Spring Break

Foss sunsetSpring Break at Wesleyan is unusually long – a two week vacation from classes. The campus is eerily quiet at night, and looking across Andrus Field from my office the snow is gone and the baseball field fences have gone up. It really is a break into spring!

Although the campus is quiet, it is certainly not empty. There are many international students who stay in town. Two weeks may seem long, but it is too short for students to justify a trip across the globe. I also bump into the seniors making their way to science labs or to the Olin Library to continue work on their theses. The subjects range from ideas of the French intellectual to politics and religion in Ireland; from problems in micro-economics to issues in Asian art history. Our students complete these independent research projects with close faculty supervision, but it is often the professors who learn so much from the collaboration with these young scholars, scientists and artists. Most of the work is due in about a month, so it’s getting to be crunch time.

Of course, many of our seniors are interviewing for jobs or waiting to hear from graduate schools. There are two very happy Wesleyan students who recently heard from The Thomas J Watson Foundation that their international research projects will be funded during the next year. Cedric Bien will be doing a project entitled, “Documenting the Chinese Diaspora: A Photographic Ethnography of Chinatowns” in Peru, Paraguay, Brazil, Italy, Ethiopia, Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia. Rebecca Littman will be investigating the plight of child soldiers in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Senegal and Guinea in her project, “Victim and Perpetrator: Reintegrating the Former Child Soldier.” Congratulations to Cedric and Rebecca!

Some of our Masters of Liberal Studies students are spending their spring break on a research trip through some of the important sites of the civil rights movement in Alabama. I have heard already that this was a deeply moving and richly educational experience that complements the work done in the classroom.

Some of our undergraduates have made their way to Washington, D.C. to protest the war in Iraq on the fifth anniversary of the start of the conflict. American college campuses today often seem to feel immune from the fact that our country is fighting a war in the Middle East. Although we don’t always agree on political tactics or foreign policy frameworks, I am grateful to these Wesleyan activists for reminding all of us that a military conflict is being waged in our name.

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From Wesleyan to Broadway

Lin-Manuel MirandaWhat a great event! Wesleyan alum Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, In the Heights, is a triumph on Broadway!! This is a play that started out at Wesleyan and has now worked its way to rave reviews at the Richard Rodgers Theater. I can hardly wait to see what the critics are crowing about. Maybe before the end of spring break… For now, congratulations to Lin-Manuel, director Thomas Kail ’99, and the whole crew.

Check out some of the reviews:

New York Times
Los Angeles Times

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Social Justice Day

Matt Ball, the president of the Wesleyan Student Assembly, sent me a message about plans for Social Justice Day. Here is some of what he said:

Social Justice Day will be a collaboration of students, student groups, faculty and staff. Students can discuss issues that they are particularly passionate about, faculty members can hold a discussion on an issue outside their specialization, and staff members can present on an area of expertise that they don’t work with every day.

Social Justice Day should help build community at Wesleyan. To be sure, Wesleyan has a sense of community, but the unfortunate truth is that serious issues can become isolated within self-selecting groups. It’s very hard to expand the reach of your message, and it’s equally difficult to be introduced to concerns and debates in which you hadn’t an initial interest. Social Justice Day should also address the gap that can exist between students and faculty; collaboration outside the classroom is more rare than it should be, and faculty members should have a chance to discuss issues that might not immediately relate to their academic research.

Anyone can apply to put on an hour session in which they have a discussion, give a lecture, or do something else creative. Because they’ll all be organized together, there will be spillover from event to event, bringing in different people into different sessions in order to foster the kind of “message outreach” that we’d like to achieve. There will also be a lunch with a directed discussion, perhaps splitting into smaller groups to discuss different issues. The WSA has some funds to bring speakers to the event.

The website to apply is (http://www.wesleyan.edu/wsa/sjd/), and the deadline is this Friday, March 7th. The event will be held on Saturday, March 29th. Please apply!

This sounds like a great occasion to bring faculty, students and staff together around important issues. Check out the website for more information, and have a great spring break!

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Trustees and Themes for the Future

At the end of the past week the Wesleyan Trustees were on campus for their winter meeting. This is an exceptional group of volunteers (alumni and some parents) who have fiduciary responsibility for the university and a great ambition for its future. The most significant business for this meeting was a resolution to approve moving to the next design stage for the buildings in Molecular Biology, Biology, and Chemistry. The architects from Payette Associates gave a great presentation, and we have raised the money necessary to continue the design program. The trustees unanimously approved that we continue with the process.

There were many other topics for the committees to discuss. The Governance Committee evaluates how the board is currently operating and considers the possibility for new members. The Finance Committee approves budgets, and it monitors our long-term financial health. The Campus Affair Committee considers everything from academics to residential life, and this time it also reviewed some tenure cases that I had recommended to the board. The University Relations Committee discussed fund-raising plans, alumni engagement and our communications strategy. Trustees also have an opportunity to meet (formally and informally) with faculty and students. They work hard while here, and they are ambassadors for Wesleyan between meetings. A full list of board members can be found at: http://www.wesleyan.edu/administration/trustees.html

At the heart of the full board meeting was a discussion of some of the key ideas that have emerged from the faculty as we discuss strategic planning and curricular innovation. We want to ensure that Wesleyan continues to make a positive and lifelong contribution to the lives of our students and alumni; that we have an impact on higher education in the United States; and that the knowledge and skills of students, faculty, and alumni have a crucial role in productively shaping the culture of the future.

I’d asked the faculty to send in brief papers discussing how they would use more resources for academic innovation. We receive more than fifty papers, and here are the key themes:
1. Strengthening the Undergraduate Experience

How can Wesleyan be better appreciated as an institution in which undergraduates thrive in a context of freedom, mutual support, rigorous academic demands, and liberal learning with practical consequences?

I am asking the faculty to concentrate especially on strengthening the “Wesleyanish” aspects of the first and last years of a student’s career. Our focused freshman seminars are popular, and we are now exploring how to link them with one another and with co-curricular initiatives. I have asked the faculty to explore how we might institute a university-wide capstone experience, whether it be a thesis, a recital, a community project, or some other senior project that completes the on-campus work and launches our graduates into the world.

2. Internationalization

How can Wesleyan become a magnet for international students who want to excel through active learning, as we become a destination for students who want a cosmopolitan educational experience at a scale that promotes deep relations with teachers and fellow students?

There were two main areas in which we can strengthen our international efforts. The first concerns the curriculum and the second concerns the composition of the student body. We must work on both fronts.

3. Creative Campus

How can Wesleyan fulfill its legacy as a school that values creativity, rewards intelligent risk-taking, and produces graduates who go on to reshape the culture around them?

Wesleyan should build on its creative reputation and seed innovative energies across all the divisions. From promoting access to studio classes for all students, to encouraging entrepreneurship as a habit and a subject, we should be known as a magnet for creative students and as an incubator of exciting projects. Creativity should flow from the CFA across the campus to the new science facilities (and back again!).

4. College of the Environment

Decades ago Wesleyan founded COL and CSS as path-breaking interdisciplinary programs in the humanities and social sciences. Is it now time for the College of the Environment, which would bring together all three divisions?

One of the most exciting proposals called for the creation of a College of the Environment that would give students a focused and intense education about the complex issues associated with global environmental issues. A College of the Environment would have important connections with the new Life Sciences buildings and be a beacon for interdisciplinary study grounded in the sciences and extending to the social sciences, humanities, and arts.

5. Civic Engagement

Wesleyan has been known for its activist culture. How can we build on that culture to create learning opportunities that make a difference?

The Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life will facilitate students becoming more engaged in real-world problem solving. How can Wesleyan integrate these activities and its traditions of engagement into a distinctive learning environment? How can we build on them to make our institutional voice heard in the governmental arena and in international discussions concerning the future of the liberal arts? Wesleyan should become well known as a place for connecting the liberal arts with a broad spectrum of activities that shape the culture and economy of the future.

Over the next several weeks, we will be creating faculty task forces to examine these themes and proposals. In addition to these themes, we will be raising endowment funds to enhance financial aid, and to put the university in a position to finance a significant part of the new life sciences complex. What do you think of these general themes and specific projects? What do you think is missing? The trustees gave us plenty of input, but we need more. You can send comments to this blog, or directly to the trustees at:

The Board of Trustees
Wesleyan University
WesBox 91666
Middletown, CT 06459.

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Spiritual (and Intellectual) Life

Yesterday I met with a thoughtful and dedicated group of students, faculty and staff who had spent the last several months studying religious and spiritual life at Wesleyan. I had heard about the group even before I started my presidency, and I confess that I was taken by surprise. Wes has a reputation for, as the Princeton Guide puts it, being a great place ‘to ignore God on a regular basis,’ and I suppose I’d bought into that stereotype. But the task force painted a compelling picture of the diversity of religious practices on campus – from a vibrant Christian fellowship to Buddhist House, from an increasingly active Muslim prayer group to the Jewish students who gather for Shabbat. Although I did not think that we needed a Dean of Spiritual Affairs (an early suggestion that seemed only to increase our bureaucracy), I did recognize that religion was playing more of a role for our community than I had realized.

The task force members with whom I met yesterday had some very powerful recommendations for creating a campus climate in which religious practices can become more informed by different faith groups, and in which students of faith can be as open about their beliefs as other groups are about their own political and personal convictions. Although I pushed back a bit because of the institutionalized and theologically justified intolerance that does characterize some major faith groups, I certainly recognize the need for our campus to be open to religious and spiritual expression and practice. And although I don’t yet know how to create the required space, I can also see that we need places for practice that allow members of our community to explore their faiths in an appropriate context. I had started off the conversation thinking that the spiritual life of our campus was a great part of our diversity, and that all the administration had to was to ‘get out of the way.’ Alas, it’s not that simple. Some support could enrich our students’ experience. We’ll find it.

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One of the great delights of living on campus is that I get to hear some extraordinary writers and artists, scholars and scientists, discuss their work. Wesleyan’s Distinguished Writers Series is a wonderful part of our campus, but I have rarely been able to participate in the program. This week novelist and essayist André Aciman was on campus to give a public talk about writing, and also to meet with students and faculty in seminar format. Aciman writes beautifully on love and loss, on exile and the longing for home. It was my honor to introduce him (and get him to autograph my copy of Call Me By Your Name). Today, biochemist Craig Mello is on campus to talk about his research on RNA. Dr. Mello received the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2006 for his work with Andrew Fire on RNA’s ability to interfere with the production of the genetic material that a virus needs to reproduce itself. This important discovery has opened a crucial new domain of research in molecular biology, with great potential for practical application. This is perfect for a Wesleyan audience.

I’m so glad I’m still in school!!

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Wesleyan in Los Angeles

I’m on my way back from California, where the Film Studies faculty and I attended the great annual party at the Creative Artist Agency. Rick Nicita ’67 is one of the directors of this talent agency, and each year he throws a cocktail party at which a couple of hundred Wes alums can compare notes on their screenplays, TV pilots, cinematography, and the crazy business world that is Hollywood. I didn’t know about the event until I was appointed to the presidency, and now I’m told regularly how Wesleyan “runs the entertainment world.” That’s a slight exaggeration, but it is true that from heads of major studios to composers and Oscar winning writers, producers and directors, our little university has had a BIG impact on what we watch on the screen.

How did it happen that a small liberal arts school has managed to do this? The story has to start with Jeanine Basinger, who has built the program from scratch and turned it into one of the premier films studies departments in the country. Jeanine’s devotion to her students is legendary, and while she has taught effectively and built the program, she has also published a group of important books contributing to the history of American cinema. The department’s ethos of creative teamwork has led to the development of a network of caring and effective alumni. They help each other out, and they have confidence in the broad-based liberal arts education of Wes grads. The result is that the “Wesleyan Mafia” is the gold standard in Hollywood.

I was particularly delighted to see the great wave of affection that greeted Prof. Rich Slotkin, who is stepping down this term after more than 40 years of teaching Film and American Studies at Wes. The young film scholars Lisa Dombrowski and Scott Higgins rounded out the Middletown contingent, and recent alumni joined with more senior classes to greet us and ask for news of Wesleyan today. The talent, energy and loyalty of the alumni were truly impressive.

I shouldn’t, though, give the impression that our LA alumni are only found in the entertainment industry. Some have leadership positions in research and education, museums and the symphony, science, medicine and the business world. Of course, there are many who started in one sector and wound up in a totally different one. They are Wesleyan alumni after all!

People often ask me how “practical” it is to study the liberal arts. I’ll write more about that another time, but I got a powerful sense in the last few days of how a great group of our students have gone out to develop productive and creative careers that draw on their broad-based Wesleyan education. Los Angeles may be a long way from Middletown, but the liberal arts seeds planted in central Connecticut are indeed blooming in southern California.

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College Parents, Alumni Parents

This week I was in New York again for Wesleyan, but I spent more time than usual with what was for me a different facet of our community: parents. On Thursday night the mother and father of a current student welcomed a group to their Manhattan apartment. Once I stepped into their home, I knew it was going to be an exciting evening. In every room, on every wall, there was wonderfully interesting art to look at. Many of the pictures I recognized with pleasure from my years in California. The passion and thoughtfulness that one could see in the collection were manifest throughout the evening in conversations with all the parents who attended. Whether the subject was drinking on campus or the role of the liberal arts in our contemporary economy, the parents who attended had important insights to offer. Moreover, they were clearly enthusiastic about the experience of their students at Wesleyan. Of course, they also had suggestions concerning how we might still improve things. These are suggestions worth paying attention to!

On Friday I had lunch with a group of parents whose students graduated over the last several years. They had been very involved with the university while their sons and daughters were enrolled, and they are still interested in how where the university is progressing and how they can stay involved. Is it odd that they remain connected to Wesleyan now that their students are alumni, one wondered? I don’t think so. They became stakeholders of the institution through their children, and they remain positively connected on their own.

Much has been written about “helicopter parents” hovering over their adult children’s lives. I’ve already seen too many mothers and fathers stepping in for their students as “advocates” rather than allowing them to grow up and fend for themselves. And students are quick to call parents to get help on everything from food suggestions to advice on papers. How different this is from when I was a student, and we were urged to call weekly to check in from the pay phone in the hall!

But the involvement of parents is often a very positive thing, and I have seen how they frequently help their students get the most out of their undergraduate years. From issues in residential life to uncertainties concerning course selection, parents offer good counsel to their students, and they get involved in the life of the university. Wesleyan is a much better place because of intergenerational commitment, and I am hopeful that Wes parents will retain affection and loyalty to the institution as their daughters and sons become engaged in the university’s active alumni networks.

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Big Day

BIG DAY

Today was my first day of having open office hours, and I learned a lot. I talked with a reporter from the Argus, some representatives from the WSA, and three students who wanted me to understand why they thought chalking was an important part of Wesleyan’s political culture. All the conversations were helpful to me, and the students gave me plenty to think about.

The main reason I am posting tonight is just to remind the Wesleyan community to make your voices heard in the primaries tomorrow. Also, please note that you can follow the returns Tuesday night in good company at the Usdan University Center.

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Sounds of Early Semester

It was great to be back in the classroom this week, although the word “classroom” hardly does justice to the state-of-the-art facility that is the Goldsmith Family Cinema. I have taught “The Past on Film” for many years, but never with the support of a projection and sound system that makes the viewing experience as compelling as possible. There were about 250 students in attendance, and the film we watched (Night and Fog) was as intense as I remember it being the first time I saw it 35 years ago. The sound system is extraordinary, bringing the viewers deep into the work. The students made great comments and asked good questions. I am looking forward to Tuesday mornings! (And remember: open office hours for students February 4, between 4:00 pm and 5:30 pm. I’ll be scheduling this every other week afterwards.)

The Film Studies Department is one of the jewels of the university. The new facility and the archive are an enormous resource for the exploration of the movies, and each week a student board has chosen a group of films that are open to the entire campus. The choices are thoughtful, eclectic, and fun. I only wish I could go more often.

For generations, Wesleyan was known as the “Singing College of New England.” Apparently, students would burst into song whenever Mrs. Butterfield (whose husband Vic was president from 1942-1967) would enter a room. The musicality of our school remains vibrant. Professor Mark Slobin recently sent me an article recounting the development of world music and ethnomusicology at Wesleyan over the last 40 years or so. This week we welcomed a few hundred Connecticut area alumni on campus, and after I asked them to support our financial aid initiatives, we all joined in singing the old college songs. May the singing increase generosity for scholarships! A cappella groups on campus (there are many), sing with spirit and precision on all kinds of celebratory occasions. This week we had a celebration of Martin Luther King. After listening to talks Dr. King gave at Wes, Bernice Reagon (of Sweet Honey in the Rock fame) delivered a singing and talking lecture that filled the chapel with joyful, hopeful sounds. A group of women faculty and staff known as the Roadies led the group in a rousing spiritual.

But for me, the most powerful music I’ve heard thus far were when the Wesleyan Spirits, a group of young men who usually sing with infectious, antic joy, brought their music to the memorial service for Chase Parr. Chase herself was a singer, and the Spirits paid her tribute with dignity and love. I will long remember how their voices captured our community’s sorrow and affection in song, and how they transformed that sadness into something else – a music we could share.

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Full Swing

Although we are not quite through the first week of classes, it feels as though the Wesleyan campus is already in full swing. Over the weekend my daughter Sophie and I watched men’s basketball, women’s hockey, a large track meet and some swimming competitions. I heard the parties from a distance in the early morning hours, and I know somewhere CSSers are already writing papers. I haven’t even had my first class meeting (that’s tomorrow), and it seems like everybody is racing along with the winter break a fading memory.

On Thursday, January 31 many here will participate in Focus the Nation, a massive teach-in to draw attention to the various effects of global climate change. Many faculty will add modules to their classes concerning environmental issues, and there are several formal and informal discussions planned around campus. We want to promote the consciousness of the possibility of positive environmental change, something I think Wesleyan students will be particularly interested in. Check out a list of events at: http://www.wesleyan.edu/wsa/eon/ftn/

As I think about ‘possibilities of change,’ I can’t help but consider the upcoming primaries. This is the first time in many years that votes across the country will mean something in the presidential primaries. Young voters have played an important role in some states already, and this is a great time to get involved. Why not help stimulate voter turnout for the candidate of your choice? This is a powerful tool of local participation in a national process.

One of the great delights of the Wesleyan campus is the vibrant art scene produced by faculty, students and invited guests. On February 1 we are lucky to be hosting one of the great American string groups, the Turtle Island String Quartet. This week they are playing with Stefon Harris and focusing on the music of Duke Ellington. What a wonderful way to kick off a great series of concerts and recitals at the Center for the Arts!

I’m looking forward to meeting my students tomorrow morning to talk about film, philosophy and history. It will be a treat to step out of my administrative role for a few hours and return to the issues I’ve been teaching and writing about for many years. I’ll be having office hours for the class, but I’ve also decided to have open office hours for students. You can stop by February 4 between 4:00 pm and 5:30 pm, and I’ll be scheduling this every other week afterwards. I’ll make a more formal announcement on this soon.

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