Multi-Sensory Wes Weekend


At the end of the week I was privileged to hear an established scholar and an undergraduate full of enormous promise. The distinguished sociologist Richard Madsen was on campus to help the Freeman Center for East Asian Studies celebrate its 33rd anniversary. He gave an interesting lecture on contemporary religious movements in China, with special consideration given to their connection to economic growth and social mobility. The Freeman Center was packed with students and faculty. The next day I went to Hartford to hear Wesleyan senior Noah Hutton talk about a contemporary art exhibition he and some other students of John Paoletti’s had curated at the Wadsworth Atheneum. Noah gave a lucid and thoughtful description of some very challenging works. We’d met before because he is also a gifted jazz musician who plays at different Wes events.

Busted RosesThis has been an exceptionally busy weekend on the Wesleyan campus. Friday night started off with a graduate students’ retreat, at which I just stopped by to escort one of the main speakers, Joshua Boger ’73 (a Wesleyan trustee, scientist and CEO of Vertex Pharmaceuticals). Later that night Kari and I went to hear the Wesleyan-based geezer rock band, BUSTED ROSES, which was playing down at La Boca on Main Street. Dean Louise Brown was in great voice, and the rest of the band was cookin’!!

After a week sitting behind desks, I decided to spend as much of Saturday as possible out of doors. This meant that I would miss Social Justice Day, which the WSA had organized for Saturday. The program looked strong, and I hope those who chose to attend found it worthwhile. Out on the fields there were plenty of athletic contests at which one could cheer on the red and black. The men’s baseball team split an exciting double-header against Amherst. After watching Wes mount a great comeback rally in game one, I saw the mighty men’s lacrosse team have a wild second half against a tough Bowdoin squad. It became a rout. Sophie and I headed up to watch the Cardinal women overwhelm the softball team from Hamilton. It was cold out there on Long Lane, but watching softball made me feel that spring must be on the way.

While I was enjoying the sunshine and cheering on the home teams, a group of scholars were gathered together to consider multi-sensory art experiences and their history. Smith College and Wesleyan organized this art history conference with some leading scholars from around the country. I was lucky enough at the end of the day to hear Professor Katherine Kuenzli discuss her exhibition on Wagner and the visual arts, currently on display at the Davison Art Center. It’s a fine example of how our print collection can support and enhance innovative scholarship.

Last night Kari and I had a delightful dinner with some colleagues and Hayden White, who had been a teacher of mine some thirty years ago here at Wesleyan. Hayden is the most important philosopher of history in the United States, and one of the most original thinkers in the humanities that I have ever encountered. I was so pleased to be able to tell my former teacher that the university he remembered as a hotbed of new ideas and deep community was still inspiring great work in a context that is challenging yet deeply humane.

This week I have office hours Monday at 4 p.m. Students who don’t want to wait should call extension 3500 to sign up for a time.

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Back in the Swing of Things

Our students have come back to Middletown, and those who have been here all along (internationals, thesis writers, athletes, and yes, graduate students) are realizing that now there is just one long sprint until the end of the semester. There is almost a frenzy of activity from now until Commencement. This week the letters from admission go out announcing who will be admitted to the Class of 2012. Meanwhile, seniors are busy finishing their projects and, in many cases, looking for jobs that begin post-graduation. Midterms and research papers are being prepared, and faculty are busy grading. The easy rhythms of spring break are already distant.

From my office window I see the athletic grounds crew preparing the baseball field for upcoming contests. Men’s baseball and women’s softball are returning from trips to sunnier climes, and this week we have games but we also expect a little snow. Men’s and women’s lacrosse have already been busy after their spring break trips, and the tennis teams are also in full gear. Our student athletes add a great dimension to our campus, and there will be many great opportunities to cheer on the Red and Black.

In addition to their normal duties, several faculty members are working in small committees to refine ideas for curricular innovation that I wrote about in a previous entry. I am so impressed by the professors’ willingness to consider how we integrate the academic and the co-curricular, and to think creatively about what interdisciplinary study will mean in the future. From creativity to civic engagement, our teachers find ways to integrate their own scholarly and artistic work into a vibrant undergraduate curriculum.

Over the break there was a controversy on campus concerning whether Wesleyan should post on its Web site an op-ed piece published in the Hartford Courant by Melanye Price, an assistant professor in our Government Department. We publish links to many popular press articles by Wesleyan people, but we are specifically forbidden (because of our not-for-profit tax status) from participating in election activity in support of a candidate. Would posting a link to Professor Price’s op-ed piece, which is very sympathetic to Barack Obama, violate this IRS rule? Or would we just be providing a link rather than an endorsement? Surely, we also could post a link to another article by Wesleyan faculty backing John McCain or Hillary Clinton.

Our legal adviser thought we shouldn’t post a link, but some faculty wondered if we were avoiding politics in ways that distort who we really are as an institution. The IRS rules have to do with candidates during an election year – not just taking sides on issues. We didn’t post the link on the home page, but I am not confident that we shouldn’t have done so. Here’s the link to Professor Price’s interesting article You can decide for yourself.

[the link is now down, so here is the article from the Hartford Courant, March 16, 2008, downloaded the text from Lexis-Nexis.]



Media pundits and supporters claim Barack Obama is at his best when viewed in person, so I went to the recent Obama rally at the XL Center in Hartford to see for myself. Ultimately, I came away convinced that Obama actually could succeed. I found myself both embracing and eschewing the conflicting meanings of an Obama presidency.

The most audaciously hopeful aspect of an Obama rally has to be the attendees, who represent every demographic imaginable. Waiting with me were professors, white suburban mothers, Obama gear-clad teenagers, an older African American couple, and a group of young black and Latino men.

As we waited with thousands, we became unlikely allies, holding places for bathroom breaks, scouting the best entrance and seats and discussing Obama’s appeal. Were we a “grand coalition for change” as Obama suggested? Moreover, could he translate our differing versions of change into coherent policies?

Seeing the diversity of people gathered had a strong effect, which was augmented by the fervor of his youngest supporters. When the rally began, I cheered for them as much as for Obama. Their enthusiasm made his success more urgent, if only to sustain this youthful energy and burgeoning community. In one sense, Obama was right: America’s promise is the potential for citizens to unite across differences.

Despite this, I was plagued by the precariousness of having Obama become the definition or model of black behavior for African Americans and ultimately all Americans. His is an engaging and captivating message, but not the only one that other blacks would deliver.

At the rally, a young black girl wore a button with Obama dressed as Superman that read “Super Obama.” This image resonated with me because like the comic book hero, Obama comes with his own Kryptonite. First, like other contenders, Obama cannot be all things to all people when concrete policies supplant grand concepts. More disturbing, however, is my fear of what Obama’s candidacy – win or lose – means for race in America.

We saw in Iowa how self-congratulatory many whites were of their ability to overcome America’s racist history to endorse an African American. Obama’s initial success signaled to many that the racism of the past had greatly dissipated. Should he actually secure the nomination or the presidency, would it provide conclusive evidence that the nation has finally entered a color-blind future?

This is the danger of a deracialized (or “transcendent”) campaign strategy. While racial inequality remains a central feature of American life, black candidates who directly attack that inequality are sure to repel many white voters and candidates like Obama will be more successful.

Likewise, protest-oriented (read “angry”) black grass-roots advocates may find it difficult to gain political traction in post-Obama America. If Obama is the new prototype for black political activity – less focused on race, less angry, more hopeful, “clean, articulate” and so on – what will this mean for focused efforts to combat racial inequality?

Furthermore, listening to Obama, I wondered if the greatest danger for me and other blacks is that if he loses it will confirm enduring fears that despite public rhetoric, when the votes count, whites will not endorse or accept blacks as leaders. If the most hopeful and non-angry (and maybe the most educated and prepared) African American candidate cannot crash the privileged gates of political power, who will? Put simply, I am not sure that blacks can take this kind of rejection.

That little girl with the Super Obama button cannot, and I fear for others. Blacks are told “no” in myriad ways in life, and it would be especially painful to have Super Obama rejected as well. This is an implicit concern, I believe, of many blacks, which explains increased black support for Obama after Iowa. Many blacks withheld judgment and support as they waited to see whether Obama could truly attract white support in sufficient numbers.

In the same way, the Clintons knew repetitive emphasis on his blackness could hurt his potential with many white voters.

Leaving the XL Center, I was afloat on the crowd’s enthusiasm, the community it embodied, and partially Obama’s words. I also remembered the power of hope. Not hope for an Obama presidency. Not even Obama’s brand of race-neutral, bipartisan hope.

Instead, I remembered the hopes of voting rights advocates, the freedom riders, and my own single mother at the bus stop too many cold mornings. I remembered that blacks have lost over and over again, but they got up and kept moving. I thought about how we might have described other ragtag coalitions like those in line with me. Only these coalitions were facing bigger odds – slavery’s abolition or Jim Crow’s defeat – and marshaled varied and unusual allies.

I could not be complicit in the loss of hope or reinforce the jaded expectations. I could not let past losses rob them or me of this victory. I knew when I entered that arena that I would be voting for Obama, but when I left I knew with greater clarity why.

Melanye T. Price is an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University.

Copyright 2008 The Hartford Courant Company
All Rights Reserved

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Spring Break

Foss sunsetSpring Break at Wesleyan is unusually long – a two week vacation from classes. The campus is eerily quiet at night, and looking across Andrus Field from my office the snow is gone and the baseball field fences have gone up. It really is a break into spring!

Although the campus is quiet, it is certainly not empty. There are many international students who stay in town. Two weeks may seem long, but it is too short for students to justify a trip across the globe. I also bump into the seniors making their way to science labs or to the Olin Library to continue work on their theses. The subjects range from ideas of the French intellectual to politics and religion in Ireland; from problems in micro-economics to issues in Asian art history. Our students complete these independent research projects with close faculty supervision, but it is often the professors who learn so much from the collaboration with these young scholars, scientists and artists. Most of the work is due in about a month, so it’s getting to be crunch time.

Of course, many of our seniors are interviewing for jobs or waiting to hear from graduate schools. There are two very happy Wesleyan students who recently heard from The Thomas J Watson Foundation that their international research projects will be funded during the next year. Cedric Bien will be doing a project entitled, “Documenting the Chinese Diaspora: A Photographic Ethnography of Chinatowns” in Peru, Paraguay, Brazil, Italy, Ethiopia, Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia. Rebecca Littman will be investigating the plight of child soldiers in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Senegal and Guinea in her project, “Victim and Perpetrator: Reintegrating the Former Child Soldier.” Congratulations to Cedric and Rebecca!

Some of our Masters of Liberal Studies students are spending their spring break on a research trip through some of the important sites of the civil rights movement in Alabama. I have heard already that this was a deeply moving and richly educational experience that complements the work done in the classroom.

Some of our undergraduates have made their way to Washington, D.C. to protest the war in Iraq on the fifth anniversary of the start of the conflict. American college campuses today often seem to feel immune from the fact that our country is fighting a war in the Middle East. Although we don’t always agree on political tactics or foreign policy frameworks, I am grateful to these Wesleyan activists for reminding all of us that a military conflict is being waged in our name.

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From Wesleyan to Broadway

Lin-Manuel MirandaWhat a great event! Wesleyan alum Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, In the Heights, is a triumph on Broadway!! This is a play that started out at Wesleyan and has now worked its way to rave reviews at the Richard Rodgers Theater. I can hardly wait to see what the critics are crowing about. Maybe before the end of spring break… For now, congratulations to Lin-Manuel, director Thomas Kail ’99, and the whole crew.

Check out some of the reviews:

New York Times
Los Angeles Times

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Social Justice Day

Matt Ball, the president of the Wesleyan Student Assembly, sent me a message about plans for Social Justice Day. Here is some of what he said:

Social Justice Day will be a collaboration of students, student groups, faculty and staff. Students can discuss issues that they are particularly passionate about, faculty members can hold a discussion on an issue outside their specialization, and staff members can present on an area of expertise that they don’t work with every day.

Social Justice Day should help build community at Wesleyan. To be sure, Wesleyan has a sense of community, but the unfortunate truth is that serious issues can become isolated within self-selecting groups. It’s very hard to expand the reach of your message, and it’s equally difficult to be introduced to concerns and debates in which you hadn’t an initial interest. Social Justice Day should also address the gap that can exist between students and faculty; collaboration outside the classroom is more rare than it should be, and faculty members should have a chance to discuss issues that might not immediately relate to their academic research.

Anyone can apply to put on an hour session in which they have a discussion, give a lecture, or do something else creative. Because they’ll all be organized together, there will be spillover from event to event, bringing in different people into different sessions in order to foster the kind of “message outreach” that we’d like to achieve. There will also be a lunch with a directed discussion, perhaps splitting into smaller groups to discuss different issues. The WSA has some funds to bring speakers to the event.

The website to apply is (, and the deadline is this Friday, March 7th. The event will be held on Saturday, March 29th. Please apply!

This sounds like a great occasion to bring faculty, students and staff together around important issues. Check out the website for more information, and have a great spring break!

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Trustees and Themes for the Future

At the end of the past week the Wesleyan Trustees were on campus for their winter meeting. This is an exceptional group of volunteers (alumni and some parents) who have fiduciary responsibility for the university and a great ambition for its future. The most significant business for this meeting was a resolution to approve moving to the next design stage for the buildings in Molecular Biology, Biology, and Chemistry. The architects from Payette Associates gave a great presentation, and we have raised the money necessary to continue the design program. The trustees unanimously approved that we continue with the process.

There were many other topics for the committees to discuss. The Governance Committee evaluates how the board is currently operating and considers the possibility for new members. The Finance Committee approves budgets, and it monitors our long-term financial health. The Campus Affair Committee considers everything from academics to residential life, and this time it also reviewed some tenure cases that I had recommended to the board. The University Relations Committee discussed fund-raising plans, alumni engagement and our communications strategy. Trustees also have an opportunity to meet (formally and informally) with faculty and students. They work hard while here, and they are ambassadors for Wesleyan between meetings. A full list of board members can be found at:

At the heart of the full board meeting was a discussion of some of the key ideas that have emerged from the faculty as we discuss strategic planning and curricular innovation. We want to ensure that Wesleyan continues to make a positive and lifelong contribution to the lives of our students and alumni; that we have an impact on higher education in the United States; and that the knowledge and skills of students, faculty, and alumni have a crucial role in productively shaping the culture of the future.

I’d asked the faculty to send in brief papers discussing how they would use more resources for academic innovation. We receive more than fifty papers, and here are the key themes:
1. Strengthening the Undergraduate Experience

How can Wesleyan be better appreciated as an institution in which undergraduates thrive in a context of freedom, mutual support, rigorous academic demands, and liberal learning with practical consequences?

I am asking the faculty to concentrate especially on strengthening the “Wesleyanish” aspects of the first and last years of a student’s career. Our focused freshman seminars are popular, and we are now exploring how to link them with one another and with co-curricular initiatives. I have asked the faculty to explore how we might institute a university-wide capstone experience, whether it be a thesis, a recital, a community project, or some other senior project that completes the on-campus work and launches our graduates into the world.

2. Internationalization

How can Wesleyan become a magnet for international students who want to excel through active learning, as we become a destination for students who want a cosmopolitan educational experience at a scale that promotes deep relations with teachers and fellow students?

There were two main areas in which we can strengthen our international efforts. The first concerns the curriculum and the second concerns the composition of the student body. We must work on both fronts.

3. Creative Campus

How can Wesleyan fulfill its legacy as a school that values creativity, rewards intelligent risk-taking, and produces graduates who go on to reshape the culture around them?

Wesleyan should build on its creative reputation and seed innovative energies across all the divisions. From promoting access to studio classes for all students, to encouraging entrepreneurship as a habit and a subject, we should be known as a magnet for creative students and as an incubator of exciting projects. Creativity should flow from the CFA across the campus to the new science facilities (and back again!).

4. College of the Environment

Decades ago Wesleyan founded COL and CSS as path-breaking interdisciplinary programs in the humanities and social sciences. Is it now time for the College of the Environment, which would bring together all three divisions?

One of the most exciting proposals called for the creation of a College of the Environment that would give students a focused and intense education about the complex issues associated with global environmental issues. A College of the Environment would have important connections with the new Life Sciences buildings and be a beacon for interdisciplinary study grounded in the sciences and extending to the social sciences, humanities, and arts.

5. Civic Engagement

Wesleyan has been known for its activist culture. How can we build on that culture to create learning opportunities that make a difference?

The Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life will facilitate students becoming more engaged in real-world problem solving. How can Wesleyan integrate these activities and its traditions of engagement into a distinctive learning environment? How can we build on them to make our institutional voice heard in the governmental arena and in international discussions concerning the future of the liberal arts? Wesleyan should become well known as a place for connecting the liberal arts with a broad spectrum of activities that shape the culture and economy of the future.

Over the next several weeks, we will be creating faculty task forces to examine these themes and proposals. In addition to these themes, we will be raising endowment funds to enhance financial aid, and to put the university in a position to finance a significant part of the new life sciences complex. What do you think of these general themes and specific projects? What do you think is missing? The trustees gave us plenty of input, but we need more. You can send comments to this blog, or directly to the trustees at:

The Board of Trustees
Wesleyan University
WesBox 91666
Middletown, CT 06459.

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