Celebration and Remembrance

Today I sent the following message to the campus community:

The end of spring semester, traditionally a time of celebration at Wesleyan, also brings to mind the sad events of a year ago. May 6 marks the first anniversary of the tragic death of Johanna Justin-Jinich ’10. This year, May 6 also happens to mark the end of the semester, traditionally a day when students gather for “Spring Fling” to celebrate their achievements. I know many on campus are uneasy about participating in festivities this year, and I wanted to acknowledge that uneasiness even as we prepare to both mark the end of the school year and mourn our great loss of a year ago. A list of events honoring Johanna’s memory will be sent around soon.

We continue to work and live as a community, and this year we anticipate our annual May celebration being mindful of this tragedy. We all choose to commemorate, celebrate or grieve in different ways. Some of us prefer privacy, others seek out friends or groups. Some of us will pray or reflect, others will dance and sing. We are providing our community – students, faculty, staff and others – with a variety of options to gather together for remembrance, reflection as well as celebration. We have the freedom to pay our respects and remember in whatever way we choose.

Spring Fling has long marked the end of classes, and it still does. The fact that we have chosen not to abandon that tradition is not a sign of disrespect, but it is a sign that we will not change the culture of our campus because of a senseless act of violence. Spring is here. Let us celebrate, and let us remember.

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Nashville (and Pittsburgh) Cats

Sitting in Nashville International Airport, I think back on the Wesleyan folks I’ve met during this trip. Some graduated more than 5 decades ago, others left Middletown only in the last couple of years. Before heading to Nashville I spent a day in Pittsburgh, where Ned Churchill ’59 and Jo-Ann Churchill hosted a reception for local alumni and parents. The conversation turned to the wonderful students who are now attracted to Wes, but also to some of the frustrations alumni experience in having to explain where exactly they spent their undergrad years. Ohio Wesleyan, or West Virginia? No, thundered Ned (who had spent many years running marketing for Heinz) “we went to THE Wesleyan University,” in mock tribute to the offensive lineman who declaim on television reports that they attended THE Ohio State University. There’s something wonderful about Ned’s pride in alma mater, a pride that made even more sense when I heard about the various accomplishments of the alumni in the room.

In Nashville our reception was at the home of Dr. George Allen ’63 and Dr Shannon Hersey. George had been Chair of the Neurosurgery department at Vanderbilt’s medical center, having graduated from Wesleyan with a passion for science, invention and car racing. While training an amazing percentage of the nation’s neurosurgeons at Vanderbilt and Johns Hopkins, George has discovered treatments and created medical devices for addressing serious conditions like the aftermath of stroke. He continues to see patients and work with young physicians, and in conversation reflected on how his Wesleyan years created the intellectual foundation on which he has continued to build for now almost fifty years.

At our reception I met Ljerka Vidic Rasmussen, a Ph.D. from our Ethnomusicology program now teaching in Tennessee. We talked about the importance of our grad programs for the whole campus and about her mentor and our mutual friend Professor Mark Slobin. Prince C. Chambliss ’70, an attorney in Memphis gave me his recently published book, Prince of Peace, a memoir of growing up in Birmingham and attending Wes in the late 1960s. He recounts that in the year before he started college Wesleyan admitted only 9 African-American students out of a class of 500 men. In his year, the efforts to open up the admission process to under-represented groups resulted in a class with 50 black men. In his memoir Prince Chambliss recalls the difficulties and mistakes in those years, but ends his chapter on Wesleyan with these words: “Wesleyan will always be on the cutting edge, leading the way for others to follow.” I hope we can live up to that!

After the reception last night Dr. Dan Viner ‘93 (a philosophy major at Wes who now has a substantial medical practice in Nashville) took me out to hear what he promised would be real Nashville music at The Station Inn. What a treat! Roland White (who backed up Bill Monroe and then Lester Flatts back in the day) had a great band that was occasionally livened up when an audience member got on stage to join in. It was a great way to close my trip to our extended Wesleyan family.

(Even better was returning to see that our men’s lacrosse team had beat Amherst (behind the eight goals [!] of  Lonny Blumenthal ’10) and that our softball team had swept a double-header from the Lord Jeffs (behind the amazing hitting of Alexis Kral ’12 and Meaghan Dendy ’10). Go Wes! The Wes!!

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MoCon Decision

When I began my tenure as President of Wesleyan in the summer of 2007, I strolled over to my old Foss Hill room just across from the entrance to McConaughy Dining Hall. Standing in the circular driveway between my frosh dorm and the dining hall, I could almost hear the music that my roommate Richie and I blasted through the speakers we’d set in the window. On that Arrival Day in August 1975, we decided to announce our start as Wesleyan students by turning up the volume on Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone: How does it FEEEEL?

But in the summer of 2007 MoCon stood empty, and I wondered what the previous administration had envisioned for it. I soon learned that in planning the Usdan University Center, various uses for MoCon were studied but that none seemed feasible.  I began making my own inquiries: MoCon as small theater? art gallery? studios? residence?  Nothing seemed to work either economically or architecturally. The building just didn’t accommodate the needs we had, or, if we tried to make the structure fit those needs, it became just too expensive.

Still, I really hoped to solve this riddle. I thought back to the great Pete Seeger concert I saw in MoCon, or to the night that Keith Jarrett walked off stage because a bottle rolled down the stairs. (He came back. We listened.) I don’t remember any particular meals, but I have plenty of memories of the great people I met in the building. And I know that thousands of other Wesleyan alumni have their own memories anchored to the same spot.

So this winter I went back to the numbers and to the architects (and I walked through the building). We are presently undertaking an exciting renovation of the Squash Courts, and we just finished a revitalization of Davenport-Allbritton that is a great success. I’d hoped to find something parallel with MoCon. I talked with a friend who is a campus architect and my architectural collaborator at California College of the Arts. We had done wonderful re-use projects in San Francisco, and I thought we might come up with something for Wesleyan. But our brainstorming about MoCon didn’t prove fruitful as we drilled down on a variety of ideas. I again consulted with alumni in the field as well as with knowledgeable people on our own faculty. The conclusions, alas, were the same.

In order to keep McConaughy as an active part of campus we either have to invent a need that the current structure could meet, or we have to re-build the dining hall as something else in order to “preserve it.” Dividing up its great open space for some specific purpose that is antithetical to its design doesn’t really keep MoCon, nor does replacing all its essential components for use as an outdoor pavillion. And the expense would be staggering….millions over the next few years.

Ideas for reusing MoCon have been solicited for years, and delaying a decision any further seems to me irresponsible. So, with great reluctance I have reached the conclusion that we will not be able to maintain McConaughy. Instead, we’ll disassemble the building and recycle almost all its materials. Sometimes buildings reach the end of their lives, and this is what has happened with MoCon.

I know some students and alumni will be disappointed, and, like me, they will miss the cool circular structure that was part stage, part ballroom, part spaceship. We will find another space to dedicate to the memory of President McConaughy. In a week or so, we will post on the homepage a link to a site that highlights the events that took place at MoCon while encouraging readers to post their own memories of the dining hall.

I remember Dylan’s question: “How does it feel?” The answer is, “It stinks.” But the alternatives feel even worse.  So, this summer we will say goodbye to McConaughy Dining Hall. As for that spot in front of my old Foss Hill room, we will restore the hillside.  As Construction Services Consultant Alan Rubacha noted in The Argus:  “We will allow water that used to run into storm drains to percolate into the earth. We will provide a much needed open space for birds.  This open space will provide spectacular views into and out of Foss Hill.”

I will surely miss McConaughy. But I try to look forward to those new perspectives.

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How to Choose a (Our) University

Last year in mid April I posted a blog about the challenges of choosing a college or university now that students know into which schools they have been accepted. I thought it might be useful to re-post, with a few revisions.

The thick envelopes (or weighty emails) arrived a couple of weeks ago, and the month of April is decision time. Of course, for many (especially this year) the decision will be made on an economic basis. Which school has given the most generous financial aid package? Wesleyan is one of a small number of schools that admits students irrespective of their ability to pay and seeks to meet full financial need according to a formula developed over several years. There are some schools with larger endowments that can afford to be even more generous than Wes, but there are hundreds (thousands?) of others that are unable even to consider meeting financial need over four years of study.

After answering the question of which schools one can afford, how else does one decide where best to spend one’s college years? Of course, size matters.  Some students are looking for a large university in an urban setting where the city itself plays an important role in one’s education. In recent years, campuses in New York and Boston, for example, have become increasingly popular. But if one seeks small classes and strong, personal relationships with faculty, then liberal arts schools, which pride themselves on providing rich cultural and social experiences on a residential campus, are especially compelling. You can be on a campus with a human scale and still have plenty of things to do. Wesleyan is somewhat larger than most liberal arts colleges but much smaller than the urban or land grant universities. We feel that this gives our students the opportunity to choose a broad curriculum and a variety of cultural activities on campus, while still being small enough to encourage regular, sustained relationships among faculty and students.

All the selective small liberal arts schools boast of having a faculty of teacher/scholars, of a commitment to research and interdisciplinarity, and of encouraging community and service. So what sets us apart from one another after taking into account size, location, and financial aid packages? What are students trying to see when they visit Amherst and Wesleyan, or Tufts and Middlebury?

Knowing that these schools all provide a high quality, broad and flexible curriculum with strong teaching, and that the students all have displayed great academic capacity, prospective students are trying to discern the personalities of each school. They are trying to imagine themselves on the campus, among the people they see, to get a feel for the chemistry of the place — to gauge whether they will be happy there. Hundreds of visitors will be coming to Wesleyan this weekend for WesFest (our annual program for admitted students). They will go to classes and athletic contests, musical performances and parties. And they will ask themselves: Would I be happy at Wesleyan?

I hope our visitors get a sense of the personality of the school that I so admire and enjoy. I hope they feel the exuberance and ambition of our students, the intelligence and care of our faculty, the playful yet demanding qualities of our community. I hope our visitors can sense our commitment to creating a diversity in which difference is embraced and not just tolerated, and to public service that is part of one’s education and approach to life.

We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into (even more difficult this year!). But even in the group of highly selective schools, Wes is not for everybody. We aspire to be a community committed to boldness as well as to rigor, to idealism as well as to effectiveness. Whether in the sciences, arts, humanities or social sciences, our faculty and students are dedicated to explorations that invite originality as well as collaboration. The camaraderie around the completion of senior theses this week says a lot about who we are. We know how to work hard, but we also know how to enjoy the work we choose to do. That’s been magically appealing to me for more than 30 years. I bet the magic will enchant many of our visitors, too.

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Recognition, Acknowledgment and Celebration

Today I attended the luncheon to acknowledge the winners of the Roger Maynard Scholar-Athlete Award. Beth Kenworthy (Soccer – Neuroscience & Behavior), Clare Smith (Lacrosse – Science in Society), Jory Kahan (Soccer – Neuroscience & Behavior), and Keisuke Yamashita (Soccer — Math/Economics) were this year’s winners. Their stellar academic work and extraordinary athletic performance were described by their coaches and academic advisors. Congratulations to these wonderful Wes students and their families!

This weekend I’m sorry to miss The Mystery of Irma Veep, directed by Professor Cláudia Tatinge Nascimento. The comedy is part of actor Mark McCloughan’s senior thesis, and I’ve heard great things about it. The show is in the Patricelli ’92 Theater. Speaking of theses, I know that many will be burning the midnight oil over the weekend. Good luck to you, as well as to those giving recitals (like Vicki Cheng, who will be singing German Lieder and Jazz Saturday afternoon in Russell House).

Staying with the theme of recognition and acknowledgment, Kari and I will join in the celebration of the wedding of my esteemed assistant, Joan Adams, to her long-time partner Mary Rustico. Joan has been part of the Wesleyan family for years, and we are delighted to join with her and Mary as they make their vows (and dance up a storm!).

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A Jewel of an Archive

One of the great resources on the campus is surely the Ogden and Mary Louise Reid Cinema Archives. Although the fame of our undergraduate film major is well known to the Wes family, only those with a really serious interest in cinema scholarship may know about the treasures right here on campus.

The Cinema Archives are the home for some stellar collections, and I can start by mentioning three major American directors. Frank Capra, Elia Kazan and Martin Scorsese have deposited archives here, and scholars from around the world come to Middletown to consult them. Head Archivist Joan Miller recently told me about some of the work going on in the Reid Archives.

This year marked the Centenary of the birth of Elia Kazan, and works by several researchers who came to the Archives will be published. Knopf will bring out a collection of Selected Letters, and James T. Fisher’s new interpretation of On the Waterfront will be published by Cornell University Press. Our own faculty member Lisa Dombrowski has edited a volume on Kazan that will be released by Wesleyan University Press in a few months.

Frank Capra’s Collection is a key part of Wesleyan’s archive. Recently, filmmaker Chip Hackler, another visitor to the Archives, put together a film about Capra’s anxious reaction to the success of his great comedy, It Happened One Night. Researchers interested in television in the 1950s have been working through the Omnibus Collection. Anna McCarthy’s new book on media and citizenship, which draws on this collection, will be published this year by the Free Press. Biographical studies of Scorsese have been started here in Middletown, as have reconsiderations of multi-talented director and artist John Waters.


Finally, I should mention the Ingrid Bergman/Roberto Rossellini collection, which has continued to inspire research (and more than a little awe). Filmmakers and biographers visit Wes to consult the extensive paper and photographic archive. If they are lucky, they may even get an opportunity to visit with Jeanine Basinger, who has carefully stewarded our donors and added another jewel to Wesleyan’s crown.

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Teaching, Research and a Busy Weekend

Yesterday felt like the first warm spring day since students returned from Spring Break, and it was great to see Andrus Field and Foss Hill fill up in the late afternoon. I’d begun the day with a visit to our pilot program at the Cheshire State Correctional Institution. VP Sonia Manjon and I visited Melanye Price’s class in political science, and I was struck by the seriousness with which the men were approaching complex issues in American political culture.  Russell Perkins ’09, who helped get this program underway and continues to coordinate it, met us at the prison. It was important to see first-hand some of the issues that arise in a program that teaches liberal arts classes in correctional institutions.

For the last year or so Provost Joe Bruno and I have sponsored talks by faculty for their colleagues across the campus. The faculty lunch lecture yesterday was delivered with panache by Stewart Novick, one of our star professors of chemistry. Stew’s subject was astrochemistry, and he did a masterful job of explaining the “rich chemistry” of dense interspatial dust clouds — even to someone as chemistry-challenged as I! I was especially impressed by the interdisciplinary importance of the work for astronomy, physics and cosmology. The collaboration on this sophisticated research by undergraduate and graduate students was yet another sign of how our science programs are dedicated to the scholar-teacher model at the highest level.

Busy weekend on the horizon at Wesleyan. The senior theses art exhibitions at Zilkha gallery are always worth checking out. This week Sarah Abbott, Julian Wellisz, Rachel Schwerin, Megumu Tagami and Yang Li have their recent work on display.

Baseball hosts Middlebury today and Saturday afternoon, and the softball team is at home against Hamilton. Men’s lacrosse is at home against the always strong Tufts team. Come out and support the Cardinals!

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