It has been an eventful week, and there are many things that were striking about my experiences of Wesleyan since my last posting. I have had a range of contacts with staff, students, faculty, and alumni over the past seven days, and the experience brings home to me some of the challenges in being president of this great university.
Just a couple of weeks ago, we were celebrating the opening of the university center, and this week I find myself listening to students who feel that it isn’t meeting their needs in the ways they expect. Some of this, I am told, is part of the beginning of each academic year. There are lines at certain times of day; some people don’t feel they are getting the choices they want. A part of this, I can see, is working with a new food vendor who is also trying to adjust to the Wesleyan context. I take the students’ concerns and the parents’ concerns very seriously. I want us to be offering quality food at affordable prices, and I will make sure we are doing so. I also have to ensure we are getting the input we need from students, from workers at the facility, and from staff so that we make the most helpful adjustments. The Wesleyan community should know that we have a labor code that describes our community standards for fair treatment of those who work on campus. We will abide by this code, and we will monitor our compliance. Still, I doubt that we will be able to satisfy everyone, because we are a community with diverse needs, tastes, and expectations. We will, however, listen to all suggestions as to how we can do a better job for our students in a context that treats all employees and customers fairly.
In the middle of this week I was in Boston for meetings with our Science Advisory Council and with parents and alumni. The SAC meeting was at the Cambridge offices of Vertex, a biotechnology company founded by Joshua Boger ’73. Josh is on Wesleyan’s board of trustees, and he is a great supporter of the institution. He majored in chemistry and philosophy (!) while here, and has gone on to become a pioneer in the development of new drugs for viral diseases, including HIV, cancer, pain, and inflammation. The discussion centered on the quality of scientific research at Wesleyan and on how we can enhance it. We were very lucky to have input from Geoff Duyk ’80, who helped us think more clearly and precisely about our needs and goals. A key component of our efforts will be to connect research in the sciences to other aspects of the curriculum. When we talk about scientific literacy at Wesleyan, we mean learning habits of thinking, investigation, and evaluation that work in fields seemingly quite distant from biology and chemistry. Another crucial aspect of our work with the SAC is the planning and construction of a major new facility for the life sciences. We saw some very exciting plans at this meeting, and I am sure to be writing about this project in subsequent postings.
The meeting with a small group of Boston parents and alumni was very interesting. It was hosted by Tim Dibble ’86, the son of a beloved Wesleyan faculty member. The conversation was very engaging, and I heard from graduates from the 1950s and the most recent decade. What did they have in common? The first thing was the strong commitment to financial aid at Wesleyan. We must keep the university accessible to people from all social classes. The second thing was the importance of faculty-student relations at Wesleyan. People spoke movingly about how professors made a powerful difference in their lives, inside and outside the classroom. We also spoke about how the relationships formed at Wesleyan continued to be our networks later in life, and about the importance of our school remaining a culture in which accidental encounters can lead to lifelong friendships. I left the meeting reinvigorated about Wesleyan’s potential.
After the meeting I spent an hour or so with Bill Belichick ’75, the coach of the New England Patriots. We talked about the difficulty of getting a team to play together, to have the combination of discipline and passion that makes for the most satisfying experience, that makes for performance at the highest level. Coach Belichick emphasized practice and preparation, the goal of improving each time you work on a specific task. As we drove back to Middletown, I started to think about some of the ways I might work at becoming a more effective president, starting with listening more closely to students and faculty.
I wish all our teams the best in this weekend’s contests. Tomorrow is Wesleyan’s opening football game, but I won’t be there to watch very much of it. Tonight begins Yom Kippur, a day that in my tradition calls for reflection, repentance, and a renewal of possibility. In retrospect, “the renewal of possibility” may be the theme of this past week. May it last!