Anticipation

This past week Wesleyan held a dinner in New York to celebrate the creation of the Zilkha Chair in the College of Social Studies. Professor Donald Moon, who has been inspiring students in Government and CSS for decades, will hold the chair. Don is a political theorist who has had a particular focus on community building and diversity, and he has contributed to recent efforts to develop a reformulation of liberalism. The Zilkha family has had three generations of students at Wesleyan, and their generosity contributes to our ability to continue to educate and challenge students interested in philosophy, history, economics and political science.

We celebrate great teaching through endowed chairs, and we also celebrate it with the Binswanger Prize. For almost 15 years we have received nominations from students and recent alumni to honor outstanding work in the classroom. The Binswanger family, too, has had generations of students here at Wesleyan, and with their help we pay homage to those who help create transformative experiences for our undergraduates. Lucidity and passion are among the qualities we look for, and you can learn more about the prize at: http://www.wesleyan.edu/alumni/binswanger/

I have been thinking a lot about teaching over the break between semesters, as I try to find time to prepare the course I am about to teach. Although I have given the class for many years, I find myself often in Wesleyan’s magnificent library to check out recent scholarship or older works on philosophy, film and history that I may have missed in the past. I see my faculty colleagues hard at work doing similar kinds of reading and research. Although I have been teaching for more than 25 years, at the beginning of each term I have butterflies of nervousness and excitement. The anticipation of working with our gifted and hard-working students is tremendous.

I am finishing this post as Martin Luther King Day comes to a close. Perhaps it is fitting to end with two quotes from Dr. King (Brainyquote.com). When reading them, I thought about the professors I’ve known here who continue their efforts with “painstaking excellence,” and who now probably share my anticipation (and butterflies).

All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.

The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education

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2008: Where Will You Stand?

Wesleyan has been a key part of the political education of students for generations. We embraced diversity and affirmative action long before the words “political correctness” became a slogan to defend bad habits. When I meet alumni who graduated in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there are still residues of the conflicts that raged on campus in those years. For some, those years opened up a lifetime of learning about and participating in politics. For others, those years made politics synonymous with manipulation, violence, and a destruction of community. When I was a student in the mid-1970s, issues connected with feminism, environmentalism, and anti-apartheid were the subject of much discussion on campus. Of course, we didn’t change the world. But we did learn more about it by engaging with some of its most pressing issues.

In the last week or so the landscape of presidential politics has gotten more uncertain, more interesting. We should be ready for months of debates on issues from the war in Iraq to health insurance, from global warming to unemployment rates. Political organizing – mobilizing activists and helping people get relevant information – will be an important part in the decision-making process, and I imagine that Wesleyan students will play a role in this process. Here are just a few examples of activities being planned on campus: Ashley Casale, a Wesleyan student who marched across the country last year to call attention to how we can work for peace, is organizing a group of speakers on the war in Iraq for early February. This is in preparation for a major protest in Washington, D.C., during spring break marking the five-year anniversary of the war. An organization of Republican students at Wesleyan will bring in speakers to illuminate national and international issues from a perspective they feel is too often lacking on our campus. On Jan. 31, many of the faculty and students will be participating in Focus the Nation, which creates a myriad of teaching opportunities concerning global warming.

There are plenty of local opportunities for civic engagement. The Center for Community Partnerships at Wesleyan is a great vehicle for finding out how to get involved in our community. Middletown is very receptive to having its student citizens participate in local political issues, and there are many areas where the university can make a positive contribution.

Eight years ago some of my activist friends told me they thought it didn’t make a difference what happened on the official political scene. They were wrong. In 2008, we have an opportunity to make a difference. Let’s not waste it.

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Recollecting, and Building the Future

Many students, parents and alumni have sent in their sympathies to the Wesleyan community and to the family of Chase Parr ’10, who was killed late last month in a car accident that also claimed the lives of her parents. Some of Chase’s friends will be working with the Dean of the College staff to prepare a memorial service in the new semester. A family member this week told me that Chase’s sister Katy is recovering well with a strong support network. Family friends in the Denver area have started a memorial website: http://johnsandychase.muchloved.com/. Our Wesleyan community deeply values recollection, and Chase’s impact on her friends and teachers has made her part of our common memory.

It’s a new year, the temperatures in Middletown are in the single digits, and I am in Texas to meet with alumni. Today I had lunch with Wes alum Herb Kelleher, a founder of Southwest Airlines and a legendary figure in American business. Herb was a member of the class of 1953, and he continues to value the liberal arts education (with a focus on English and philosophy) that he received at Wesleyan. I’d read a lot about Herb’s leadership skills and accomplishments, and I’d also heard much about him from a common friend in Los Angeles. This is a man who helped revolutionize the airline industry, who continues to show a concern for his now broadly national workforce, and who is as friendly and engaging as a person can be. I wanted to learn from Herb how you maintain and enhance the capacity of an organization to be innovative, to be able to seize opportunities and also to have fun working in teams. We talked of lifelong learning, of the culture of organizations, and of maintaining a clear sense of purpose in competitive environments. He told me about a book he was reading on chaos theory, and how some of the science classes he had at Wesleyan have been the most valuable to him over time.

We agreed that one of the most important attributes of a successful liberal arts education was the development of a capacity for judgment. In whatever position we find ourselves, we seldom have all the information we would like, but we have to make a decision or a choice. The habits of mind that develop in a liberal arts context often result in the mixture of focus and flexibility that allow for responsible, intelligent, and sometimes courageous judgment. At least that’s what we strive for.

In these first days of 2008 it is inspiring to meet with Wesleyan graduates who still use their liberal arts education every day, and who believe in its practical, transformative power. It’s our job to build a university today that will continue to be a vital resource to our alumni looking back on their education from, say, 2058. And as we look forward to building an institution for the future, we also recollect those who have been a vital part of our past.

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Reflections on Loss

Yesterday I sent the following message to all who have a Wesleyan email address:

It is with great sadness that I write to inform you that Chase Parr of the Class of 2010 was killed Saturday in a car accident in Wyoming that also claimed the lives of her parents, John Parr and Sandra Widener. The family, who lived in Denver, was en route to a family holiday celebration. Chase’s younger sister, Katy Parr, was seriously injured in the crash, though she is expected to recuperate fully.

This is a devastating loss. Our thoughts go out to Katy and to her extended family. As we receive information about ways members of the campus community can reach out in support of the family, we will keep you posted. We will plan a campus memorial service early in the spring term.

Throughout Colorado there have been commemorations of the Parr-Widener family and their many contributions to their community. Chase’s parents were civic leaders who had a long history of working to improve the Denver area. Chase, a student with a passion for social justice as well as for music and theater, was described by a friend as having “an attitude that whatever she was going to do she was going to change the world for the better.” The newspapers report that Katy is improving, and that it is hoped that she will be released from the hospital by the end of the week.

Wesleyan students and professors have already contacted me about contributing to the memorial for Chase. The Dean of the College’s Office will be communicating more information about this in the New Year.

These are holidays when we often bring our families close, and sometimes it is a time when we recollect those we have lost. May Chase’s memory and the memory of her parents be a blessing to Katy and to all who knew them.

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Continuing Education: Semester #1

My first semester is coming to an end, and as I watch the students make their way across the icy, exquisite terrain of Andrus Field, I find myself reflecting on how these first months of my presidency have developed. I have been listening to students and faculty, to staff and alumni, to trustees and parents, as they try to introduce me to the most pressing issues facing the university today. My second Wesleyan education, like my first, has started with a dramatic encounter with my own ignorance. What do I know about food prices in Usdan or the lines? What about access to courses that are popular but intimate? How can we have more students taking the seminar without spoiling it? How should we balance our immediate budget needs with the long-term health of the school that growing the endowment provides? How can we continue to promote advanced research in all departments while insisting on effective, creative teaching? These are just a few of the many questions I have yet to answer. … Of course, I am still trying to figure out how best to make this blog informative and honest.

By now, people who have read this blog or have heard me speak know that I am given to “thinking in threes.” So, as I think of my chief lessons from semester one, I focus on three main areas:

Access: Wesleyan announced a significant enhancement to our financial aid packages to begin in the fall. We want to ensure that students who are admitted will have the financial assistance they need to thrive here. Many families tell us, though, that we are not doing enough, and they can point to wealthier institutions that are doing more for families in higher income brackets than those to whom Wesleyan offers aid. These families are not poor enough to qualify for the highest support, nor are they rich enough to send students to expensive schools like ours without significant financial sacrifice. I am very aware of this dilemma, and for that reason I have put fundraising for financial aid among our highest priorities. As we increase the size of our endowment for financial aid, we will be able to further ease the financial burden on larger segments of the student body.

Access to Wesleyan isn’t only about financial aid. It is also important that we reach out to new constituencies of students—both in the U.S. and internationally—to introduce the liberal arts and Wesleyan to families from groups currently under-represented on our campus. Diversity is a shared value at our school, but segregation is also a fact of daily life for many on our campus. We must reach out to more groups of potential students, and we must also reach into the various communities at Wesleyan to find ways to connect people across the most obvious identity group barriers.

Communities: I have spent a fair amount of time moving among the various communities that make up the Wesleyan world—from swim meets to COL lectures; from Para la Familia to football games. I know there are plenty of groups I haven’t yet met, and I am looking forward to getting to know students by teaching next term. The multiplicity of groups is exciting, but it also creates challenges for bringing people together in shared purpose, study, even celebration. There are conflicts among our diverse groups over politics, economics, food, personal choices. But we should remember also what we have in common: a devotion to the freedom (and affection) in which education can thrive.

Achievement: I hope to improve access to Wesleyan as I work to strengthen our various communities and their common ties. Why? Because I believe that a Wesleyan education can foster one’s capacity to discover what one loves to do and to get better at it. I’ve seen this throughout my first semester here, as I watch students push themselves to achieve more than they ever thought possible. It is tremendously exciting to see our students shine as performers and scholars, as artists and athletes. Wesleyan students demand a great deal from their education because they give so much to it. I am so grateful to be working among you because it allows me to continue my own education.

Thank you for your patience and your support. Good luck with the remaining papers and exams, and HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

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Classes Are Over

In the final weeks of the semester, there is a frenzy of activity as students scramble to finish their papers, professors hunker down for grading, and the Connecticut climate settles into a chilly grey that for me brings back memories of my student days here.

I spent a few days in the past week visiting alumni in New York. At one meeting most of the participants graduated from Wes in the 1990s. They are now successful teachers and lawyers, not-for-profit administrators, and investment bankers. The early 1990s were a difficult time for Wesleyan, politically and economically. But the academics remained strong. The physical plant of the campus was deteriorating, but the faculty kept the standards of intellectual work very high. The students, at least as represented by the alumni who showed up for breakfast last week, formed intense friendships, encountered cultural diversity, and developed habits of mind and spirit that continue to inform their career and their lives. Like all Wesleyan alumni, they have great ambitions for our school—wanting it to be a leader in liberal arts education. From athletics to the sciences, from music to economics, these alumni want the university to be recognized for excellence. This must be our goal.

Over the weekend I was able to attend a great Wesleyan tradition, and, I trust, start a new one. I attended the extraordinary Worlds of Dance Concert on campus. At this event Wes students of all levels of expertise, and from a myriad of cultural traditions, perform in dances ranging from contemporary hip-hop to traditional Balinese. Outside the packed World Music Hall, spectators gaze in through the windows for a peek at these wonderful performers, cheering on their friends or just taking in the often-exquisite gestures and rhythms. The concert continued in Crowell, with a troupe of beginning jazz dancers (many of them athletes, or scientists, or econ majors) luxuriating in the motion and the music. For me, this tradition of dance at Wesleyan exemplifies our community of diversity and joyful accomplishment.

I had to leave the dance recital to head home for a holiday party of campus kids, with some friends from our daughter’s school added to the mix. Kari and I had about 50 children over at the house, and they made origami ornaments, ate cookies, and chased Mathilde, our lab. It feels like the holidays are almost upon us. Good luck with exams!

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Meetings and Dialogues

Presidents have lots of meetings. At Wesleyan my days are full of scheduled conversations with vice-presidents and deans informing me of ongoing plans, current crises, and budget issues. Students and parents request time to talk over some of the things the university is doing particularly well, or (more often) to discuss areas where we are falling short of expectations. This past week I had three (again three!) very different sorts of meetings that tell me a lot about Wesleyan.

Early in the week some senior administrators and I drove up to Amherst for Little Three meetings. Amherst, Williams and Wesleyan get together once each semester to compare notes on a handful of issues so that we can discover best practices and avoid the worst. There were some interesting exchanges about diversity work on each campus, and I took away the lesson that Wesleyan needs to engage in more serious planning about our goals in this area. How should diversity be part of our recruiting of students, faculty and staff? What is the status of the diversity dialogue on campus? Are we doing enough to ensure that our curriculum and our residential programs are teaching critical thinking about difference as well respect and affection for it? I know that we can do more to create a framework for planning in this area, and we will.

Other topics at the Little Three meeting ranged from library renovation to international students, from co-curricular programs to fund raising. My Wes colleagues and I left feeling especially good about our curriculum and residential learning. Although Williams and Amherst have a great advantage in financial resources, we felt we were using our faculty and student strength for interesting innovations.

Later in the week I had a very different “meeting” with the Wesleyan faculty of Division II – social sciences. The professors from this area gather every few weeks to hear a lecture over lunch, and I accepted the invitation some time ago. I decided to talk about the philosophy of Richard Rorty, who was my teacher at Princeton and a major influence on my work. It was exciting for me to give an academic talk to colleagues about the intersection of philosophy and politics, and I had fun discussing Rorty’s view that there was no longer any need for a “meta-discipline” (or an academic referee) to tell other intellectuals what counted as “real research” or “science” or “Truth.” Although there wasn’t much time, there was a spirited discussion about the future of philosophy after the demise of epistemology. It felt great to be among colleagues in dialogue about ideas.

Speaking of philosophy, the magazine Bookforum recently published my review of a new collection Sarah Kofman’s essays. Kofman was a key French feminist philosopher who wrote in especially powerful ways about Freud and Nietzsche.

Last night was my final meeting of the week, an hour with the Wesleyan Student Assembly. There were great questions about what kinds of students we should be recruiting, about how the campus community can be part of the planning process, about the juvenile Argus headlines, and about weirdness vs. political engagement. We didn’t reach consensus, but we did have a candid conversation that was lively, fun, and, I trust, informative. On this cold, icy night, students turned out who wanted to continue to improve the Wesleyan experience. That’s the best kind of meeting!

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More on Financial Aid for Students (and for a station!)

Some of the comments I’ve received on the blog and in person concern the limitations of Wesleyan’s initiative to reduce student indebtedness. Many wonder if we have created a financial aid paradigm that will result in entering classes of wealthy students and poor students (whose tuition is paid through grants). What happens, many ask, to middle-class families who can’t afford the tuition but don’t qualify for robust aid?This is a question we ask ourselves all the time. And the issue has led us to reduce student loan requirements for all who qualify for aid. A third of our aid recipients are from families earning more than $100k a year, and almost a quarter from families earning more than $125k annually. Like many of the most selective private colleges and universities in the United States, Wesleyan has chosen to focus its aid on need rather than to reallocate financial aid for merit scholarships. There is no reason to assume that merit scholarships would disproportionately aid students from middle-income households. In any case, can our school do more to identify real financial need among middle-class families? I bet we can, and that’s why we regularly review our financial aid allocations and formulae. In order to remain truly need blind, we must be sensitive to the variety of sacrifices families must make to send their students to Wesleyan. And our fundraising is focused on bringing more resources to support a creative use of grants to support middle-class and low-income families.Our recent initiative to reduce student indebtedness is, I realize, only one step in our efforts to enhance financial aid. With the generous support of the Wesleyan community, I am confident that we will be able to make further strides to reduce financial pressures on the significant percentage of our student body who need financial assistance to thrive here.————————————————————-Every morning I wake up to NPR on Wesleyan’s radio station, WESU (88.1 or WESUfm.org). In the afternoons there are engaging public affairs shows, with creative music programming in the evenings and on weekends. Now is the time to support the station’s pledge drive, and here’s how (courtesy of Jesse Sommer ’05):“WESU has really blossomed over the last three years. In that time, station members introduced Internet broadcasting, created a public affairs department, founded a nonprofit booster club, began publishing WESU Magazine, developed a regimented DJ training program, built new studios, initiated annual fundraisers, and fully upgraded the station’s technology. And WESU is still Wesleyan University’s largest student organization and most vibrant partnership with Middletown. The broadcast schedule now boasts a record 140 inhouse programs, including free-form music and local public affairs shows. Call our donation hotline at 860/687-7700, or donate online at www.wesufm.org

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Thanksgiving and The First Taste of Snow

This past weekend Wesleyan’s Board of Trustees was in town for its first full meeting of the academic year. The Board is a devoted group of alumni and parent volunteers whose role it is to ensure the long-term health of the university. Some have been connected to Wesleyan for more than forty years; a few others are recent graduates. They meet with faculty and students, and they take on some issues facing the school: from fund raising to faculty welfare, from facilities to the quality of the student experience. In addition to the regular business of the Board, this time we also joined in signing the Campus Climate Commitment, which was a topic of many comments on an earlier issue of this blog. The Trustee Chair and I also met with a very thoughtful student group that is urging the university to divest from companies that manufacture weapons. We will be organizing substantial discussions of this issue with students and trustees later this semester.

During the formal board meeting, we’ve added time for an open discussion of an issue of general importance for the university. At this meeting we focused on Recruiting for and Admission to Wesleyan. We discussed at some length what kinds of students would really thrive here. What should Wesleyan be looking for as we recruit our next classes? Based on input from trustees prior to the meeting, we identified five broad categories: Intelligence, Demonstrated Achievement, Independence, Character, and Diversity. There were few surprises, really, but we benefited from a frank discussion of the personality of our campus community, how it is perceived, and how it is evolving. Words like “intensity,” “resilience,” and “experimental” came up often, and so did qualities like adventurousness, and a passionate engagement with ideas. My conclusion: Wesleyan students should have the courage to use their talents and intelligence to lead meaningful lives and contribute to the world.

After the Trustee meetings, we had the great pleasure of seeing the faculty-student production of Oedipus Rex. The play, directed by Theater professor Yuriy Kordonskiy, was staged with intensity and wit. The student actors brought out the political dimensions in their performance (Oedipus Tyrannus!) as well as the psychologically crushing confrontation of ambition and fate. Bravo!

Students in this shortened week have been taking exams, finishing papers, while faculty have been grading and preparing for the final push of the semester. Winter athletics is now underway, and I had great pleasure of watching our men and women swim against Amherst on Monday. Although we did not prevail against our Little Three opponent, we offered tenacious competition, and some races were downright thrilling. I was proud to see our swimmers and divers striving for excellence, and in the process they pushed themselves beyond what they had thought they could attain. Another Bravo!

The campus is beginning to empty out, as students head off to Thanksgiving celebrations around the country, and staff members take some vacation days to prepare their own feasts. The weather now feels like the New England autumns I remember. Yesterday we had our first light snow of the season, and my daughter Sophie ran outside with glee to catch a few flakes on her tongue. “This move to the East Coast isn’t so bad after all,” she smiled. As my family gathers at our new home at Wesleyan, I know we have much to be thankful for.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

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Questions and Conversations: Past and Present

Yesterday I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Cecilia Miller’s class on European Intellectual History from the Ancient Greeks through the Renaissance. Professor Miller asked me to talk about how I became an intellectual historian myself, and the students (ranging from frosh through senior theses writers) read a few of my essays on history and memory. As I spoke with the students about my scholarly interests, I kept coming back to my own undergraduate Wesleyan education. My first book (Psychoanalysis as History: Negation and Freedom in Freud) was based on my senior thesis here, and my second book (Knowing and History: Appropriations of Hegel in 20th Century France) certainly came out of the work I did at Wesleyan on Hegel. My subsequent research and publications also were linked to the intellectual and political concerns that I began to develop at Wesleyan. My autobiographical reflections as an intellectual historian turned out to be reflections on the education we offer here.

The students in Prof. Miller’s class were awfully impressive. They asked good, probing questions about the links among my works, and about some central concepts I use (but perhaps don’t develop adequately!). I realized that I should have left more time for discussion because these were very able young men and women who had read some of my work with important critical insights. For example, in my introduction to a book called The Ironist’s Cage: Memory, Trauma and the Construction of History, I use the concept of “piety” to describe a vehicle for moving beyond ironic cultural criticism. Although I wrote this essay twenty years ago, I still need to develop that concept further. The students, bless their hearts, pointed this out. Teacher, you must keep learning!

On a very different, but equally impressive, level, this past week I met with a student group against the war in Iraq. Following on a resolution passed last spring by the Wesleyan Student Assembly, they are asking that the University divest from its holdings in two companies that make weapons used in the current conflict. If the university is going to be a socially responsible investor, they argue, it cannot maintain its holdings in these companies. The arguments of the students were thoughtful and well informed. Furthermore, they had gathered significant support from others on campus through a petition drive. As I listened to their presentation, I recalled my own student days when we urged Wesleyan to divest from companies doing business with South Africa. The students today, I thought, are better prepared than I remember being.

Wesleyan has the good fortune to have a Board of Trustees that listens to the views of students and faculty, and this committee will have a chance to make its case. I look forward to a productive conversation about these important matters with students, board members, and faculty. I told the students that I could not predict the conclusion of these conversations, but I could ensure that there would be a reasonable presentation of Wesleyan’s position after all the arguments were heard. Stay tuned.

Whatever one’s position on the war in Iraq, I think the Wesleyan community can be proud that we are offering support for returning veterans. Too often in our history, veterans have been badly neglected by the country they were asked to serve. In recent years few have had the opportunity to benefit from a first-rate liberal arts education. To address this, two of our alumni—Frank Sica ’73 and Jonathan Soros ’92—have generously contributed funds to secure scholarships at Wesleyan for those who have served in some branch of the military. This is an important signal of support for these men and women, and it will add to the real diversity of the Wesleyan campus. You can read about the specifics of this program at:
http://www.wesleyan.edu/cgi-bin/cdf_manager/template_renderer.cgi?item=58325

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