Talking About Free Speech on and off Campus

Last week I attended the very interesting meeting of the Heterodox Academy in New York. The association emphasizes the importance of what they call “viewpoint diversity,” and in our time of polarized politics the defenders of free speech the group attracts are often labeled as right wing. In fact, there were people from various parts of the political spectrum at the meeting, even if it is true there were plenty of centrists in attendance. Given our efforts to create greater intellectual diversity at Wesleyan, I was happy to listen and to be a part of the conversations.

My panel at the Heterodox meetings dealt with how academic administrators could help create a more robust culture of free inquiry and expression. Videos of all the panels can be found here (my panel is about a third of the way down the page).

This morning I’m off to Banff for a debate on the impact of safe spaces on the commitment to free speech. I’ll argue that one actually needs a level of safety to have fair access to learning, and that this level (“safe enough spaces”)  creates room for productive intellectual diversity and reasonable argument. The program is part of the Intelligence Squared series, which you can read about here.

I’m pleased to be part of conversations in which I’ll hear different points of view — that’s how learning happens, as I know from my Wesleyan classes.



American Horror

This past weekend former First Lady Laura Bush wrote:

Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso. These images are eerily reminiscent of the Japanese American internment camps of World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history. We also know that this treatment inflicts trauma; interned Japanese have been two times as likely to suffer cardiovascular disease or die prematurely than those who were not interned.

This spring Attorney General Sessions described a zero tolerance policy that would result in the separation of parents and children. “If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally,” Sessions said in May. “The laws are the laws. But a big name of the game is deterrence,” Chief-of-Staff John Kelly told NPR. “It could be a tough deterrent—would be a tough deterrent,” he added. This week, however, in reaction to the outrage about separating families, Kirstjen Nielson, the head of Homeland Security tweeted: “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”  She means that the administration is “only enforcing the law.” Whatever your politics, it seems clear that the current administration has a new tactic: children are being used as human shields to dissuade people from coming to the United States for asylum or in search of a better life.

As Ms. Bush said: “I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.”

Why is this relevant to a university president? In the spring of 2016, we announced that Wesleyan would treat DACA-eligible students as we do other domestic applicants. This means that these applicants, who have spent the bulk of their lives in the US, would have their full financial needs met if they were admitted to study here. In November, 2016, we declared Wesleyan a sanctuary campus, with two basic components:

  • Wesleyan will remain committed to the principles of non-discrimination, including equal protection under the law, regardless of national origin or citizenship.
  • Wesleyan will not voluntarily assist in any efforts by the federal government to deport our students, faculty or staff solely because of their citizenship status.

As I said at the time, “supporting these talented and deserving young people is the right thing to do, and is consistent with Wesleyan values and our commitment to equity and inclusion.” As I wrote last year, “Since our very beginnings, our country has been immeasurably strengthened by immigrants. Turning our backs on those in need today is worse than heartless.”

The heinous practices initiated by the United States government on the southern border are not consistent with our university’s values, nor our country’s. Listening to the cries of the children on the recording published this afternoon by ProPublica, I wonder what it will take for education leaders across the country to reject this viciousness.

We must stop these vile practices before they entirely erode our civic life. We in the education community depend on that life for our purpose and our practice. Let’s make our voices heard!


Douglas J. Bennet (1938-2018)

I received word this morning that Douglas J. Bennet ’59, P’87, ’94 , Wesleyan’s 15th president (1995-2007), passed away last night. From the moment I was interviewed on campus for the presidency, Doug was warm and welcoming, wise and full of love for the many facets of alma mater. He believed that Wesleyan gave him so much, and he gave back unstintingly with deep affection. His wife, Midge Bennet, has been kind and generous to Kari and me, and to Wesleyan, which she always embraced with open arms. Our condolences to Midge, Michael ’87, Holly ’94, James and the entire Bennet family — and to all of us in the Wesleyan family who were touched by this devoted leader, student and educator.


Doug served 12 years as president, retiring in 2007, and those were years of remarkable progress for Wesleyan. He oversaw the rejuvenation of the heart of the campus—from Memorial Chapel to Usdan University Center and Fayerweather—as well as the addition of the Freeman Athletic Center and the Film Studies Center. Doug’s accomplishments, however, went well beyond bricks and mortar.

He set an ambitious strategic direction for Wesleyan with two planning initiatives, the first of which became the basis for the $281 million Wesleyan Campaign—at that time the most successful campaign by far in the university’s history. Under his leadership, Wesleyan saw a 25 percent growth in applications for admission, a doubling of the endowment, and an invigorated relationship with Middletown. In improving this relationship, as in so many aspects of his work for Wesleyan, he could always count on the extraordinary efforts of his wife, Midge.

Doug’s presidency was the culmination of a truly distinguished career that included service as assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs under President Clinton, chief executive officer and president of National Public Radio, and head of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

When Doug announced his intention to retire as president, he spoke about the “Bennet family love affair with Wesleyan since 1929,” the year that his father enrolled as a first-year student. Doug never stopped showing his love for Wesleyan, and he, in turn, was a beloved member of the Wesleyan community. He will live on in our cherished memories and in Wesleyan history.

Answer Cynicism and Insults with Inquiry and Reflection

The following is an op-ed I published this morning in the Washington Post. It is based on my remarks at the Wesleyan commencement this year.

I’ve been a university president for almost 20 years now, and each spring I stand at the podium to address graduating students and their families. The climate on campus is always festive, but this year, we can’t help but be affected by the pollutants of cynicism and craven disregard for principle in our national atmosphere. The Trump White House has set the tone, and far too many politicians and pundits are dancing to the tune. Graduating students will be entering a world in which invective, insult and manipulation threaten to become the norm. These are antithetical to the inquiry, compromise and reflection that are crucial to democratic governance and to a liberal education that aims at empowerment through learning.

I’m hopeful that students graduating this spring, regardless of what they’ve studied, do feel empowered and that their capacity for inquiry, compromise and reflection has been enhanced by their college years. Empowerment was what W.E.B. Du Bois looked for in the best of American education. He knew that people had to earn a living, but he believed that a truly pragmatic education would not just prepare someone to fit in to an existing occupational slot. A true education would increase one’s abilities to act purposefully as a citizen, a neighbor and family member as well as an economic provider. Inquiry, compromise and reflection are essential ingredients for the development of these abilities.

As president of a residential university, I know that when an education is successful, students find satisfaction in the search for better ideas and find meaning in the pursuit of ways of living that will be in accord with deeply held values. And when they find their own values to be in conflict with those held by others, their education turns them to inquiry, compromise and reflection either to resolve those conflicts or to learn how to live in peace with them. In this regard, the campus is an oasis, not where students are coddled, but where they develop skills to deal with the differences among people that beyond the university are usually met by cynical disregard or avoided through economic and cultural segregation.

One doesn’t need to believe in an absolute Truth in order to commit oneself to inquiry, compromise and reflection, although many of our students surely do have such beliefs. One does need to consider the possibility that one might be wrong, that one might be blind to other possibilities, other ways of living. If you think you might be wrong, you need other people with ideas different from your own in order to consider a range of alternatives. That’s one of the reasons diversity, including intellectual diversity, is so important. Listening seriously to others and trying to understand why they hold the views they do without immediately judging those views – this is at the core of pragmatic liberal education.

In the United States, we now live under an anti-educational regime. President Trump’s disregard for facts didn’t prevent him from being elected, of course, but that doesn’t mean as educators we should give him a pass when he lies, when he incites hatred, or when he engages in reckless behavior that undermines the very notion of learning from one’s mistakes. Even many who supported candidate Trump have been revolted by his intemperate, cruel and dangerous rhetoric, and by some of his policies. To call attention to this degradation of our culture is not to support political correctness, but to support our ability to learn from one another.

One of the reasons I love being a university president is that I learn so much from the enthusiasms, convictions, and reasoned arguments of our students – be they addressing the racist evils of mass incarceration or the persistent poison of sexual violence. Religious students have shown me what it means to integrate faith and inquiry, and conservative students have taught me to be mindful that even well-intentioned policies can undermine individual freedom and group identity. There have been many times when our campus community seems to come together in recognition of unjust situations that need fixing, but it has also been clear that there can be plenty of disagreement about what would constitute real solutions that don’t themselves create even graver injustices. On our best days, we are able to explore our differences without fear, just as we are able to work toward positive change with courage. A campus is the place to explore difference, to have one’s ways of thinking tested – not just protected.

Healthy student cultures at colleges and universities are generous, even as they are critical; they are open to inquiry and compromise even though they sometimes erupt into loud demands for tangible change. I don’t see only coddled snowflakes or ironic hipsters dominating these cultures. Instead, I find many studious undergrads taking time to work with refugees around the world or making room in their schedules to tutor poor children in local elementary schools. I find athletic teams raising money for cancer research, and activists volunteering their time to tutor incarcerated men and women. At campuses across the country, students are working to reduce suffering and to create opportunity.

In this time of rampant cynicism and flamboyant government corruption, students across the country are refusing to retreat from the public sphere. They refuse the dismissal of norms for telling the truth or the labeling of anything one doesn’t like as “fake.” They refuse stifling limitations on speech and action by creatively responding to changing community norms. They refuse the caricature of political correctness by listening carefully to those with whom they disagree, prepared to broaden their thinking rather than merely reinforcing their pre-conceived notions.

In graduation ceremonies around the country, oldsters like me are called upon to offer a few words of wisdom. The wisest words I can think of given our national context are ones our students already know well: inquiry, compromise and reflection. These are words they are turning into action at schools around the country. Having learned to work across differences, they are finding ways to go beyond cynicism to build a better future. Wise beyond their years.

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. His most recent books are “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters” and “Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living With the Past.”

Campus Celebrations!

The tents have sprung up on campus, the seniors are lounging on Foss Hill, and alumni all over the world are preparing to come home to Wesleyan for Reunion/Commencement. This aged president is celebrating his fortieth reunion with classmates, and preparing to send off the class of 2018 along with our distinguished Commencement speaker, Anita Hill. Join us!

Senior Reception in our backyard


Roadside Girls group serenading the seniors


Coach Raba addressing just graduated lacrosse seniors



















Finals — And National Tournaments

UPDATE 5/23/18:

The men’s lacrosse team is heading to Foxboro for Memorial Day Weekend to play for the NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP OF DIV. 3 LACROSSE. We held a special graduation ceremony for the seniors today, and we will be cheering them on from our ceremonies on Andrus Field graduation on Sunday. Here are some pics from today’s ceremony.


Dean Mike Whaley addresses lacrosse seniors


We are in Finals Week at Wesleyan, and the libraries, labs, and studios are full. Students are preparing projects, studying for exams, and doing their best to show themselves and their professors what they can do. Many of these students are also athletes competing at the national level. Somehow, they manage to do it all. Let’s cheer them on!

The women’s crew team has had a great season. Led by coach Pat Tynan, the rowers are headed to Sarasota Florida, for races May 25-26. The Cardinals were named one of four at-large teams, returning to the national championships for the third consecutive season, but first as a team since 2014.  Wesleyan excelled in its last two races, claiming two medals at both the New England Rowing Championships and the National Invitational Rowing Championships (NIRC), while narrowly missing out on a third at the NIRC.

The women’s tennis team, led by coach Mike Fried, is traveling to Claremont California for the elite 8 phase of the NCAA tournament. This is the first time in program history that we’ve gotten that far, and you can read about our path here. Both men and women tennis players are competing as individuals in the tournament, with senior Eudice Chong defending her singles title, and with Victoria Yu defending the doubles title.

Women’s lacrosse, led by Coach Kim Williams, is playing in the NCAA tournament, advancing further than ever before. This is a highly talented team of student-athletes, and they face off against Amherst on Saturday, May 19 in Gettysburg. You can read about their path through the tournament here.

Vicious Circles, the Wesleyan women’s ultimate frisbee team, is also on the road to a national tournament. This superb team has been there before, winning their regional tournament again this year. You can learn more about the team here or check them out on Facebook here.

Finally, after a thrilling victory over a very tough Tufts team yesterday, the men’s lacrosse team is headed to the final four of the NCAA tournament. Led by Coach John Raba, the squad has had an extraordinary year, and they are headed back to the semi-finals of the tourney for the second year in a row.

Somehow all these athletes are also juggling finals and other end-of-the-semester tasks. Let’s cheer them on. Go Wes!


Wesleyan Radio, WESU Needs Our Help!

The extraordinary WESU-FM station manager Ben Michaels recently reached out to remind us about the pledge drive. Here’s part of what he has to say:

With a full-time employee on duty for the last 15 years, WESU has transformed from a station struggling to recover from a hasty studio relocation and waning student interest into an award winning beacon of community engagement, overflowing with interest and activity on and off campus.  At WESU, student and community volunteers work side-by-side to serve listeners seeking radio that still dares to present perspectives and music that deviate from and challenge mainstream trends and sensibilities.  WESU is listener-supported community radio, which means we depend on support from folks like you!

Student and community support have directly helped to raise the quality of the service WESU provides.  Nearly ten years ago, we made a major boost to our FM signal and recently implemented major studio upgrades, thanks in large part to community support. This past winter we achieved a major milestone with the purchase and installation of a brand new state-of-the-art digital transmitter, which has been running loudly and clearly since January.

This period of growth and stability would not have been possible without consistent support from WESU stakeholders—like you! A successful Spring Pledge Drive will ensure WESU’s continued growth and ability to cover its operational costs through the end of this fiscal year.  Your contribution will also help us make the second installment on our new transmitter, which we aim to pay off within 3-5 years.

Positioned within the Jewett Center for Community Partnerships, WESU is a flagship example of community engagement at Wesleyan University.  Our current board of directors has been working hard to preserve the legacy of WESU and ensure that this unique asset remains a safe space for students and community members to explore, engage, and impact our world together. With the station’s 80th anniversary on the horizon (2019), WESU is louder and stronger than ever.  I’m excited to see what the future brings.

Your support for WESU will help ensure that Wesleyan’s legacy of free-form community radio has a home on the FM airwaves in central CT and beyond for many years to come. Please donate today!

And now an update: Hey Friends of WESU, we have just reached the $7k mark for the Spring Pledge Drive! There is just under $19k left to be raised!!! Please donate at every dollar helps keep the station up and running.

Wolfgang Natter (1955-2018)

Hearing the news this week of the death of my friend, Wolfgang Natter, I walked over to the place we first met – the co-educational fraternity Alpha Delta Phi here on the campus of Wesleyan University. We spent countless hours at the fraternity in the mid 1970s discussing ideas, washing dishes, listening to music, finding ourselves. Together, we projected repeated screenings of Les Enfants du Paradis, debated Hegel and Marx, protested against a world that we also earnestly sought to understand. Entering Alpha Delt, thinking of Wolfgang, I gravitated to the kitchen in which we had been co-workers, sometimes co-conspirators, always friends. The place was bustling with undergrads dealing with the end of the 2018 semester, but I could still feel the force of memories forty years old.

Wolfgang had widely varied interests, and he pursued them with passion. After Wesleyan, he continued his studies at the broadly interdisciplinary Center for the Humanities at The Johns Hopkins University. He had an abiding interest in the World War I period, a time when, I recall him saying, everything changed. When we were young, he spoke of making a movie about the period, perhaps writing a play. Later, Wolfgang turned his dissertation on the literature of the Great War into a book, Literature at War, 1914-1940: Representing the “Time of Greatness” in Germany. His scholarship managed to be both meticulous and broad-minded – a rarity.

Mostly, I remember Wolfgang’s gentleness, his way of welcoming people into conversations about movies, about German literature or drama, about politics. His mind was sharp, but what stood out was his generosity, his curiosity, his openness. When I lectured at his invitation at the University of Kentucky decades after we graduated from Wesleyan, I learned that Wolfgang had become a leader in a humanistic approach to critical geography and that his intellectual interests had grown to include sophisticated spatial analyses of all sorts of subjects that I had never realized even had a spatial dimension. We spoke for hours about his new lines of inquiry. He had left nothing behind, but his intellectual world was growing fast. I was so impressed by his students, whom he treated as colleagues, and his colleagues, whom he treated as friends. What a mentor he was! I could see the constellation of his qualities – the fierce intelligence, the wide-ranging curiosity, the humor and intellectual curiosity – emerging in his students.

For many years, our paths rarely crossed, but recently we both found ourselves back at Wesleyan. I was now president here, and Wolfgang had come to help us as a consultant before becoming Vice-President for Academic Affairs at the College of St. Scholastica in Minnesota. Joseph, son of Wolfgang and his former wife Liz, was then a student at Wesleyan, and the father had the joy of seeing alma mater through the eyes of his thoughtful and engaged son. Wolfgang also fell in love again at Wesleyan, finding a life-partner in Sarah Kendall, a fellow Alpha Delt and Wes alumna.

Wolfgang was the rare academic administrator who approached the work with open-minded inquiry, with the curiosity and care characteristic of the best research in the humanities. A few weeks before he died, he wrote me with a question about how to help constituents of a school get past points of conflict and return to their deeper mutual convergence. He was so good at finding (sometimes building) convergence while respecting differences. He believed in the spirit of the academic enterprise and exemplified what is best about it. I miss him already.

Student-Athletes Making a Mark, On and Off the Field

I had lunch today with a stellar group of Wesleyan student-athletes along with Assistant Football Coach Sean Stanley. The Student-Athlete of Color Leadership Council is providing mentorship opportunities, creating community engagement activities, and helping to recruit more diverse athletics teams. Next week, for example, they are hosting student-athletes from Bulkeley High School in Hartford, and recently they staged a basketball tournament that raised thousands of dollars for the Middlesex Hospital Comprehensive Breast Center. I look forward to working together on new initiatives next year. 

Have you heard about Vicious Circles? This is Wesleyan’s high-soaring women’s frisbee team, set to go to the National Championship tournament for the third year in a row!

Having won the Regionals, the team is heading to the championship tournament in Illinois. They have established a fundraising page here.

So, You Wanna Make Movies (or TV shows)…

If you spend any time in the vicinity of Hollywood, you’re likely to hear about Wesleyan’s important role in the entertainment industry. Almost immediately after my appointment as president, I began hearing how our alumni “dominate the industry.” That may be an overstatement, but it is very clear that Wes folks wind up working at very high levels in all sectors of film and television.

The College of Film and the Moving Image sponsors many events to help students understand how they can use their education as a resource for careers in entertainment. And this summer, we are sponsoring a workshop at the American Film Institute (AFI) in Los Angeles for those wanting to learn more about the craft of TV writing. Led by Ed Decter, who has a LONG list of credits over many years, the workshop is for advanced students or recent grads who want a professional orientation to television writing.

C-Film has recently launched a podcast series, and the first interview is with Ed Decter. You can listen to it here.

You can find out more information about the workshop by contacting Scott Higgins, Chair of the College of Film and the Moving Image.