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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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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