Trustee Time

At the end of this week the Board of Trustees will come to town for its annual winter meeting. The February trustee conversations are usually focused on the budget for the next year, and this time, due to the economic climate, those discussions will take on a sharp sense of urgency. Although Wesleyan is fortunate to have generous supporters and a significant endowment, there is no question that its economic base has been shaken. Wesleyan now must make appropriate changes to its spending patterns to maintain fiscal stability, and we will be discussing the impact of such changes this coming weekend.

The trustees’ primary responsibility is fiduciary. They are entrusted with the future health of the institution, and their duty is  to ensure that the educational and economic capacity of alma mater will be passed on to future generations of students. Board members volunteer their time and their resources to help Wesleyan to both navigate difficult times and seize opportunities to advance its mission. Consulting with faculty, alumni, current students and staff, trustees make strategic policy decisions for the long term, and during these parlous times I know they feel the weight of that responsibility.

This meeting will begin with discussions of next year’s budget, but the issues to be considered have more widespread implications. Wesleyan has stood for something distinctive and admirable in American liberal arts education, and over the decades other schools have followed our lead. How we can continue to be a leader of creative, progressive liberal arts education while living within our means has always been a great challenge. We must preserve our ideals and principles while remaining realistic about the sustainability of our economic model.

With the intelligence and hard work of our faculty and staff, with the generosity of the extended Wes family, and with the thoughtful stewardship of our Board of Trustees, I am confident that we will strike the proper balance to meet these challenges.

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California Dreamin’

I spent Monday and Tuesday of this week in Los Angeles, attending the annual Wes Film Family gathering — a truly impressive assemblage of alumni working in the media and entertainment world. Game designers, writers, cameramen, agents, actors, distributors, directors… they have all been coming together on President’s Day for decades now. This year there were more than 200 people for the event, held at the Creative Artists Agency. I saw some grads from 2008 who have migrated West, screenplays or DVDs in hand. I also met alumni from the past forty years who look forward to re-establishing Wesleyan connections and to hearing about what’s happening on campus. Jeanine Basinger was there to offer advice, celebrate personal and professional accomplishments, and to remind everyone that Wesleyan continues to offer an extraordinary liberal arts approach to making movies and understanding their cultural significance. There is great support for financial aid in this community, and in these difficult times we are especially counting on their generosity.

One of the highlights of my trip was a long conversation with Matt Weiner ’87, the creator of the extraordinary AMC show Mad Men. Matt was a College of Letters student at Wesleyan, and you can see that distinctive education resonate throughout the episodes. He wrote poetry while an undergraduate, and his show is filled with allusions to the books and cultural themes that have been key to COL over the years. Matt’s uncanny attention to historical detail has been much remarked on, but I found myself especially drawn to the way the past haunts his young Americans striving to find themselves in a world they almost believe they can remake. The pull between the ghosts of the past and the shaky promises of desire finds its way into every episode. Watching Mad Men I think I can see how its creator continues to draw on his liberal arts education in a most profound (and funny) way. I look forward to welcoming Matt back to campus sometime soon to talk about his journey after Wesleyan.

While in Los Angeles I also met with the parents of some of our current students, as well as the families of a few of our recently admitted early decision applicants. Spirits were high, though there were some complaints about the excessive length of our winter break!

Everyone asks me how it feels to have moved back East from California. I do love to visit CA – after all, I spent over 20 years there, and I get to visit with my older son (a writer) who is working in LA. But Middletown is home now, and, as I write these words on the return flight, I realize how excited I am about the lectures, athletic contests and art performances that will fill the next few days. Oh yeah, we also have to wrestle the budget into balance. Welcome home!

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Messy Cooperation or Isolated Purity?

Reading the announcement of Senator Gregg’s embarrassing withdrawal from consideration for Secretary of Commerce, I began thinking about the temptation to maintain one’s purity by staying away from people one doesn’t always agree with. In the case of the would-be Secretary of Commerce the issue might have simply been Republican pressure to close ranks around unthinking obstructionism (the old fashioned way to avoid responsibility), or perhaps it was just that he discovered a principle “in his heart” that he just didn’t realize he had when he lobbied for the post. But the tendency to avoid working with people who might not share your ideas extends far beyond Washington.

The college years are supposed to be a time when you have uncommon and unparalleled opportunities to engage with talented people who have ideas and experiences very different from your own. On campus we should be hearing different points of view, meeting people from different walks of life, participating in vigorous debate, while we also work together to get things done, to build community, or simply to have a good time. These are some of the challenges and joys of being at a university.

But there is also a tendency at many schools to find people who have made the same choices as you, who want what you want, and then to spend all your time deepening your connections to them. Isolated micro-communities spring up, and they also contribute to one’s education and life. There is a cost to this, though, because it means a diminished capacity for real teamwork — a compromised ability to work together while acknowledging difference.

As Wesleyan moves into the heart of the semester, we all — students, faculty and staff – experience many demands on our time and energies. Will we continue to work together in messy cooperation to get things done, or will we drift to like-minded groups that take comfort in isolated pockets of agreement rather than general effectiveness?

Seeing some of the economic and educational challenges that lie ahead, I count on us remaining a variegated community that is home for many differences while being still capable of uniting behind common purposes. To meet these challenges we will need the diversity and the commonality.

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Musical Competition — Rock On!

Dean Louise Brown tells me that there will be a great musical competition between classes on February 19. Wesleyan has been known for a long time as the “singing college of New England,” and more recently as the fertile soil for adventuous rock bands to grow in. I’m told the acoustics in the bathrooms at West College are particularly good…

So, submit your musical entry and participate in what should be a great evening. The music will be judged by Rob Rosenthal, Barry Chernoff and Sarah Lazare, and there will be prizes! The promised (threatened) opening act is “Lou and the Blues,” and I may join in to see if my harp lessons have worked….

A more detailed description of all this can be found on the entry form at:

Come make some music. Entries are due on Feb 12, so get busy.

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The place is Wesleyan

It’s always a pleasure when our alumni return to campus to visit with students. This weekend my classmate (and star!) Dana Delaney ’78 was here to talk about her film and TV career as well as her new project with Janet Grillo ’80. I myself was just getting back from the road, but I heard the event was a great success. The Wesleyan Film program continues to support current students by bringing back fascinating alumni who can reflect on their careers in interesting ways.

On Sunday I stopped by the Wesleyan wrestling team’s match against Williams College. Coach Black has put together a great roster of students who have had a truly impressive season. We didn’t beat Williams yesterday, but every match I saw was competitive. I have to admit that I don’t know much about wrestling, but even I could see how much these young men have worked at becoming stronger, more agile and more focused. Hats off especially to Greg Hurd ’10 who is ranked 8th nationally and who finished the season 16-0 in duals.

We all owe Coach Black a debt of gratitude for his effective actions in providing CPR to an alumnus who suffered a heart attack in the gym last week. Coach Black and student Jamal Ahmed ’09, who made good use of his defibrillator training, heroically saved a life! Our whole community is indebted to them.

Such is the excitement of the Wesleyan campus that I went directly from the tournament in the Freeman Athletic Center to a senior thesis presentation in the theater department that was wrestling with fundamental issues of gender, freedom, reality and illusion. Gedney Barclay ’09 presented a thoughtful, provocative and intense production of Fefu and Her Friends.  The demanding production made use of many spaces in the Malcom X House, and the audience moved into zones of believability, uncertainty and concern as we shifted from room to room. The entire cast (Ali San Roman ’11, Emily Levine ’11, Emily Caffery ’10, Kiara Williams-Jones ’12, Elissa Heller ’11, Sarah Wolfe ’12, Arielle Hixson ’12, Alli Rock ’10), was excellent, and I left with a feeling of having been transported to a very special place.

Of course, I had been transported. The place is Wesleyan!

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Africa in New York

I spent a few days in New York this week to visit with parents and alumni. On Wednesday I attended a great reception that brought together current students, trustees and alumni all of whom had a strong connection to Africa and the Caribbean. Co-hosted by Chair Emeritus Steve Pfeiffer ’69 and Wesleyan Trustee Mora McLean ’77, there were people from Jamaica, Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria – to name just a few of the countries represented. There were teachers and doctors, humanitarian workers and investment bankers. A group of current students came down from Wesleyan, and with them I discovered an intense connection between Africa and our chemistry department. We shared stories of how people got connected to Wes in the first place, as well as our plans for future internationalization. Afro pop, an amazing archive of African music led by a group of our alumni, provided the soundtrack for the reception, and Sonia Manjon told me that the party continued until somebody at the law firm turned the lights out.

It was great to be reminded in this time of economic contraction and budget cutting that Wesleyan’s reach across the globe remains strong. We intend to make it even stronger by raising funds for additional scholarships for African students. I’m grateful to Lagu Androga ’07, Chinelo Dike ’00, and Miriti Murungi ’99 for making this happen, and I look forward to seeing Wesleyan deepen its interconnections with Africa!

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