More on Financial Aid for Students (and for a station!)

Some of the comments I’ve received on the blog and in person concern the limitations of Wesleyan’s initiative to reduce student indebtedness. Many wonder if we have created a financial aid paradigm that will result in entering classes of wealthy students and poor students (whose tuition is paid through grants). What happens, many ask, to middle-class families who can’t afford the tuition but don’t qualify for robust aid?This is a question we ask ourselves all the time. And the issue has led us to reduce student loan requirements for all who qualify for aid. A third of our aid recipients are from families earning more than $100k a year, and almost a quarter from families earning more than $125k annually. Like many of the most selective private colleges and universities in the United States, Wesleyan has chosen to focus its aid on need rather than to reallocate financial aid for merit scholarships. There is no reason to assume that merit scholarships would disproportionately aid students from middle-income households. In any case, can our school do more to identify real financial need among middle-class families? I bet we can, and that’s why we regularly review our financial aid allocations and formulae. In order to remain truly need blind, we must be sensitive to the variety of sacrifices families must make to send their students to Wesleyan. And our fundraising is focused on bringing more resources to support a creative use of grants to support middle-class and low-income families.Our recent initiative to reduce student indebtedness is, I realize, only one step in our efforts to enhance financial aid. With the generous support of the Wesleyan community, I am confident that we will be able to make further strides to reduce financial pressures on the significant percentage of our student body who need financial assistance to thrive here.————————————————————-Every morning I wake up to NPR on Wesleyan’s radio station, WESU (88.1 or In the afternoons there are engaging public affairs shows, with creative music programming in the evenings and on weekends. Now is the time to support the station’s pledge drive, and here’s how (courtesy of Jesse Sommer ’05):“WESU has really blossomed over the last three years. In that time, station members introduced Internet broadcasting, created a public affairs department, founded a nonprofit booster club, began publishing WESU Magazine, developed a regimented DJ training program, built new studios, initiated annual fundraisers, and fully upgraded the station’s technology. And WESU is still Wesleyan University’s largest student organization and most vibrant partnership with Middletown. The broadcast schedule now boasts a record 140 inhouse programs, including free-form music and local public affairs shows. Call our donation hotline at 860/687-7700, or donate online at

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Thanksgiving and The First Taste of Snow

This past weekend Wesleyan’s Board of Trustees was in town for its first full meeting of the academic year. The Board is a devoted group of alumni and parent volunteers whose role it is to ensure the long-term health of the university. Some have been connected to Wesleyan for more than forty years; a few others are recent graduates. They meet with faculty and students, and they take on some issues facing the school: from fund raising to faculty welfare, from facilities to the quality of the student experience. In addition to the regular business of the Board, this time we also joined in signing the Campus Climate Commitment, which was a topic of many comments on an earlier issue of this blog. The Trustee Chair and I also met with a very thoughtful student group that is urging the university to divest from companies that manufacture weapons. We will be organizing substantial discussions of this issue with students and trustees later this semester.

During the formal board meeting, we’ve added time for an open discussion of an issue of general importance for the university. At this meeting we focused on Recruiting for and Admission to Wesleyan. We discussed at some length what kinds of students would really thrive here. What should Wesleyan be looking for as we recruit our next classes? Based on input from trustees prior to the meeting, we identified five broad categories: Intelligence, Demonstrated Achievement, Independence, Character, and Diversity. There were few surprises, really, but we benefited from a frank discussion of the personality of our campus community, how it is perceived, and how it is evolving. Words like “intensity,” “resilience,” and “experimental” came up often, and so did qualities like adventurousness, and a passionate engagement with ideas. My conclusion: Wesleyan students should have the courage to use their talents and intelligence to lead meaningful lives and contribute to the world.

After the Trustee meetings, we had the great pleasure of seeing the faculty-student production of Oedipus Rex. The play, directed by Theater professor Yuriy Kordonskiy, was staged with intensity and wit. The student actors brought out the political dimensions in their performance (Oedipus Tyrannus!) as well as the psychologically crushing confrontation of ambition and fate. Bravo!

Students in this shortened week have been taking exams, finishing papers, while faculty have been grading and preparing for the final push of the semester. Winter athletics is now underway, and I had great pleasure of watching our men and women swim against Amherst on Monday. Although we did not prevail against our Little Three opponent, we offered tenacious competition, and some races were downright thrilling. I was proud to see our swimmers and divers striving for excellence, and in the process they pushed themselves beyond what they had thought they could attain. Another Bravo!

The campus is beginning to empty out, as students head off to Thanksgiving celebrations around the country, and staff members take some vacation days to prepare their own feasts. The weather now feels like the New England autumns I remember. Yesterday we had our first light snow of the season, and my daughter Sophie ran outside with glee to catch a few flakes on her tongue. “This move to the East Coast isn’t so bad after all,” she smiled. As my family gathers at our new home at Wesleyan, I know we have much to be thankful for.


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Questions and Conversations: Past and Present

Yesterday I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Cecilia Miller’s class on European Intellectual History from the Ancient Greeks through the Renaissance. Professor Miller asked me to talk about how I became an intellectual historian myself, and the students (ranging from frosh through senior theses writers) read a few of my essays on history and memory. As I spoke with the students about my scholarly interests, I kept coming back to my own undergraduate Wesleyan education. My first book (Psychoanalysis as History: Negation and Freedom in Freud) was based on my senior thesis here, and my second book (Knowing and History: Appropriations of Hegel in 20th Century France) certainly came out of the work I did at Wesleyan on Hegel. My subsequent research and publications also were linked to the intellectual and political concerns that I began to develop at Wesleyan. My autobiographical reflections as an intellectual historian turned out to be reflections on the education we offer here.

The students in Prof. Miller’s class were awfully impressive. They asked good, probing questions about the links among my works, and about some central concepts I use (but perhaps don’t develop adequately!). I realized that I should have left more time for discussion because these were very able young men and women who had read some of my work with important critical insights. For example, in my introduction to a book called The Ironist’s Cage: Memory, Trauma and the Construction of History, I use the concept of “piety” to describe a vehicle for moving beyond ironic cultural criticism. Although I wrote this essay twenty years ago, I still need to develop that concept further. The students, bless their hearts, pointed this out. Teacher, you must keep learning!

On a very different, but equally impressive, level, this past week I met with a student group against the war in Iraq. Following on a resolution passed last spring by the Wesleyan Student Assembly, they are asking that the University divest from its holdings in two companies that make weapons used in the current conflict. If the university is going to be a socially responsible investor, they argue, it cannot maintain its holdings in these companies. The arguments of the students were thoughtful and well informed. Furthermore, they had gathered significant support from others on campus through a petition drive. As I listened to their presentation, I recalled my own student days when we urged Wesleyan to divest from companies doing business with South Africa. The students today, I thought, are better prepared than I remember being.

Wesleyan has the good fortune to have a Board of Trustees that listens to the views of students and faculty, and this committee will have a chance to make its case. I look forward to a productive conversation about these important matters with students, board members, and faculty. I told the students that I could not predict the conclusion of these conversations, but I could ensure that there would be a reasonable presentation of Wesleyan’s position after all the arguments were heard. Stay tuned.

Whatever one’s position on the war in Iraq, I think the Wesleyan community can be proud that we are offering support for returning veterans. Too often in our history, veterans have been badly neglected by the country they were asked to serve. In recent years few have had the opportunity to benefit from a first-rate liberal arts education. To address this, two of our alumni—Frank Sica ’73 and Jonathan Soros ’92—have generously contributed funds to secure scholarships at Wesleyan for those who have served in some branch of the military. This is an important signal of support for these men and women, and it will add to the real diversity of the Wesleyan campus. You can read about the specifics of this program at:

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Coming Home

I am finally coming down from the amazing experience of the events of the inauguration weekend. I was delighted to see how many people attended the ceremony in the Silloway Gymnasium, and I was especially grateful that my family and some of my childhood friends were able to attend. There were also some Wesleyan classmates whom I hadn’t seen in decades. Having my teacher, Carl Schorske (from my frosh year at Wes, who later supervised my dissertation), introduce me at the ceremony was intensely moving for me. Carl is now in his 90s, and his perspective on Wesleyan and on me was memorable. The combination of tradition and experimentation in the ceremony was so Wesleyan! I loved seeing the academic procession in regalia to the funky beat of Jay Hoggard’s great music.

An inauguration ceremony itself is an affirmation of both institutional legacy and new beginnings. I was privileged to have three former Wes presidents in attendance, each of whom had an investiture with many similarities to my own. The alumni, faculty, and the board of trustees are also a powerful expression of institutional continuity. On the other hand, the marking of a new presidency, combined with the students’ incredible energy, are potent symbols of the importance of change. I tried to reflect on both of these dimensions in my speech. I spoke about the ideals behind Wesleyan’s approach to the liberal arts, but also about concrete initiatives (on the environment, on financial aid) that we are getting underway now. There is a link to my speech on the Wesleyan Web site: I must have made nine speeches over the weekend to various groups, but the most nerve-wracking performance was playing “I’m Old Fashioned” in front of all those people. I was sweating bullets!!

There were so many memorable moments. The football team put up a valiant effort in very difficult conditions. The Wes seminars were incredible, and I had the treat of hearing my former student, Darcy Buerkle, and former teacher, Henry Abelove, give back-to-back seminars. Walter Mosley was a very powerful speaker as we dedicated Beckham Hall during the Dwight Greene Symposium. I was delighted with the fundraiser for the Green Street Art Center, and my old friend Andrea Marcovicci gave a lovely concert of WWII songs to benefit our work in the North End of Middletown. I thought I was going to faint when she sang to me on stage, but instead I just took it all in.

Another highlight of the weekend for me was strolling over to Psi U with my brother, sons, and nephews around midnight on Saturday night. I got to sit in for a blues number with the amazingly talented Wesleyan faculty musicians of Busted Roses. It was great fun, and the students’ enthusiasm was exhilarating. The last time I was in Psi U was probably in the 1970s. I certainly never imagined back then that I would one day become the president of Wesleyan. I would have been more likely to fantasize about being in a rock and roll band. So, this weekend I got to rock a little as the prez. Pretty cool…. at least for one song!

I want to thank the Wesleyan community for the incredible welcome of these last few months, which all seemed to be crystallized in the weekend’s festivities. On this Homecoming Weekend, I really felt as though I had come home.

On a more sober, scholarly note: On Sunday the San Francisco Chronicle published my review of John Brenkman’s recent book in political theory. Here’s the link:

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