Flying home from yet another trip to visit with alumni, I reflect on some of my recent conversations. In Chicago I had lunch with Burt Kaplan ’62, a dedicated alumnus who continues to draw on the liberal arts education he experienced at Wesleyan more than 40 years ago. I was delighted to discover our common admiration for Norman O. Brown, whom Burt knew while a student, and who became a hero of mine when I read Life Against Death as an undergraduate. A classics professor at Wesleyan, Brown had authored one of the great books on Freud and politics. He was confined by no disciplinary boundaries, and he was a truly learned man and an inspiring teacher.
Burt showed me his extraordinary home on Lake Michigan, designed by Peter Gluck, and his wonderful painting collection. We talked about how Wesleyan’s education transforms lives, and his interest in helping his alma mater. Though neither of us were music majors, we agreed that one of the great gifts that the university gave us was an openness to music from a variety of cultures. We spoke about enhancing Wesleyan’s ability to do that in the future because it is a gift we will always carry with us.
I went on to Los Angeles to meet with Jeanine Basinger and a few members of what in L.A. is called the Wesleyan Film Mafia (Professor Basinger calls them “my babies”). Jeanine has a wonderful new book out with Knopf, The Star Machine, and she is on a book-signing tour. It was exhilarating to see her effect on her former students. They positively light up when she enters the room, and then they restart conversations that date back to their undergrad days. Studio heads, award-winning writers, producers, directors, and actors become engaged students once again. Their affection for their teacher and for Wesleyan is palpable. We celebrated with Jeanine at a lovely dinner party at Michael Bay’s incredible house overlooking the city. Michael (’86) was recently at Wesleyan to donate a copy of his latest film, Transformers, as well as to make a gift for the new film building.
At the dinner Jeanine turned the conversation to Wesleyan. But she and her former students didn’t want to just dwell on the good old days of their youth; they wanted to talk about Wesleyan’s future. I told them about our priority-setting process, and about how we were continuing to cultivate an experimental community that is demanding and productive. The combination of spirited, passionate learning, jubilant play, and of compelling creative work is what we all value. The Film Studies department exemplifies those qualities and has become an essential part of the university as a whole. As it turned out, that’s what we were all celebrating, led by Jeanine.
I am eager to get back to Middletown to see my family. This week will be especially intense, as we prepare for my inauguration (and Family Weekend, Homecoming, the dedication of Beckham Hall). Monday night starts President’s Picks, a series of movies the film dept asked me to put together for the week of my inauguration. We begin with Ernst Lubitsch’s Shop Around the Corner, a perfect little gem of a movie.
P.S. There was a lovely review of Prof. Basinger’s The Star Machine in this morning’s (1/31/07) New York Times. Here’s the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/31/books/31grim.html?_r=1&oref=slogin.