Great Day for Wesleyan

Sunday’s Commencement Ceremony was a wonderful conclusion to my first year as Wesleyan’s 16th president. The graduate students and the class of 2008 received more than their diplomas on Andrus Field. They were able to listen to one of America’s most eloquent speakers reflect on the call to service that characterizes the Kennedy legacy, and renew that call for this generation of students. Senator Kennedy’s family helped make this happen, and we are so grateful to them. Senator Obama energized his audience not with a partisan political message, but with a challenge to us all to live up to our best selves by connecting to a larger purpose. We are deeply grateful to Senator Obama for “pinch hitting” for his friend, and we extend to Senator Kennedy our heartfelt best wishes as he confronts his health issues in the coming weeks and months.

The Wesleyan staff worked continuously to ensure that Commencement and Reunion Weekend was a success, and I was so impressed with the effort, their good cheer and their talents. Thanks to all – student workers, public safety, volunteers, faculty and staff – for making our Commencement memorable and enjoyable!!

Senator Obama’s speech and my own remarks can be accessed via our homepage, or at:

The campus is almost empty now, and the crews are taking down the tents. I’ve said my goodbyes to the many seniors I got to know this year, as they packed up, vowed to stay in touch with friends, and headed off into life after college. I told them all to come back to campus often, and I look forward to reminiscing with them about the great 2008 Commencement when they return for their own reunions!


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It has been a very moving and intense few days. We were delighted to be hosting Senator Edward Kennedy as this year’s Commencement speaker, and then deeply disturbed about his hospitalization and cancer diagnosis. Our hearts go out to the Kennedy family. Senator Kennedy, a Wesleyan honorary degree recipient, has great family ties to our school. His son, Ted Jr., graduated 25 years ago, and his stepdaughter Caroline is in this class of 2008. Senator Kennedy has been one of the great supporters of higher education during his many years of public service. His dedication to civil rights, to labor, to health care, and to a pragmatic and principled politics, has made him one of the most productive legislators in modern American history.

When news of Senator Kennedy’s medical condition became widely known, his family assured me that they would see to it that if he were unable to deliver the Commencement address they would suggest a suitable alternative. Among those asking the Senator what they could do to be helpful, was Barack Obama. “Ted and I talked about me filling in for him at Wesleyan University earlier this week. Considering what he’s done for me and for our country, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for him. So I’m looking forward to standing in his place on Sunday even though I know I won’t be able to fill his shoes,” Senator Obama said.

Senator Obama’s speech to our graduates this Sunday is an act of friendship, and friendship is one of the defining features of our Commencement. The graduate students who have finished their degrees and the class of 2008 will be leaving Middletown on Sunday afternoon, but they will be taking with them relationships that will last a lifetime. As I meet with alumni across the country, a common thread in their description of why Wesleyan is important to them is that they developed relationships here which last a lifetime. The devotion to alma mater is also a devotion to the friendships forged in study, or in sports, in the arts, or in civic engagement.

We will see that devotion in these days leading up to commencement. Alumni from more than fifty years ago, and alumni from our most recent classes are coming back on campus for the weekend. My own class, 1978, will be celebrating our 30th reunion, and I look forward to seeing many friends as they re-discover their old homes, dorms and classrooms.

Senator Obama’s willingness to “stand in his friend’s place” on Sunday is not a campaign event but a poignant expression of friendship. There will be many other such expressions occurring all over campus as we welcome a new group of Wesleyan grads into the alumni family.

P.S. Please remember that Commencement is not a grand public occasion but the culmination of the Wesleyan experience for the graduates and their families.

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Following Up

This is an email that was sent to the Wesleyan community this morning.

I have now reviewed police and public safety accounts and dozens of student eyewitness reports of what occurred when Middletown police, supported by other local and state law enforcement, broke up a student gathering in the early morning hours of Friday, May 16. Although it is clear that a few students acted recklessly, and perhaps illegally, and while it is also clear that some students decided to remain in the area despite warnings to disperse, I am seriously concerned about what seems to me to be the disproportionate use of force in this incident. I have communicated my concern to Middletown’s Chief of Police. She has assured me that there will be a thorough investigation, and I will be following up with her and with Middletown’s Internal Affairs Officers to investigate the matter fully.

Students that night on Fountain Ave. were celebrating the end of the semester when they were ordered by Wesleyan Public Safety, and then the Middletown Police, to clear the street. From the evidence I have seen, there was no “riot,” as has been reported, nor was there any obvious public danger. However, it is clear that many students ignored requests to clear the street, and there are very disturbing reports of bottles or other projectiles thrown in the direction of police or their vehicles. We take this very seriously, and any students found in violation of the law or of Wesleyan rules will be held accountable for their actions.

It is apparent that some students decided to ignore the officers’ orders, but it is also clear that many, if not most, never heard the police demand that they leave the area. In any case, I am deeply troubled by what seems to have been an indiscriminate use of pepper spray and dogs to clear an area where students were peacefully gathered. Reports of unprofessional and violent behavior by some police officers are alarming. Again, I will be working with appropriate authorities to address these matters.

We are examining the policies and operations of Wesleyan’s Public Safety Department, and its relation to the Middletown Police Department. We value our positive relationship with Middletown and with the MPD, and we are grateful for the assistance the department provides our community on a regular basis. But let me be clear: we will not tolerate abusive behavior by the police any more than we will tolerate it by our own students.

I deeply regret that these events took place at what should have been a joyous end to the semester. Our goal will be to ensure that these kinds of incidents do not occur in the future, and I have already begun working with Middletown and campus leaders to address our mutual concerns and interests.

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Disturbing Semester’s End

I had anticipated writing a happy “Finals Are Over!” blog entry at the end of the week. Instead, we are dealing with the aftermath of the disturbing events that happened as law enforcement officers broke up a student gathering very early Friday morning.

I was called to the scene by some frightened students at about 2:30 am. After talking with a group of undergrads still gathered there, I went to check on the hospitalized and arrested students. When I came to the office later in the morning, we began gathering information to understand what went wrong. Here is the statement we sent out via email:

This morning at approximately 1:30 a.m., Wesleyan’s Department of Public Safety requested assistance from the Middletown Police Department to help disperse a crowd on Fountain Avenue. According to the Middletown Police, there were in excess of 200 students on and around Fountain Avenue who would not disperse, verbally abused police and threw objects in the direction of police officers. The police decided to forcibly clear Fountain Avenue. The action resulted in the arrest of five Wesleyan students, two of whom were brought to an area hospital for medical attention. Both were treated and then released into police custody. Students who were at the scene have reported to university administrators and to the police that law enforcement officers used excessive force and were verbally abusive during their action in clearing Fountain Avenue.

We have met with concerned students since the incident occurred and request that anyone with first-hand information about the incident please send a statement via e-mail to and We will continue to work with Public Safety, Middletown Police and review statements from student witnesses in order to ascertain the facts surrounding the event. We plan to communicate what we learn about the incident as well as our plans for follow-up as soon as possible. As always, our concern is for the safety of our students and our neighbors in the Middletown community in which they reside.

Mike Whaley (VP for Student Affairs) and I have received dozens of reports from eyewitnesses. I’ve spoken with some police officers and the Chief of Police. We are piecing together the most reliable account possible to understand what went wrong and why. We are reviewing all this information, and I will be meeting with Middletown authorities to follow up on the many complaints our students have made about the use of force. We will also be reviewing our own policies as well as the behavior of some members of the Wesleyan community.

I do not intend to host a debate on this blog about who was at fault. We continue to gather information, and I will consult with student, faculty and Middletown leaders about our findings. By better understanding what went wrong this week, we can greatly improve the chances that an event like this will not happen again in our community.

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Fraternal Wesleyan

Thursday night the brothers of the DKE fraternity invited my family and me to a barbeque, just across the street from the President’s House. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening, and the brothers (many of whom are athletes from football, hockey and baseball squads) made us feel very welcome. Kari saw some of her students, and Sophie was impressed at the prodigious amount of meat and BBQ sauce that seemed to disappear in moments. I hadn’t been in DKE since my student days, when frats held many all-campus parties (they still do). In the intervening years, some of our peer institutions have discontinued fraternities, and I have heard many stories from our own alumni about their perception of unfair treatment of frats at Wesleyan. Yet in the last week or so these organizations have welcomed over 100 new members. What is the role of fraternities at Wesleyan?

As I’ve met with students around campus this year, I have visited with all the fraternities, including the Eclectic Society (which usually doesn’t see itself in this context). I have found them to be energetic, vital student organizations capable of making contributions to the campus as a whole. Of course, there are times when fraternities are part of situations that call for disciplinary measures, and the members have to obey school regulations, like everyone else. Any organization that becomes a locus for serious infractions will lose its standing as a part of the Wesleyan community. Fraternities know this at least as well as everybody else.

During the course of this year I’ve heard lectures at Beta and Psi U, had social dinners at DKE and Alpha Delt, listened to a great band at Eclectic, and in each instance I’ve been impressed with how the membership is adding value to the educational and co-curricular experience on campus. Each organization has a different personality, and they add significantly to Wesleyan’s overall diversity. My own Alpha Delta Phi was already co-educational when I was an undergrad, and the house was the center of my Wes world. We published the literary magazine, and AD still is filled with musicians, writers and theater people (among others). Other frats are homes for athletes, while some are more cultural in their focus. Most combine these elements in different ways, depending on the membership in a given year.

Fraternities have historic roots with alumni that are important to maintain, and I believe that the frats (including Eclectic) at Wes can continue to play a very positive role at the university. We will not be adding any new Greek societies because there are now many other ways for students to join together in residentially based groups. Wesleyan’s students have a rich choice of social organizations in which to participate, from the very traditional to the most avant-garde. I’m committed to keeping it that way.

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Happy Frenzy

As we move into the final days of the semester, the level of activities on campus steps up to an even higher level of intensity. On Friday night after a great introduction to Skull and Serpent, I visited with the Wesleyan Christian Fellowship, which was holding an evening celebration to honor its seniors. WCF has grown over the years, and it is engaged in a variety of civic and spiritual activities. The seniors have clearly made the most of their Wesleyan years, and they have contributed mightily to our campus culture.

On Friday night I also had the chance to hear the thesis project of Zach Fried, whose rock band played at Eclectic. This was my first Eclectic visit this term, and it was amazing. The music was raucous and alive, and the crowd was really into it. I think Zach’s band is opening for Spring Fling. A parent came up to me to say, “That’s my boy playing guitar in his underwear. The one with the tattoo!” While the band was cooking at Eclectic, there were other fine musicians doing their thing all over campus. Here’s how Wesleyan parent Myra Berkowitz described it:

I was lucky enough to visit my daughter this weekend and attended the final concert of the Wesleyan Concert Choir and Wesleyan Orchestra on Friday night. What a special musical event–and congratulations to all the families and students who participated! The concert featured the three winners of the annual concerto competition at Wesleyan, who soloed in the first movements of three different pieces. These students performed beautifully, with great musicality, personality, feeling, and skill, backed by a wonderful orchestral sound. It was a delightful evening.

Even more astonishingly, I witnessed myriads of students busily attending and participating in many performances of all kinds–theater, dance, klezmer, a capella, you name it, this all in the context of the busy year-end schedule of papers, exams, presentations, etc. I’m so impressed by many students’ ability to balance their own academic work, preparation for performing, and attendance/support of their friends’ events. It seems like a happy frenzy (versus the frantic feeling I know I experienced at those times in my past). One common theme might be…lack of sleep.

While everyone can’t do everything all the time, it’s certainly great to see the rich variety that Wes students have available, even at this crunch-time of the semester.

While all this art activity was going on, the Wesleyan Women’s Softball team was making a great run to the NESCAC finals (winning three games on Saturday!), and track meets, baseball and lacrosse games, and regattas saw Wes athletes competing with all their hearts. After watching dance classes yesterday afternoon and hearing the beat of drums from the World Music Hall at night, I was reminded again of how exciting and diverse this place truly is. Happy frenzy indeed!

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Enthusiasm and Excellence

I am writing this entry from New York City, where the Wesleyan Alumni Association held a great event last night. There were about 500 people gathered in Gotham Hall to see old friends, make new connections, and to hear about alma mater. It was thrilling for me to see some of my buddies from the mid 1970s, and I met grads from the 1950s through last year. There were also many parents of current Wesleyan students in attendance, and they reported on the experience of their family members. There were teachers and physicians, managers from community organizations and from Wall Street, writers and interactive designers. In my remarks, I spoke about the creative, practical value of the liberal arts today (yes, that again!), but one could see that value oneself just by looking around the room and discovering the kaleidoscope of careers that become possible in life after Wesleyan. Of course, I also emphasized how the health of our university depends on active, loyal alumni. It is especially through alumni support of financial aid that we are able to keep Wesleyan a vibrant, open place where one can pursue one’s passion and aim at excellence. The enthusiasm of last night bodes well for the future!

Speaking of enthusiasm and excellence, I hope we can show spirited support this weekend as the Wesleyan softball team hosts (for the first time ever!) the NESCAC championships. The Wes women have had a great season, and they deserve our cheers. Their first game is on Friday, May 2, at 2:30 pm, and the tournament continues through the weekend.

Meanwhile, the mighty men’s lacrosse team is off to Middlebury for the NESCAC championships this weekend. Coach Raba’s men have fought hard all season, and we wish them well as they carry the Red and Black against some very tough competition. Their first game is on Saturday at 3 pm, and you can watch it on the Web. Check out the links, and the schedule for other athletic events, as our teams continue to compete as we move into the final weekend of classes:

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