Spiritual (and Intellectual) Life

Yesterday I met with a thoughtful and dedicated group of students, faculty and staff who had spent the last several months studying religious and spiritual life at Wesleyan. I had heard about the group even before I started my presidency, and I confess that I was taken by surprise. Wes has a reputation for, as the Princeton Guide puts it, being a great place ‘to ignore God on a regular basis,’ and I suppose I’d bought into that stereotype. But the task force painted a compelling picture of the diversity of religious practices on campus – from a vibrant Christian fellowship to Buddhist House, from an increasingly active Muslim prayer group to the Jewish students who gather for Shabbat. Although I did not think that we needed a Dean of Spiritual Affairs (an early suggestion that seemed only to increase our bureaucracy), I did recognize that religion was playing more of a role for our community than I had realized.

The task force members with whom I met yesterday had some very powerful recommendations for creating a campus climate in which religious practices can become more informed by different faith groups, and in which students of faith can be as open about their beliefs as other groups are about their own political and personal convictions. Although I pushed back a bit because of the institutionalized and theologically justified intolerance that does characterize some major faith groups, I certainly recognize the need for our campus to be open to religious and spiritual expression and practice. And although I don’t yet know how to create the required space, I can also see that we need places for practice that allow members of our community to explore their faiths in an appropriate context. I had started off the conversation thinking that the spiritual life of our campus was a great part of our diversity, and that all the administration had to was to ‘get out of the way.’ Alas, it’s not that simple. Some support could enrich our students’ experience. We’ll find it.


One of the great delights of living on campus is that I get to hear some extraordinary writers and artists, scholars and scientists, discuss their work. Wesleyan’s Distinguished Writers Series is a wonderful part of our campus, but I have rarely been able to participate in the program. This week novelist and essayist André Aciman was on campus to give a public talk about writing, and also to meet with students and faculty in seminar format. Aciman writes beautifully on love and loss, on exile and the longing for home. It was my honor to introduce him (and get him to autograph my copy of Call Me By Your Name). Today, biochemist Craig Mello is on campus to talk about his research on RNA. Dr. Mello received the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2006 for his work with Andrew Fire on RNA’s ability to interfere with the production of the genetic material that a virus needs to reproduce itself. This important discovery has opened a crucial new domain of research in molecular biology, with great potential for practical application. This is perfect for a Wesleyan audience.

I’m so glad I’m still in school!!

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Wesleyan in Los Angeles

I’m on my way back from California, where the Film Studies faculty and I attended the great annual party at the Creative Artist Agency. Rick Nicita ’67 is one of the directors of this talent agency, and each year he throws a cocktail party at which a couple of hundred Wes alums can compare notes on their screenplays, TV pilots, cinematography, and the crazy business world that is Hollywood. I didn’t know about the event until I was appointed to the presidency, and now I’m told regularly how Wesleyan “runs the entertainment world.” That’s a slight exaggeration, but it is true that from heads of major studios to composers and Oscar winning writers, producers and directors, our little university has had a BIG impact on what we watch on the screen.

How did it happen that a small liberal arts school has managed to do this? The story has to start with Jeanine Basinger, who has built the program from scratch and turned it into one of the premier films studies departments in the country. Jeanine’s devotion to her students is legendary, and while she has taught effectively and built the program, she has also published a group of important books contributing to the history of American cinema. The department’s ethos of creative teamwork has led to the development of a network of caring and effective alumni. They help each other out, and they have confidence in the broad-based liberal arts education of Wes grads. The result is that the “Wesleyan Mafia” is the gold standard in Hollywood.

I was particularly delighted to see the great wave of affection that greeted Prof. Rich Slotkin, who is stepping down this term after more than 40 years of teaching Film and American Studies at Wes. The young film scholars Lisa Dombrowski and Scott Higgins rounded out the Middletown contingent, and recent alumni joined with more senior classes to greet us and ask for news of Wesleyan today. The talent, energy and loyalty of the alumni were truly impressive.

I shouldn’t, though, give the impression that our LA alumni are only found in the entertainment industry. Some have leadership positions in research and education, museums and the symphony, science, medicine and the business world. Of course, there are many who started in one sector and wound up in a totally different one. They are Wesleyan alumni after all!

People often ask me how “practical” it is to study the liberal arts. I’ll write more about that another time, but I got a powerful sense in the last few days of how a great group of our students have gone out to develop productive and creative careers that draw on their broad-based Wesleyan education. Los Angeles may be a long way from Middletown, but the liberal arts seeds planted in central Connecticut are indeed blooming in southern California.

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College Parents, Alumni Parents

This week I was in New York again for Wesleyan, but I spent more time than usual with what was for me a different facet of our community: parents. On Thursday night the mother and father of a current student welcomed a group to their Manhattan apartment. Once I stepped into their home, I knew it was going to be an exciting evening. In every room, on every wall, there was wonderfully interesting art to look at. Many of the pictures I recognized with pleasure from my years in California. The passion and thoughtfulness that one could see in the collection were manifest throughout the evening in conversations with all the parents who attended. Whether the subject was drinking on campus or the role of the liberal arts in our contemporary economy, the parents who attended had important insights to offer. Moreover, they were clearly enthusiastic about the experience of their students at Wesleyan. Of course, they also had suggestions concerning how we might still improve things. These are suggestions worth paying attention to!

On Friday I had lunch with a group of parents whose students graduated over the last several years. They had been very involved with the university while their sons and daughters were enrolled, and they are still interested in how where the university is progressing and how they can stay involved. Is it odd that they remain connected to Wesleyan now that their students are alumni, one wondered? I don’t think so. They became stakeholders of the institution through their children, and they remain positively connected on their own.

Much has been written about “helicopter parents” hovering over their adult children’s lives. I’ve already seen too many mothers and fathers stepping in for their students as “advocates” rather than allowing them to grow up and fend for themselves. And students are quick to call parents to get help on everything from food suggestions to advice on papers. How different this is from when I was a student, and we were urged to call weekly to check in from the pay phone in the hall!

But the involvement of parents is often a very positive thing, and I have seen how they frequently help their students get the most out of their undergraduate years. From issues in residential life to uncertainties concerning course selection, parents offer good counsel to their students, and they get involved in the life of the university. Wesleyan is a much better place because of intergenerational commitment, and I am hopeful that Wes parents will retain affection and loyalty to the institution as their daughters and sons become engaged in the university’s active alumni networks.

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Big Day


Today was my first day of having open office hours, and I learned a lot. I talked with a reporter from the Argus, some representatives from the WSA, and three students who wanted me to understand why they thought chalking was an important part of Wesleyan’s political culture. All the conversations were helpful to me, and the students gave me plenty to think about.

The main reason I am posting tonight is just to remind the Wesleyan community to make your voices heard in the primaries tomorrow. Also, please note that you can follow the returns Tuesday night in good company at the Usdan University Center.

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Sounds of Early Semester

It was great to be back in the classroom this week, although the word “classroom” hardly does justice to the state-of-the-art facility that is the Goldsmith Family Cinema. I have taught “The Past on Film” for many years, but never with the support of a projection and sound system that makes the viewing experience as compelling as possible. There were about 250 students in attendance, and the film we watched (Night and Fog) was as intense as I remember it being the first time I saw it 35 years ago. The sound system is extraordinary, bringing the viewers deep into the work. The students made great comments and asked good questions. I am looking forward to Tuesday mornings! (And remember: open office hours for students February 4, between 4:00 pm and 5:30 pm. I’ll be scheduling this every other week afterwards.)

The Film Studies Department is one of the jewels of the university. The new facility and the archive are an enormous resource for the exploration of the movies, and each week a student board has chosen a group of films that are open to the entire campus. The choices are thoughtful, eclectic, and fun. I only wish I could go more often.

For generations, Wesleyan was known as the “Singing College of New England.” Apparently, students would burst into song whenever Mrs. Butterfield (whose husband Vic was president from 1942-1967) would enter a room. The musicality of our school remains vibrant. Professor Mark Slobin recently sent me an article recounting the development of world music and ethnomusicology at Wesleyan over the last 40 years or so. This week we welcomed a few hundred Connecticut area alumni on campus, and after I asked them to support our financial aid initiatives, we all joined in singing the old college songs. May the singing increase generosity for scholarships! A cappella groups on campus (there are many), sing with spirit and precision on all kinds of celebratory occasions. This week we had a celebration of Martin Luther King. After listening to talks Dr. King gave at Wes, Bernice Reagon (of Sweet Honey in the Rock fame) delivered a singing and talking lecture that filled the chapel with joyful, hopeful sounds. A group of women faculty and staff known as the Roadies led the group in a rousing spiritual.

But for me, the most powerful music I’ve heard thus far were when the Wesleyan Spirits, a group of young men who usually sing with infectious, antic joy, brought their music to the memorial service for Chase Parr. Chase herself was a singer, and the Spirits paid her tribute with dignity and love. I will long remember how their voices captured our community’s sorrow and affection in song, and how they transformed that sadness into something else – a music we could share.

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