Innovative University

This past weekend the trustees were in Middletown for their annual retreat. Our theme this year was “the innovative university,” and we worked together to think through how Wesleyan might get out in front of some of the major changes in higher education. Technology, of course, is driving many of these changes, as is a strong desire (for many) to lower the cost of education while making it more vocational. In this context, how could Wesleyan preserve and build upon some of its great traditions of scholarship and learning while also creating opportunities for new modalities of education in the future? How do we expect student learning and faculty research to change over the next decades, and in what ways can Wesleyan contribute to making those changes as positive as possible? These were some of the broad issues the Board discussed with faculty, staff and student representatives.

We have been using Wesleyan 2020 and a strategy map that complements it as a framework for allocating resources and planning the future of the university. We have three overarching goals that animate all our other objectives: to energize Wesleyan’s distinctive educational experience; to enhance recognition of the university as an extraordinary institution; to maintain a sustainable economic model. At the retreat we talked about a number of possible innovations that would be “disruptive” — that would change the platform for the educational experience of students. These ranged from significantly changing the time to degree, to collaborating with other institutions for joint programs, to adding many more online opportunities to our curriculum. I am particularly interested in how we can contain the cost of a degree while simultaneously offering every student opportunities to participate in the arts, athletics, internships, and independent research. There is no doubt that doing all this while maintaining our capacity to support original work by faculty will be especially challenging. But it is a challenge we take on because of our belief that the deepest educational experience depends on the scholar-teacher model.

Like many of the trustees, faculty, and students present, I left the meeting thinking that the urge to streamline education to meet some imagined vocational standard was a big mistake. At many other institutions, under the guise of “innovation,” calls for a more efficient, practical college education are likely to lead to the opposite: men and women who are trained for yesterday’s problems and yesterday’s jobs, men and women who have not reflected on their own lives in ways that allow them to tap into their capacities for innovation and for making meaning out of their experience. Under the pretense of “practicality” we are really hearing calls for conformity, calls for conventional thinking that will impoverish our economic, cultural and personal lives.

Hearing the passionate dedication of our trustees, I felt energized to rethink how we might change Wesleyan while remaining true to its core values. The mission of universities focused on liberal learning should be, in Richard Rorty’s words, “to incite doubt and stimulate imagination, thereby challenging the prevailing consensus.” Through doubt, imagination and hard work, students “realize they can reshape themselves” and their society. At Wesleyan, we recognize that challenging the prevailing consensus can actually enrich our professional, personal and political lives. The free inquiry and experimentation of our education help us to think for ourselves, take responsibility for our beliefs and actions, and be better acquainted with our own desires, our own hopes. Our education contributes not only to our understanding of the world but also to our capacity to reshape it and ourselves. That may be the most profound innovation of all.



Diversity and Transformation

On Friday, in New York, the president of Middlebury and I co-hosted a meeting of liberal arts college representatives about diversity and innovation. It was an exceptionally stimulating gathering, facilitated admirably by Susan Sturm and Freeman Hrabowski. Susan is the George M. Jaffin Professor of Law and Social Responsibility at the Columbia University Law School, where she also directs the Center for Institutional and Social Change. Freeman has been president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County for 20 years and is widely recognized for his success in steering African American students into research and professional positions in the sciences.

Provost Rob Rosenthal and VP Sonia Manjon joined me at the meeting. The discussions made it clear how important our diversity work is for some of our major initiatives. For example, we have been adding resources and leadership strength to our civic engagement programs over the last few years; now we  must ensure that all our students have opportunities to work in community, find productive internships, and generally translate their education into practical terms off campus. We recognize that inclusion and difference are important to the success of civic engagement; now we must turn that recognition into specific goals for tapping into the strengths of our diverse community.

Over the last few years we have also been emphasizing the role of creativity and innovation throughout our liberal arts curriculum. At the meetings in New York, it was clearer than ever to me that we must leverage the creative spark that comes from having teams of heterogeneous students, faculty and staff. At Wesleyan we have become adept at celebrating difference; now we must become better at finding ways to turn the different perspectives we bring to projects into forms of creative energy. This is less about personal identity than it is about harnessing the productive synergies that come from bringing together folks from different backgrounds with different points of view.

For Wesleyan to continue to thrive in the long run, we must show the relevance of a liberal arts curriculum to students from diverse backgrounds around the world. In our scholarship, teaching and co-curricular activities, we must make this education relevant as a resource to those concerned about the future shape of higher education. By embracing the transformative power of diversity, Wesleyan can help shape the future of higher education rather than just react to the emergent cultural and economic conditions for colleges and universities.

Review of Manufacturing Hysteria

The following book review appeared in this past Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle. There are many faculty and students here at Wes interested in the problematic history of surveillance in our country. I’ll just mention here historian and American Studies professor Prof. Claire Potter’s original and important take on J. Edgar Hoover. You can find it on WesScholar:


Manufacturing Hysteria

A History of Scapegoating, Surveillance, and Secrecy in Modern America

By Jay Feldman

Manufacturing Hysteria offers a chilling overview of how American political culture has generated domestic enemies to justify massive infringements of rights. Jay Feldman begins with the World War I era and charts how the federal government (and often the states) developed bureaucracies of surveillance that often spilled into mob violence of the worst sort. He shows how the government “protected” democracy by systematically attacking those whose beliefs departed from official positions, thereby undermining the very political culture it was supposedly protecting.

What it means to be a patriot has changed over time, but Feldman sees how the urge to define “untainted Americanism” has persisted from the hysteria around German immigrants during the First World War to fears of a fifth column – be it made up of Russian Bolsheviks, Japanese saboteurs or Islamic terrorists. In 1919 the Washington Post applauded “serious cleaning up” of “bewhiskered, ranting, howling, mentally warped, law-defying aliens” and “international misfits,” and in subsequent generations we find parallel support for official, well-muscled efforts to make us feel safe by finding an internal enemy that can be attacked.

Feldman emphasizes two salient dimensions of this curious process of generating security by feeding paranoia. The first is that these efforts themselves violated the Constitution they claimed to be defending. Again and again, our elected officials (and the bureaucracy that shores up their power) have used extralegal means to pursue enemies. And they did so knowing they were violating the law or exceeding their authority. They often conjured up a sense of crisis to justify their actions, but Feldman does a good job of showing how their elaborate security designs were developed well before any emergencies actually occurred. These were well-planned efforts to ensure that future crises wouldn’t go to waste – that the government would be in a position to use them to increase political homogeneity.

The second dimension that Feldman emphasizes is that the insecurity was illusory, that the hysteria was “manufactured.” He does indicate, very briefly, that in times of prosperity, such as the 1920s, the propensity to create ideological or ethnic purity through violence is much reduced. But he does not examine how threats – such as the existence of a real world war or the work of spies who are really gathering information on behalf of a well-armed foreign power – might change security issues. Feldman notes that after hundreds of thousands of investigations of private citizens, there were few prosecutions, but he mistakenly concludes that this means that there never were any real security threats.

The communist witch-hunts of the McCarthy period are for Feldman the paradigm for America’s “neurotic nightmare.” He doesn’t see the relevance of the communist tyranny in Asia and Europe, a form of oppression willing to murder millions, and he is silent about the tactics of the American Communist Party – from its embrace of the Soviet alliance with Nazi Germany to its willingness to accept the mother ship’s mass persecutions of dissidents. Instead, Feldman opines that it was communism’s “powerful critique of the social inequities of the capitalist system … that made the Communist Party so threatening to the established order.” But he gives no evidence at all that it was a “critique” J. Edgar Hoover was worried about.

And Hoover, longtime director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is at the heart of “Manufacturing Hysteria.” Hoover’s obsession with dissidents of all kinds, his reckless abuse of the Constitution, his power over lawmakers turned feelings of suspicion into policies of surveillance and control. The internment camps for Japanese Americans were just the tip of the iceberg; given the right conditions, Hoover was ready to round up millions. The FBI’s thousands of informants were in the field to discredit civil rights organizations and antinuclear groups – anyone who might depart from the narrow band of mainstream American life.

Alas, Feldman does not explore Hoover’s motivations, or why this man so desperate to conceal his own private life from scrutiny became a master of intruding into the lives of his fellow citizens. The author rarely digs beneath the political surface, and his focus remains stubbornly on conventional, mainstream American history. Do other republics (or political organizations) also create political scapegoats? Of course they do. How does the American example compare to the French, or the British? What about socialist countries and their manufacture of hysteria to shore up those with power? Unfortunately, one learns nothing in this book about how modern political regimes of various kinds are prone to the hysteria that has also infected the United States.

Feldman’s focus on American political elites is meant as a cautionary tale, and his epilogue describes how much worse things have become in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. “Manufacturing Hysteria” is a political book, aimed at reminding those dedicated to civil liberties (especially the right to dissent) how fragile our freedoms are and how “close to a police state” we have come over the last century.

In his preface, Feldman writes: “Now, as ever, vigilance is required if liberty is to survive.” He does not seem to recognize that many of those whose “hysterical” actions he deplores could have written this very same sentence. We can be grateful for his account, while still being disappointed that he did not explore what drives officials here and in other countries to believe that in periods of great insecurity the rights of some should be sacrificed to protect their own particular version of freedom.

Commemoration Without Agenda

At Wesleyan this afternoon (Friday, September 9) from 2:30-3:30 there will be a prayer vigil in Memorial Chapel to mark the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001.

The following is cross-posted from the HuffingtonPost.

As the tenth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon approaches, hundreds of journalists, commentators, writers and artists are telling us how to mark this occasion. On my left, Noam Chomsky is there to remind us of what he always knows before any events have to happen: that U.S. imperialism is responsible for everything evil that happens in the world. On my right, John Yoo is there to remind us that the terrorist attacks are evidence that the United States is justified in doing anything whatsoever to destroy those who might possibly be its enemies – even if we destroy our political values in the process. The commemoration of the awful killings is being used by those with political agendas to advance their various causes. That’s what happens with public memory.

There are others who will argue that we still must get the facts straight about the factors that led up to the events of September 11, 2001. They want more research about the causes of the rage that fueled the Al Qaeda operatives, and a deeper understanding of the intelligence failures that made Americans vulnerable to suicidal terrorists. On this 9/11 anniversary, they want to make sure what really happened before and after the planes pierced those crystal clear skies on that awful morning.

As I argue in Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living With the Past (coming out this fall), these are two of the important ways that we connect to the past – how we try to turn memory into history. The first is pragmatic: let’s use the events in the past (even awful, traumatic ones) to learn lessons for the future. We can make sense of the painful past by making it a useable past. The second connection to the past is empirical: let’s make sure we have an accurate representation of what really happened. The first attitude gives us agendas; the second gives us research task forces.

There is a third way of relating to the past that makes no particular claims for the future. I’ve called this “piety,” an acknowledgement of the existence of the painful past, and of the capacity of what-has-been to make a claim on us. By using the word “piety” I do not mean to evoke some necessarily transcendent or religious aspect to one’s connection to the past. I do mean to evoke recognition that we sometimes strive to relate to our memories and histories in ways that are not reducible to a quest for using them well or getting them right. We connect to our memories just because they deserve our caring attention. Piety doesn’t have to do anything; it is an attitude of respect and care, even of reverence.

As the anniversary of the attacks of 9/11 nears, I think back to my shock and horror as I watched the television news. I feel my way back to the concerns that I had for my family, my students, my country. I wanted to gather with my community to simply be together as we absorbed the shocking loss of life and the experience of horrific vulnerability. Yet, even moments after the planes hit, some began making political speeches about how to confront or support our public officials. It was time, they said, to engage in political or military battle. And even in those moments some were calling for research into what really happened. Conspiracy theorists were off and running.

As we commemorate the trauma of those days, as we remember the loss of life, the heroism of so many on the scene, and the solidarity of sorrow and anger that welled up across the country, let us remember — but not only in the register of the pragmatic and the empirical. Sure, there are political and military issues that still demand our attention and struggle. Sure, there are still open historical questions about the facts and their interrelationship. We will continue to engage in those pragmatic and empirical dimensions.

But on this 10th anniversary of 9/11 let us also simply acknowledge the claim that our painful memories still have on us. Let us recognize with piety that we still carry the traces of those traumatic events with us, and that we acknowledge their importance to us without trying to use them.

Let us commemorate, if only for a few moments, without agenda.


Starting on Labor Day

Many people ask me why Wesleyan begins classes again this year on Labor Day, a holiday that celebrates the American worker and marks the unofficial end of summer. When the faculty approved the calendar a few years ago, we discussed the tradeoffs of either starting earlier (most were against that), or backing up too close to Christmas and winter holidays (a big problem for our students wanting to return home for break). We were also juggling the length of orientation and reading week. In the end, we decided that Labor Day would remain a holiday for most of the staff, but that faculty and students would begin their classes on the first Monday of September.

Labor is much on the mind for our students as they begin the term. Some of that is in the nature of choosing classes. A few students want to know “how hard is this class?” “How much work will I have to do?” This is almost always an impossible question to answer just by looking at the syllabus. Some professors assign ten books or more to read during the term, while others focus on one or two. That doesn’t mean that the class with the shorter reading list requires any less work. Just check out Brian Fay’s course reading Spinoza’s Ethics — no walk in the park, but a deep dive into a major philosophical work. The truth is that every class offers increased intellectual rewards the more work you give to it.

But labor is on the mind of our students and their families in a more general sense this year.The job situation in the United States is just awful, and it has been depressingly bad for far too long. At the end of last week we learned that the US economy created no new jobs in August, and in a few days President Obama is scheduled to give what is billed as a major address on jobs. The real wages of working men and women in America have been declining for several years now, as the gap between the rich and the rest grows impossibly wide. The most pressing question facing the American economy for the next decade is how we will create and sustain decent jobs. Everything else is a distraction.

It’s no wonder that already parents have begun asking me how I think our Wesleyan education is going to equip our students as they head off into the job market in the spring. One can certainly understand their anxiety. Although a college degree is clearly an advantage, the job market is just awful even for grads with an impressive diploma. After four years of a liberal arts education, what kind of labor will open to our new alumni?

The answer isn’t simple, but it is clear that employers are often looking for workers who can think creatively, solve problems, seek opportunities and be self-motivating. Employers, when they are able to hire for good jobs, are looking for people who can learn while they are working — folks who aren’t just wed to some single skill they learned in the classroom to deal with a challenge that may no longer be relevant. At Wesleyan we believe deeply in the translational liberal arts — a broad, pragmatic education through which one learns how to apply modes of thinking and innovation in a variety of contexts. Even as the contexts change (whether that be through technology, politics or the economy), we believe our students will be well equipped to make their way in the world. We believe our alumni will be at the forefront of those creating and sustaining the jobs of the future.

But this isn’t just an article of faith. Wesleyan also offers practical advice, internship information and personal connections through our Career Resource Center. The CRC is currently located in the Butterfield residence hall complex, and in January it will be moving into the center of campus (in the old Squash Building currently be renovated). Even as students start their classroom labors today, they should remember to pay a visit to the CRC sometime this semester.

Happy First Day of Classes! Happy Labor Day!!