Spring Theses, Flowering all Around Us

As I tossed Mathilde the tennis ball yesterday, I couldn’t help but notice the spray of crocuses that were pushing through the soil in the backyard. It still seemed freezing to this California-spoiled guy, but spring was beginning to show itself. It’s been a hard winter, but our campus promises to be in bloom very soon.

I strolled over to the Zilkha Gallery to check out the group show of studio art senior theses. Each week now there will be a new group of artists showing their work. Drew Broderick, Robert Eastman, Alyssa Hutton, Cameron Rowland, and Elizabeth Sonenberg provided me with plenty to think about, and marvel and smile at. I was impressed by the delicate drawing, adventurous three dimensional installations and strong political perspective. Photographs by COL senior Alana Perino are on display in the Zelnick Pavillion, and they succeed in giving a strong sense of place that is both strange and familiar.

On Saturday night I’d popped over to Crowell to hear the senior thesis recital of Daniel Henry, an extraordinarily talented trumpet player. In addition to his own vibrant, funky compositions, Daniel’s 9-piece ensemble played music in tribute to the great Lee Morgan. I wasn’t able to stay for the entire concert, but what I heard was stirring. The ensemble was cruising along, and the audience was clearly in for a great ride.

Seniors finishing their theses are hunkering down for the final stretch, and those folks won’t be seen much on campus for the next couple of weeks. But those presenting their final projects in theater, music, dance and studio art will be out in force. Check ‘em out, and cheer them on!

Shasha Seminar: Exploring Histories of Race

Each year Wesleyan hosts the Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns, bringing together scholars, students, faculty and alumni in an intensive series of lectures and discussions. Past programs have focused on popular culture, on environmentalism, on ethics and on international problems of violence. I remember the series of talks on food, which really made me think more carefully about the intersection of politics and economics on my kitchen table. And Joss Whedon’s 2009 discussion of how film and TV projects get made was funny and insightful. This year’s Shasha program, which runs from April 8-10, will explore ideas of race and how they have evolved over time.

Ideas concerning race have a long history, and it’s a history that continues to have powerful reverberations on politics and culture today. The organizer of the program, Andrew Curran of Romance Languages at Wes, has written on the history of the idea of race in relation to concepts of human origins, with a particular emphasis on the age of Enlightenment. The keynote speaker, Nell Painter, Honorary ’96, who for many years was a distinguished member of the history department at Princeton, has written the influential The History of White People, which will be the basis for her remarks on Saturday night. A leading historian of the United States, Prof. Painter is also an accomplished artist. Other discussions will explore race and science, the vicissitudes of race-thinking in Latin America and in China, and the ways that the idea of race still affects our conception of the human.

The Shasha Seminar offers a distinctive way of diving deep into a timely subject area in the company of curious, thoughtful and engaged participants. Alumni and parents join with students and outside experts to create an exceptionally lively series of conversations. If you are interested in learning more about the program, or in signing up for it, you can find information here.

Local Thoughts on Women’s History Month

One of the most dramatic transformations of Wesleyan was the achievement of co-education in the early 1970s. The university had experimented with co-education at the beginning of the 20th century, but the male students just couldn’t deal with women studying alongside them. The contrast with the 1970s was great, and when I arrived in the middle of the decade it seemed that men and women were treated equally on campus. Of course, that was just one guy’s perspective.

And that guy was wrong. Having now spoken with many alumnae from the early 1970s, I have come to realize how difficult gender and sexuality issues were at Wes. Women reported routine harassment, a curriculum and campus culture geared to men, and a reluctance of the institution to change. But change did come, as richly talented women joined the student body and the faculty.

One of the important changes was the development of a Women’s Studies component of the curriculum, a process that culminated in the faculty approving a program in 1979, and a full major about a decade later. More recently, students and faculty changed the name of this concentration to Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies, to better reflect the evolving teaching and research going on in the program. More on the history of FGSS can be found here.

There are plenty of other professors at Wesleyan who have been cultivating this vineyard. Suzanne O’Connell, for example, has received major support from the National Science Foundation to help women at all academic levels take part in programs that emphasize professional development in the geosciences. In addition to being a professor of Earth and Environmental Science, Suzanne also has been directing the Service Learning Center. Carol Wood has been a leader in making the mathematics field more inclusive. Carol is Chair of the Board of the American Mathematical Society, where she continues her long-term work of promoting possibilities for women in math departments across the country. The Edward Burr Van Vleck Professor of Mathematics at Wesleyan, Carol has been president of the Association for Women in Mathematics and represents the United States at the International Mathematics Union.

Su Zheng, Associate Professor Music, has been teaching and writing about the intersection of gender, sexuality, globalization and music. Her interests range from world music and experimental composition to heavy metal. Gina Ulysse, Associate Professor of Anthropology and African-American Studies, has been teaching and writing about gender, transnational feminism, race, class and performance — to name just some of her many topics. I was delighted to learn recently that Ruth Striegel, Walter A. Crowell University Professor of the Social Sciences, will be returning to the psychology department next semester. Her research and teaching on eating disorders has had a deep impact on our understanding of these phenomena, and her teaching has inspired generations of Wesleyan students.

The achievements of these fine scholar-teachers – and there are many others on this campus doing important work in this area – exemplify the Wesleyan spirit of engaging in academic work that reverberates in society. You can find a similar spirit among our campus activists fighting for reproductive freedom, gender equality and civil rights. It is Women’s History Month, and while much has changed here at Wesleyan, we can be grateful that the work of building a more inclusive community continues.

Thinking of our friends in Japan

The news from Japan has been wrenching, and the human toll of the earthquake and tsunami is heartbreaking. Wesleyan has scores of alumni, faculty and friends in Japan right now, and our hearts go out to them in this terrible time of need.

If alma mater can be helpful in any way, please let us know.

If readers of this blog would like to support organizations responding to this emergency, you can find a list here.

Integrative Education: Working Across the Disciplines

This morning I published an op-ed piece in the Houston Chronicle on the importance of integrating the sciences with the rest of the liberal arts. This particularly vital as we think about education as an investment in the future. This week I heard the great science studies scholar Bruno Latour talk at the Center for the Humanities about “modes of knowing” and “modes of existence”. Latour acknowledged more than once the work of Wes philosopher Joe Rouse, who has led our Science and Society Program with energy and distinction. I’ve been meeting recently with science faculty and with our wide range of scholars interested in science studies, and I am so impressed with the variety of ways in which Wesleyan connects these disciplines through project oriented teaching and research.

Here’s the op-ed:

We recently saw President Obama out on the West Coast emphasizing the importance of an education in the sciences and engineering to help America “win the future.” He visited Intel, met with executives from Apple and Facebook, and talked with high school teachers and students about going on to college so that they would have access to good jobs later in life. In a period when some of our representatives seem to think that governing means taking resources away from the neediest while giving breaks to the most advantaged, it was great to see the president making a case for investing in the future through education. I was almost delighted.

But why does Obama only talk about science and engineering as the ticket to a brighter future? Although the president has appointed people with strong liberal arts credentials to do everything from restructuring the automobile industry to figuring out how to develop sustainable health care systems, he has recently talked as if the only education that matters is a specialized focus on science and engineering. As Stanley Fish recently remarked in his New York Times blog: “It looks like the only way humanist educators and their students are going to get to the top is by hanging on to the coattails of their scientist and engineering friends as they go racing by.”

While West Coast techies were wowing the president, the Cambridge-based American Academy of Arts and Sciences announced the appointment of a panel to remind representatives in Washington of the importance of the social sciences and the humanities. “The humanities and social sciences provide the intellectual framework for the nation’s economic, political and governing institutions,” said the panel’s co-chair, Richard H. Brodhead, the president of Duke University. “They enrich our lives and our understanding. Americans already appreciate the importance of math and science to our future; this Commission will remind Americans of the long-term importance of the liberal arts as well.” Commission Co-chair John W. Rowe, the CEO of Exelon, added: “Knowledge of history, an understanding of civic institutions, the ability to use evidence and to think creatively, an aptitude for cross-cultural communication — these are all vital attributes of a 21st century citizen.” The panel is very impressive, and its task is an important one. I was almost delighted.

Why “almost delighted?” I would hope that our leaders in government, industry and academia would realize that they don’t have to make a choice between the sciences and the rest of the liberal arts. Indeed, the sciences are a vital part of the liberal arts. The key to our success in the future will be an integrative education that doesn’t isolate the sciences from other parts of the curriculum, and that doesn’t shield the so-called creative and interpretive fields from a vigorous understanding of the problems being addressed by scientists. For example, at liberal arts schools across the country there has been an increase in interest in the sciences from students who are also interested in history, political science, literature and the arts. Here at Wesleyan, neuroscience and behavior is our fastest growing major, and programs linking the sciences, arts and humanities have been areas of intense creative work. Last week we hosted a conference in the young field of Animal Studies, and throughout the semester one can find productive collaborations between social scientists, artists and biologists, dancers and physicists, and filmmakers and biochemists. These teams form not because the members are trying to be fashionably interdisciplinary. They come together to address specific problems or in pursuit of particular opportunities.

I would hope that President Obama’s advisers would realize that innovation in technology companies, automobile design, medicine or food production will not come only from isolated work in technical disciplines. I would also hope that the American Academy’s commission on the social sciences and the humanities would recognize that some of the most interesting work in these fields now involves the active participation of scientists. A pragmatic, broadly based education that encourages bold inquiry and regular self-reflection recognizes the increasingly porous borders among disciplines and departments.

I will be delighted when the vitality of problems-oriented, multidisciplinary research and teaching that is reinvigorating liberal arts schools grabs the attention of those promoting education as an investment in our society. When that happens, we can all have more confidence in the future of our schools and the country they serve.

Education and Women’s Health Care as Investments in the Future

This past weekend Wesleyan was visited by two of our leaders in Washington, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro and Senator Richard Blumenthal. Our representative in the House stopped by briefly to talk with our Trustees about threats to the financing of education, and Connecticut’s new senator was a featured speaker at a rally on campus in support of Planned Parenthood. Although their topics seemed very different, by the end of the weekend I began to think they were in fact closely intertwined.

Rep DeLauro has long been a friend of the university, and Wesleyan awarded her an honorary doctorate in 2007. She serves in the Democratic leadership as co-chair of the Steering and Policy Committee, and she is the ranking member on the Labor, Health, Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, where she oversees our country’s investments in education, health, and employment. She stopped here on her way to a series of events at which she discussed the effects on Connecticut citizens of the budget cuts proposed by the House.

She reminded us that these cuts would reduce the maximum Pell Grants, monies that go to the neediest students. Wesleyan would lose more than $1 million of Federal support for our students least able to afford a college education. Our Upward Bound and AmeriCorps funding for low-income and first-generation students would also be dramatically cut. Rep. DeLauro, like me a first generation college graduate, emphasized that these reductions in support would further compromise the ability of our educational system to be a vehicle for cultural and economic mobility. Without financial aid, elite schools just reproduce a static status quo. Education is an investment in the future, and undermining this investment is a counterproductive way to reduce government spending.

Senator Blumenthal is a newcomer to Washington, but he is already becoming an important figure in the defense of health care for women and families. He and the other speakers at the Planned Parenthood rally spoke eloquently about the importance of reproductive rights. Student organizers of the rally – including  Susanna Banks ‘12, Zak Kirkwood ‘12, Alex Ketchum ’12, Elijah Meadow ‘13 and Hannah Adams ’13 – did a great job of bringing together hundreds of men and women to demand access to quality information and health care with regards to  sexuality, birth control and parenthood. One in five women in the country use Planned Parenthood’s services at some point in their lives. Cancer screenings, STI testing, accurate information…these are just some of the essential services offered by Planned Parenthood. Sen. Blumenthal pledged to fight in its defense with “every fiber of his being,” and he praised students for “showing America what it means to stand up for American values in the 21st century.”

How are the cuts to education and to women’s health care related? Some would say by an urge to reduce the budget deficit that threatens our economic future. But even if you think that deficit reduction is a priority, these cuts are cultural and political choices, not just economic necessities. And these particular choices would reduce the social and economic mobility of vulnerable members of our society. The attack on education for low-income families and on low-cost health care for women would limit the abilities of these people to direct their lives – to change their lives, if they so desire.

That’s why as a university president I think it important to speak out on these cuts. I usually try to avoid overtly partisan public stands, but this assault on financial aid and health care for women is an assault on what we are trying to provide our students year in and year out: the possibility of transformation through education. There is still time to reach out to our friends, neighbors and elected officials in Washington to let them know what we stand for. Don’t let Congress undermine our future by limiting our capacities for learning and health.