Summer Planning

This past week we welcomed back to campus a group of distinguished alumni with experience running large organizations – both profit and not-for-profit. We were discussing some of the ways that the University has responded to the current economic crisis and our plans for strategic initiatives going forward. It was good to check in with people who care deeply about the future of alma mater, but who are not invested in the specifics of how we are operating today. In this way, we can gather helpful criticism and discover opportunities for further improving Wesleyan.

There were three main areas of discussion at this meeting. The first was focused on the distinctive aspects of the Wesleyan liberal arts experience and what Wesleyan stands for in American higher education. We talked at some length about how we characterize the university’s personality. Boldness, a desire for intellectual adventure, independence and the ability to be a self-starter….these were some of the qualities that our group thought had characterized the Wes students and alumni. We discussed the importance of Wesleyan’s science programs in advancing the school’s reputation for research and rigor, while also re-iterating how key our vibrant arts scene and efforts to enhance creativity have been.

The second topic that we talked about at some length concerned the economic model underpinning our programs. About 16% of the general budget comes from endowment support – a percentage far lower than many of our peer institutions. Our reliance on tuition revenue and on generous annual support from the Wes family has allowed us to maintain a high quality program, but we must become more efficient in our use of resources while building a stronger endowment over time. We talked at some length about this year’s successful efforts to balance the budget in the face of the economic crisis, and underscored the importance of building the long-term fiscal health of the institution.

The third topic on which we spent considerable time was communication. How are we keeping alumni, students, families, prospective students, faculty, and staff informed? Are there new technologies we should be using to allow members of our community to share work, ideas, and opportunities? Should we be phasing out some of our more traditional publication vehicles, or devoting fewer resources to them?

Effective communication will undoubtedly be crucial for making more and more people aware of the great work done by the Wes family. It will also be important for raising additional support during our fundraising push over the next several years. Some at our meeting asked what we would do with additional support, and I went through the seven areas that many readers of this blog will recognize from past postings.

1.    Enhancing Financial Aid. Promote access to Wesleyan by making it possible for students to attend regardless of their ability to pay.
2.    Investing in Science. Support researchers and the equipment they need even with the delays in building Molecular and Life Sciences complex.
3.    Enriching Undergrad Experience.  Review first and last years of the student’s experience. Support for “intellectual cross-training” through porous programs.
4.    Internationalization. Continue to make the curriculum more reflective of advances in global research and international cultural developments. Recruit more students from beyond the US.
5.    Creativity across the curriculum. Ensure that our reputation for attracting creative students is linked to a curriculum that enhances innovation.
6.    Civic engagement. Build on the tradition of activism at Wes to develop a curriculum that allows students to become more effective citizens.
7.    College of the Environment. Develop the new “linked-major” in environmental studies into one of our multi-disciplinary Colleges.

The combination of traditional strengths and new initiatives should help Wesleyan maintain our leadership position in progressive liberal arts education in the coming decades. Over the next several months we’ll be talking with students, faculty, alumni, trustees and staff to determine what we want “progressive” to mean in the future.  We will help ensure that “what Wesleyan stands for” in American higher education will be matched by the experience we provide our students on campus.

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The Old Normal

The crowds are gone, the tents are coming down in front of College Row, but there isn’t anyone dancing on the lawns. After a productive Board of Trustee Meeting, a boisterous series of Reunions, and a grand Commencement (sandwiched between thunderstorms), the campus is settling into its summer calm. This is, I hope, the last summer for which I can say that. Next year we hope to have at least a few hundred students here taking classes, but now it’s time to catch our breath and plan for the future.

I was sorry to be only able to catch glimpses from time to time of old friends from my student years at Wes. I was busy in the early part of the weekend listening to tales of Wesleyan traditions, meeting recent alumni and giving my share of toasts and speeches. Happily, there was plenty of great music to be heard, as is usually the case on our campus. Commencement was lovely, and I was especially moved by the speeches from our honorary doctorate recipients. You can hear them all at:

http://wesinthenews.blogs.wesleyan.edu/2009/05/24/commencement-ceremony-broadcast-online/

At our board meeting, some trustees spoke about finding the “new normal” in the wake of the financial crisis. That’s something we are already working on, but looking out the window now I see the “old normal” of Foss Hill partially eclipsed by the remaining party tent. Late spring at alma mater.

Hollywood goes Wes, Again

Many of you probably saw that the most popular movie at the box office this past weekend was Angels and Demons, which narrowly displaced the most popular movie from last week, Star Trek. But do you know what the two films have in common? Wesleyan alumni played major roles in writing both films, with Akiva Goldsman ’83 behind Angels and Demons, and Alex Kurtzman ’95 penning Star Trek. Akiva appears as a Vulcan council member in Alex’s film…

Maybe we can get Vanity Fair (http://roth.blogs.wesleyan.edu/2008/09/12/wesleyan-vanity-fair/) to do an update….

GO WES!

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Angels & Demons: Imagine Entertainment, Sony Pictures & Columbia
Pictures
Star Trek: Paramount Pictures, Bad Robot & Spyglass
Entertainment

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Towards Commencement

The last finals are winding up, and the campus is quieting down. It’s a beautiful day, but Foss Hill welcomes only a few clusters of students. Perhaps even the seniors have gone off for the weekend before the days leading up to Commencement.

Yesterday I received word that the New England Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association named John Raba, the Head Coach of Men’s Lacrosse, Division III Coach of the Year. A well deserved honor! This spring many of our athletic teams had very strong seasons, with Baseball beating out Amherst for a playoff spot, Softball making it to the finals of the NESCAC tournament, and Men’s Lacrosse winning the NESCAC Championship.

Last night the Justin-Jinich family joined with the Wesleyan community for a memorial celebration planned by Johanna’s closest friends. There were beautiful words, pictures and stirring music. A deep sadness settled over our Chapel, but an even deeper love poured from it.

For the next several days we will be sprucing up the campus and preparing for Commencement. Endings and beginnings — this is a time of completion and renewal. Let’s hope for another beautiful day.

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Turning Again

Today was a very emotional combination of extraordinary events and more routine planning. We are still reeling from Wednesday’s attack, but we are also able to walk freely in the spring sunshine, to resume studying and practicing….even though our feelings of sorrow, anger and bewilderment still make it hard to focus. We are returning to our lives. We are wounded, but we turn again.

I want to emphasize to the Wes community that there is plenty of support available on campus throughout the weekend. Our Class Deans (who have been so generous and thoughtful with their time) will be on call throughout the next few days. The Office of Behavioral Health Services is available 24/7. Call 860 685-2910 when the office is closed. Some of Johanna’s closest friends are planning a memorial celebration of her life for some time in the next week. More information on that will be coming soon. Everyone should know that because of our extension of finals into Friday, May 15, that Wesleyan housing will close on Saturday, May 16 at noon.

I spoke with Johanna’s uncle today, and he conveyed how appreciative the family is for the warm expressions of support from Wesleyan. I want to echo that appreciation again with all my heart.

This afternoon the Huss Courtyard behind Usdan was packed with staff, faculty, students and other Middletown residents as we stood in silence, stood in one another’s company, in honor of Johanna. I asked for peace in the context of our recollection. It was very moving to be together in our grief.

We return to the rhythms of our campus lives with the memory of our loss still very fresh. We turn again, and we remember. May Johanna’s memory be a blessing to us all.

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Tragedy and Security

As most readers of this blog will know, Wesleyan has suffered an unspeakable loss. Johanna Justin-Jinich was shot to death while at work at the Red and Black Cafe on the corner of William and High Streets. Police have reasons to believe that the alleged gunman, now identified as Stephen Morgan, had known the victim in the past. They also have evidence of his hostility to the Wesleyan community, and to Jews, as expressed in his personal writings.

We are in mourning, and our thoughts and prayers go out to Johanna’s friends and family. My office and our emergency team is also focused on keeping our community safe. We are working closely with the Middletown Police Department, and I am very grateful for their assistance.

Classes are over, and we have canceled all special events. We are deploying additional security and instructing students to remain indoors. We continue to re-assess the safety context with the help of appropriate authorities.

You can find security updates at: http://www.wesleyan.edu/newsrel/security

Below is a statement I released this morning.

A beloved member of our community has been brutally murdered. Our deepest sympathies and condolences go out to the family and friends of Johanna Justin-Jinich. This is a tragic time for them, and for all of us in the Wesleyan community. We are all deeply saddened and shocked by this event.

We are working closely with the Middletown Police. Since the suspect in yesterday’s fatal shooting has not been apprehended, Wesleyan has instructed all students to remain inside their residences and to remain vigilant. We have also asked faculty and staff not to come to their offices unless otherwise instructed.

The police investigation continues, and we remain in contact with them about all developments. We will send information via the usual channels as it becomes available. I assure you that we are doing all we can to ensure the safety of our students and campus.

Counseling services will continue to be made available to our students, faculty and staff. All of us grieve for the loss of Johanna Justin-Jinich.

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Wes Faculty: Scholars, Scientists, Artists…Mentors All!

As our semester winds to a close, and as students prepare experiments, performances, papers and presentations, I often see my faculty colleagues literally running across campus. They are racing to  lectures and seminars, committee meetings on the curriculum or the budget, or advisory meetings  with students. This last activity is often the most rewarding part of what they do as faculty at Wesleyan.

On Tuesday I taught my penultimate class for The Past On Film. We talked about a British film, Distant Voices, Still Lives, and I suggested to my rather skeptical group of undergraduates that this film offers a serious perspective on the painful construction of desire inside the modern family. After class,  I ran to the faculty meeting  where there were at least 100 professors eager to take part in a serious discussion of a possible summer session at Wesleyan for 2010. I marveled at their energy. The chemists, fresh from their labs, were focused on the educational and financial issues, as were the historians who had just finished their seminars. The artists and the social scientists, after working with students throughout the day, were eager to lend a hand in crafting an approach to a new program that would have educational integrity and be economically sustainable.

Recently I blogged about a poster session in which undergraduate science majors presented research that was sophisticated and professional. Last night I attended part of an event at the College of Letters where students presented brief summaries of their theses to their teachers and to sophomores and juniors. I’ll mention just a few examples to give a sense of the diversity of subjects. Chris Patalano wrote a novella and Benjamin Sachs-Hamilton translated and directed a play – both projects were grounded in premodern texts. Sofia Warner examined changing modes of psychiatric worldviews from the patient’s perspective.  Russell Perkins, whom I had gotten to know because of his important work on bringing classes into prisons, had his thesis on art and philosophy described to the audience by another senior, Jason Kavett (recent winner of Fulbright and DAAD scholarships). Russell returned the favor by providing an account of Jason’s thesis on romanticism.

As I walked home with Sophie, I marveled at how wonderful these projects were. And then I thought that each and every one of them – like all thesis projects at Wesleyan — – had been supervised individually by a faculty member. In conversation and in their presentations, students show that their theses are often labors of love as well as of worldly investigation and self-discovery. In each case they are guided by a faculty member who takes the time and care to help them along the way. Truly, these are labors of love!

There is a long tradition of this kind of faculty devotion at Wesleyan. While individual professional rewards are often given for other kinds of “production,” our entire community is the beneficiary of this ongoing, thoughtful generosity.  As we come to the end of the spring term, it is such a joyous experience to see our graduating students exemplify the creative intellectual virtues that their teachers also embody.

I still remember my feelings of anxiety and pride as I finished my own thesis here. As a student, I was profoundly grateful for the mentoring (and editing!) I received. As a teacher, I know how gratifying it is see these strong examples of mature, independent work. BRAVO!

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Science (and other things) to Cheer About

I had written most of this blog before last night’s fire in the Hall Atwater Chemistry Building. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries, and thanks to the dedicated work of the Fire Department, Public Safety and our Physical Plant staff, we are preparing for the re-occupancy of most of the building very soon. We are currently rescheduling classrooms. For more information about Hall-Atwater, check:

http://www.wesleyan.edu/registrar/HallAtwater.html

WesFest is over now, and it was a great weekend for introducing prospective students to the campus, the academics, and the special culture of Wesleyan. I described this as best I could each morning as I welcomed parents and their (recently accepted to Wes) students gathered in Beckham Hall. Our visitors acquired a more meaningful feel for the university from panels, from classes, from the vibe on Foss Hill as the spring sun finally arrived, and from the great music emanating from WestCo or even from interlopers on Andrus Field.

Courtesy of Olivia Bartlett
Mad Wow Disease – Foss Hill

Almost every time I go around showing the campus to others, I myself discover something about our school that deepens my appreciation of what goes on here. This weekend there were plenty of athletic contests to look in on. I watched tennis, track and lacrosse, and in each case the students put forth impressive efforts. This was no surprise to me because I’d met the coaches and many of the players already.  On Saturday I also discovered the dynamic wonder that is Nietzsch Factor, Wesleyan’s Ultimate Frisbee team. Peter Lubershane ’10 had let me know that the team had organized a multi-school tournament at the Long Lane fields. Even from my brief visit to the sidelines, I could see that Wes is a real powerhouse in this sport. And have athletes ever had more fun? I often talk about the exuberance of our students, and it was in full flower Saturday in that competition.

On Friday I stopped in at the Science Center and saw some student work displayed in the lobby. The students were holding a poster session on their research projects — from computer science to astronomy, from physics and earth science to neuroscience and mathematics.  I was struck by how conceptually sophisticated and empirically grounded the work was. In short, there was plenty to cheer about.

Jan Naegele introduced me to a few of her students, including Keith Tan ‘09, who gave me a fine description of his work on cell death. It seems that cell death is something at times to be encouraged, and Keith’s research explored some of the biochemistry that made the process possible.

Courtesy of Olivia Bartlett
Listening to Professor Naegele and Keith Tan ’09 @ the poster session

Hannah Sugarman ‘09 talked to me about her thesis research, through which she discovered more than a dozen new black holes in our “local universe.” Who knew? Certainly not I. The collaborative nature of the work across the sciences was especially impressive.  As I was I checking out the astronomy project of Anna Williams ’09, I noticed some printed papers appended to the poster board and asked about them. She cheerfully replied that she and some astronomy colleagues had already published some of the results in a scientific journal. It was the reprint that was hanging from the poster, and there are more publications to come!

Courtesy of Olivia Bartlett
Hannah Sugarman ’09 and Professor Laurel Appel

Scientific research at Wesleyan is one of the distinctive aspects of the university. Our students are not just spectators of science; they are active participants in it. Our small graduate programs allow our undergrads to establish working relationships with more experienced students while they continue to do research with faculty engaged with projects of international import. Wesleyan has shown for decades that a small liberal arts institution can contribute to advancing scientific fields. The poster session during WesFest underscored how vital that contribution continues to be.

All photos courtesy of Olivia Bartlett

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How to Choose a (our) University

I’ve just spent a day meeting with the presidents of the schools in our athletic conference (NESCAC): Amherst, Bates, Bowdoin, Colby, Connecticut, Hamilton, Middlebury, Trinity, Tufts, Williams. Fine schools every one. Although we all believe in the virtues of a well-rounded liberal arts education, we also each think that we offer this education in distinctive ways.  Often students who visit Wes on their campus tours have already seen or are on their way to see some of the other NESCAC schools.  Do the distinctions that are so important to the students, faculty and staff who are already part of the schools come through to visitors?

This question seems especially germane now when graduating high school seniors are trying to decide among the colleges to which they have been accepted. The thick envelopes (or weighty emails) arrived a couple of weeks ago, and the month of April is decision time. Of course, for many (especially this year) the decision will be made on an economic basis. Which school has given me the most generous financial aid package? Wesleyan is one of a small number of schools that admits students irrespective of their ability to pay, and which meets the full need of students, according to a formula developed over several years. There are some schools with larger endowments that can afford to be even more generous than Wes, but there are hundreds (thousands?) of others that are unable even to consider meeting financial need over four years of study.

After answering the question of which schools one can afford, how else does one decide where best to spend one’s college years? Of course, size matters.  Some students are looking for a large university in an urban setting where the city itself plays an important role in one’s education. In recent years, campuses in New York and Boston, for example, have become increasingly popular. But if one seeks out small classes and strong, personal relationships with faculty, then liberal arts schools, which pride themselves on providing cultural and social life on a residential campus, are especially compelling. You can be on a campus with a “human scale” and still have plenty of things to do. Wesleyan is somewhat larger than most of the liberal arts colleges, but much smaller than the urban or land grant universities. We feel that this gives our students the opportunity to have a broad curriculum and a variety of cultural activities on campus, while still being small enough to encourage regular, sustained relationships among faculty and students.

All the selective small liberal arts schools boast of having a faculty of teacher/scholars, of a commitment to research and interdisciplinarity, and of encouraging community and service. So what sets us apart from one another after taking into account size, location, and financial aid packages? What are students trying to see when they visit Amherst and Wesleyan, or Tufts and Middlebury?

Knowing that these schools all provide a high quality, broad and flexible curriculum with strong teaching, and that the students all have displayed great academic capacity, prospective students are trying to discern the personalities of each school. They are trying to imagine themselves on the campus, among the people they see, to get a feel for the chemistry of the place — and they wonder whether they will be happy in that particular context. Hundreds of visitors will be coming to Wesleyan this weekend for WesFest (our annual program for admitted students). They will go to classes and athletic contests, musical performances and parties. And they will ask themselves: Would I be happy at Wesleyan?

I hope our visitors get a sense of the personality of the school that I so admire and enjoy. I hope they feel the exuberance and ambition of our students, the intelligence and care of our faculty, the playful yet demanding qualities of our community. I hope our visitors can sense our commitment to creating diversity in which difference is embraced and not just tolerated, and for which public service can become part of one’s education and approach to life.

We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into (especially this year!). But even in the group of highly selective schools, Wes is not for everybody. We aspire to be a community committed to boldness as well as to rigor, to idealism as well as to effectiveness. Whether in the sciences, arts, humanities or social sciences, our faculty and students are dedicated to explorations that invite originality as well as collaboration. The celebration of senior theses completions at the library this week said a lot about who we are. We know how to work hard, but we also know how to enjoy the work we choose to do. That’s been magically appealing to me for more than 30 years. I bet the magic will strike many of our visitors, too.

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Small Class Initiative

Not long after becoming president I noticed that Wesleyan did not have as many small classes as I had expected given the close relationships between faculty and students that have always existed here. I had fond memories of a class I had taken in 1977-1978 on Hegel taught by Victor Gourevitch to just myself and two other hard-working undergraduates. And at the Center for Humanities I took a number of other small classes on topics that likewise wouldn’t have won any popularity contests. I always assumed that my own experience was not untypical and that many of my classmates also took courses with few enrollees. Of course, I also had fond memories of my larger classes, such as Nat Greene’s introduction to modern European History. These survey courses were engaging and informative in different ways, and the mix of small classes with the occasional large lecture class has always seemed to me to be the way to produce an especially stimulating educational experience.
At Wesleyan today there are still many classes with somewhere between ten and 20 students. Nevertheless, given the size of the student body and the number of classes we offer each term, I would have expected the percentage of seminars to be higher. Admittedly, small classes also create frustration for students when a certain topic or professor is very popular but the teaching style is built around a restricted enrollment. If too many of these sought-after classes are small, too many students don’t get the classes they most want. Thus, if we were simply to restrict the class size of existing courses, we would create significant course access issues for students. Better to add small classes to our existing offerings. Noting that several of our professors proposed each year to offer extra classes for the program in Graduate Liberal Studies for a modest stipend, I thought I might find interest among the faculty in teaching additional, small classes. However, in my second year as president we’ve been grappling with the economic crisis, and for a time it has seemed that my ideas about adding a group of seminars and other small classes would have to wait.

Happily, we have recently received a commitment for 1 million dollars over four years to proceed what we’re calling the “Small Class Initiative”. Beginning this coming fall, we will be able to divide some of our mid-size classes into two sections (each with fewer than 20 students) and to add small seminars (around 15 students) in a variety of fields. The instructional budget for these additional courses will be on a scale similar that of our current GLSP classes. We can now offer our faculty the opportunity to teach these extra classes, which in many cases can be tied to their current research. The idea is that many of those who volunteer for this kind of teaching will do so because the small research seminar will contribute to their own ongoing projects. Depending on the level of interest and the fields of participating faculty, we may also hire visitors to complement these offerings. The result will be an increased number of small classes available to Wesleyan students.

Some have wondered whether this is an attempt to increase the required teaching load among faculty. Not at all. It is very important for faculty teaching here to have significant time and support for their research. This research time is also a great benefit to students, who get to work with teachers who are actively advancing their fields. Students learn to shape the culture of the future themselves by working with teachers doing just that in their publications and performances. Adding a few dozen small classes (many tied to the research of faculty) should complement – not detract from – the research environment on campus.

A good thing all around, I think!

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