Reflections on Loss

Yesterday I sent the following message to all who have a Wesleyan email address:

It is with great sadness that I write to inform you that Chase Parr of the Class of 2010 was killed Saturday in a car accident in Wyoming that also claimed the lives of her parents, John Parr and Sandra Widener. The family, who lived in Denver, was en route to a family holiday celebration. Chase’s younger sister, Katy Parr, was seriously injured in the crash, though she is expected to recuperate fully.

This is a devastating loss. Our thoughts go out to Katy and to her extended family. As we receive information about ways members of the campus community can reach out in support of the family, we will keep you posted. We will plan a campus memorial service early in the spring term.

Throughout Colorado there have been commemorations of the Parr-Widener family and their many contributions to their community. Chase’s parents were civic leaders who had a long history of working to improve the Denver area. Chase, a student with a passion for social justice as well as for music and theater, was described by a friend as having “an attitude that whatever she was going to do she was going to change the world for the better.” The newspapers report that Katy is improving, and that it is hoped that she will be released from the hospital by the end of the week.

Wesleyan students and professors have already contacted me about contributing to the memorial for Chase. The Dean of the College’s Office will be communicating more information about this in the New Year.

These are holidays when we often bring our families close, and sometimes it is a time when we recollect those we have lost. May Chase’s memory and the memory of her parents be a blessing to Katy and to all who knew them.

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Continuing Education: Semester #1

My first semester is coming to an end, and as I watch the students make their way across the icy, exquisite terrain of Andrus Field, I find myself reflecting on how these first months of my presidency have developed. I have been listening to students and faculty, to staff and alumni, to trustees and parents, as they try to introduce me to the most pressing issues facing the university today. My second Wesleyan education, like my first, has started with a dramatic encounter with my own ignorance. What do I know about food prices in Usdan or the lines? What about access to courses that are popular but intimate? How can we have more students taking the seminar without spoiling it? How should we balance our immediate budget needs with the long-term health of the school that growing the endowment provides? How can we continue to promote advanced research in all departments while insisting on effective, creative teaching? These are just a few of the many questions I have yet to answer. … Of course, I am still trying to figure out how best to make this blog informative and honest.

By now, people who have read this blog or have heard me speak know that I am given to “thinking in threes.” So, as I think of my chief lessons from semester one, I focus on three main areas:

Access: Wesleyan announced a significant enhancement to our financial aid packages to begin in the fall. We want to ensure that students who are admitted will have the financial assistance they need to thrive here. Many families tell us, though, that we are not doing enough, and they can point to wealthier institutions that are doing more for families in higher income brackets than those to whom Wesleyan offers aid. These families are not poor enough to qualify for the highest support, nor are they rich enough to send students to expensive schools like ours without significant financial sacrifice. I am very aware of this dilemma, and for that reason I have put fundraising for financial aid among our highest priorities. As we increase the size of our endowment for financial aid, we will be able to further ease the financial burden on larger segments of the student body.

Access to Wesleyan isn’t only about financial aid. It is also important that we reach out to new constituencies of students—both in the U.S. and internationally—to introduce the liberal arts and Wesleyan to families from groups currently under-represented on our campus. Diversity is a shared value at our school, but segregation is also a fact of daily life for many on our campus. We must reach out to more groups of potential students, and we must also reach into the various communities at Wesleyan to find ways to connect people across the most obvious identity group barriers.

Communities: I have spent a fair amount of time moving among the various communities that make up the Wesleyan world—from swim meets to COL lectures; from Para la Familia to football games. I know there are plenty of groups I haven’t yet met, and I am looking forward to getting to know students by teaching next term. The multiplicity of groups is exciting, but it also creates challenges for bringing people together in shared purpose, study, even celebration. There are conflicts among our diverse groups over politics, economics, food, personal choices. But we should remember also what we have in common: a devotion to the freedom (and affection) in which education can thrive.

Achievement: I hope to improve access to Wesleyan as I work to strengthen our various communities and their common ties. Why? Because I believe that a Wesleyan education can foster one’s capacity to discover what one loves to do and to get better at it. I’ve seen this throughout my first semester here, as I watch students push themselves to achieve more than they ever thought possible. It is tremendously exciting to see our students shine as performers and scholars, as artists and athletes. Wesleyan students demand a great deal from their education because they give so much to it. I am so grateful to be working among you because it allows me to continue my own education.

Thank you for your patience and your support. Good luck with the remaining papers and exams, and HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

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Classes Are Over

In the final weeks of the semester, there is a frenzy of activity as students scramble to finish their papers, professors hunker down for grading, and the Connecticut climate settles into a chilly grey that for me brings back memories of my student days here.

I spent a few days in the past week visiting alumni in New York. At one meeting most of the participants graduated from Wes in the 1990s. They are now successful teachers and lawyers, not-for-profit administrators, and investment bankers. The early 1990s were a difficult time for Wesleyan, politically and economically. But the academics remained strong. The physical plant of the campus was deteriorating, but the faculty kept the standards of intellectual work very high. The students, at least as represented by the alumni who showed up for breakfast last week, formed intense friendships, encountered cultural diversity, and developed habits of mind and spirit that continue to inform their career and their lives. Like all Wesleyan alumni, they have great ambitions for our school—wanting it to be a leader in liberal arts education. From athletics to the sciences, from music to economics, these alumni want the university to be recognized for excellence. This must be our goal.

Over the weekend I was able to attend a great Wesleyan tradition, and, I trust, start a new one. I attended the extraordinary Worlds of Dance Concert on campus. At this event Wes students of all levels of expertise, and from a myriad of cultural traditions, perform in dances ranging from contemporary hip-hop to traditional Balinese. Outside the packed World Music Hall, spectators gaze in through the windows for a peek at these wonderful performers, cheering on their friends or just taking in the often-exquisite gestures and rhythms. The concert continued in Crowell, with a troupe of beginning jazz dancers (many of them athletes, or scientists, or econ majors) luxuriating in the motion and the music. For me, this tradition of dance at Wesleyan exemplifies our community of diversity and joyful accomplishment.

I had to leave the dance recital to head home for a holiday party of campus kids, with some friends from our daughter’s school added to the mix. Kari and I had about 50 children over at the house, and they made origami ornaments, ate cookies, and chased Mathilde, our lab. It feels like the holidays are almost upon us. Good luck with exams!

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Meetings and Dialogues

Presidents have lots of meetings. At Wesleyan my days are full of scheduled conversations with vice-presidents and deans informing me of ongoing plans, current crises, and budget issues. Students and parents request time to talk over some of the things the university is doing particularly well, or (more often) to discuss areas where we are falling short of expectations. This past week I had three (again three!) very different sorts of meetings that tell me a lot about Wesleyan.

Early in the week some senior administrators and I drove up to Amherst for Little Three meetings. Amherst, Williams and Wesleyan get together once each semester to compare notes on a handful of issues so that we can discover best practices and avoid the worst. There were some interesting exchanges about diversity work on each campus, and I took away the lesson that Wesleyan needs to engage in more serious planning about our goals in this area. How should diversity be part of our recruiting of students, faculty and staff? What is the status of the diversity dialogue on campus? Are we doing enough to ensure that our curriculum and our residential programs are teaching critical thinking about difference as well respect and affection for it? I know that we can do more to create a framework for planning in this area, and we will.

Other topics at the Little Three meeting ranged from library renovation to international students, from co-curricular programs to fund raising. My Wes colleagues and I left feeling especially good about our curriculum and residential learning. Although Williams and Amherst have a great advantage in financial resources, we felt we were using our faculty and student strength for interesting innovations.

Later in the week I had a very different “meeting” with the Wesleyan faculty of Division II – social sciences. The professors from this area gather every few weeks to hear a lecture over lunch, and I accepted the invitation some time ago. I decided to talk about the philosophy of Richard Rorty, who was my teacher at Princeton and a major influence on my work. It was exciting for me to give an academic talk to colleagues about the intersection of philosophy and politics, and I had fun discussing Rorty’s view that there was no longer any need for a “meta-discipline” (or an academic referee) to tell other intellectuals what counted as “real research” or “science” or “Truth.” Although there wasn’t much time, there was a spirited discussion about the future of philosophy after the demise of epistemology. It felt great to be among colleagues in dialogue about ideas.

Speaking of philosophy, the magazine Bookforum recently published my review of a new collection Sarah Kofman’s essays. Kofman was a key French feminist philosopher who wrote in especially powerful ways about Freud and Nietzsche.

Last night was my final meeting of the week, an hour with the Wesleyan Student Assembly. There were great questions about what kinds of students we should be recruiting, about how the campus community can be part of the planning process, about the juvenile Argus headlines, and about weirdness vs. political engagement. We didn’t reach consensus, but we did have a candid conversation that was lively, fun, and, I trust, informative. On this cold, icy night, students turned out who wanted to continue to improve the Wesleyan experience. That’s the best kind of meeting!

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