SCOTUS Affirms Affirmative Action

I was delighted today to learn that the Supreme Court has upheld the ability of colleges and universities to practice a holistic admissions process that includes attention to race.  This will provide opportunities to historically marginalized groups while giving the whole campus culture the benefits of diversity. Grades, or test scores, or any one ranking would not produce an educationally worthy outcome.  A key passage in Justice Kennedy’s opinion, quoted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, put it this way:

A system that selected every student through class rank alone would exclude the star athlete or musician whose grades suffered because of daily practices and training. It would exclude a talented young biologist who struggled to maintain above-average grades in humanities classes. And it would exclude a student whose freshman-year grades were poor because of a family crisis but who got herself back on track in her last three years of school, only to find herself just outside of the top decile of her class.

For education to play a role for social mobility and against entrenched inequality, we need affirmative action as part of a holistic admissions process. This allows schools to build classes that give students powerful learning experiences and individuals opportunities to convert their academic experience into empowerment beyond the university.

As pleased as I am with this court ruling, I am dismayed that the deadlocked  SCOTUS has stymied President Obama’s efforts to make use of more humane immigration policies for people who have already built lives in communities across the United States. In the coming years, Wesleyan will consider as domestic applicants the undocumented students who have had the great bulk of their schooling in the USA. But I am so sorry their families will continue to live with the threat of deportation because of this ruling.

It’s up to all of us to make what Carol Geary Schneider, outgoing president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, has called “constructive engagement with difference.” I’ll end this post with her good words:

Even as we celebrate this important Supreme Court decision affirming campus diversity as a compelling educational interest, therefore, I urge educators across the country to recommit to the hard work of holding our institutions, our students, our faculty, and ourselves responsible for helping students achieve this essential capacity—constructive engagement with difference—that a quality college education includes. Creating a diverse campus community is the first step to achieving this goal; preparing students to work productively across difference—whatever their major—is the next critical frontier in higher education’s long-term efforts to make excellence inclusive.

 

 

Wesleyan Announces “Hamilton” Prize

Colleges and universities love to celebrate successful alumni. The most compelling stories about the value of the undergraduate years are built on the connections between what one studies on campus and success beyond the university. At Wesleyan, we do whatever we can to shine a bright light on the achievements of our graduates—in the sciences and in the public sphere, in sports, in the business world and in academia. A few years ago we had a field day when In The Heights won Tony Awards and thrust its star, Lin-Manuel Miranda ’02, into the spotlight. He had originally produced the show on campus as a student, and then with director and Wesleyan alumnus Tommy Kail ’99, and playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes (now on the Wesleyan faculty), made a sparkling Broadway debut.

Even after the great success of Heights, nobody was really prepared for the truly revolutionary musical Hamilton. But given the liberal education that Miranda and Kail received at Wesleyan, maybe we should have seen something like this coming. Steeped in history and uncannily responsive to contemporary culture, it is an extraordinary artistic achievement at once traditional and experimental. That’s the kind of synthesis that those of us working in liberal arts colleges are always hoping for: making the past come alive in ways that expand possibilities in the present. Hamilton’s source is a deep historical biography by Ron Chernow, which Miranda somehow transformed into a hip-hop opera that draws on Broadway traditions to make something profoundly original.

As we thought about the best way to honor this achievement, we decided to create a major prize to recognize creative potential in a student beginning her or his academic career at Wesleyan. This week we are announcing the Hamilton Prize: awarded to the incoming student (class of 2021) who has submitted (with the application for admission) a work of fiction, poetry, song, or creative nonfiction judged to best reflect originality, artistry and dynamism. The Hamilton Prize includes a full tuition scholarship at Wesleyan for four years. The winner of the prize will be selected by a panel of distinguished faculty and alumni.

Hamilton is a major event, and this is a major prize.  Wesleyan has had a strong history of great writing. From poet laureate Richard Wilbur back in the days when I was a student to novelist Amy Bloom, biographer Lisa Cohen and playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes today, dynamic writers have made our campus their home. The tension between the traditional and experimental continues to energize students here—from the graphic novelist finding new audiences to the slam poet or songwriter wowing fellow students, bold writing is often combined with performance on campus. With the Hamilton Prize, we mean to signal our pride in a diverse array of creative endeavors.

When Hamilton’s generation considered higher education, many believed it was crucial that students not think they already knew at the beginning of their studies where they would end up when it was time for graduation. For all those who have followed on this American path of liberal education, learning was all about exploration – and you would only make important discoveries if you were open to unexpected possibilities. W.E.B. Du Bois was on that path when he argued a century later that a broad education was a form of empowerment that must be open to those disenfranchised by the economy or by legacies of discrimination. Lin-Manuel Miranda was also on that path when he created a musical of revolution that shows how the proverbial “dead white men” can be re-imagined for our time.

As some schools succumb to fears of being left behind and choose vocational shortcuts for their curriculum, we who believe in the power of pragmatic liberal education must develop broad, contextual learning that enables our graduates to pursue meaningful work and lifelong learning. Yes, ours is a merciless economy characterized by deep economic inequality, but that inequality must not be accepted as a given; the skills of citizenship and the powers of creativity enhanced through liberal learning can be used to push back against it.

At a time when many worry about the fate of the creative humanities at American universities, Hamilton reminds us, at many levels, that education can help enlarge the power of engaged citizens to overcome traditional hierarchies. Wesleyan University has created the “Hamilton Prize” to reflect our commitment to educating young people who, after all, have the potential to revitalize our economy, animate our citizenry and energize a culture characterized by connectivity and creativity.

Defending Against Terror and Hate

How awful it is to write messages that begin with “my heart goes out to…” This morning’s attack at a gay nightclub in Orlando is a repulsive act of hatred and terror, already embraced by ISIS. I learned of this atrocity when my plane landed in New York a short time ago. At moments like these we are reminded of our vulnerability, of the awful frequency of mass shootings. We should also be mindful of the crucial work of the struggle against terrorism and the protection of freedom.

As I make my way back to Middletown, I am also reminded of our solidarity, and of our shared commitment to creating a campus culture free of violence and hate. May we redouble our efforts to stand against enmity and cultivate a climate of equity and inclusion.

And may the memory of those massacred this morning in Orlando be a blessing to their friends, family, and all of us who struggle against hatred and violence.

Wesleyan in London

Kari and I are in London for a few days. She gave a paper at a conference on the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, and I hosted an event with about 50 Wesleyans who live on this side of the Atlantic. There was a great mix of folks at the event. Alumni from each decade since the 1960s, and current students studying abroad—and even a few pre-frosh from the Class of 2020.

I had the great pleasure of meeting up with a few of my old students who have settled in London. I love hearing about the variety of ways their education continues to resonate in their lives and work.

We’ve seen some great art and have marveled at the new buildings that seem to be sprouting is this incredibly busy city. Think I’ll head over to the Freud Museum to get my bearings…

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Tomorrow, back to Middletown!

Wesleyan and the NCAAs

Today Eudice Chong ’18 repeated as the national champion in women’s tennis at the NCAA tournament at Kalamazoo College. Eudice vanquished her rival from Williams College to claim the crown.

Chong by Ellen Friedlander

Eudice title

Educie and doubles partner Aashli Budhiraja ’18 had a great tournament as a duo, making it to the finals before falling to a team from the Claremont Colleges.

The Women’s Crew Team also had a historic season, which they capped off with a bronze medal at the NCAA tournament in Sacramento. The Cardinals Varsity 8 boat  consists of Ava Miller-Lewis ’17, Remy Johnson ’16, Annalee Holmdahl ’17, Emma Koramshahi ’16, Ricky Flowers ’19, Emma Halter ’17, Annie Dade ’16, Amanda Molitor ’18 and coxswain Elisa Greenberg ’18.

Wes Women's Crew Claims the Bronze!
Wes Women’s Crew Claims the Bronze!

Wesleyan has a dynamic club sports scene, and at least one of those teams had a breakout performance this year. Vicious Circles, the women’s ultimate frisbee team, won the Metro East DIII Conference Championship and went on to their own great run at the national tournament in North Carolina.

Celebrating Regional Championship
Celebrating Regional Championship

Congratulations to all these great athletes!!

 

Wesleyan Issues 100-Year Bond

Wesleyan University has issued $250 million of 100-year, fixed-rate taxable bonds, refinancing the majority of its existing debt. The current market for “century” bonds offers a historically unique opportunity to obtain long-term debt at favorable rates (4.781 percent). Over the last 30 years, century bond rates have been below this point less than 2 percent of the time. Wesleyan is the first educational institution in over a year to successfully issue a century bond.

This is a move toward solidifying our economic future. After refinancing the existing debt, the remainder of the proceeds will be invested alongside the endowment for future needs. The university has not made any commitments to specific projects, and Wesleyan’s excellent credit rating from Moody’s (Aa3) and S&P (AA stable) will not be affected by the bond sale. The sale also acts as an inflation hedge with a fixed interest rate for 100 years, and will help manage the university’s debt service costs. The bonds, the sale of which was approved by the Board of Trustees, are payable in 2116. We’re not borrowing to spend, but rather restructuring our debt to ensure greater security and flexibility in years to come.

I want especially to thank John Meerts and Nate Peters for their leadership on this process. They and their team have been attentive to every detail, and they have been persistent in seeking out and maximizing this strategic opportunity.

Finance team Toasting Century Bond
Finance team Toasting Century Bond

Trustee Diana Farrell has been with us every step of the way, and along with the bond group and the finance committee, Diana has devoted time, energy and thoughtfulness to this complicated process, and we are deeply grateful to her. I am so pleased that in these last weeks of the fiscal year (and in the last weeks of Joshua Boger’s and John Meerts’s terms as Chair and Treasurer, respectively), we were able to take this important step.

Liberal Education in Tough Times

Commencement is around the corner and college campuses around the country grow quieter every day. At this time of year graduating seniors and those preparing for summer jobs or internships may well be wondering how they are going to translate what they have been learning at school into what they will do Beyond the University. What possibilities await?

Being open to discovering new possibilities has been a hallmark of American education for a very long time. When the generation that founded this country was considering higher education, many believed, like Thomas Jefferson, that it was crucial that students not think they already knew at the beginning of their studies where they would end up when it was time for graduation. For all those who have followed in this American path of liberal education, learning was all about exploration—inquiry was most productive if one was open to unexpected possibilities. That’s why W.E.B. Du Bois argued that a broad education was a form of empowerment that must be accessible to those disenfranchised by the economy or by legacies of discrimination. That’s why Jane Addams insisted that a liberal education worthy of the name enables you to connect with others, helping the most vulnerable while also learning from them.

In today’s climate of renewed economic anxiety, many are prompted to jettison this tradition of pragmatic liberal education. In search of shortcuts to vocational success, they undermine students’ ability to respond to changes in the economy by preparing them only for what is valued right now. This is a terrible mistake. Instead, we must cultivate our tradition of pragmatic liberal education not only because it has served us so well for so long, or because it will make people “well-rounded.” We must cultivate a broad, inquiry-based education because it can revitalize our economy, lead to an engaged citizenry, and create a culture characterized by connectivity and creativity.

I am more convinced than ever that what is really needed today is the kind of pragmatic liberal education John Dewey called for a century ago: one that must never be reduced to short-term training, but instead should empower graduates to be productive while also being engaged citizens. Sure, by narrowly preparing themselves for 21st-century jobs, broadly educated graduates can reduce fears about life after college. But as empowered citizens, they can also work to transform an economy and polity now hell-bent on reproducing privilege and poverty.

We need liberal education in these tough times.


Wes Women Athletes Off to NCAAs

Two Wesleyan teams, Women’s Crew and Women’s Tennis, are heading to their respective NCAA National Championship tournaments. In tennis, this is the first time in 15 years the team has been selected, and only  the second time in program history. The Cardinals earned an at-large bid Monday afternoon. The Cardinals will play in second round action Saturday, May 14 at Amherst, MA, after earning a first round bye. I took this picture of the team when we were all out in California during spring break.

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The Women’s Crew team is heading to the NCAA races in Sacramento, CA. These Cardinals are a nationally ranked powerhouse, and just finished fourth out of 21 teams at the 2016 ECAC/National Invitational Rowing Championship Sunday in Worcester, Mass.

Womens Crew Team

In addition to Women’s Tennis and Women’s Crew qualifying for the NCAA Championships, baseball is defending its back-to-back NESCAC Championship crown this weekend in Nashua, NH. The conference tournament begins Friday and is double-elimination, and the championship game is Sunday. Baseball earned the top-seed in the NESCAC West for the fourth consecutive season.

These athletes are negotiating finals and other end-of-the-year obligations while competing at the highest level. Congratulations and good luck!!

Dancing to Different Beats

This weekend Kari and I had the opportunity to see the performance that was a product of Allison Orr‘s class collaboration with the Middletown Water and Sewer Department. Allison is the Menakka and Essel Bailey ’66 Distinguished Visiting Scholar in the College of the Environment, and she and her students have built many bridges and discovered and created the arts in unlikely places. Here are two of her collaborators, Justin Giuliano and Michael Edwards ’16, after the opening performance at the Riverfront Festival:

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Later on Saturday afternoon we celebrated 46 years of teaching by Abraham Adzenyah, Wesleyan’s beloved retiring professor of African drumming and dance. His students raised over $225,000 for a scholarship in his honor, and here is Prof. Adzenyah standing in front of the rehearsal hall named for him.

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After Abraham spoke, we were treated to a concert of music and dance, and on Saturday evening groups of former students and admirers made music long into the night. My legs still hurt from dancing!

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Equity Task Force Report

This past weekend I received the final report from the Equity Task Force. One can clearly see how much hard work and engaged thinking went into the committee’s deliberations, and I am very grateful for the efforts of all its members: Gina Athena Ulysse (Faculty and Tri-Chair), Elisa Cardona (Staff), Antonio Farias (Staff and Tri-Chair), Matthew Garrett (Faculty), William Johnston (Faculty), Makaela Kingsley (Staff), Caroline Liu ’18 (Student), Henry Martellier, Jr. ’19 (Student), and Shardonay Pagett ’18(Student and Tri-Chair).

The report is labeled an intervention in history, and it is vital that we seize this moment to improve the educational experience for all Wesleyan students, most especially those who have felt marginalized by practices of this institution, past or present.

You will see that the main body of the report has three major recommendations. The first is to develop a Center with an “intellectually grounded mission in Social Justice and a focus on intercultural development and literacy.” The Appendix on a Gender Resource Center (important in its own right) gives some idea of what such a center might look like. The second recommendation is to devote significant resources toward redressing long-term issues of discrimination and marginalization, especially as this affects the composition of our faculty and staff as well as the development of the curriculum. The third recommendation calls for a standing institutional committee to coordinate, communicate and support change in these areas.

Although I have only had a short time to digest the report, I can say that we will move forward immediately on all three recommendations. We will plan a Center within the time frame suggested that will enable students to deepen their education and enhance their ability to thrive on campus – especially those groups of students who have struggled against legacies of discrimination. This will build on the accomplishments of student activists, and also of professors and staff members who have worked hard to make this university a more equitable and inclusive place. Of course, this means a place that thoughtfully engages with different ideas of what constitutes justice, diversity, individual rights and political freedom. Our differences can make us stronger.

As per the second recommendation, we will add to the considerable resources we have already dedicated to recruiting and supporting students, faculty and staff from under-represented groups. Through the efforts of VP for Equity and Inclusion Antonio Farias and Provost Joyce Jacobsen, we will continue to aggressively pursue opportunities to diversify the faculty. Furthermore, by doing things like replacing loans with grants for low-income students and improving employment conditions for student workers, our goal is to ensure that all students have every opportunity to excel in all sectors of the curriculum and co-curricular activities. As called for in the third recommendation, we will establish a committee to coordinate our efforts and measure their outcomes.

In news very much related to issues of inclusion, we are announcing today that in future admissions cycles Wesleyan will consider undocumented and DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) applicants who have graduated from a U.S. high school as if they were U.S. citizens or permanent residents. You can read more about that decision here.

Please do read the report and its appendices. It is an important intervention in Wesleyan University’s history. We will build on this good work to make our campus an educationally empowering place for all who live and work here.