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:

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Adaptive Capacity

Last week we had the stunning news that one of our faculty members, Gary Yohe, was recognized as part of the team awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work on global warming. Gary is a senior member and coordinating lead author on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the prize with Al Gore. We are very proud of this Wesleyan economist’s scholarship, which lies at the intersection of liberal learning and public life, of public policy and quantitative analysis.

Gary has taught at Wesleyan since 1977, and is now the Woodhouse/Sysco Professor of Economics. His recent work on climate change has focused on modes of measuring relative vulnerability to global warming. He has been able to show the dramatically unequal effects of changes to climate, allowing for a more empirically based discussion of the social justice issues that we face in regard to the costs of adjusting to a warmer planet.

Gary and his colleagues have developed a concept of “adaptive capacity” as a vehicle for understanding how various species cope with changes to the environment. Some species of dragonflies now can be found more than 90 kilometers north of their traditional habitats. Birds are laying eggs earlier; hibernation schedules have found a different rhythm. Some species will adapt; the most vulnerable will disappear.

I’ve been thinking about this notion of “adaptive capacity” as I consider how we at Wesleyan can commit to having a less harmful impact on our environment. Do those with more resources, with a capacity to change, have a responsibility to protect the most vulnerable? Wouldn’t this extend beyond the environment to other issues of social justice?

How adaptive are we? At Wesleyan we cultivate the courage to change, the ability to adapt by creatively responding to our culture, our environment. And we want to cultivate a productive self-consciousness of how change affects the most vulnerable. Courage should entail responsibility.

Wesleyan has been learning from Professor Gary Yohe for decades. We are delighted that the world has recognized the importance of his teaching. Congratulations, Gary!

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Old Haunts, New Challenges

I am writing this blog entry from San Francisco, where I went for a quick trip to participate in the centenary celebrations of California College of the Arts, where I was president from 2000 to 2007. CCA had organized an alumni reunion for the weekend, and it was a treat for me to catch up with faculty, my colleagues in the administration, board members, and my old students. The school seems to be thriving, and I was especially pleased to see the new Graduate Center, which was recently completed in the South of Market section of San Francisco. This was a project that we had planned over the last few years, and it was exciting to stand in the new buildings that look over what is now an SF campus that also offers a perspective on downtown San Francisco. CCA emphasizes learning through the arts, and I know that some of our Wesleyan alumni have gone onto its graduate programs in design, architecture and fine arts. Larry Sultan, who has taught photography there for years, told me that his studio assistant is coming to Wes to teach in the spring.

Before heading out to California I visited with alumni in New York to talk about, among other things, our plans to enhance financial aid. This is a project that the Wesleyan family can support no matter when they graduated, no matter what their particular majors. We want our school to maintain rigorous admission standards, and these are only meaningful to us if we are sure that access to the university is open to people regardless of their ability to pay. Fellow blogger (and Sun CEO) Jonathan Schwartz encouraged me to ensure that our students have the support they need to succeed. He reminded me that he had no resources when at Wesleyan, and that if not for a scholarship he would never have graduated. Alumni support equitable access, and their financial contributions actually make it possible. Tuition only covers about 2/3 of the cost of a student’s education, and so we are dependent on the generosity of our alumni, parents and other supporters to subsidize the college careers of all our students. This generosity is especially important to ensure that our financial aid packages allow students with high economic need to thrive once they enroll (and not to graduate with too much debt!). Later this semester I hope to be writing more about new initiatives at Wesleyan in this regard.

While I was away (and many of our students are away on fall break), our student athletes had another great weekend of contests. I was able to watch parts of the football game on the web, and I heard about the other contests from excited fans who emailed me. Congratulations to all, and let’s all of us maintain the momentum in the second half of the semester. GO WES!!

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Looking back, Looking forward

One of the most interesting aspects of returning to Wesleyan is the combination of tradition and change that I experience in meeting with members of the university family. This week that combination was especially powerful.

Looking back. This week I met with alumni groups in Philadelphia and Washington. The discussions were lively and heartening. It was great to hear an alumnus who graduated 50 years ago talk about diversity as a value he has learned through his long-term connection to our alma mater. We all agreed that we valued an education that taught you how to have an open mind – how to keep listening to ideas that were disturbing or that caused you to “stretch” from your assumptions, your comfort zone. We also agreed on how important faculty relationships had been to our learning experience, both formal and informal. And we agreed that we were committed to giving Wesleyan the resources to continue to offer robust financial aid so as to remain accessible to anyone who has the talent and ambition to thrive here.

Looking forward. Before heading to Philadelphia I attended my second faculty meeting. I talked about the planning process of the next few months, and how I hoped that after consultation with key university stakeholders we would develop a handful of key priorities on which we can work for the next five years. There were important questions concerning the process (will it be inclusive enough? will there be opportunities to critique results before they become finalized?) and the results (what happens to elements of our curriculum that don’t make it into the final handful of priorities?). I am looking forward to ongoing discussions of these issues so that we can focus on some key objectives in our fundraising, but also so that we can continue to support a wide-ranging curriculum with plenty of room for studies that don’t cultivate popularity or donors.

Looking back. On Friday I participated in a memorial service in the Chapel for Stephen Crites, for decades a beloved professor of religion and philosophy at Wesleyan. Although I didn’t study with Steve, we knew one another when I was a student in the 1970s. Somehow, he knew that I was interested in Hegel (he was a great scholar of Hegel and Kierkegaard), and we would chat about this from time to time. He offered me suggestions on some key texts, and I would always look forward to his interventions at public lectures. He was generous and jovial, acute yet open. At the memorial I met his former students, some of them now professors with their own followings. We heard from colleagues from Wes and elsewhere, and their eloquence was matched only by their affection for our departed colleague. The glorious music (Steve was a formidable singer) brought us together in a community of remembrance and gratitude. As a philosopher, Steve had explored how narrative shapes our very experience. As a faculty member, he is forever part of this university’s narrative, and his legacy still shapes and deepens the many lives he touched.

Looking forward. I was delighted to learn that a faculty/staff/student committee recently met and unanimously recommended that I sign the Presidents’ Statement on Sustainability. The committee is also looking for ways that we can go beyond this statement, so it’s not just my signature on a document, but a community-wide commitment to becoming more environmentally responsible. Once I receive the recommendations, I will be able to write more specifically on what we will be doing. Meanwhile, I am grateful for all the input on the blog, and I am looking forward to signing the document in the context of a wide-ranging effort to ensure that Wesleyan has a more positive impact on our environment.

Our campus community exists to educate students to think more deeply and effectively, and then to connect that thinking to the world in ways that are fulfilling and effective. That’s at the core of what makes an education at Wesleyan meaningful decades after graduation. The president, too, must find ways to stretch his mind, and to keep it open! I have been reading with great interest the comments on my blog posts, and I am trying to learn from them. Our campus community is a learning community. And it’s making me think harder about how we can be more effective in our teaching, and in our engagement.

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