“Michael Roth, What Are You Doing About Global Warming?” Or, Politics at Wesleyan

Michael Roth, What are you doing about global warming? These were the words I saw graffitied on the sidewalk near my office this week. There were a few more global warming tags at the Usdan Center and walkways. What an important subject, but what a dumb way to articulate it! We asked physical plant workers to clear the surfaces, using even more energy resources than we already were doing. And how was I supposed to respond – with graffiti? I don’t think that would be very effective.

But it is such an important question. Michael Roth, what are you doing about global warming? I don’t think I’m doing enough. I am more conscious now of the energy I use, be it in the car, or in the office, or at home, and my family has become pretty good at recycling and composting. But we should do more, and we are working at it. But whoever scrawled the question near my office probably wanted to know what Wesleyan is doing about global warming. This is a great question, and my answer is similar. We have started to become a much greener, more sustainable campus, but we have much more to do. Recently I met with a group of students, the Environmental Organizers Network, and this group is very well informed about what steps Wesleyan can take to become a more responsible user of energy. We have appointed staff who are now responsible for ensuring that the university moves in a green direction. Our major facilities projects will all be subject to evaluation on their use of energy, and we will hold ourselves to high standards. And I will continue to meet with EON, with faculty and staff to get ideas about how we can do better as an institution to reduce our negative impact on the environment. Finally, we are developing curriculum, from the Center for the Arts to the Exley Science Center (with the Public Affairs Center as hub) to educate our community about the dynamic of climate change and how we can change it. This is not a subject for sloganeering, but it is an important topic for curriculum development and institutional change.

Last week I met with Ashley Casale ’10, who, along with Michael Israel just returned from a walk across the country for peace. I had heard about her efforts when I was in Berkeley, and I was filled with pride that a Wesleyan student was asking the country to wake up to the importance of the struggle for peace in our current political context. We had a small reception for Ashley and some of her friends in South College, and we talked about what Wesleyan is doing to call attention to the war in Iraq, and to efforts to promote peace and justice more generally. We are not doing enough, I said, but if the students have ideas as to how we can promote education about the dynamics of the current war, or about education for political engagement on issues from the war to global warming, I would do my best to support these ideas. I’ve already received some suggestions. Wesleyan should be the place where we can connect our liberal arts education to issues in public life – be they about mismanaged wars, global warming, or threats from terrorism. The connections are not simple (they can’t be reduced to graffiti), but they can be productively explored in classes, in “teach-ins,” and in a variety of co-curricular programming. We are working on it.

Let’s work together – faculty, staff, students – to use our educational resources to have a more positive impact on the culture and on the environment around us!

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Discussing Science with the Scientists

Just a quick note about a fascinating discussion I had with a group of Wesleyan science faculty on Friday over lunch. I was asked to speak on what was distinctive about science education at Wesleyan. There is much to be proud of. Wesleyan receives extraordinary support for our research in the sciences in the competitive world of foundation and government funding. Our undergraduates co-author papers (and go on to do Ph.D. work) at rates that surpass almost all our peer institutions. Our small graduate programs in the sciences add an element of peer mentoring to our educational context, and the grads continue their research and teaching at institutions across the United States.

The scientists turned out in large numbers for my brief remarks (maybe it was the free pizza!). I explained how I thought that the culture of experimentation and research characteristic of our science programs should become a key part of our university-wide culture. I had questions about the graduate programs, about the makeup of our academic Division III (which includes psychology and mathematics), and about what we could do to get the word out about the quality of science education at Wesleyan. There was a lively conversation on topics such as merit scholarships, graduate admissions, and whether math was empirical. I had several e-mails over the weekend that followed up on these and other issues. Clearly, our scientists are eager to engage with academic planning and innovations to curriculum. And this doesn’t even include talk about the great new science facility that we will be building! On this, I knew they had strong views.

I believe that science at Wesleyan has always managed to combine excellence in specific disciplines with a consideration of the context for scientific research. We are committed to understanding the relation of the sciences to public life, and this has never been more important than it is today. That’s the beauty of studying science at a small university: you get to do high level research, but you also stay connected to other fields, and to a broad cultural context.

The work in psychology that I pursued as a student at Wesleyan had little relation to the natural sciences. As someone who studied Sigmund Freud’s contributions to 20th century culture, I was eager to explore the critical social theories that were part of Freud’s writings. I have grown more interested in Freud’s relation to the sciences, but have also continued to explore the political dimensions of his ideas. Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review published my review of Mark Edmundson’s wonderful new book on Freud’s last year, and on the legacy of his ideas. Here’s the link:


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Renewal of Possibility

It has been an eventful week, and there are many things that were striking about my experiences of Wesleyan since my last posting. I have had a range of contacts with staff, students, faculty, and alumni over the past seven days, and the experience brings home to me some of the challenges in being president of this great university.

Just a couple of weeks ago, we were celebrating the opening of the university center, and this week I find myself listening to students who feel that it isn’t meeting their needs in the ways they expect. Some of this, I am told, is part of the beginning of each academic year. There are lines at certain times of day; some people don’t feel they are getting the choices they want. A part of this, I can see, is working with a new food vendor who is also trying to adjust to the Wesleyan context. I take the students’ concerns and the parents’ concerns very seriously. I want us to be offering quality food at affordable prices, and I will make sure we are doing so. I also have to ensure we are getting the input we need from students, from workers at the facility, and from staff so that we make the most helpful adjustments. The Wesleyan community should know that we have a labor code that describes our community standards for fair treatment of those who work on campus. We will abide by this code, and we will monitor our compliance. Still, I doubt that we will be able to satisfy everyone, because we are a community with diverse needs, tastes, and expectations. We will, however, listen to all suggestions as to how we can do a better job for our students in a context that treats all employees and customers fairly.

In the middle of this week I was in Boston for meetings with our Science Advisory Council and with parents and alumni. The SAC meeting was at the Cambridge offices of Vertex, a biotechnology company founded by Joshua Boger ’73. Josh is on Wesleyan’s board of trustees, and he is a great supporter of the institution. He majored in chemistry and philosophy (!) while here, and has gone on to become a pioneer in the development of new drugs for viral diseases, including HIV, cancer, pain, and inflammation. The discussion centered on the quality of scientific research at Wesleyan and on how we can enhance it. We were very lucky to have input from Geoff Duyk ’80, who helped us think more clearly and precisely about our needs and goals. A key component of our efforts will be to connect research in the sciences to other aspects of the curriculum. When we talk about scientific literacy at Wesleyan, we mean learning habits of thinking, investigation, and evaluation that work in fields seemingly quite distant from biology and chemistry. Another crucial aspect of our work with the SAC is the planning and construction of a major new facility for the life sciences. We saw some very exciting plans at this meeting, and I am sure to be writing about this project in subsequent postings.

The meeting with a small group of Boston parents and alumni was very interesting. It was hosted by Tim Dibble ’86, the son of a beloved Wesleyan faculty member. The conversation was very engaging, and I heard from graduates from the 1950s and the most recent decade. What did they have in common? The first thing was the strong commitment to financial aid at Wesleyan. We must keep the university accessible to people from all social classes. The second thing was the importance of faculty-student relations at Wesleyan. People spoke movingly about how professors made a powerful difference in their lives, inside and outside the classroom. We also spoke about how the relationships formed at Wesleyan continued to be our networks later in life, and about the importance of our school remaining a culture in which accidental encounters can lead to lifelong friendships. I left the meeting reinvigorated about Wesleyan’s potential.

After the meeting I spent an hour or so with Bill Belichick ’75, the coach of the New England Patriots. We talked about the difficulty of getting a team to play together, to have the combination of discipline and passion that makes for the most satisfying experience, that makes for performance at the highest level. Coach Belichick emphasized practice and preparation, the goal of improving each time you work on a specific task. As we drove back to Middletown, I started to think about some of the ways I might work at becoming a more effective president, starting with listening more closely to students and faculty.

I wish all our teams the best in this weekend’s contests. Tomorrow is Wesleyan’s opening football game, but I won’t be there to watch very much of it. Tonight begins Yom Kippur, a day that in my tradition calls for reflection, repentance, and a renewal of possibility. In retrospect, “the renewal of possibility” may be the theme of this past week. May it last!

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This week marked the beginning of the High Holiday season for Jews, and for Muslims the beginning of Ramadan. Over the last few years I had grown close to a group of people at my schul in Berkeley (the minyan at Temple Beth El), and I wondered how I would feel this time of year in a new town. I’d met the wonderfully energetic rabbi, David Leipziger, but what would the community be like?

Although my brother and his family live within driving distance in New York, I decided to attend the services at Wesleyan this year. I thought it would be a good way to see how some of our students celebrated the Jewish holidays. It was a lovely experience. I understand from various people that religious (or spiritual) practices of various sorts now play a more important part on campus than they did, for example, when I was a student in the 1970s. It is worth being reminded that students at Wesleyan don’t conform to any rigid stereotypes, except perhaps that they are questioning, searching people. Some of them search through religious practices. Some, through a critique of those practices. Some even do both!

The Rosh Hashanah celebrations were thoughtful, musical, welcoming. I found them very moving. I even got to carry the Torah around our makeshift schul (long ago a gym!), in the tradition that allows congregants to reach out and touch the scroll with a gesture that combines respect and affection. At this time of year, we ask to turn ourselves towards a more meaningful life, and also towards our “best selves” — who we really are and who we want to become. In the Jewish tradition these days of “turning” are called the Days of Awe.

Yesterday, the rabbi asked Imam Sohaib Sultan, the Wesleyan Muslim chaplain, to join him for the sermon. Since Ramadan has just begun, he explained that his voice might be weaker than usual, since he had not eaten or had water since sunrise. In fact, he spoke quietly and powerfully about his traditions. It was a new year’s gift. It was also a “teaching moment,” time for us to think about how our practices overlap, how they differ, how we can learn from one another. Perhaps Sohaib was “turning,” too.

In a community that so values innovation and experimentation, it is also good to find our traditions thoughtfully explored and thus preserved.

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Beginning Conversations: The Board Retreat, A CSS Lecture

The past few days have been extraordinarily busy. On Friday (9/7) we dedicated the new Usdan University Center, and there were many alumni, former trustees, and other friends of Wesleyan in town to help us celebrate. We were able to recognize a variety of contributors who made the planning and construction possible over the last ten years (!), and for me it was an opportunity to connect to many people who care about our school and who help move things forward. Standing on the third-floor terrace of the Usdan Center (or “the Suze,” as I’m told students call it) and looking across Andrus Field and Foss Hill, I am very grateful for the work of Doug Bennet and the trustees who envisioned this building at this location years ago.

Now, I know from reading the parents’ listserv and by talking to students, that our operation of the building has had some bumps in the last couple of weeks. As was true with MoCon, lines at the beginning of the year can be long, and we are still fixing issues in the building and in our getting food to students in a timely way. I can see progress, and we will continue to try to improve service to students, faculty, and staff who use the facility. Indeed, we expect “the Suze” to become a friendly hub for eating, conversation, and student committee meetings. Someone wrote in, concerned about it being “bland” and ordinary. This is a very traditional concern at Wesleyan, and often it is an expression of a desire to see things stay the way they used to be (for whomever is waxing nostalgic). I don’t share this concern myself, as I see students making the place their own, inventing their own education even as they learn from others.

The Wesleyan Board of Trustees begins the academic year with a retreat, which means here a day and a half of meetings focused on strategic issues facing the university. This was an occasion for me to talk with the Board (which includes representatives from the faculty and students) about my first impressions of coming back to Wesleyan, and to lay out some of the planning and research work we are taking on. There were three major areas of focus: endowment growth to make possible more robust financial aid and exciting innovations in the curriculum we offer our students; facilities enhancement, especially in the life sciences; communication effectiveness to clarify what Wesleyan stands for in the world of progressive liberal arts education. We discussed many other topics, but we kept returning to these key themes. I am sure to be writing about them again and again in the months to come as we consult with students, alumni, faculty, and staff about these priorities.

On a very different note, yesterday I had the great pleasure of giving a lunchtime talk for the College of Social Studies. It was wonderful to discuss my academic work in intellectual history, philosophy of history, and political theory – rather than the administrative side of my life. I focused on my work on contemporary French philosophy, psychoanalysis, and American pragmatism. At the beginning of the summer, I published a piece in Bookforum about the work in aesthetics of Jean-Luc Nancy, and I am now trying to finish a piece about my teacher, the great American pragmatist, Richard Rorty. Recently I sent off reviews of Mark Edmundson’s new book on Freud’s final year and of John Brenkman’s on political theory since 9/11. Today, of course, is the anniversary of that awful day. My remarks were about how my recent short writing is connected to my long-term intellectual interests.

The students at CSS are as tough minded and engaged as I remember them. In this program they learn to connect the kind of philosophical issues I was talking about with contemporary social, economic, and policy issues. They seemed engaged with one another and with the issues I brought up. It was only an hour, but it was a great sign to me of the energy and curiosity that have been the hallmarks of this program. We were fortunate last week to announce in The Wall Street Journal the Zilkha Chair in CSS, which is a wonderful way of enhancing the quality of this interdisciplinary program.

Here is the link to my Bookforum review of Nancy. I’ll post the links to the other reviews when they are published.

Thanks again to those people who have commented on what I’ve posted thus far. As I said initially, I won’t be able to respond to individual messages, but I do connect those posts that offer suggestions and criticism to the appropriate offices. I will try to find some time to introduce some more visual interest to the blog, but it may take a little while as I learn my way around the university.

My introduction to Wesleyan continues. THANKS FOR ALL THE HELP!

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Classes Are Underway…

I want to thank the folks who so generously expressed their support and welcome in their comments on my first entry. I am new to blogging, and undoubtedly I will make some mistakes. I guess that’s part of the drill.

Classes are now underway, and it is exciting to see the returning students mixing with our new frosh. Of course, there are the frustrations of the beginning of the semester. Not everyone gets the classes they want on the first try, and advisors are scrambling with their students to put together a rewarding collection of courses for every student. I remember my own disappointment long ago, when the creative writing professor discovered that I wasn’t in the “Junior or Senior” category and had to kick me out of his class. As a frosh, I was very annoyed (and even a little offended by the idea of class entry hierarchy), and I wound up sitting in a philosophy class taught by a visitor. I was very fortunate, and it turned out to be a life changing class. I loved the course, and I still study the philosophers I began reading that semester.

I know not everyone will be that fortunate, and that’s why we will closely monitor our ability to deliver courses that meet students’ needs as early in their careers as possible. We’ve enhanced our advising work this year so that we can meet the needs of our students more efficiently and intelligently. We will study the results of the enhancement to see if it is working.

Walking through the bookstore, I enjoy just perusing the shelves to see what my colleagues are assigning. It has been thirty years or so since I’ve been in the Wesleyan bookstore, but in some ways the experience is very familiar. The store itself seems spiffier, and there are certainly more items for sale to remind us of alma mater. But the textbooks still offer wonderful examples of continuity and change. I see classics that I studied (or wish I had studied!) in my youth, and intriguing new titles that remind me of how much more there is to learn. There are courses, like one in political theory, with many books (one per week, I suppose). Others, like a frosh seminar I wish I could take, with a single slim (and endlessly deep) volume. There are the fat, up-to-date science textbooks, and the skinny poetry paperbacks – each promising measures of insight and mystery. Religions of the world are represented through their sacred texts and commentaries, and the philosophical critiques of faith are there, too.

I am reminded that a great university, like Wesleyan, has an obligation to be innovative, cutting edge, and experimental. And it has an obligation to take care (to understand, appreciate, sometimes preserve) of the cultures that cannot be so easily integrated into our contemporary ways of thinking.
This weekend is my first meeting with the Board of Trustees since assuming the presidency. I have been very impressed with the individual conversations with board member over the last few months. They are all alumni or parents of students, and they care deeply about Wesleyan. Like the alum who posted a comment on this blog, they are reasonably skeptical. They are not satisfied with what is going on at any particular moment because they want, as I do, Wesleyan to remain self-critical, ambitious, and demanding. Next week I’ll be able to relate some of the major issues that get discussed at the retreat. But being at the trustee retreat means I’ll miss the first sports events of the season. Even the president can’t be everywhere!

Besides blogging and learning the presidential ropes, last week I sent off book reviews to the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. It is important for me to continue to write about topics independent of my administrative work. In this case, the books had to do with Sigmund Freud, on the one hand, and contemporary political theory, on the other. I’ll post the links to the reviews when they are published. On Monday, I am to give a lunchtime talk at the College of Social Studies about my recent scholarly work. I am eager to meet the CSS community, and I’ll be able to report on my impressions of this unique aspect of the Wesleyan community.

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