Africa in New York

I spent a few days in New York this week to visit with parents and alumni. On Wednesday I attended a great reception that brought together current students, trustees and alumni all of whom had a strong connection to Africa and the Caribbean. Co-hosted by Chair Emeritus Steve Pfeiffer ’69 and Wesleyan Trustee Mora McLean ’77, there were people from Jamaica, Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria – to name just a few of the countries represented. There were teachers and doctors, humanitarian workers and investment bankers. A group of current students came down from Wesleyan, and with them I discovered an intense connection between Africa and our chemistry department. We shared stories of how people got connected to Wes in the first place, as well as our plans for future internationalization. Afro pop, an amazing archive of African music led by a group of our alumni, provided the soundtrack for the reception, and Sonia Manjon told me that the party continued until somebody at the law firm turned the lights out.

It was great to be reminded in this time of economic contraction and budget cutting that Wesleyan’s reach across the globe remains strong. We intend to make it even stronger by raising funds for additional scholarships for African students. I’m grateful to Lagu Androga ’07, Chinelo Dike ’00, and Miriti Murungi ’99 for making this happen, and I look forward to seeing Wesleyan deepen its interconnections with Africa!

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Winter’s Spring Attractions

Although the temperature was below 20 degrees this morning when I walked to my office, what we call the spring semester is now fully underway. The campus is still blanketed in white, but the icy New England weather makes the snowy landscape deceptively slippery.

One of the most exciting bits of news we had over break was the extraordinary number of applications we’ve received for next year. More than 10,000 students have asked for a place in the class of 2013, a surge of well over 20% from last year. As many of you know, our Early Decision Applications were up over 30%, and we’ve now learned than most of our peer institutions are not seeing anything like this spike in interest. It’s a lot more work for the tireless group in the Admissions Office, but the fact that more and more people are hearing about the great things going on at Wesleyan is very good news indeed.

As I look around at the amazing array of courses offered this term, I can well understand why so many want a crack at a Wesleyan education. Here are just a few examples I’ve taken from the catalogue:

The 60s: Henry Abelove
This course will focus on the 1960’s in the United States. Topics to be considered will include: the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the Goldwater conservative movement, gay liberation, second-wave feminism, pop art, the New York School poets, Judson School dance, the new journalism, tendencies and developments within American Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism, student movements, the Black Power movement, the rise of Asian American and Latino/a cultural nationalisms, electoral politics, environmentalism, Phyllis Schlafly and the Eagle Forum, the Cuban missile crisis, the counter-culture.

Developmental Neurobiology: Jan Naegele
Near the top of the list of unsolved mysteries in biology is the enigma of how the brain constructs itself. Here is an organ that can make us feel happy, sad, amused, and in love. It responds to light, touch, and sound; it learns; it organizes movements; it controls bodily functions. An understanding of how this structure is constructed during embryonic and postnatal development has begun to emerge from molecular-genetic, cellular, and physiological studies. In this course, we will discuss some of the important events in building the brain and explore the role of genes and the environment in shaping the brain. With each topic in this journey, we will ask what the roles of genes and the environment are in forming the nervous system. We will also discuss developmental disorders resulting from developmental processes that have gone astray.

Zombies as Other from Haiti to Hollywood: Liza McAlister
The Afro-Creole religion of the Haitian majority is a complex system of inherited roles and rituals that Afro-Creole people remembered and created during and after plantation slavery. Called “serving the spirits,” or “Vodou,” this religion and cultural system continues as a spiritual method and family obligation in Haiti and its diaspora, and draws constantly on new symbols and ideas. A small part of Vodou mythology involves the zonbi: a part of the soul captured and forced to work. Vodou, and especially the zonbi, has also captured the imagination of Hollywood and television, and the entertainment industry has produced numerous films and television episodes, and now computer games, with “Zombie” themes. …What constitutes the thought and practice of Haitian zonbi? How is the Zombie represented in American media?…

Of course, I could list dozens of other classes from various parts of the curriculum that I would love to take, or others that are rather intimidating.  From the most traditional to the most experimental, you can find it all. I make my own small contribution to this list. After giving a seminar on photography and philosophy in the fall, this term I have my large class, The Past on Film.

A small selection of classes and lectures from Wesleyan can now be found on iTunes. If you look at the iTunes University section of the store, you can search for Wesleyan and see our first group of lectures (all free downloads). We are adding more regularly, so please check back often.

Before long on iTunes and on Wesleyan’s YouTube site you will also be able to find many student performances featured along with faculty presentations. There are auditions going on almost every night on campus at the beginning of the semester. Dance, music and theater are gearing up for performances that will be perfected before finals week. Much to look forward to as winter turns to spring!

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Ives, Ives, Ives!

When Wesleyan’s Professor of Music Neely Bruce told me about his plan to perform all 185 songs of Charles Ives over the last weekend of January 09, I thought he was kidding. Silly me. Neely Bruce doesn’t kid about music, unless, that is, the music calls for a wink and a grin.

Today through Sunday Neely and and a fine group of musicians and scholars will be exploring the vocal works of Charles Ives, that enigmatic yet quintessentially American composer. Ives seemed afraid of nothing in the world of sound, and he drew on it all to make challenging, delightful and thoughtful song. Tonight, Thursday January 29 at 8:00 pm in the Chapel, Kyle Gann will give the keynote address: “Must a Song Always be a Song?”

Much music will be made through Sunday. Check out the website: http://www.ivesvocalmarathon.com/

Sing! Sing! Sing!

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Senator Michael Bennet ’87: Pragmatist with Vision

Michael Bennet ’87 was recently sworn in as the United States Senator from Colorado, the seventh Wesleyan alumnus to serve as a United States Senator. I’ve only met Michael briefly through his father Doug, just as Doug was finishing his very successful tenure as Wesleyan’s 15th president. Reading about Michael Bennet’s career this week, I am struck by how he exemplifies so many of the virtues and values we hope to impart to our graduates.

After Wesleyan, where he majored in History and graduated with Honors and Phi Beta Kappa, Michael went onto Yale Law School and a position in the Justice Department during the Clinton Administration. He then went into the business world, working for Philip Anschutz’s investment firm in Colorado. Learning on the job, he had real success turning around distressed companies, but eventually he went back into public service. The first stop was chief of staff for Denver’s mayor John Hickenlooper, a Wesleyan grad (and microbrewery entrepreneur from the class of ’74 !) Bennet then became superintendent of the Denver School system, where he was able to implement changes that have resulted in a surge in enrollment and test scores in the city.

I expect that Michael Bennet’s pragmatic approach to problem solving and long term investments in education will serve his state and our country well. I wish him well in Washington, and hope to see the red and black on the Senate floor!

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Dear Mr. President…

I sent the following letter to our 44th President a few days ago.

Dear President Obama,

I write just a few days before your Inauguration to send you my congratulations, best wishes, and deep hopes as you begin your tenure as president. The impact of your Commencement Address at Wesleyan University in the spring still echoes on our campus, and although we know that college students everywhere identify with your message of hope and change, we at Wesleyan feel a special kinship with you.

In a recent video communication you call on Americans to step forward in service to our communities, our regions and our country. This is a call that resonates powerfully with the Wesleyan family. For generations our students, faculty and alumni have connected their education with making a positive contribution to the world around us. We have long believed in the power of a liberal arts education to help one not only to live a more reflective and considered life as an individual, but to enable one to engage with one’s community in an effective and generous way.

In response to your call Wesleyan will strive to reinvigorate the public service dimensions of the education we offer. You have inspired us to find “our moon, our levee, our dream,” and we will set our goals and work together to accomplish them.

From the same marble terrace from which you delivered your Commencement Address, Martin Luther King Jr. told our students that “the arc of history bends toward justice.” Like you, he knew that we must join forces to realize the potential for justice in our country, in our history. Mr. President, I pledge that we at Wesleyan will do everything we can to help you in this endeavor.

Congratulations on your inauguration. With your leadership and our joint service we can make substantial progress in achieving our goals.

Yours sincerely,

Michael S. Roth
President

Congratualtions, Mr. President

click photo to enlarge

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Year’s End….. Looking Ahead

As we close out 2008 I find myself still dealing with ongoing projects from the fall while putting things in place for the beginning of next semester. Almost finished with my grading of my class on photography and representation, I am spending more time finalizing my syllabus for my spring course on movies and philosophy, The Past on Film. Although I have taught this class many times over the years (and as recently as last spring), I can’t help but rethink the readings and movies one more time.

As a historian interested in how people make sense of the past, I began teaching and writing about film and photography more than 15 years ago. In December I wrote a review for the LA Times on Annie Liebovitz’s most recent book:

http://www.latimes.com/features/books/la-ca-annie-leibovitz21-2008dec21,0,6719282.story

Working with the photography collection in our Davison Art Center was a great treat this past semester, and I am looking forward to teaching again in our state of the art film facility. But first I have to finish this syllabus!

Once faculty and students return to campus we will resume work on our budget planning and curricular initiatives. There will be more difficult trade-offs, as we chart a course to keep Wesleyan on track during this economic crisis and beyond. I will continue to share information about the planning process on this blog and the Securing the Future website.

Maintaining access to a Wesleyan education through a robust financial aid program is an important value that guides our planning. Recently the political scientist Charles Murray has argued that we are encouraging too many people to pursue a college education. Yesterday I published on the Huffington Post a response to a recent op-ed piece by Dr. Murray:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-roth/no-time-to-back-away-from_b_154023.html

It is still very quiet here at Wesleyan, but now varsity athletes have returned for practices before next week’s tournaments. Before too long the campus will be fully back to life. Meanwhile, I send out best wishes to the extended Wesleyan family for a great 2009.

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Snowy Campus for the Holidays

Most of the students have left campus, which in the last days has been beautifully blanketed in snow. Foss Hill has become the center of sledding in Middletown, though Sophie and her friend Claire tell me that you get more “air time” on the terraced steps behind Olin.

Wishing you a wonderful holiday season and a great 2009!!

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Consultations, Finals Prep, Early Decision

Over the last week of semester I’ve been meeting with different groups about our plans to deal with the impact of the economic crisis. (see: http://www.wesleyan.edu/administration/securingthefuture/ )

When I returned from California I had a long discussion with the Wesleyan Student Assembly. They had many good questions concerning the proposal I brought to the Board on how we would balance the budget over the next several years while continuing to protect and cultivate the core educational experience we offer. Although we talked about a variety of issues, the students returned frequently to whether we could successfully integrate an additional 30 students a year for four years. How much pressure would this put on our housing and dining facilities? How would it affect class access and the admissions process? These are all important questions, and we are drawing up plans in each of these areas to determine how we can temporarily accommodate an increase of about 4% to our student body.

Some commentators among trustees, students and faculty are reminded of the very rapid enrollment growth at Wesleyan in the 1970s, when the school more than doubled in size. I should make clear that we are studying a measured increase of only 4%, and we have no plans to go beyond that.

In the beginning of the week I met with faculty representatives and then with the faculty as whole. While I was traveling, there was considerable discussion online about the proposed salary freeze, the enrollment increase, and on whether there has been adequate consultation. Our face-to-face meetings turned out to be very productive. I underscored that the scenario I outlined to the board was a draft that we are open to revising – as long as we meet our budget obligations. There has been and will continue to be detailed consultation. The faculty members are clearly invested in working together to find a solution that will provide for the long-term health of the institution. Our professors take their responsibility to guide the university very seriously, and they are willing to join in making sacrifices as long as these will contribute to setting Wesleyan on a path to greater academic and economic strength. There are difficult trade-offs ahead of us, but I was reminded of how fortunate we are to have a faculty so devoted to our community.

At the end of the week I met with the senior administrative staff, to present these institutional leaders a sense of the economic challenges ahead. They, too, asked questions about potential enrollment increases, and about the possibility of a salary freeze. We are agreed on the importance of protecting jobs even as we become more efficient across the variety of departments. I made it clear that a potential salary freeze would start at the top – with me and with my Cabinet. But it is also important to recognize that those with the most modest pay are those likely to feel these changes most acutely. It’s for that reason we are exploring ways to mitigate the effects of any salary freeze on our most vulnerable employees.

While I meet with various stakeholders about the budget, most of the people around me are preparing for finals or grading them. Many students are putting the finishing touches on papers, performances and experiments, while others are up late cramming for those big exams. There is plenty of pressure, but we all know the holiday break is fast approaching.

While our students and teachers are finishing their work for this semester, lots of high school seniors are opening envelopes telling them that they will be starting their undergraduate education in Middletown next fall. The first round of Early Decision is complete, and our Admissions Office reports that the great surge in applications (over 35%) also resulted in an extremely talented pool.  I very much look forward to welcoming these first members of the class of ‘13 into the Wesleyan family!

Good luck with the final push, and HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!

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WESU from the West Coast

I write this post from Los Angeles, where I have been visiting with alumni and other members of the Wesleyan family. When I’m on the road, I often listen online to WESU, our wonderfully creative and original radio station. Not only does WESU bring us international, national and local news from perspectives we otherwise might not hear, they offer genuine community-based radio. I am grateful to station manager Benjamin Michael and the volunteers who keep WESU a vital source for radio that makes a difference in Central Connecticut.

 

Anna Gevalt ’09 performing at WESU
Anna Gevalt ’09 performing at WESU

Like all community-based radio, WESU depends on our support. Through December 14 the station is holding a pledge drive. To show your support for WESU, donate online at www.WESUFM.org or call 860-685-7700 during the drive and make a pledge. Premiums will be offered for donations of $20 and above. I just called in my pledge. Won’t you please help?

Last night I was asking for help when I met with more than 200 alumni in Los Angeles. I’ve been talking with writers and editors, teachers and musicians, producers, doctors and yoga instructors. It is a difficult time to ask for support. Many of the people I’ve met here are frightened by the financial turmoil and concerned for their livelihood. All agreed that we are in the midst of the most serious financial crisis in generations. Still, the loyal Wesleyan community members with whom I am meeting are eager to hear about what’s happening on campus and willing to lend their financial and moral support. It is especially gratifying to see this expression of generosity during these challenging times.

After a quick stop to meet with our San Diego alumni group, I am heading back to Middletown. It’s always great to be back in California, but I am eager to return to campus for this weekend’s production of The Threepenny Opera and the other end of semester events.

I’ll also be meeting with student, faculty and staff groups to discuss our budget proposals. We still have a couple of months before presenting our next draft budget to the Board in February, and I am eager to hear new ideas on how we can deal with the substantial fiscal challenges ahead of us. The proposals that I shared with the Wesleyan community represent one scenario to deal with these challenges. We will continue to develop these ideas with input and imagination. Input and imagination – just like WESU!

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