservation dimensions of the academy, and will we accelerate trends of inequality through which only the elite have access to high-touch, high-quality learning experiences?

OECD Speaker at Goldman Sachs- Harvard Conference on the Future of Education

OECD Speaker at Goldman Sachs-Harvard Conference on the Future of Education

Inequality was the core of Robert Putnam’s very moving talk based on the research from his latest book, Our Kids. He described to this audience of higher ed leaders how his own hometown of Fort Clinton, OH has suffered from de-industrialization and worse. Not everyone has suffered, of course. One of the key determinants for one’s prospects for a decent life? Education. In today’s America, if you don’t have the opportunity to attend college, your chances for basic economic security, health care…even a fulfilling family life, are dramatically reduced. Putnam has strong data on this, but he brought the point home with powerful stories of how many children today, our kids, are being condemned to blighted lives while others are given the support they need to take care of themselves and contribute to their communities.

While on the road, whether I was talking with the Dean of the Humanities at Hong Kong University or an entrepreneur whose company teaches English online (both of whom were on my panel at Harvard), I am continually struck by the relevance of the experiments going on here at Wesleyan. Our faculty, staff and students are rethinking higher education while they are in the middle of it, making innovation a reality on campus. This is practical idealism at its best!

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