Inclusion: Learning from Ability and Disability

Over the last few years I have met several times with students, faculty and staff concerning “differently abled” students. On one level, the university’s policies in this regard are clear:

Wesleyan University is committed to supporting all students in their academic and co-curricular endeavors. Each semester, a number of students document learning, physical, sensory, or psychiatric disabilities which may require reasonable accommodations to ensure access to education, housing, and recreation.

Access is a key word, and we want to make sure that all students — whether they are dealing with broken ankles, depression, or hearing loss — can thrive on our campus. This can be a challenge for all concerned, but all concerned can learn from the challenge; we can learn to try to experience the world from the perspective of people whose abilities may be different from our own.

In our classrooms students with documented disabilities are encouraged to make arrangements for appropriate accommodations. Laura Patey, Associate Dean for Student Academic Resources, can help in this process. This is from her office’s webpage:

Students who request accommodations are required to provide documentation outlining their needs.  In addition, students will need to meet with Dean Patey to discuss how appropriate accommodations or modifications may assist them in participating in campus life or courses and fulfilling course requirements. In addition, Dean Patey will discuss other types of support and services available to all Wesleyan students, such as tutoring programs and writing support through the Writing Workshop.

Like most professors, over the years I’ve worked with many students whose physical and psychiatric disabilities have profoundly influenced the way they think and feel. I have learned much from them about the conventions we used to divide groups into the normal and the abnormal, and I have often admired the capacities these students develop to navigate in a world that privileges particular modes of living and particular cultures. In recent years, the field of Disability Studies has been developing to examine these divisions, privileges and cultures. At Wesleyan, the field is described, in part, as follows: Disability Studies at Wesleyan does not ascribe or attribute disability to specific bodies, psychological conditions, or groups, but rather teaches students to understand the classificatory conventions that decide what is normal/able or abnormal/disabled in a given time and place.  The webpage for this course cluster lists many resources in the field.

In my first year of teaching I worked extensively with a student whose mental illness came, frighteningly, in almost predictable waves. She explained this to me forthrightly, and we studied together very closely in a tutorial on Nietzsche while she was able to do so. Her courage and clear-sightedness were inspiring, although they were not enough to prevent her illness from recurring. I’ve written about this experience in “On A Certain Blindness in Teaching,” and I often think about the many students I’ve had over the years who have faced their problems with extraordinary tenacity, sensitivity and openness. They are hungry to learn, and they teach their teachers so much.

When we invoke with pride the moniker “Diversity University,” we should remember that this also refers to people with a varied abilities/disabilities. In regard to economic inequality I wrote that it was not enough to recruit students from low-income groups and provide financial aid that meets their full need without excessive loans. A similar principle should guide our efforts at inclusion in regard to people with different abilities/disabilities. It is important but not sufficient to provide access, including the relevant accommodations.  We must create a campus culture in which all can thrive; we must create the conditions for an educational experience in which students from all backgrounds learn together and learn from one another.

That’s a goal worth striving for, with all the abilities we have.

Arrival Day for the Class of 2017!

Looking from my office window, I see that cars are already pulling up to Andrus field. It’s going to be a great day to meet our new students and to help them move in.



Throughout the day, photographer Olivia Drake will be posting pics. WELCOME 2017!


Last night I bumped into a group of international students.  Credit: Olivia Drake
Last night I bumped into a group of international students. Credit: Olivia Drake
Arrival Day 2013; Credit: Olivia Drake
Arrival Day 2013; Credit: Olivia Drake
Arrival Day 2013; Credit: Olivia Drake
Arrival Day 2013; Credit: Olivia Drake
Arrival Day 2013; Credit: Olivia Drake
Arrival Day 2013; Credit: Olivia Drake
Arrival Day 2013; Credit: Olivia Drake
Arrival Day 2013; Credit: Olivia Drake
Arrival Day 2013; Credit: Olivia Drake
Arrival Day 2013; Credit: Olivia Drake
Arrival Day 2013; Credit: Olivia Drake
Arrival Day 2013; Credit: Olivia Drake
Arrival Day 2013; Credit: Olivia Drake
Arrival Day 2013; Credit: Olivia Drake

Olivia has posted more photos HERE.

My remarks to the families of our new students can be viewed HERE or below.

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Affordability, Sustainability and Diversity: Class of 2017

The class of 2017 arrives on Wednesday. The competition to be a member of that class was more fierce than ever given our record number of applications, and to no one’s surprise the class is remarkably strong. Given the metrics we use for judging academic preparation, this is the most well-prepared class we have ever admitted. The average SAT scores are just above 700 (on all three tests), and most of the first-year students have already been successful in advanced foreign language study, mathematics and the sciences. They are a socially conscious group, and we expect them to continue their already impressive track record of turning their talents to helping those around them. Their achievements and qualities are reason for optimism for all those who care about Wesleyan and its future.

This was the first class admitted under our new need-sensitive admissions policy, and we proceeded exactly as we said we would: We read all files in a need-blind fashion and, as predicted, ended by being need-blind in roughly 90% of the decisions. Details about the class will be posted presently on the Admissions site. As always, we are meeting the full demonstrated financial need of all our students, and since there were considerably more financial aid applicants this year than ever before (6,660 in total), it does not seem that the change in our admissions policy (to be need-aware for roughly 10% of the applicants) discouraged interest in Wesleyan.  And there’s no doubt that, from a financial point of view, our new policy puts us in a much better position to secure Wesleyan’s future by helping us to control costs. That future had also been clouded by the question of affordability with Wesleyan nearing the top of the list of most expensive schools in the country, and here too we’ve made progress, with smaller tuition increases, drops in student loan levels and loans replaced by grants for the highest-need students. More reasons for optimism.

At the same time, our “yield” this year with respect to admitted students with highest need turned out to be less than what we expected. Why is a bit of a puzzle. Students to whom we offered the most aid (meeting their full need) were the ones who disproportionately chose to go elsewhere. Based on what we know about our admission and financial aid model this year, it would be hard to argue that the drop was due to our policy change. Also this year, albeit with a much smaller group, we had dramatically more success in yielding Native American students. We have no explanation for the drop (or the increase), and we don’t have the data to do more than speculate. But the drop concerns us. Is it an anomaly?

Given what we know about inequities and income distributions in the US, having fewer than anticipated highest-need students also means a drop (about 2%) in minority representation. That particular drop is small, but it’s not what we want. At Wesleyan, we are committed to affordability, sustainability and diversity.

There is some guesswork (and many statistical models) involved in putting any class together. This has been the first year operating within the parameters of our new admissions policy, and we have already begun revising our models for the future. How financial aid plays out in individual years will vary (slightly), but Wesleyan will remain among the most generous schools in America, devoting some $50 million to financial aid each year.

We are already proud of the Class of 2017’s preparation, and we eagerly anticipate their contributions to Wesleyan and the Middletown community. With boldness, rigor and practical idealism they are sure to shine!

Inclusion and Economic Inequality

In three prior posts, I’ve written about obstacles to and opportunities for inclusion on campus, focusing on race, on gender, and on religious belief and political conviction. In this post I’d like to consider the impact of economic inequality on inclusion.

This summer I read about a new study that examined rates of economic mobility in different parts of the country.  Geography, it seems, matters a great deal in predicting the chances to better one’s relative economic standing. To quote a New York Times blog about the study:

Climbing the income ladder occurs less often in the Southeast and industrial Midwest, the data shows, with the odds notably low in Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis, Raleigh, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Columbus. By contrast, some of the highest rates occur in the Northeast, Great Plains and West, including in New York, Boston, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, Seattle and large swaths of California and Minnesota.

There are many variables at play here, and I don’t want to oversimplify the various correlations, but there was one factor that really caught my attention. “All else being equal, upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods.”

How is this issue related to our own campus culture? Over the last five years, Wesleyan has significantly increased the percentage of Pell eligible students on campus. This coincided with our eliminating required loans for our students with the greatest financial need, and reducing required loans for everybody else (replacing these loans with grants). We also began working with Questbridge, adding this great organization to our many partnerships with community-based organizations. These groups help us to spread the word about Wes and to recruit low-income, high-ability students.

But in our diversity forums last year, I learned that recruiting high-need students is not enough. We also have to create a campus culture in which they can thrive; we have to create the conditions for an educational experience in which students from all backgrounds learn together and learn from one another.

What does this have to do with the general study of geography and economic mobility across the United States? Insofar as the experience of high need students segregates them from the rest of the student body, we have failed them. We will only get the maximum benefit from our financial aid policies when inclusion is the order of the day for all students – regardless of their economic status. Although I spent many hours working in a kitchen when I was an undergraduate at Wes to pay for my room and board, I was lucky to live in an environment in which this didn’t prevent me from having plenty of interaction with students from various walks of life. My teachers and fellow students never made me feel excluded from the ways they were experiencing Wesleyan.

That was a long time ago, and America today is a land of much greater economic inequality, much greater distance between the haves and the have-nots.

As I’ve written before, on campus we resist this trend because the educational enterprise assumes a core egalitarianism linked to freedom and participation. As teachers, we are committed to equality of opportunity for our students. In big lecture halls, students can’t buy the best seats or arrange for extra help sessions with their parents’ checkbooks. In small seminars, there is a face-to-face equality altered only by the talent, ambition and creativity of the discussion participants. Differences often quickly emerge, but these are the differences of performance — variations able to emerge exactly because of the environment of equality and freedom.

There is no doubt that some students are better prepared than others, and that some of that preparation was facilitated by wealth. Still, in our campus culture these advantages of birth or luck shouldn’t mean much over time. All students at Wes have the opportunity to accelerate and deepen their learning. In order to learn, you have to park your privilege at the classroom door. In order to teach effectively, we try to ensure that our students have an equality of opportunity that doesn’t erase their differences. Furthermore, at Wesleyan students come to see intellectual freedom modeled by their instructors in ways not dependent on wealth.

This week President Obama called for some important reforms in higher education aimed at making college more accessible and at creating a system through which prospective students would have as much information as possible about a school’s real costs, graduation rates, and the outcomes for the graduates. We must be prudent about new regulations because of the perverse incentives they can create, but they do address a real problem. It is unacceptable that so many schools with terrible track records soak up so much federal funding.

Wesleyan has been moving in the direction of sustainable affordability. We’ve announced a three-year option, which allows students to complete the same number of courses typically done over four years by using summer sessions. This saves families about 20 percent off the total tuition. We’ve also announced that we will no longer raise tuition aggressively, keeping increases in line with inflation. Over many years we have become an expensive school, and I know we have a long way to go to becoming more affordable. But this year and next will see our smallest tuition increases ever, and we will stay on this new course.

We will continue to recruit students of extraordinary potential from diverse economic backgrounds, meeting their full financial needs, and we will redouble our efforts to ensure that they are fully included in our campus culture. Like those dynamic, integrated regions singled out in the economic mobility study, our campus must create conditions that bring people together in ways that positively enhance their lives. At a time when economic inequality is tearing at the fabric of our country, we must create conditions of inclusion through which all can thrive.

Inclusion, Religion and Politics: Building a Culture of Generative Discomfort

In my previous two posts, I’ve written about obstacles to and opportunities for inclusion on campus, focusing first on race and then on gender. In this third post on inclusion, I’d like briefly to consider obstacles and opportunities we face in regard to to religious belief and political conviction.

When I began my presidency, I came upon some lame poll announcing that Wes was one of the best universities for atheists in the country. This was meant to suggest that although one might study religion at Wesleyan, one wouldn’t have to get to know and work with people of strong religious faith. Not long after reading this, I met with a group of students and faculty from different faiths, many of whom were working on projects together. Not yet being entirely familiar with the particular culture of our university, I expressed surprise that people whose specific theological tenets were in conflict could join forces so readily. What a mistake on my part! Students and professors pointed out to me the long history of inter-faith cooperation at Wesleyan (and other campuses) and the general recognition here of the importance of diverse cultural traditions as springboards for education and civic engagement.

Since that time I’ve met with various groups here organized around faith, religion and spiritual practices. These groups often join together, or with secular organizations with whom they share similar interests – from environmental concerns to health care. The office of Religious and Spiritual Life offers support and guidance, as do many staff and faculty members, to students who want to integrate religion into their lives on campus. These students tend to thrive at Wesleyan insofar as they refuse dogmatism and are open to the heterogeneity of belief in the rest of the community.

Openness to heterogeneity of religious belief is essential for all those who really seek to learn from others. Wesleyan remains a great place to be an atheist, but that’s in large part because one doesn’t get to interact only with secular people.

Another label that frequently gets applied to Wesleyan (and, truth be told, to almost all other highly selective schools) is that we are too homogeneously “liberal” – by which is meant the faculty and students are either too far to the left or too politically correct. There is much evidence that shows the leftward tilt of higher education generally. Most professors are somewhere on the left of the political spectrum in the United States, and that seems to have been the case at least since the 1940s. One general explanation for this is that since the late 19th century universities have increasingly become places of inquiry rather than reverence, and this has attracted people open to changing the status quo. Whatever the reason, surveys indicate that professors at highly selective schools these days rarely vote for conservative candidates.

But it would be a mistake to think that on our campus everyone supports the same kind of politics. Some of the most interesting, thoughtful and energetic students I’ve met over the last seven years have identified themselves as conservatives. (Some of them also have thought they were contributing to “keeping Wesleyan weird.”) They have been challenging received opinion at Wesleyan, and as an educational institution we must ensure that we make room for those challenges. Surveys show that faculty recognize this and see the need for greater political diversity in their own ranks.

Rejection of political dogmatism and openness to the heterogeneity of political belief are essential for all those who really seek to learn from others. Wesleyan should be a great place to be a conservative, as it has been a great place to be a radical, precisely because you interact with people who may not share your assumptions.

One of the basic elements of campus culture should be to help students cultivate the willingness and ability to learn from material and people they might otherwise reject out of hand or ignore. Undoubtedly, this will often surprise students and sometimes upset them. When someone says “the professor, or the material, made me uncomfortable,” we should not immediately see this as a problem that needs fixing. Being made uncomfortable is a necessary component of a broad, open-ended  education devoted to increasing one’s capacities. Of course, a climate of respect and non-violence is also crucial to learning, but if we truly value diversity, we should expect at some points to be made uncomfortable – because a real education forces us to re-examine our commitments, our beliefs. Re-examining, of course, does not always mean changing; sometimes those commitments and beliefs are reaffirmed in deeper ways.

Atheists and religious people, conservatives and liberals should all be engaged in building a culture of generative discomfort. Creating a campus culture that values the desire to learn from unexpected and uncomfortable sources in a climate of support and respect is a key aspect of what it means to pursue our mission: “to build a diverse, energetic community of students, faculty, and staff who think critically and creatively and who value independence of mind and generosity of spirit.”

Inclusion and Gender: Obstacles and Opportunities

This is the second in a series of summer blog posts on obstacles to and opportunities for inclusion. Subsequent posts will focus on political and religious beliefs, and economic inequality. Previous post is here.


Wesleyan began an experiment with co-education in the late 19th century that lasted until 1912. At that time, alumni groups put pressure on the administration to return to the status quo embraced by the all-male schools with which the university compared itself. In reaction, a more adventurous group of alumni joined to help found Connecticut College as an institution for the education of women.

In 1968, at a time when many schools were considering co-education, Wesleyan began admitting women as transfer and exchange students and two years later admitted first-year female students for the first time since 1909. I began as a freshman in the fall of 1975, shortly after those students had graduated. By then, in just those few years, co-education had made great strides, so much so that I wasn’t aware of how recently women had become part of campus culture. Looking back, many of my women friends were doubtless more aware than I of the barriers to inclusion that still existed for female students – and for students of color, and gay, lesbian and trans students. There was certainly an active feminist movement on campus, but (as I recall) the primary focus was on global issues of patriarchy with some activists taking on local issues of campus discrimination and sexual harassment.

In recent years there has been a resurgence of efforts on college campuses to eradicate discrimination on the basis of any identity affiliation – be it race, gender, or sexual orientation. Furthermore, students have rightly insisted that the curriculum become more inclusive so that issues related to under-represented groups are reflected in more of the courses we teach. As a teacher and as a university president, I see how this has broadened our work in a wide variety of fields. Sometimes the challenges of curricular inclusion are substantial as we move resources from some traditional areas to newer ones – it’s economically irresponsible just to keep adding things without trimming. The discussions around these topics, although sometimes challenging, have led to a broadening of what we mean by liberal education.

Over the last few years there has been increasing awareness that the oldest barrier to gender inclusion, violence, is still a major issue on American university campuses. Gay, lesbian and trans students are often vulnerable to attack – from the subtle to the most extreme. Violence against women, especially rape, has rightly become a major issue for educators who want their campuses to be safe places at which all students can experience the freedom of a transformative education. Although at Wesleyan there are usually only a handful of reports of sexual violence each year, each one is extremely painful and leaves a scar on the individual and on the community. Furthermore, we know how under-reported these crimes are across the country in general and on college campuses in particular. We have convened task forces and worked together to make it easier to report these incidents and to be confident in the process that would bring alleged assailants to a fair, effective judicial process. Dean Mike Whaley (VP for Student Affairs) and team will be issuing an annual report, as they regularly do, detailing our most recent changes in this regard before the beginning of the school year.

Violence of any kind has no place on our campus, and sexual violence is particularly pernicious in that it plays on social stereotypes and traditions of exclusion. We applaud groups active across the country, like Know Your IX, which are calling on students to stand up for their right to study in environments free from discrimination, harassment and violence. This work is perfectly in accord with our mission to promote progressive liberal arts education for all.

Wesleyan’s history with co-education has gone through different stages. Our experiment in the late 19th and early 20th century was truncated, but it did plant seeds that would be harvested later on. The women who came to campus from the late 1960s on have worked to create an educational environment free from discrimination. There have been moments of pain and frustration, but we are dedicated to continuing the progress toward genuine inclusion.

We honor that history and extend it as we take on with renewed energy the project to eradicate sexual and gender violence from our university. We do so not because of political correctness or issues of liability. We do so because freedom from gender and sexual violence is essential to our mission as a community of learning.