Making Ideals Effective

This past week Wesleyan’s students’ “Fast-a-Thon” raised $11,000 for the Amazing Grace Food Pantry in Middletown. Growing out of the observance of Ramadan, this was a great initiative to encourage students to be more mindful of the meals we eat, and to remember those who can’t afford to put food on the table. Starting with our Muslim students and extending across the religious and secular spectrum, this was a strong reminder of how our spiritual communities reach out to do good work on and off campus. Wesleyan students find ways to make their ideals effective!

The Board of Trustees just had its annual Fall Retreat on campus, working through some complex issues facing the university in these uncertain economic times. The trustees, all of whom are alumni or parents of students, volunteer their time, expertise and their financial resources to help make Wesleyan a stronger, even more dynamic institution. At this meeting we planned our work for the year, and we re-examined some of the financial assumptions in place for our major projects going forward. Over the next few months the staff will be gathering information to present to the Board in November, so that we can continue to develop resources to enhance the educational experience of all Wesleyan students. We have great aspirations, and we try to balance them with practical realities.

This is the season when I, like many Jews around the world, reflect on the past year and consider how I might turn more of my thinking and action to worthwhile goals in the future. It’s also a time to express gratitude for what we have, and for those who are close to us. The past year has been an extraordinary one for my family and for me. I so appreciate having been welcomed back to the Wesleyan community, of having the opportunity to be its president, and of sharing the commitment with you to build a university dedicated to offering the very best progressive liberal arts education in the world.

May it be a sweet year!

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Teachers Needed!

The New York Times Sunday Magazine today published a special “College” issue. Wesleyan figured prominently in it. A story about the use of student evaluations features a teacher whose contract the university did not renew last year. Another article describes a recent Wesleyan grad, Jordan Goldman ‘04, who has developed UNIGO, a web-based guide to schools based on mass input rather than on “expert evaluation.” Jordan had an idea that defied the well-worn genre of the college guide. His Internet version gathers information from anyone who wants to send it in. This young entrepreneur is launching his business with the help of some other Wesleyan alums.

A key focus of the magazine is teaching. Reading it led me to think about some of the inspirational teachers with whom I studied over the years, and about the great faculty I see here at Wesleyan. When you think about your best teachers, what is it that makes them great?

Mark Edmundson introduces the theme of the magazine with an insightful essay on the ingredients of good teaching. Mark has been an English professor at the University of Virginia for many years, and he underscores that “really good teaching is about not seeing the world the way that everyone else does.” The strong teacher opens up new ways of seeing the economy or works of art, new ways of recognizing patterns in cell division or in music. Fundamentally, strong teachers undermine conventions — they don’t appeal to whatever happens to be popular.

It is also vital that teachers not merely offer an alternative orthodoxy in their classes. The classroom isn’t a place to convert students to a model that has all the answers; it’s the place to discover that nobody has all the answers, and that inquiry, self-criticism and an openness to changing one’s mind are key to leading a meaningful life. That’s probably why Mark Edmundson writes that the great enemy of knowledge isn’t ignorance but “knowingness.” When teachers encounter students who think they have all the answers, our job is to undermine their certainty. And when students find teachers who think they know it all, they are usually savvy enough to look for different classes.

One of the reasons I enjoy teaching so much is that students open up new questions for me about things I thought I’d understood. At the same time, it is thrilling to see them changing their perspectives on things they had thought were clear. Together, we open ourselves to new ideas and to different ways of seeing the world. At least that’s what we’re aiming for. When we open ourselves to new ideas, we stand a better chance of discovering what we love to do.

Perhaps this all sounds too easy, too positive. It isn’t. It’s difficult to open yourself to questioning the things you deeply care about, and there is always the temptation to defend oneself against painful uncertainty by latching onto some orthodoxy – something that “goes without saying.”

This may be why there is so much anti-intellectualism in the current national election (see the Times interview with Charles Murray today). We should have learned in the last two presidential elections the danger of choosing someone on the basis of the candidate being “the kind of guy you want to have a beer with.” In this time of international crisis, the last thing we need in our country’s leadership is more close-minded arrogance masquerading as friendly populism. We do need leaders with the courage to defy knowingness – leaders who can think as well as act. We need teachers, teachers who are open to learning!

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Wesleyan Vanity Fair

When we talk to alumni and prospective students, we often boast of how our grads play an enormous role in Hollywood, the news media, and in the world of entertainment generally. The new issue of Vanity Fair contains an article by Wes alum Sebastian Junger, and also cites Robert Allbritton as a leader in the “new establishment” because of his television, newspaper and web network. On p. 180 of the magazine, they’ve devoted a full page to “Wesleyan’s Entertaining Class.”

Vanity Fair

Credit: Vanity Fair

It’s great to see the work of these wonderful alumni and our “tiny Connecticut University” recognized in this way. Of course, there are many more alums out there doing compelling work in this area. Jeffrey Richards, for example, has had an extraordinary career producing shows on Broadway, including August: Osage County, which won five Tony Awards this year, including Best Play. When I sent the Vanity Fair page to Jeanine Basinger, she came up with dozens of other names. Send them in! Wes alums are shaping our culture!!


Among the myriad of sports contests, exhibitions and films on campus this weekend, I find especially noteworthy a concert in Memorial Chapel Sunday night at 7:00 pm. Charles Simic, former Poet Laureate of the United States, will join a great group of singers led by Professor of Music Neely Bruce. It should be a wonderful evening of poetry and song.

And the Wesleyan Bowl takes place on Sunday when the Jets face off against the Patriots. Both head coaches are Wes grads, so we can expect a thoughtful, strategic contest!

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A Great Night for Wesleyan

Friday was a great night for Wesleyan. Thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor, we were able to raise 1.5 million dollars for scholarships and treat more than 1,300 students, alumni and friends to a high energy, moving night of musical theater. The donor gave us all the seats to the September 5 performance of In the Heights so that we could re-sell the tickets for scholarships. In the Heights, which won the Tony for Best Musical this year, was originally created at our own Patricelli ’92 Theater. The creator and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda ’02, was joined by director Tommy Kail ’99 and co-orchestrator Bill Sherman ’02 in creating a show that has expanded the genre of musical theater on Broadway. On Friday night they brought on the stage other Wesleyan alumni who helped them: Gilbert Parker ’48, John Mailer ’00 and Neil Stewart ’00

I can’t tell you how joyful it was to see W46th Street filled with Wesleyan folks – and even the Cardinal! After the performance many danced to the stupendous Wes Band, Kinky Spigot and the Welders, who were rocking the Edison Ballroom. It was a high-energy celebration, and we funded 38 new scholarships.

As Kari and I took the train back on Saturday, I learned that our women’s volleyball team had beaten Williams on Friday for the first time since 2001. GO WES!!

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And the Semester Begins

Yesterday I met with my first class, and it was wonderful to join students and faculty racing across campus to begin focusing on Enzyme Mechanisms or on Emerson, on Film Noir or on French Intellectual History. The students in my seminar are mostly seniors, and there are majors from all three divisions enrolled. It’s a stressful time for some students, as they figure out their schedules and determine whether a class they want is already full. Last year I wrote about my own (fortunate) experience of getting only my third choice for a class, and how that course really changed my life. Within the next week or so all of our almost 3,000 students will have their schedules in place, the library will be packed late into the night, and we teachers will start worrying about how we will grade all those papers. Intellectual excitement, new discoveries, lots of work….summer is really over!

This academic year one of Wesleyan’s real treasures will begin celebrating its 50th anniversary. The Center for the Humanities has for decades brought to our campus major intellectual figures, artists and writers who share their insights with the Wesleyan community (and often write their books here, too!). Hannah Arendt Edmund Wilson, and Stanley Cavell spent extended residences at the Center in its early years. When I was a student here, the Center was at the heart of intellectual life on campus, and the tradition continues each Monday with lectures devoted to a specific theme but coming at it from diverse disciplines. Student Fellows join with faculty and visitors to create an incubator of new scholarship. My time as a student fellow was one of the highlights of my Wesleyan experience.

The theme this year is “Figuring the Human,” and the speakers and Fellows are all concerned with understanding the conception of the “human” that is at the core of the humanities. How have definitions of the human developed in relation to changing conceptions of technology, machines, animals? How does recent work in the sciences and the arts challenge our notions of “human nature?” These are just some of the ideas in play this year at CHUM. Under the leadership of Prof. Jill Morawski, there are plans for exciting classes and public events. You can check them out online, or visit the Center (on the corner of Washington and Pearl Streets).

We are ending the first week of classes with an exciting fundraising event on Broadway. Friday night will be Wesleyan night at In the Heights, winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical (and led by a troika of Wes alums). Thanks to all who purchased tickets, which will support financial aid at the university.

This weekend will also see our athletic teams get underway. Come cheer the Cardinals in Volleyball, and Cross-Country, and check our all the teams’ schedules at


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