Thick Envelopes, Tough Decisions

In the next few days students across the country (and around the world) will be opening their mail hoping for what, back in the day, was the thick envelope from one’s top choice school. This week, many students will get the news by pressing a computer key, but the feelings of hope, anxiety and anticipation will still be there. By the weekend, students invited to join the Wesleyan Class of 2013 will be comparing notes, preparing to revisit campus, and trying to imagine themselves thriving in this distinctive environment.

In meeting applicants over the last several months, I am humbled by the extraordinary talents of those hoping to join our community. The competition, especially this year, is very intense. Many smart, accomplished and hard working high school seniors will not be accepted. There isn’t anywhere near enough room at our small university for all the qualified people who want to be here. That’s why the Admissions team works so hard in finding the right fit between applicant and school. As many of you know, our applicant pool surged by more than 22% this year, and that means the staff of Admissions had to give the same level of attention to thousands more applications. I am proud of the work they’ve done and grateful for their efforts.

Many current students, staff, faculty and alumni will be asked to offer final words of advice: What kind of place is Wesleyan really? I trust we will offer honest appraisals, giving our visitors a sense of what it’s like now, as well as the potential we see at Wes. As I always say to the tour groups I meet on campus, Wesleyan is not for everybody. Some people want a more structured environment where their education will be more institutionally directed. Others want a more homogeneous climate in which they can find people like themselves who are working toward similar goals. Students like this would probably be happier elsewhere. The folks who thrive at Wes are those who have great academic (intellectual, artistic) potential, who are open to experimentation, are excited by independent learning, and want to engage with a campus culture that values difference and community. Wes students learn how to be more effective in whatever field they choose to apply themselves, and in the process also discover some of the core things they really love to do. In this way, as graduates, they take with them the discipline and the capacity to continue doing those things about which they are most passionate.

More than thirty years ago I received that thick envelope and began imagining what I could achieve at Wesleyan.  Today, when I look around campus, I see all the great things that students, faculty, and staff still can achieve. Even with our long history, Wesleyan is very much a school in the process of realizing its potential, and those who join the class of 2013 will help us do just that.

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For generations of students, the Eclectic Society has been a home for adventurous and ambitious students with an independent streak. At times the society has been highly intellectual, often with an artistic slant. In recent years the grand house on High Street has also been a place to hear popular yet original contemporary music. Eclectic has long been an important part of the social life of the Wesleyan campus and beyond.

Eclectic’s role in campus social life has also led to problems over the years. There have been concerns about the health and safety of residents, and about social events that have gotten out of control. The intense party atmosphere that had recently characterized Eclectic scared off many older alumni who felt that the great House at 200 High Street (designed by Henry Bacon and owned by Wesleyan) was being compromised. When I started as president several alumni asked me to protect the House from too much wear and tear. I found that when I met with current members of the society that they, too, wanted to protect the house. They also wanted to maintain the feisty, creative spirit of the society, and we agreed that with some effort we should be able to do both. I was impressed by the devotion of the Eclectic members, and I went to a great rock band senior thesis performance at the house last spring. How to balance the legitimate community concerns with artistic freedom and campus social life?

If you follow news of Wesleyan, you already know that there has recently been disciplinary action taken by the Student Judicial Board against Eclectic because of an incident at the house in December. The student board that heard the case found that the society had been guilty of violations of the party and noise policies and a failure to comply with requests from Public Safety. They thought a proper penalty for this would be to forbid Eclectic from hosting social/musical events at night through the end of April.

Many students have been very upset about this ruling because it doesn’t only affect Eclectic but the whole musical culture of Wesleyan. I understand the basis for this concern: the society does provide a vital function for the presentation of music in a distinctive setting. Much of the great musical culture we prize at Wesleyan passes through Eclectic. However, if the society can not present music in a way that is safe and that recognizes the rights of the neighborhood, then Eclectic won’t be able to play that role in the future.

I am confident that the SJB and Dean Backer acted in accordance with our procedures, and that their findings in regard to the events of December 8, 2008 were correct. However, based on communication with Eclectic since that time, and my belief that the society is committed to acting as responsible hosts for events, I have reconsidered and modified the sanction in this case.
I take seriously (and appreciate) Eclectic’s desire to host events in a way that works for the artists, is safe for those who attend, and respects the rights of neighbors. This is also my intention and the intention of Student Affairs. So, rather than ban events for the remainder of the semester, I have asked Marshall Ball, Eclectic’s President, and Dean Rick Culliton to work together on a written agreement that delineates Eclectic’s responsibilities for events going forward. If they can reach the agreement quickly, events can resume under the specific guidelines. As long as the events continue according to those guidelines, the ban will remain lifted.

At the end of the semester representatives of Eclectic and Student Affairs can discuss what went well, and where we need to pay more attention to run the kinds of events we all want. If we are unable to run events this term in accord with the principles with which we all agree, then we will not plan any social or musical events at 200 High Street going forward. Thus, this is a probationary period that should allow us to move to a better platform for events in the future.
I very much appreciate the difficult work that the Student Judicial Board did in sorting out the facts in this case. I also am grateful for the thoughtful responses from many in the Eclectic Society, and others who cherish the vibrant music scene on campus. I hope that by developing a framework for hosting events at 200 High Street we will continue to have interesting artists perform in a context that is exciting and safe for those who attend, and that is respectful of the community in which we live.

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Deceptive Tranquility

After a frenetic if fascinating trip to some major cities in Asia, it is a real pleasure to come home to Wesleyan, which is enjoying spring break. When I left 10 days ago, there was a frantic energy in the air in the wake of meetings with students and faculty regarding recent conversations with the Board of Trustees about Wesleyan’s finances. Many people were feverishly dealing with midterms, papers and the various pressures that arise just before the final push of the academic year.

The quiet on campus is deceptive. Some people are working very hard, indeed. On Saturday I watched the men’s lacrosse team win a closely fought contest with rival Middlebury – always a tough match. Wes prevailed 8-7, led by Russ Follansbee’s three goals and an assist, and 16 saves from goalie Mike Borerro. On Sunday the women’s lacrosse team had a strong showing in beating Eastern Connecticut State by a score of 13-6. Jess Chukwu had three goals and Erin McCarthy had two goals and two assists in a great team effort.

There are many students whose work over spring break is much less visible but just as intense as that of our athletes. At CFA members of the Javanese Gamelan orchestra have been rehearsing, and over the weekend I crossed paths with more than a few musicians heading for their practice rooms. On my late night walks with Mathilde I see studio lights still burning as our artists and designers prepare their final projects for April exhibitions.

Many seniors are putting their best efforts into writing up their research into senior theses. On subjects ranging from comic memoirs (Jon Short, English) to Quranic conceptions of justice (Benedict Bernstein, CSS), our young scholars are making original arguments that advance the work of their chosen fields. Toshi Osaka (Design) is considering how to construct an interactive space by collapsing a swimming pool and a train station, and Alison Ringel (Molecular Biology — Biophysics) is examining how proteins interact to determine how genes are activated in yeast. Seniors are writing novels, making films and developing new scholarship in anticipation of that April deadline. For these students, spring “break” is just an opportunity to get lots of work done!

It’s good to be back home in Middletown. But the campus isn’t as tranquil as it might appear…

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Freeman Travels

During this first part of spring break I have traveled to

Photos by Gina Driscoll

Photos by Gina Driscoll

Southeast Asia to meet with the Freeman family and participate in some of the interviews for next year’s Freeman Scholars. This is my first trip to this part of the world, and so I am keeping my eyes and ears open. Last night in Singapore we held a reception for alumni, parents and prospective Wesleyan students. It was so impressive for me to hear about the many different things our alumni are up to. From traditional drumming and performance, to teaching and NGO work, from law and medicine to entrepreneurship, the Wesleyan-Freeman alumni are activating their education in powerful ways.

Although my stay in Singapore was very brief, I did have a very interesting meeting with the leadership team of the Singapore Management University, a relatively young school that is developing a very innovative curriculum. SMU had reached out to Wesleyan because its faculty is developing a new core program in the liberal arts. It seems that the government has recently decided to invest in higher education programs that move away from the early specialization required in the British model long popular here. SMU’s president (who once worked with former Wes prez Bill Chace!) talked about an education that would allow students to access their creativity, prepare them for a changing world. enhance their ability to think about problems using a broad range of disciplines… all the things that we emphasize at Wesleyan! Perhaps we will have some student exchanges with SMU in the future. For now, I am just pleased to know that our vision of the importance of the liberal arts is resonating here on the other side of the world.

Last night I received a strong shot of hopefulness from meeting prospective and former Freeman Scholars. In these difficult times, it is crucial that Wesleyan continues to recruit talented students from Asia, and that we continue to support their work after graduation. The generosity and thoughtfulness of the Freeman family is legendary, and now alumni of the program are continuing that tradition. It’s both a pleasure and a learning experience to participate in these activites of the program. which has given so much to Wesleyan over the years.

We are now in Bangkok, and I’ve attached some photos from Gina Driscoll.

Bankok from the river

Bangkok from the river

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Budget Update

The Board of Trustees meetings this past weekend were focused and productive. Most of the discussions centered on Wesleyan’s response to the world economic crisis. As readers of this blog know, because of our endowment decline, we must deal with a significant reduction in revenue. In this economic climate we feel that it is not appropriate to try to compensate for this loss of revenue with a large tuition increase. Instead, we plan on a 3.8% tuition increase for next year—one of the smallest hikes at Wesleyan in decades. We also plan to increase the financial aid budget next year by more than 8%.

The trustees heard how we plan to bridge what now looks to be an emerging $20 million budget gap. I’ve discussed specific cuts in earlier posts and in a letter going out to our alumni today. The links below will take you to those documents. With the continued deterioration of the financial markets, we must be prepared for further, more difficult cuts, and we must redouble our efforts to create more academic programs throughout the summer so as to attract additional students to the university. We have no plans to add any more students other than phasing in the less than 5% per class growth we proposed in the fall. Over the last several months I have underscored our priorities in confronting the budget crisis: maintaining a strong academic core (teaching and research), providing an excellent student experience, and ensuring access to Wesleyan through a strong financial aid program. These will remain priorities as we decide how to deal with our budget shortfall.

On Sunday night I met with the students to talk through the process for determining the specific mix of budget changes that may become necessary for our long term planning. Student input will continue to be crucial in monitoring the impact of fiscal decisions on the lives of our young people. Later this week I will meet with the senior administrative staff to seek their input as well. I recognize that staff have already been working diligently to cut expenses, and I am grateful for their efforts.

Today I will meet with the faculty in an open meeting to discuss how we can ensure that our programmatic structures enable Wesleyan to deliver a great education in ways that maximize our resources. Faculty at schools like Wesleyan have a crucial role in governance, and I very much look forward to working with my colleagues to create a more solid foundation for our school in these very uncertain times.

In my last post I wrote that: “We must preserve our ideals and principles while remaining realistic about the sustainability of our economic model.” Finding the right mix of idealism and practicality has been a hallmark of Wesleyan grads for many decades. May we be inspired by their example, choosing the best of our history as we work together to lay the groundwork for the Wesleyan of the future.

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