Welcome Home to Wesleyan!

The reunions are upon us, and it is a glorious spring morning. We’ve been planning for Commencement and for welcoming back a few thousand alumni. Foss Hill looked ready early this morning:

We’ve had plenty to celebrate lately. The women’s lacrosse team is heading to its first Final Four in program history this weekend, and so we had a special graduation ceremony for the seniors on the team. It was fabulous!

While we were holding that special ceremony, the Wesleyan Women’s tennis team was WINNING THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP! It’s our first ever in women’s sports.

Coach Fried was named Coach-of-the-Year and Victoria Yu ’19 was named Senior Player of the year!! Many other awards to come!

Other seniors were practicing their graduation poses, getting ready for the big day:

They invited me to join in, but I’ll have to wait for one of our seniors to send me a photo of me posing with them.

Post your photos from the weekend on social and tag us at #wesreunion or #wes2019.

On the Need for a Recovery of the Humanities

I am reposting this this op-ed I published yesterday in Inside Higher Ed.


As the academic year concludes, I find myself looking forward to a break from the onslaught of bad news about higher education in general and the humanities in particular. Another liberal arts college is forced to close for financial reasons; another university humanities program is cut back; a superrich university floats the idea of reducing its support for book publication.

Even more salaciously, admission scandals give the impression that our finest educational institutions are willing to betray their own standards when political correctness or enough money is involved. Pundits proclaim that we in higher ed aren’t doing enough to rectify the gross inequalities that characterize the K-12 school systems — systems in which students in high-poverty areas aren’t given the tools to be college ready. Critics announce that faculty members, especially those in the humanities, aren’t doing enough to overcome their leftist biases, aren’t doing enough to keep up with the digital economy’s rapid pace of change, aren’t doing enough to pay homage to conservative thinkers of the past and aren’t demanding enough of their students.

Higher education in general and the humanities in particular are awash in a flood of negativity, which arrives on ground already saturated with suspicion of “elites” — in academe and beyond.

Some of these criticisms are on target. The search for ever more funding breeds corruption, and murky admissions criteria stimulate efforts to game the system without consequences. And as more and more undergraduates flock to STEM programs, we in in the humanities often just seem to be talking to one another in our own jargon while blaming undergraduates and the public for not understanding or supporting us.

We can change this, but in order to recover the trust of students and their families, we must overcome our cultivated insularity.

At the heart of any recovery will be a vital curriculum, and the place of the humanities in that curriculum will distinguish an authentic college education from specialized technical training. Some people suggest returning to the glory days of the humanist past to restore confidence in the humanities today. “We urge colleges and universities to risk a dramatic reversal,” David Steiner and Mark Bauerlein wrote in a recent essay. “Instead of pursuing fashion, let humanities professors work to create deeply demanding courses that confront students with searing, elemental, beautiful and soul-searching materials.” Remembering their own excitement as humanities students in the 1980s, they evoke a time when it was cool to wrestle with challenging films or to work through texts in theory and literature. But the coolness factor, as they remember it now, wasn’t just due to the flashiness of deconstruction or the hip brashness of the early days of semiotics. No, students flocked to demanding classes in French literature or art history because “what happened in humanities classrooms was momentous and adventuresome.” The recovery of the humanities begins, for these professors, in a return to the sources of wonder and appreciation — at least, to their own personal sources.

Michael Massing takes a different tack in the face of the precipitous decline in funding for and interest in studying the humanities. He, too, appreciates the vitality of the theory-infused liberal arts of the 1980s, but he connects that vitality to commercial clout. Pointing to Brown University’s Modern Culture and Media program, Massing notes that “graduates have included Virgin Suicides author Jeffrey Eugenides, Ice Storm novelist Rick Moody, Far From Heaven director Todd Haynes, independent film producer Christine Vachon and public radio’s Ira Glass.” Warming my own institutional heartstrings, Massing reminds readers of the confluence of historical and musical innovation in Wesleyan University alumnus Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, which has earned gazillions of dollars and has employed thousands of artists, musicians and craftspeople. In an era in which tech investment is soaring, Massing underscores that content is everything — and it is the artists and humanists who are called on to provide ways to teach and entertain in modalities ranging from podcasts to live performances, from streaming services to video games. Coders need something to say, and broadly educated humanists have plenty to offer.

The paths to recovery mapped out by Steiner and Bauerlein, on the one hand, and Massing, on the other, have two obstacles in common to overcome: excessive professionalization and overspecialization. “The problems facing the humanities are in part self-inflicted by the academy,” writes Massing. “Historians and philosophers, literature profs and art historians too often withdraw into a narrow niche of specialization, using an arcane idiom that makes their work inaccessible to the uninitiated.” What gives your work cred among your colleagues may make it impossible for that work to have any impact beyond the university. When students understand this, they rightly look for something else — something that will still feel “momentous and adventuresome,” or just relevant, outside the campus walls.

A Path Toward Recovery

Periods of great cultural and economic change have often put tremendous pressure on the humanities, because at such times, people agree less on what counts as relevant, let alone as momentous. In 1917, in a world torn by war and economic dislocation, the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey asked how philosophy could possibly be relevant to the crucial questions of the time. In “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy,” he wrote that the task of reflection wasn’t just to mirror the opinions of the day but “to free experience from routine and from caprice.” He urged his readers to break out of their lazy habits and their easy infatuations; he wanted philosophy to leave behind its obsession with general theories of knowledge and with technical expertise. In response to outside pressures, Dewey imagined a philosophical education that would not just turn inward but that would be “empirically idealistic,” while focusing on connecting to an “unachieved future.”

Dewey’s philosophical pragmatism points us to a path toward recovery for the humanities. Connecting the momentous achievements of the past to our desires for “unachieved futures” seems a good place to start. In an age of vicious inequality, humanists can help build recognition that we must change the trajectory of our societies by ensuring that the achievements we seek become building blocks not just for the few — that the futures being built embody shared values and ideals. That takes informed conversation and not just algorithms.

The conversation might start with venerable subjects like Aristotle’s distinction between satisfying one’s appetites and flourishing through sharing in a public good, and move on to contemporary concerns about vulnerability and sustainable happiness. In my Wesleyan University humanities class, for instance, we develop questions from reading Confucius and Aquinas, and we go on to consider Saidiya Hartman’s perspective on the possibilities for “living otherwise” in a world of oppression. Having attended to powerful thinkers of the tradition, we debate how we might build sustainable freedom now. My students recognize great works on enduring questions without just designating them monuments to a heroic past, and they acknowledge the cultural and economic power of the humanities without just tuning them to replicate the present. Together, we avoid both “routine and caprice” by articulating the connections between what we study and the societal problems we face.

As trusted norms on campuses and in politics erode all around us, Dewey’s warning against covering up our brutalities with high-minded theories and noble sentiment seems all the more relevant. But pragmatist hopefulness is also relevant, as we close one academic year and prepare for the next. To paraphrase Dewey: we can recover the humanities if we cease trying to refine them as insular tools for academics and cultivate them instead as a frame of mind for dealing with the problems of today’s world. When we do that, we will begin to regain the trust of students and their families.

More Champions! (and more competition)

Last weekend the Women’s Tennis team won its first ever NESCAC championship, defeating the top-seeded Middlebury.

Meanwhile, the men’s Varsity Eight boat won the New England Championship.

And don’t forget our New England champion in pole vaulting, Andrew McCracken ’19.  

Faculty representative to the NCAA, Fred Cohan, recently posted this information: “So far, four of our spring varsity teams have qualified for the post-season NCAA tournaments— lacrosse and tennis, both women’s and men’s! And Wes is hosting the first games for three of these tournaments. If you’d like to see our teams in post-season tournament play, here is the schedule for the first games. I’m posting the links to the team rosters.”

Men’s Lacrosse (at Wesleyan)

Wednesday, May 8, at 4:30, on Jackson Field (north of Usdan). Western New England vs. Wesleyan.


Women’s Lacrosse (at Wesleyan)

Sunday, May 12, at 1:00. (Site to be determined). The opponent will be either Mary Washington or Westfield State.


Women’s Tennis (at Wesleyan)

Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, May 10-12, starting at 10:00. The tournament will be on the Vine Street courts, unless they are moved indoors and off-campus on account of rain.


Men’s Tennis will begin the NCAA post-season tournaments at Johns Hopkins.

Saturday and Sunday, May 11-12, 10:00. (Video links are not yet posted.)


Lots to cheer about when you are a Cardinal!

The Choice for Education and Against Violence

I didn’t post anything or offer an official communication expressing sorrow and support after the Easter attacks on Christians in Sri Lanka. Had I just become accustomed to the capacity of hate to connect to tools of mass violence after the horrific shootings at mosques in New Zealand, when a right-wing terrorist gunned down Muslim worshipers? I contacted friends, I expressed my condolences privately, and I went about my business. Shame on me. Is it because I’ve become inured to political violence, or because the attacks were so far away? The vicious bombings in the name of a religious or political crusade have the ring of familiarity, and it may be inevitable that repetition reduces the stench of brutality.

Yesterday, again, news of hate crimes came back home. Newspapers report that a driver plowed into a crowd in Sunnyvale, California because he thought he would hit Muslims. As a result, a young girl lies in a coma with severe brain trauma. And further south in Poway, California, yet another right-wing, white supremacist tried to massacre Jews celebrating Shabbat and the end of Passover. He killed Lori Gilbert-Kaye and injured others—it seems only a faulty gun prevented a much worse massacre. The attack fell on the day of the six month anniversary of the murder of Jews in shul in Pittsburgh.

I shake my head; I feel sorrow and rage. But I am a teacher, and so what do I do? I turn to my books.

Many years ago I studied Éric Weil, a German-Jewish refugee philosopher who settled in France and taught that the option for discourse, for meaning, was a rejection of both certainty and violence. But he also taught that violence was always an option—that the violent rejection of meaning and direction was an ongoing threat. The philosopher, Weil wrote, chooses conversation, not as a weapon against violence but as an alternative to it. When we choose conversation, or education, we don’t get the Truth, we don’t get certainty, but we create what I’d call a safe-enough space to make meaning.

There are those in the academy taught to find “violence” in all sorts of ordinary interactions. Although this may enable a loose critique of privileged environments, it also fudges the distinction that Weil so clearly observed: When we choose education, we are choosing conversation against the alternative of violence; when we choose education we are choosing meaning — rejecting (and sometimes having to use tools to prevent) violence.

Recent events remind us of the threats against our choice, as an educational community, for uncertainty. We are reminded of the threats against our willingness to embrace ambiguity, engage with different points of view, and to seek compromise rather than certainty. Now we mourn the fallen, and we aim to help those damaged or still threatened by attacks. And we hold fast to our choice against violence—our choice for meaning and for education.


Little Three Times Three!

When I was first hired as president back in 2007, a trustee presented me with a chart that showed how few Little Three Championships Wesleyan had won in the previous several years. Amherst and Williams had been dominating in most sports, and this trustee wanted to know why we weren’t competing at the highest level. Well, times have changed. Many of our student-athletes have won individual championships, and several of our teams have won Little Three titles (and beyond).

This past weekend, we added three more Little 3 titles. Women’s Crew and Men’s Crew came away with the laurels, and the Women’s Tennis team also earned bragging rights. All three squads are ranked among the best in the country! Our student-athletes compete while also excelling in the arts, academics and being engaged in the community. They make us proud!


And while we are talking about champions, let’s not forget Ivie Uzamere ’21 whose throwing this year has been off the charts! This past weekend she broke the school record in the hammer throw. Go Ivie, Go Wes!

How to Choose (Our) University

Throughout the month, high school seniors with the acceptance letters in hand, will be visiting campuses as they try to decide where to attend college. They are trying to envision the school at which they will be most likely to thrive. Where will I learn the most, be happiest, and form friendships that will last a lifetime? How to choose? As I do each spring, I thought it might be useful to re-post my thoughts on choosing a college, with a few revisions.

Of course, for many the decision will be made on an economic basis. Which school has given the most generous financial aid package? Wesleyan is one of a small number of schools that meets the full financial need of all admitted students according to a formula developed over several years. Wesleyan has made a commitment to keep loan levels low and to maintain only moderate (very close to inflation) tuition increases. We also offer a three-year program that allows families to save about 20% of their total expenses, while still earning the same number of credits.

After answering the question of which schools one can afford, how else does one decide where best to spend one’s college years? Of course, size matters.  Some students are looking for a large university in an urban setting where the city itself plays an important role in one’s education. New York and Boston, for example, have become increasingly popular college destinations, but not, I suspect, for the classroom experience. But if one seeks small classes and strong, personal relationships with faculty, then liberal arts schools, which pride themselves on providing rich cultural and social experiences on a residential campus, are especially compelling. You can be on a campus with a human scale and still have plenty of things to do. Wesleyan is somewhat larger than most liberal arts colleges but much smaller than the urban or land grant universities. We feel that this gives our students the opportunity to choose a broad curriculum and a variety of cultural activities on campus, while still being small enough to encourage regular, sustained relationships among faculty and students.

All the selective small liberal arts schools boast of having a faculty of scholar-teachers, of a commitment to research and interdisciplinarity, and of encouraging community and service. So what sets us apart from one another after taking into account size, location, and financial aid packages? What are students trying to see when they visit Amherst and Wesleyan, or Tufts and Pomona?

Students who are visiting campuses this month are trying to discern the personalities of each school. They are trying to imagine themselves on the campus, to get a feel for the chemistry of the place — to gauge whether they will be happy there. That’s why hundreds of visitors come to Wesleyan each week. They go to classes and athletic contests, musical performances and parties. And they ask themselves: Would I be happy at Wesleyan?

I hope our visitors feel the brave exuberance and ambition of our students, the intelligence and care of our faculty, the playful yet demanding qualities of our community. I hope our visitors can sense our commitment to creating a diversity in which difference is embraced and not just tolerated, and to public service that is part of one’s education and approach to life. Our students have the courage to find new combinations of subjects to study, of people to meet, of challenges to face.

Whatever college or university students choose, I hope they get three things out of their education: discovering what they love to do; getting better at it; learning to share it with others. I explain a little bit more about that in this talk to admitted students a few years ago:

We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into, especially this year (once again) with a record number of applications. But even in the group of highly selective schools, Wes is not for everybody. We aspire to be a community committed to boldness as well as to rigor, to idealism as well as to effectiveness. Whether in the sciences, arts, humanities or social sciences, our faculty and students are dedicated to explorations that invite originality as well as collaboration. The scholar-teacher model is at the heart of our curriculum. Our faculty are committed to teaching and to shaping their disciplines. At Wesleyan, we know how to work hard, but we also know how to enjoy the work we choose to do. That’s been magically appealing to me for more than 30 years. I bet the magic will enchant many of our visitors, too.

Free Speech and Protest at Wesleyan

There have been many times at Wesleyan when student input, including protests, have convinced the administration to take action – the creation of the Resource Center and additional therapists at CAPS are recent examples. This year, when a group of concerned students raised the issue of hiring additional custodians, we studied all the cleaning assignments and found places to make improvements. The students have asked for five more custodians to be hired, but given the analysis of work assignments, we do not think that appropriate. If presented with more data, we can certainly study the assignments again.


Reasonable people can come to different conclusions about this, and students are free to protest the situation and the conclusions we have drawn. At yesterday’s WesFest event (Wesleyan’s admitted students day), while I spoke with visiting families, about a dozen students held signs and stood on the stage in protest. That was within their rights.


But students are not free to disrupt events. University policy allows members of the Wesleyan community to show up at events to protest, though they may not disrupt the event or hinder the ability of the University to conduct normal operations. Today, students have made it impossible for presenters to speak, and for audiences to hear. They have gone beyond the free speech rights guaranteed to protestors.


Those who attempt to shut down events will face disciplinary measures as outlined in the University’s rules and regulations. These make clear that “demonstrators do not have the right to deprive others of the opportunity to speak or be heard…physically obstruct the movement of others, or otherwise disrupt educational or institutional processes.”


We will continue to protect the rights of protestors, but we will also protect the rights of speakers—even those with whom some students disagree—to give their presentations.

Art Rules at Wesleyan

Wesleyan is famous for its open curriculum—for the freedom it gives students rather than the experience of following the rules of having to take one course in a specific field just to say you’ve done it. We do have expectations for students that guide them to some very cool classes—from the Astronomy Department’s always popular classes on the cosmos to the Music Department’s most excellent course on the history of rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe it’s the soft suggestion rather than a hard requirement that enables our students to really find what interests them in an area of the curriculum that they might have missed.

Many people come to Wesleyan intending to study the arts, of course. Our Music, Dance and Film departments have launched students into the forefront of their fields—and I haven’t even mentioned Hamilton and Theater, or the Studio Art Department’s uncanny ability to inspire students to become shapers of adventurous art-making (Cameron Rowland ’11, anyone?).

Spring is an especially great time for the arts at Wesleyan. I went to the senior studio art opening yesterday at Zilkha, and once again the students have produced stunning work. This time of year there are music recitals each week from our inventive graduate students and undergrads presenting their thesis recitals. And this weekend the Theater Department offers Eurydice. Creativity blooms!

The fabulous Davison collection is on display now in a show curated by DAC curator Miya Tokumitsu called “For Effect: Emphatic Bodies from the Renaissance to the Industrial Age.” The show has synergies with the Center for the Humanities theme of hyperbole, presenting “bodies exaggerated in their accouterments, pose, and anatomical proportion from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Across artistic movements and historical contexts, artists exaggerated bodies to evoke from spectators responses as varied as sympathy and shock, offense and desire.”

Jacques Callot (French, 1592 – 1635). The Two Pantaloons (Les Deux Pantalons), 1616. Etching. Second of two states. Friends of the Davison Art Center, Theater Department, and purchase funds, 1971. DAC accession no. 1971.18.1. Open Access Image from the Davison Art Center, Wesleyan University. http://www.wesleyan.edu/dac/openaccess (photo: M. Johnston).

And you can now take work from our Davison collection home with you! No, not stuff from the gallery walls, but you can order museum quality reproductions of our print masterpieces here.

Art rules at Wesleyan!

Fish Species Named After Professor Barry Chernoff

How cool is this? Some Brazilian scientists have named a new species of fish after Wesleyan Professor Barry Chernoff. Barry is the founding director of the College of the Environment and the Robert F. Schumann Professor of Environmental Studies. The abstract from the scientific journal Zootaxa reads as follows:

The species of Bryconops is described from the rio Maicuru, a tributary of the left margin of the lower Amazon River, Pará, Brazil. Bryconops chernoffi new species, differs from all its congeners by the presence of an elongated dark patch of pigmentation immediately after the posterodorsal margin of the opercle, running vertically from the supracleithrum to the distal margin of the cleithrum (vs. absence of a similar blotch), and by a dark dorsal fin with a narrow hyaline band at middle portion of dorsal-fin rays (vs. dorsal fin hyaline or with few scattered chromatophores). It differs further from all its congeners, except B. colanegra, by the presence of a blurred black stripe at the anal fin.

It doesn’t really resemble my friend Barry, who in addition to being a fish scientist and environmentalist, is also a guitar player and songwriter. And now he has fish named in his honor. A true species of Wesleyan, IMHO.

Requiring Kindness and Our New Affirmative Speech Codes!

UPDATE: Happy April 1st!

Over the years, Wesleyan University and many other schools have been criticized for speech codes that can having a “chilling effect” on the exchange of ideas on a campus. Critics have emphasized that even saying you have “zero tolerance for hate” can backfire because hate, like love, may just be in the eye of the beholder. These critics are right. We need positive speech! I announce today that Wesleyan will go far beyond policies to prevent discrimination, harassment and hate; from now on we will promote positivity, nurturing and love.

Preventing hate speech is not enough! We need a positive program for promoting community through exuberant affection. The administration has decided to require students to be good to one another, to show compassion, and to build community through kindness. There will be monitors, and there will be a point system. Sure, it will seem to some artificial at first, but the latest research in neuroscience shows that after you act in a certain way, the feelings will catch up to the actions. In other words, if you smile a lot, you will begin to feel happier — even if the smiling was just a requirement!

So smile, Wesleyans! Over the next few weeks we will roll out policies (with points to incentivize friendly behavior!) to go beyond prohibitions on nastiness. We will nudge ourselves to niceness, and our community will be all the more welcoming for it!

Go Wes!