A University in Revolution

Over the years, I have had several students from Iran in my online classes at Coursera. Lately, I’ve been reading about student political action at Sharif University in Tehran with a mixture of admiration and horror. Admiration, since the students there have shown such courage in their protests since the funeral of Mahsa Amini a few weeks ago. Horror because of the brutality of the regime’s response to these protests. Human rights groups put the death toll at well over 100, as students and their allies refuse to back down in the face of violent tyranny.

Mahsa Amini had been arrested for “unsuitable attire,” and she then died in police custody after falling into a coma. This is official brutality at its worst, and young women and men across Iran have protested against a regime that denies people their basic freedoms. Universities depend on these freedoms to do their work, and the violence with which they are currently being attacked is deplorable.

Raising our voices of solidarity with Iranian students fighting tyranny may not save them from the tear gas, batons and bullets of the Revolutionary Guard. But if it gives even one protestor a little more energy, we ought to join the chorus of those calling for an end to the oppressive violence in Iran.

 

Players-of-the-Week!

It’s early days, but already some Wesleyan athletes have been recognized for extraordinary achievement. Let’s start with a great volleyball player on a tremendous team. Mariko Tanaka ’24 was named NESCAC Player-of-the-Week last week as she had games where she led the team in digs and then in kill percentage. She’s a force for good things and all of her teammates benefit from her strong play.

Speaking of strong play, Liam Devanny ’23 has been all but unbeatable in the goal for the men’s soccer team. He already has multiple shutouts under his belt, including great games against the nationally ranked teams from Tufts and Brandeis. Like volleyball, the men’s soccer team is off to an excellent start, and I’m so pleased to see Liam recognized as a Player-of-the-Week by NESCAC.

And speaking of excellent starts, the football team looked very impressive on Saturday. And most impressive was defensive tackle Nick Helbig ’23, and his strong play was acknowledged with the New England Football Writers’ Gold Helmet Award. This is a signal award for anyone, and especially rare for a defensive tackle. Nick was also named player-of-the-week by NESCAC.

Come out and cheer on Wesleyan’s wonderful student-athletes. Go Wes!

Frank G. Binswanger Jr. ’50, P’76, ’78, GP’13, ’15

I received word earlier this summer that a dear friend of Wesleyan’s, Frank G. Binswanger Jr., had passed away. Frank graduated more than 70 years ago, but he remained keenly interested in alma mater. He was a trustee during the 1970s when two of his children were undergrads (along with me). Over the years, I would receive questions, advice and encouragement from Frank, and, with his wife Suzanne, we had occasion to raise a glass or two together to toast our beloved university. There have been more than ten Binswanger family members who’ve attended Wesleyan over the years.

Many at Wesleyan know the Binswanger name because of the teaching prize that Frank and his brother John ’54, P’83, GP’ 06, ’10, ’16  in honor of their father. Each year at Commencement we celebrate Wesleyan’s commitment to its scholar-teachers when members of the Alumni Association Executive Committee choose three faculty as recipients of the Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching. Frank took real pride in having helped establish this tradition.

Teaching, learning, philanthropy — Binswanger traditions. May Frank’s memory be a blessing.

 

 

More Violence, Less Freedom, Deep Sadness

On America’s birthday:

A toddler wanders around, lost. Kind strangers come to help. What happened? Aiden’s parents were killed, along with several others, by a sniper in Highland Park.

Wandering, lost…. The unspeakable is everywhere around us.

We don’t have to live this way.

May their memories be a blessing.

 

Happy 4th of July!!

On this July 4th I find it more difficult than usual to get into the celebratory spirit—and this has nothing to do with politics! I find myself navigating a challenging COVID infection and after some days am only this morning seeing the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Seeing something hopeful in the distant future can be a distraction from current troubles, or it can empower one to keep working for the better days ahead. If you stop looking ahead with hope, the work can become impossible.

Over the years I’ve posted a variety of quotations on Independence Day. This Lucille Clifton poem, blake, is not about independence but it is about finding some glimmer of hope as we scan the world around us.

we need new words
for what this is, this hunger entering our
loneliness like birds, stunning our eyes into rays
of hope. we need the flutter that can save
us, something that will swirl across the face
of what we have become and bring us grace.

Happy 4th of July!

And why not “won’t you celebrate with me?”

Don’t Let Judges Use ‘History’ to Erode Our Rights

In two controversial decisions this week, the Supreme Court turned to history to justify the political views of an emboldened conservative majority. With haughty condescension, the majority concluded that a New York State law regulating firearm use was unconstitutional because it limited the right to bear arms in ways inconsistent with the Second Amendment and the “traditions and history” of the United States. As historians have shown for the last several years, this is nonsense. Saul Cornell puts it this way: The “historical record not only demonstrates that arms have been closely regulated when carried in dense and populous areas for more than 700 years, and it showed that New York’s own law was part of a constitutional transformation in gun regulation during the era of the 14th Amendment that swept across the nation.” The Supreme Court used a selective reading of history to support a particular strand of gun culture ideology. As a result, public safety will be undermined.

If the perversion of history to justify contemporary tastes in gun ownership wasn’t egregious enough, the decision striking down Roe doubled down on making the past speak the language of a minority of right-wing, religious ideologues. Women will no longer have a right to terminate a pregnancy because such a right is not “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” Only such rights will be protected. Who gets to decide which ones count? Apparently, it will be the ideologues whose selective reading of the past, public safety and ethics will enable them to find in history whatever they need to justify their current positions. As Wesleyan Professor Victoria Pitts-Taylor has said: “This decision comes after years of assaults on abortion rights that have eroded access to abortion care across the nation. Even so, it is a devastating ruling, one that invites further attacks on reproductive autonomy and will hit the most vulnerable women and girls and their communities the hardest.” No matter that previous Justices, many appointed by Republican presidents, found that a woman should be able to make her own health care decisions. Linda Greenhouse concludes: “In asserting that these justices led the court into grave error from which it must now be rescued, Justice Alito and his majority are necessarily saying that these predecessors, joining the court over a period of four decades, didn’t know enough, or care enough, to use the right methodology and reach the right decision. The arrogance and unapologetic nature of the opinion are breathtaking.”

Breathtaking indeed. We must counter this arrogance with historical research and political organizing. We can recognize the complexities of the debates around abortion and still support a woman’s right to choose her own medical care. We can recognize traditions of gun ownership while also showing the deep history of gun regulation. We are fortunate in Connecticut to have government officials who support common sense legislation about gun safety and who defend a woman’s right to choose the kind of medical care, and the kind of life, she wants for herself. At Wesleyan, we have sponsored research and teaching on gun safety, and many students, faculty and staff have participated in the Doula Project to support women in the process of choosing the health care that is appropriate for them.

We learned this week how fragile our public safety and our rights are. Wherever you stand on these issues, make your voices heard so that they will not be drowned out by unaccountable, ideologically driven judges.

Juneteenth

One of this country’s great historians, Annette Gordon-Reed, has written a powerful book about Juneteenth and her own personal connection to this holiday. Marking emancipation, it also recalls slavery. Marking oppression, it also points to the possibilities for positive change. Professor Gordon-Reed has underscored her own ambivalence about this history:

Historians are, of course, supposed to reject out of hand this type of Whiggish narrative of American history, one driven by faith in the idea of inevitable progress toward a better, more enlightened destination. The American experiment does not have to “work.” Empires and nations rise and fall. But while I am a historian, I am also an American. In thinking about the country, I experience a classic split between my head and my heart. Intellectually, I know there is no reason at all to believe in any particular direction of the American future. As we have seen, and been reminded daily to an absolutely exhausting degree, anything can happen. At the same time, in my heart, I have hoped. I’ve wanted to believe that the country that started with dispossession of native peoples, slavery, and a dedication to white supremacy could live up to the more idealistic aspirations of its founding—the statements about equality and the pursuit of happiness, and the desire to create a representative democracy in which the people were sovereign.

That vision of the future has been challenged of late. But, as in years past, the many people who share this vision have mobilized in support of it. I suppose that is the most that can be hoped for, because that kind of struggle is the only way better futures can be made.

Middletown will mark Juneteenth on Saturday, June 18th. Alison Williams, VP for Equity and Inclusion, notes:

On Saturday, June 18, Middletown will have a Juneteenth celebration in Smith Park. Wesleyan’s Office for Equity & Inclusion is a Gold sponsor of this event. We invite everyone to come out and celebrate with us.

Juneteenth is also known as Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Juneteenth Independence Day, and Black Independence Day.  It marks the date when, on June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, TX, and announced the end of the Civil War and the end of slavery.  The Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln, had legally freed slaves in Texas on January 1, 1863, almost 2½ years earlier. Even after the general order, some slave masters withheld the information from their enslaved Black people, holding them captive through at least one more harvest season. Thus, Juneteenth became a symbolic date representing African American freedom.

Juneteenth is a time when we can reflect on the painful mistakes of our nation’s past and work towards racial reconciliation, honoring the day as a time for healing, learning and taking action. Many families honor the day by hosting a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. It is also a time when we celebrate the significant contributions of African Americans to every aspect of American culture.

Alison asks me to note that she is the 4th generation descendant of Frank Lightner, a slave, the offspring of Mollie and Lightner, who enslaved her.

There are many Juneteenth celebrations throughout Connecticut. A day to remember.

We Don’t Have to Live This Way (2)

It’s Commencement season, and in speech after speech graduates are told that they can change the world, that they can carve their own paths, that their generation will address the massive problems left to them by others. As educators, we want our students to feel hopeful and creative — not complacent or fatalistic.

But it’s also another season of mass shootings. Another season of hearing “there is nothing we can do” because of our Constitution, our politicians and the lobbyists who rule them.

You’ve seen the statistics. The United States has about 5% of the world’s population and roughly 40% of the world’s mass shootings. Across the nation, there are more firearms in the land than there are people to fire them. In every country there is mental illness, alienation, resentment, racism, antisemitism and rage. Only in our country are these things combined with easy access to guns. There are murderous impulses everywhere, but only here are they so easily attached to weapons with gross lethality. “It’s precisely because they cannot legislate murder out of the human heart,” David Frum has underscored, “that civilized societies regulate the instruments of murder in human hands.”

But contrary to the messages we give our students, we hear again and again that efforts at common sense reforms are “a non-starter.” This fatalism can be self-fulfilling, but happily there are now signs from Congress that some significant steps toward gun safety may become law. We must keep the pressure on legislators to make a serious gun safety bill law.

Our Commencement messages should ring true. We don’t have to live this way. America has faced daunting and deadly challenges in the past, and we have enacted laws and regulations in response. Not that long ago, people smoked in trains, movie theaters, classrooms and everywhere else. When smoking bans were being considered, there were protests about personal liberty.  No smoking in restaurants? People shouted, “it couldn’t be done – not in our culture!” Folks were so certain that New Yorkers, for example, would never accept being prohibited from smoking in bars. But research about tobacco smoke was clear, and regulations were passed in New York and all over the country.

Going further back a few decades, there were several cities that were so choked by pollution that cars, buildings and clothing were quickly covered in grime. Lungs, too. It was easy to be fatalistic and assume the air couldn’t be changed. But that was wrong. Research on pollution helped show how to remove from the atmosphere the poison folks thought it was necessary to breathe. Pittsburgh is a great example of a city whose air quality many thought impossible to change. It was Pittsburgh. They were wrong. New laws curtailed the right to pollute, creating a city safer for everyone. There is still pollution, of course, but we didn’t let fatalism prevent us from making things better.

These public health efforts were resisted at every turn by special interests determined to protect their profits. Tobacco companies and industrial polluters hijacked the language of liberty to defend their right to inflict massive harm. But in the end, scientific research showed how we could clean up our public spaces, and that we could do so without destroying freedom or economic development. Breathing in America became safer, and universities helped make that happen.

Today, guns are making Americans unsafe, and once again we hear the claim that there is nothing we can do. The gun lobby has in the past succeeded in blocking research that might show there are regulations that would make our communities safer. Once again, we hear the defense of personal freedom even as racist extremists target black communities, even as children and their teachers are gunned down by people who could have been prevented from having easy access to massively murderous weapons. Some business leaders stepped up after the Parkland school shootings, and they are being urged to do so again. Special interests encourage complacency. As Michael Tomasky underscores, gun violence “is happening, over and over, because certain people who very obviously have the power to try to stop it are refusing to do so and letting it happen.”

In Texas, “letting it happen” is too weak an expression for its government’s abetting of gun violence. According to the state’s Attorney General, public universities would “exceed their authority” if they prohibit concealed handguns on campus. Professors would be “exceeding their authority” if they forbade students from packing heat in their classrooms.

We don’t have to live this way. When confronted with overwhelming pollution, researchers showed how this was cutting lives short and how we could start cleaning up the atmosphere. Scientists at universities showed skeptics (some of whom were funded by tobacco companies) that second-hand smoke kills, and then public policy researchers showed how common-sense regulations could reduce the lethal affects that someone’s “freedom to smoke” had on others.

Now, universities should double down on research on guns as a public health issue – an issue we can address. We already know from historical scholarship,  that gun regulations go way back to colonial times in North America and beyond that to English common law. We know that the weapons that the framers of the constitution had in mind when thinking of “well-ordered militias” have little in common with the lethality of today’s killing machines. We know that the risk of suicide is magnified because of easy access to guns. Scholars at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, DukeWesleyan and the University of Wyoming are already working on these matters and we need more research on the effectiveness of age restrictions and the potential for “smart guns.” Research and public policy development are key, and universities should do their part. Universities should address guns as a public health issue energetically, just as they have with the work on vaccines, genomics, or….weapons development. 

We don’t have to live this way. We know how to create regulations that reduce risk. This is not a call for banning guns; it is a call for universities to use their resources to target the most pressing public health issues created by open access to massive lethality. “Helplessness,” Jay Caspian King underscored, “is the sense that we will keep reliving the brutality of history over and over again.”  But we are not helpless. We showed we could significantly reduce pollution, and we showed we could change personal habits embedded in culture and even addiction. University sponsored research can help us reduce the risks of gun violence.

We all should have learned in the last two years that fatalism is deadly. In concert with a variety of institutions, universities must support research that will contribute to the crafting of regulations to clean up this horrid, heartbreaking mess.

 

John Driscoll

I write with sad news of the death of John Driscoll ’62, a much beloved member of the Wesleyan community known for his long and devoted service to alma mater. For more than three decades, John oversaw our alumni relations programs. With his ever-present good cheer, he was a remarkable ambassador of goodwill, rousing an enthusiastic “Go Wes!” wherever he went. And he went everywhere.

John joined the Wesleyan staff in 1982 as alumni director, having previously served with the U.S. Office of Education and the Civil Aeronautics Board. An engaging speaker and storyteller, he emceed or spoke at countless events, drawing on deep knowledge of all things Wesleyan. He had an unsurpassed ability to make friends, to engage alumni of all ages, and to build Wesleyan’s community worldwide.

Among Freeman Asian Scholars, his name and that of his wife, Gina, are synonymous with enduring affection and unstinting support. For many years the Driscolls traveled extensively throughout Asia with the late Houghton “Buck” ’43, Hon. ’93, P’77 and Doreen Hon. ’03, P’77 Freeman to interview prospective Freeman scholars. The Freeman Driscoll Endowed International Scholarship was named in their honor.

For their extraordinary service, John and Gina received the Raymond E. Baldwin Medal in 2017, the highest award of the Alumni Association, presented to them by President Emeritus Colin G. Campbell.

A faithful and ever-enthusiastic fan of the Cardinal football team, John led a revival of the Wesleyan “Fight Song,” teaching it to generations of Wesleyan first-year students. He became the first Wesleyan administrator to receive “emeritus” status, served under five Wesleyan presidents, received an Appreciation Award from the Black Alumni Council for his service, and was an active leader in Class of 1962 reunions. Off campus, he was a member of the Kiwanis and Conversational Clubs.

John had the great gift of making everyone in the Wesleyan community feel welcome and appreciated. We will hold him warmly in our memories as an inspiration and a reminder of what it means to act with generosity of spirit.

He is survived by Gina, who has a laudable record of service to Wesleyan as a member of the University’s Advancement team. He is also survived by son David and his wife Willow Cheeley; daughter Laura and her husband, James Taft (a Wesleyan Information Technology Services staff member), and their children Clara and Eli; and son Douglas and his daughter Lenora. Condolences may be sent to Gina c/o Wesleyan University, Office of Advancement, 291 Main Street, Middletown, CT 06457. Donations in John’s memory can be made to the Freeman Driscoll Endowed Wesleyan Scholarship Fund  (Wesleyan University, Office of Advancement, 291 Main Street, Middletown, CT 06457). Information regarding services for John will be announced at a later date.