Yale Prez Retires

The editors of the Huffingtonpost asked me for my reactions to the announcement that Rick Levin was stepping down as president of Yale. Here’s what they have posted.
The news of Rick Levin’s retirement as president of Yale surprised me. True, the tenures of university presidents are notoriously short, and the dangers of burnout are great for even the most well trained administrators. But Levin was the great exception. He’d been President at Yale for 20 years, and he had been a graduate student and professor there for about the same length of time. Given the new initiatives we’ve heard coming out of New Haven, I had no reason to think change was in the air. But it’s certainly the case that Levin has more than earned his “retreat rights” to teaching and writing.

Levin has steered Yale through a period of dramatic changes in American higher education, and he has done so in ways that have made the University stronger than ever before. Many others will assess the Levin years in regard to the shaping of the curriculum, the stature of the professional and graduate programs, and the dramatic expansion of the campus. There will surely be extended considerations of his efforts to make Yale a more responsible partner to educational and civic ventures locally, nationally and internationally. Yale’s work with the New Haven school district and with the local community college is a model for many schools. The New Haven Promise Program, which funds college scholarships for all New Haven high school graduates earning a B average, completing 40 hours of public service during high school, and maintaining 90% attendance, is a great example of what a financially strong institution can accomplish locally. Levin’s participation in the national conversation about science education and his devotion to creating more financial aid opportunities have made a significant impact on higher education in America.

As a strong leader of a powerful institution Levin has surrounded himself with good people who have become distinguished leaders themselves. Several Yale faculty have gone on to become successful deans and then on to distinguished presidencies across the country. As I know from experience, hiring a senior administrator from Yale means hiring someone of high integrity who can quickly make a difference through leadership and teamwork.

Levin has long championed international partnerships, and it is in this area that his recent efforts have been controversial on the Yale campus. The university’s collaboration with the National University of Singapore will be an important experiment in developing the liberal arts outside of the United States. The Yale faculty, and many of us who care deeply about liberal learning, wonder how an educational project can advance in a political context that punishes ways of thinking and living that have been vital dimensions of scholarship. Will the university be corrupted by these oppressive tendencies, or will the university help create currents of thoughtful change? Levin and Yale have clearly bet on the latter. What would it say about the depth of our faith in education to bet on the former?

I’m no expert on Yale or on the Levin presidency. I’ve met Levin just a couple of times, even though my own university is just a short drive north of New Haven. But I’ll end on a personal note. When a member of my family was seriously ill and I was worried about our treatment options, I emailed Rick to see if he knew with whom I might speak at Yale. I was surprised to get a response almost immediately, and he followed up after I had talked with the people he’d recommended. The doctors with whom we met proved to be both impressively knowledgeable and wonderfully humane. That’s what one wants, isn’t it, from a doctor, a professor or a university president. From where I sit, it’s the sweet spot of academic leadership: knowledge and humanity. Rick Levin has hit that spot more than most over the past 20 years. I’m grateful and wish him well.

Welcome 2016!

Kari and I are eagerly awaiting the convoy of cars and trucks about to pull into Middletown with members of the class of 2016. It’s a beautiful morning, and first-year students will see the campus looking its best as they meet their new roommates, find out how to get their food at Usdan, discover the newly renovated Butterfield dorms and the newly named Bennet Hall. Parents will be wondering (sometimes, with misty eyes) how quickly the time has passed since the first day of high school,  while their sons and daughters will often be wondering why their folks are lingering on the campus that now belongs to them. Not to worry: Homecoming/Family Weekend will be here before you know it!

International Students have had a couple of days head start, and it has been a treat to meet the families who have traveled to Middletown from all over the world. Athletes have also been on campus for a few days already. Last night Kari and I met an impressive group of volleyball players who will be working out at 7 am so they can be ready to help new students to move in later this morning.

I’ve also been talking with many faculty members gearing up for the new semester. Yesterday I met with more than twenty professors to discuss innovations in some of our larger classes. I picked up several pointers that I’ll use in my own course, The Modern and the Post-Modern, that starts Monday. I’ve been tinkering with the syllabus, wondering how students will react to the books I’ve chosen. We’ll soon find out!

Welcome to Wesleyan!


Arrival Day 2012, photo courtesy of Heather Brooke


Arrival Day 2012, photo courtesy of Olivia Drake
Arrival Day 2012, photo courtesy of Olivia Drake
Arrival Day 2012, photo courtesy of Olivia Drake

Wesleyan Professors and Public Life

Look for Jennifer Tucker’s excellent op-ed in the New York Times. Jennifer, a professor in history, SiSP, and FGSS, shows how Rep. Akin’s recent inane remarks come out of a long cultural tradition — “in step with medieval science, even if Mr. Akin doesn’t seem quite aware of the similarities.”

The Wesleyan Media Project continues to roll along, tracking political spending in an increasingly nasty campaign. Erika Franklin Fowler was just on NPR, where she made the point that “the most important thing to remember about political advertising is that it matters at the margins.”

It’s easy to get cynical, even disgusted, with the poisonous political ecology of our country right now. Nonetheless, I look forward to seeing how Wesleyan students, like their teachers, manage to engage with the electoral cycle this fall. Whatever one’s ideological perspective, we will be encouraging our students to understand the issues and to participate in the election. There are some dramatic choices to be made!


Getting that Back-to-School Feeling

After a relaxing and productive several weeks in the Berkshires working on a book project, I am now back on campus full time. The staff have been hard at work preparing for the school year, with several projects just coming to completion. As summer winds down at Wes, the Dresser Diamond (used for a great deal of soccer in July) turns into Corwin Stadium…soon the sounds of football games will replace the ping of those aluminum bats.


Another great transformation on campus is the WestCo courtyard. A student initiative through WildWes (who are compelling advocates for developing a more sustainable campus), has really borne fruit! Well, it has resulted in a buckwheat labyrinth, here pictured with Evita Rodriguez ’14 (whose weeding work I interrupted).


Soon it will be arrival day, and I’m looking forward to greeting the class of 2016 and welcoming the rest of our students, faculty and staff to the new academic year!

Review of Ariely’s The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty

Yesterday The Washington Post ran my review of Dan Ariely’s fascinating new book. I was particularly interested in his studies of dishonesty because over the last year or so students and faculty at Wesleyan have been discussing how our honor code works — and sometimes doesn’t work. As we continue these discussions, it will be important to take into account the empirical studies of psychologists and behavioral economists. We know that cheating is wrong — we recognize cheating when we see it. But how do we best create a campus culture where honesty thrives?


Behavioral economist Dan Ariely is a funny guy on a mission. As director of the Center for Advanced Hindsight, he insists on a commitment to absurdity, but there is nothing cynical about his approach to human behavior.

In his previous book, “Predictably Irrational,” Ariely exposed our false assumptions about the rationality of markets and individuals with plenty of surprising and humorous examples. Our irrationality may be very predictable, but our ability to forecast this behavior doesn’t alter the conditions that give rise to it. Recognizing this, he adopts his paradoxical mission: to design better economic and social institutions to protect us from our confident pursuit of rational economic and social institutions.

In “The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty,” Ariely applies his experimental approach to how we “lie to everyone — especially ourselves.” The book discusses the powerful ways irrationality affects our lives, and it begins with a critique of those who think dishonesty is a result of a rational cost-benefit calculation. In a series of experiments, Ariely neatly shows that neither the size of the reward nor the probability of getting caught substantially affects the likelihood of dishonest behavior. The cost-benefit framework for understanding cheating just doesn’t pay off.

Ariely sees two conflicting motivations at work in dishonest behavior. On the one hand, we want to view ourselves as honorable, and on the other hand, we want to get as much stuff as possible. We want the benefits of cheating, and we want to see “ourselves as honest, wonderful people.” So we fudge. We fool ourselves and others. Our “cognitive flexibility” cuts us so much slack that we often don’t perceive ourselves as getting away with anything. This flexibility keeps the contradictions between our principles and our behavior beyond the horizon of our consciousness.

“The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty” is full of examples of how we deceive ourselves about cheating. In golf, for instance, to most people it seems less like cheating to favorably reposition a ball with one’s foot than to move it with one’s hand. Tapping the ball with the club is best of all! As a rule, “cheating becomes much simpler when there are more steps between us and the dishonest act.” We are more averse to directly taking some cash off the table but much more likely to behave dishonestly to get a reward that, in the end, has cash value. Psychological distance is key.

Dishonesty isn’t always so bad. The author describes how doctors and nurses lied to him repeatedly when, as a teenager, he was recovering from severe burns that almost killed him. If they had told him the brutal truth, he might not have mustered the strength to go on. They didn’t want him anticipating excruciating pain that he was in any case powerless to avoid. The pain was real, but the altruistic dishonesty of his caregivers eased his suffering.

Ariely notes that “we quickly and easily start believing whatever comes out of our own mouths,” which means that once we take credit for something, we are likely to really believe that we deserve it. When students are induced to cheat on tasks in an experimental situation, they start to believe that their skill level has increased. They certainly realize that they are, say, using an answer key to “solve” a problem. Nonetheless, they begin to inflate their perception of their competence at problem solving. This kills two birds with one stone. They don’t feel guilty for having cheated, and since they’ve forgotten about the cheating, they feel better about their performance.

Despite the good humor with which Ariely discusses his ingenious experiments, this is depressing stuff. But there is hope. Although it is easy to induce dishonest behavior in people, it is also easy to reduce the incidence of such behavior. Mostly, small reminders of basic moral standards tend to improve behavior. Whether it’s the Ten Commandments, an honor code or a declaration of professional principles, bringing moral standards to mind reduces cheating. Signing a pledge (at the top of the page) before filling out a form is more effective at reducing dishonesty than signing a pledge after completing a form. Ariely likes having students write out their own honor codes on assignments so that they have to think about ethics rather than just signing something automatically.

He offers some recommendations on conflicts of interest, particularly in medicine. The problem is that many of our professionals systematically find themselves in conflict situations and that they fool themselves about not falling into unethical behavior. And when these professionals know their clients well, when they are most trusted, the worst conflicts tend to arise. Whether we are on the client side or the professional side, we are likely to tell ourselves that these situations don’t apply to us and the people we trust. We fool ourselves, and so we don’t recognize the dishonesty.

Ariely shows us how some basic factors, such as being tired or hungry, undermine our efforts to be ethical. I was struck here, as I was in Daniel Kahneman’s excellent “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” by the example of judges who tended to defer to parole boards as the judges got hungrier. The concept of “ego depletion” — that we can run out of the strength to do what we know we should — reminds us that willpower is a muscle. It takes energy to do the right thing.

We also learn that, once cheating starts, it tends to gain momentum and become contagious. That’s why we shouldn’t tolerate small indiscretions; it lowers the bar for everyone.

Ariely raises the bar for everyone. In the increasingly crowded field of popular cognitive science and behavioral economics, he writes with an unusual combination of verve and sagacity. He asks us to remember our fallibility and irrationality, so that we might protect ourselves against our tendency to fool ourselves. I guess only advanced hindsight will one day tell us how successful we have been.

Pete Seeger — Music and Public Life

I just watched Colbert’s interview with Pete Seeger, who thanks a “stand-out professor” at Wesleyan and his son (Rob and Sam Rosenthal) for putting together a volume of his papers. What an inspiration to see this icon of American music and engaged artistry!

This makes me all the more excited about the Music and Public Life series to begin this fall on campus. We will be connecting our great musical traditions at the university with life beyond campus. I just heard of another example of this kind of work. Honey and the Sting, a student musical project that emerged out of the College of the Environment that I wrote about in the spring, is getting ready to record a CD of original music in upstate New York. You can read more about it here.

Thinking about education with Washington and Du Bois

I’ve spent much of the summer not far from Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the hometown of one of the great figures of American intellectual history, W.E.B. Du Bois. Born shortly after the end of the Civil War, Du Bois came into his own as another black public intellectual, Booker T. Washington, was reaching the height of his fame.  I turned to Du Bois and Washington because their debate about education seemed so relevant to contemporary discussions of liberal learning and practicality. I was led in this direction by the Princeton philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah, whose article on Du Bois in the New York Review of Books is particularly incisive.

Washington’s fame was as a teacher, institution builder (especially at the Tuskegee Institute), fundraiser and spokesperson for the view that American blacks needed an intensely practical, vocational education. He appealed to ex-slaves and their descendants who were looking for a path out of economic impoverishment, and he appealed to whites who appreciated his decision not to promote political or cultural change.  Washington was an “accomodationist,” willing to work within the structures for legal subordination of blacks in the South as long as he was able to promote black economic advancement. His message resonated with wealthy industrialists, high-toned educators, and even presidents. He was the most famous black man in America at the end of the 19th century. At around that time, the younger Du Bois was a prodigious intellectual with a slew of degrees – bachelors diplomas from Fisk and Harvard, eventually a Ph.D. also from Harvard (he was the first black person to receive one there) with continued graduate work in Berlin. He was a classics professor and a historian who wrote sociology (highly praised by Max Weber), poetry, plays and fiction – to name just some of the genres in which he worked.

Washington recognized the American desire for material success and wanted to build progress for African Americans on their ability to be successful in the economy. Du Bois, on the other hand, emphasized political and civic equality, along with “the education of youth according to ability.” Education was at the core of the differences between these leaders. Du Bois rejected the head of Tuskegee’s anti-intellectualism. “The pushing of mere abstract knowledge into the head means little,” Washington had written. “We want more than the mere performance of mental gymnastics. Our knowledge must be harnessed to the things of real life.” Du Bois agreed, but he wanted to broaden what might count as “the things of real life” so that the pursuit of happiness wouldn’t be reduced to the pursuit of dollars.

The function of the university is not simply to teach bread-winning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be a centre of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.

Du Bois was acutely aware that the “fine adjustment” between life and knowledge was especially problematic in a society of oppressive racial inequality, a society that had denied many blacks the most rudimentary education in the years after emancipation. He was committed to the ideal that education was a path to freedom, but he also acknowledged the fact that different people need different kinds of educational opportunity.

If these things are so, how foolish to ask what is the best education for one or seven or sixty million souls! Shall we teach them trades, or train them in liberal arts? Neither and both: teach the workers to work and the thinkers to think; make carpenters of carpenters, and philosophers of philosophers, and fops of fools. Nor can we pause here. We are training not isolated men but a living group of men, –nay, a group within a group. And the final product of our training must be neither a psychologist nor a brickmason, but a man.

Education is for human development, human freedom, not the molding of an individual into a being who can perform a particular task. That would be slavery.

As Frederic Douglass had emphasized after he had escaped from slavery, people strive to know just as they strive for freedom. Educational institutions aim to stimulate that hunger for knowledge – not just contain it or channel it into a narrow path destined for yesterday’s job market.  Education should not teach the person to conform to a function, but should provide people with a wider horizon of choices. (That’s one of the reasons excessive student loan debt is so pernicious – it effectively reduces choices.)

The tension between Washington and Du Bois on education reminds us of issues that should be top of mind as we prepare for the academic year. Sure, we have to pay attention to what our graduates will do with their education, and we must give them the skills to translate what they learn in classrooms to their lives after graduation. But we shouldn’t reduce our understanding of “their lives after graduation” to their very first job — which should be the worst job they’ll ever have. We must recommit ourselves to ensuring that a broad, liberal education is one that is “harnessed to the things in real life,” as Washington said. By doing so, we will also achieve what Du Bois championed: the vital link between education and freedom.

cross-posed with huffingtonpost.com