Dance, Democracy and Devoted Service

As we move into the final week or so of classes, the pace of work has picked up markedly. Among the many great performances that come toward the end of the semester, this weekend we were able to attend the faculty dance concert. Dance has always been a key part of the arts at Wesleyan, and this weekend I was reminded of why that’s the case. I was particularly struck by the boundary-crossing nature of the work presented. Nicole Stanton performed a piece, “Castle of My Skin,” in collaboration with Gina Ulysse (what a voice!), a recently tenured professor in Anthropology and African American Studies. And Katja Kolcio worked with composer Julian Kytasty to create a “living archive” of Ukrainian music and dance. Katja’s students performed the piece with dynamism and sensitivity. The creative collaboration of teachers and students is one of the most exciting aspects of a Wesleyan education.

Another exciting aspect of the Wesleyan experience is the practice of politics. Our student chapter of the Roosevelt Institution will be holding a conference on that subject on Saturday, May 3. The Roosevelt Institution challenges chapters to consider “how to restore government of the people, and for the people.” How can students play a role in creating a more effective and equitable democratic political practice? There will be a series of workshops on Saturday, and I am looking forward to hearing Richard Berke, Assistant Managing Editor at the New York Times, close out the afternoon.

On Tuesday of this week there will be a reception to honor of the service of Peter Patton to Wesleyan. Peter, a professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, has worked in various administrative capacities for many years at Wesleyan. As I look back over the history of the last decade or so, I can see that whenever there was a strong need for a capable, sensitive leader, Wesleyan turned to Peter. Whether it was to be the Dean of the College, or, to help create the Green Street Art Center, to direct the improvements to the central part of the campus (and the construction of the Usdan University Center), or, more recently, to oversee athletics and public safety, the university was able to enlist Peter’s vision and hard work. Over the years of administrative service, Peter continued to teach his science classes, and our reception this week in no way signals his retirement. On the contrary, Peter will now devote his energies full time to teaching and research. A grateful university community will express our gratitude to Peter at reception in his honor this Tuesday, April 29, from 3:30 to 5:00 in Beckham Hall.

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Productive Idealists

For many years I would tell friends that Wesleyan entered the 1960s well before the decade really started and continued in the sixties spirit decades after the official end of that turbulent time. I meant that Wes was already exploring uncharted, radical territory in the 1950s, and with Norman O. Brown, Carl Schorske on the faculty, along with the impact of John Cage and Buckminster Fuller, there was a willingness to defy convention and explore new boundaries in culture and society. This was complemented by curricular innovations under Victor Butterfield, and especially with the university’s commitment to affirmative action and diversity long before other schools recognized their importance. When I was a student here in the mid-’70s this legacy was active and creative, with strong feminist and environmental movements that were exploring intellectual as well as political alternatives to the status quo.

It is easy to treat these trends with irony or cynicism. Were they romantic and idealist? Sure they were, and that was part of their ability to inspire many to go beyond what had been expected of them. Recently, I was asked to review a new book that trashed both the spirit and the accomplishments of that time, Gerald DeGroot’s The Sixties Unplugged. Although the author has an easy time of showing how much of the romantic rhetoric of the day was not in accord with what was really happening, his book makes no effort at understanding why people were in fact committed to political and cultural change, to social justice. You can read my San Francisco Chronicle book review at:

At Wesleyan today it is worth trying to understand the value of idealism and the productive role of imagining radical alternatives to the status quo. When I spoke with prospective students and their parents this weekend, I emphasized how Wesleyan students become innovators, intelligent risk takers whose ideals are cultivated rather than punctured by the education they receive. At a time in our history when technological and cultural change will continue to accelerate, we need people who can continue to learn, to adapt and to become leaders of innovation. We need the courageous creativity of Wesleyan grads in the sciences, arts, business world, education and politics. And we need those grads to remember their commitment to justice even when those around them seem to have forgotten the victims of change. Wesleyan graduates have long been productive idealists, and they will continue to play that role in the future.

Having seen the small but vocal rally for Wesleyan’s physical plant employees this weekend, I can well imagine some reading this thinking: “Well, Roth, if you are so concerned about justice, why don’t your physical plant employees have a contract?” We continue to negotiate with the union representing these employees, but it has been a frustratingly slow process. Nevertheless, we compromised on our initial proposals many times and reached an agreement with the union representative and the union’s bargaining committee more than a week ago when Wesleyan accepted the offer made by the union. To our great surprise, after we reached this tentative agreement on the proposal, the members of the union rejected the proposal their own representatives had made! We are back at the negotiating table, but it is disturbing to see students enlisted in a protest (“No contract, no peace!”) that seems aimed to make up for the failure of the physical plant employees to agree with their own representatives. It is hard to miss the irony of physical plant employees having extra work to do as they clean up the scrawled messages of their student supporters.

Let me be clear: We are and have been negotiating in good faith throughout the bargaining process, and I am committed to see that those who work for Wesleyan are fairly compensated for the good jobs they do. I hope very much we soon reach a fair and economically sustainable agreement.

On a lighter note, when Sophie saw “contract now!” scrawled on our driveway, she thought we were suddenly to become smaller…

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Over the next few days our campus will be filled with visitors checking out Wesleyan as a place to spend their undergraduate years. WesFest combines parties and seminars, musical performances and athletic events, music and fashion shows to celebrate Wesleyan and (finally) the arrival of spring.

I met with a group of pre-frosh and their families this morning in Beckham Hall. They want to know if Wesleyan is the place where they will truly thrive; they want to know if Wesleyan will inspire them to expand their horizons while providing them with a community in which they will develop close friendships that go beyond the circles of relationships they began forming in high school. Students want to sense if faculty truly care about mentorship (they do), and if their fellow students are truly welcoming and supportive (they are). Parents want to understand that the liberal arts education being offered their students will help them know themselves better, navigate in the world more effectively, and remain a resource for life-long learning. I tell them that the liberal arts curriculum at Wesleyan does all these things because I’ve seen it happen time and time again. I’ve also experienced it in my own life. Ours is a challenging community, one that expects much from students, faculty and staff. But it is also a community that pulls together when faced with difficulties, and that celebrates (with gusto) achievement in athletics, scholarship, artistic endeavors and scientific research.

Wesleyan is a joyful place to learn. Now that it is April, I am reminded of this each day when I look from my office in South College over to Foss Hill. If you are here on campus, Welcome to WesFest!! If you are reading this far away from Middletown, just remember the happy music that drifts across Andrus Field as students ask their teachers if they can have class outside, and as we welcome spring to New England.

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Innovation: Economy, Theater, Education

At a breakfast meeting of the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce on Friday, I was invited to talk with approximately 500 guests about Wesleyan’s role in our region, and about the relevance of a liberal arts education today. It was interesting in the context of that meeting to underscore our university’s place in the economy of the region. Not only are we emphasizing (and buying) local food for our dining facilities, but we also hire local artisans, contractors and construction firms for the greatest percentage our facilities projects. Moreover, our graduates have founded cultural enterprises, businesses, and public service organizations that continue to improve the lives of people in our region.

But Wesleyan’s contribution goes far beyond the money we spend and the organizations we support. Our model of liberal arts education emphasizes freedom and experimentation as tools for students to discover what they love to do, and then to get a little better at it. We believe that when students are passionately engaged with their education, that they will be better able to develop meaningful ways of working after graduation. Wesleyan students, as I have been emphasizing since I returned to campus, become innovators and productive risk takers, and I do think this is exactly the right time for our alumni to have a role in shaping our economy and culture. Wesleyan students, long known for our idealism, are also figuring out how to translate ideals into effective, productive work in the world.

After I got down from the soapbox, Kari and I went to see Big Love — a production of Charles L. Mee’s play by the Wesleyan theater department. It was directed by Visiting Professor David Jaffe, with a theater collective (called “the Company”) made up of very talented actors, musicians and other theater artists. The play was performed in the round, with the ancient themes of battles between the sexes brought very much into a contemporary idiom. The acting was superb, and we were so impressed with the ways in which music and physicality were integrated with the powerful plot themes concerning freedom, sexual attraction, violence and control.

Big Love reminded me that Wesleyan’s grand tradition of theatrical excellence remains strong. The student-run Patricelli ’92 Theater (there I was able to catch this weekend only a part of the very funny My Kingdom for a Whore), as well as the academic department and a variety of informal groups, bring challenging theater experiences into a liberal arts context.

Last night I learned that one of our seniors, Max Rose, is a finalist in an essay contest sponsored by The Nation. Reflecting on the legacy of FDR’s New Deal, Max calls for a new social contract, at the center of which should be education. He stresses the importance of innovation in education and recognizes that, “The most potent resource of the 21st century is a nation’s intellectual capital.” I’d like to think that Wesleyan has a role to play in the development of that resource, and in enhancing access to it through a robust scholarship program. You can read his essay at:
Congratulations, Max!

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April Visitors

It’s admissions season, and several hundred happy high school seniors recently got a thick packet from Middletown. After considering thousands of applications, poring over transcripts, studying reports of interviews, and reading letters of recommendation, the team in our Admission Office is gearing up to explain Wesleyan to young men and women trying to decide which school to attend. Over the next few weeks, many will visit our campus. What will they be looking for?

Students who make their way to Middletown will want to meet faculty to get a sense of whether they will have a rapport with teachers who could become their mentors. They will also want to meet current students, trying to envision whether they could be happy members of the various communities that make up our student body. I suspect that our recently admitted prospective students will be looking for that sense of fit that gives one a feeling of belonging, of being able to find friends and to make discoveries that will expand one’s intellectual and personal horizons. Many getting ready to begin college want to find a place where they will feel “comfortable.” I’d like to think that would-be Wesleyan students are also looking for an adventure that will alter their comfort zones — that will challenge them to discover more fully who they are, and what they love to do.

I’m told that for the last several years Wes undergrads have been expressing the fear that the student body is changing, and that the university is becoming more like some of the other highly selective liberal arts schools. This is such a Wesleyan concern! We pride ourselves on being different: more creative, more independent, more experimental and more progressive than many of our peer institutions. I think there is much truth in this, actually. Wesleyan continues to attract an applicant pool full of talented men and women who can celebrate difference, who have an exuberant attitude to learning (and much else in life), and who can make use of their freedom to develop qualities of originality in a rigorous, highly demanding context. Of course, the university has changed, and it will continue to do so, but in ways that make us more distinctive. That’s why it’s so cool to be part of the Wesleyan family. What hasn’t changed is the expectation of being able to learn about oneself and the world, and to develop strong personal relationships within an affectionate, open-minded community. And we maintain the expectation that as Wesleyan alumni we will continue to learn, and to have a positive impact on the world around us.

We welcome our visitors in April as they try to discover what Wesleyan is really like, and whether they can see themselves being engaged, creative and happy here. This has long been a very special place, but also one that is always changing in response to the contributions of our students, faculty and staff.


April brings theses, final exams and papers, recitals and a flurry of theater productions. It also brings senior art exhibitions, and this week I had a chance to meet some of the artists and their teachers. The student work in the Zilkha Gallery this time of year is really stunning, and it is a tribute to our seniors and to the art faculty. BRAVO!!

Thirty years ago I wrote my own senior thesis on psychoanalysis and politics. I’m still going back to those themes, as you can see in a book review I recently published:

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