Veterans Day and Open House

It’s Veterans Day, and at Wesleyan that will mean many visitors flocking to campus to check out the university. High School juniors and seniors, transfer students and their families will be coming to Middletown to check out the distinctive constellation of qualities that make our school so special. I know our students, faculty and staff are ready to share their thoughts on what it means to be a Wes student today, or simply to show visitors where to get a good sandwich or the best cup of coffee.

This should also be a day when we remember the service of our veterans — the men and women who have defended the freedoms that the rest of us often take for granted. It is especially important to acknowledge this service while we are mired in an unpopular (and often invisible) war. At Wesleyan we are fortunate to have alumni who have created a scholarship for returning veterans, and we hope to be able to attract more applications from those who have served. At our Open House today I will be joined by two of our current veteran scholarship recipients, and it will be an honor to stand beside them to represent Wesleyan.

Thousands of our alumni and parents have been checking out reports of our election day celebrations on campus last week. Let’s also remember that the service of our vets have made it possible for us to have elections and to celebrate in peace.

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Hope and Purpose

Last night I went to sleep after knowing that all the networks had called the Western states for Barack Obama (Hon ’08), ensuring his victory in the election. We’d spent much of the evening with colleagues and friends watching the electoral map turn blue, but it was late and Sophie had school in the morning….

photo by Jessica Brownfeld '10
photo by Jessica Brownfeld ’10

Sometime after midnight I awoke to hear more than the usual roar from outside our windows. I regretted that I hadn’t gotten over to Usdan earlier in the evening, and I lay in bed thinking that this was a campus celebration I shouldn’t miss. Throwing on some clothes and a Wes softball cap, I headed over to the University Center and saw folks dancing, cheering and chanting. Students who had worked hard on campaigns, and others who had just invested their hopes in Barack’s message of change were out in force on the terrace of Usdan, sharing in this historic, glorious moment. We waved an American flag, and I marveled at the feelings of hope and enthusiasm that were rippling through this Wesleyan crowd.

photo by Jessica Brownfeld '10
photo by Jessica Brownfeld ’10

I have been proud of the efforts of our students, faculty and staff as they have registered voters, organized neighbors, and articulated fundamental issues. As our president-elect said last night, we have a long road ahead of us, but if we can work together with a spirit of optimism and purpose, we have an opportunity to improve our country. Let us seize that opportunity!

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Vote! Vote!


At long last this campaign is coming to an end, and I just returned from the polling station in Middletown. I was pleased to see Wesleyan students coming out of the building having already cast their ballots at 7:00 AM, and even more pleased to see some of our undergrads volunteering as poll workers.

Last week I wrote on the Huffington Post about participation as a form of education. At Wesleyan we believe that learning takes place not just by being spectators, but by doing the work oneself. Here’s the link to that piece:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-roth/participation-as-educatio_b_139598.html

We do a lot of talking about politics at Wesleyan, and of course I don’t want to reduce politics to casting a ballot. But this is a crucial moment in the political process, and I hope to see a steady stream of Wesleyan students, staff and faculty heading down William Street to cast their ballots. Tonight many of us will be gathered at Usdan University Center to watch the results, or hanging out with friends and together holding our collective breath.

Tomorrow will be the beginning of a new chapter in our political lives. I trust we can build on the momentum of these last months to continue to engage in the public sphere, to work with our neighbors and co-citizens to develop a vision of how we want to change, and then to join together to get there. But first, please vote…whether it’s by walking down William Street, or wherever you make your voice heard.

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Wes Coast-to-Coast

I am writing this from the airport in San Francisco, at the end of a West Coast trip to see alumni and parents. Although I am eager to get home, it is always informative to visit with our far-flung Wes community. In the Pacific Northwest, I met with grads who have been out for more than 50 years, and others who just finished up in the spring. There were lots of questions about how the international economic downturn is affecting alma mater, and plenty of generous support—despite the fact that many of these same people are feeling the crisis in their own budgets. In Seattle I was particularly impressed with the growing network of professionals in a wide variety of fields who reach out to help new Wesleyan alumni arriving in Washington or Oregon.

The San Francisco reception took place at the spectacular new Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, a great accomplishment of architect Renzo Piano. Some Wesleyan friends were kind enough to host the reception there, and we had more than 300 attendees. Here, too, people wanted to know about economic issues, and again there was great support for building a robust financial aid program for the future. We talked about the seven planning areas that I’ve written about before on this blog, and there was a great deal of excitement about the College of the Environment and the other initiatives.

It felt strange to be back in the Bay Area with a rented car, scurrying around like a tourist in the place that had been my home for 7 years. I did have a moment at the end to visit California College of the Arts and my old friend Steve Beal, now the school’s president. CCA is thriving, and it was delightful to see some of the projects we began a few years ago now working so well.

I’ll be glad to return to Connecticut for this weekend before Election Day. Many faculty, staff and students are engaged in getting out the vote. The Wesleyan Student Assembly canceled its Sunday meeting, and each member instead is spending three hours this week in community service or civic activism. WSA VP Saul Carlin ’09 reports the following:

“Here are a few examples of the types of activities WSA members may be engaged in:

My flight is about ready to board. Can’t wait to be back on campus!

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Coming Home

As I walked across campus on Friday I marveled at the beautiful, crisp fall day. The Wesleyan campus looked spectacular, and there was excitement in the air as we prepared for visits from families and alumni for Homecoming/Family weekend. Students were busy finishing midterms or getting essays written, athletes were gearing up for Little Three rival Amherst, and faculty and staff were, I think, feeling pretty lucky to be working in this charmed environment.

I had plenty of opportunities to talk with parents, grandparents and siblings throughout the weekend. One of the dominant themes in their comments to me: how happy and welcoming these Wes students seem to be! We joked about how often it is that smart young people show their braininess by also showing their discontent. At Wesleyan by contrast, students are smart, hard working, often very angry about the status quo (including the administration right here), but they display exuberance in their studies, in their sports and cultural activities, and in the way they build their constellation of friends.

The athletic contests were great fun to watch, as our competitors fought hard against a tough opponent. Our scholar-athletes improve with each practice, with each contest, and I am proud to see them strive for excellence in these competitions. And I was far from alone in my pride. At each game there were crowds of family and friends showing school spirit as we cheered on the Red and Black.

Wesleyan Women's Soccer v. Amherst, Oct. 18, 2008 ; photo by Bill Burkhart
Wesleyan Women’s Soccer v. Amherst, Oct. 18, 2008 ; photo by Bill Burkhart

There were many great events over the weekend, from seminars on the current economy, on global warming, and on various aspects of our curriculum. I only wish I could have attended more of the stimulating discussions. I heard from many that the conversations on the current economic crisis and on the presidential campaign were enlightening, and that talks about robots, about anthropology and going home, and about the forces that shape contemporary film left our alumni and parents eager to return to a liberal learning environment.

Another highlight of the weekend was the a cappella concert in the Chapel Saturday night. Several student groups sang a variety of traditional and contemporary songs with talent, precision, and lots of humor. How very Wesleyan that a student group would make up its own rendition of “Tempted by the Fruit of Another.” For this Family Weekend occasion the song was rewritten as “Tempted by the Fruit of Your Mother”! The concert helped raise money for the after-school programs at Wesleyan’s Green Street Art Center in the North End of Middletown.

Wesleyan Spirits, Oct. 18, 2008; photo by Bill Burkhart
Wesleyan Spirits perform in Memorial Chapel, Oct. 18, 2008; photo by Bill Burkhart

The sweetness of the welcome given to our families and alumni is another sign of our generous, open community. An alumnus returning to Middletown after decades of working in Abu Dhabi told me how moving it was to find he still had a home here, and that alma mater continues to be a beacon for liberal arts education. He is proud, and so am I!

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Economic Realities and Wesleyan Hopes

The economic turmoil of the last several months has shaken our confidence in the future. As we turn to see our retirement savings depleted, or as we recognize job loss and diminished expectations, it is difficult to know where to turn for a reasonable basis for hope.

At Wesleyan, I have spent a good part of the last year planning for the future, working with colleagues to put the university on a more secure economic foundation, to develop new curricular initiatives that are exciting and dynamic, and to expand our facilities in the sciences in a dramatic way. Some of these projects (the Molecular and Life Sciences Building being the largest by far) have been discussed by faculty, alumni and trustees for many years. Others, like the decision I made last year to expand our financial aid program to reduce our reliance on required loans, are new programs that promote a core university value. We have created faculty working groups to promote creativity, civic engagement and internationalization, and to develop ideas for a College of the Environment. In this time of economic disruption, what happens to all these plans?

I don’t want to minimize the impact of the economic situation on Wesleyan. A good portion of our annual budget comes from the generosity of our alumni and parent base, as well as the return on our endowment. Fundraising will be difficult this year, we expect, but we remain confident that the extended Wes family will recognize how important their gifts are in this climate. Our endowment, already down last fiscal year, has taken a hit in the first quarter of this one. Although we fully expect the investments to recover over time, there will be a period of smaller returns from the endowment going to support the operating budget.

This means there will be cuts in the Wesleyan budget, but, as I said in my last post, I will do my best to protect teaching, research and the student experience from the impact of our cost cutting measures. Over time, we will shift more of our fundraising efforts toward building the endowment, rather than supporting current spending. This will allow us to build economic capacity for the long term. We will continue to offer our community the very best liberal arts education, but we must do so in a more cost effective way. We must delay for some years our major facilities projects, like the Molecular and Life Sciences Building, and we are looking at every department at the university for budget savings. We are also looking for revenue opportunities, particularly in the summer months

What happens to the great hopes and plans of the last year? I believe we must continue to be ambitious, and that we must develop new programs through, when necessary, a reallocation of resources. We will continue to offer a robust financial aid program, and we remain committed to hiring and retaining a faculty dedicated to advancing their own fields while they make a powerful impact on the lives of their students. I believe we can continue to internationalize our campus while enhancing creativity and civic engagement in the curriculum and in the community. We will continue to focus attention on enhancing the experience of our students, especially in their frosh and senior years. And though there may be delays in realizing the vision for a College of the Environment, I am confident in the merits of developing this broad based, interdisciplinary environmental studies program.

In challenging economic times, it is more important than ever to enhance one’s core competencies and build a platform for innovation. These next few years will be difficult ones, but with the talent, energy and generosity of the Wesleyan community, we will emerge from this economic turmoil an even stronger, more dynamic institution. This is our reasonable basis for hope.

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Economic Dissonance and a Community in Tune

Sunday night I spent an hour with the Wesleyan Student Assembly, answering questions on the recent Board of Trustee’s retreat and on the general state of the university in this time of economic turmoil. I am always impressed by the WSA’s combination of organization, feistiness and school spirit. They are devoted to our university, and they are eager to explore ways of making it an even better place to live and learn. The student body can be proud of its elected representatives.

A concern of many of our students, faculty and staff is the effects of the contemporary economic turbulence on Wesleyan. We discussed this at length with the trustees last weekend. The university’s endowment declined almost 4% in the last fiscal year (ending 6/30/2008), and the first quarter of this year has been dismal. Wesleyan does not currently face short-term liquidity issues, but we are monitoring that situation closely. Over the next months we will be developing the budget for next year, and we will have to make some cuts to bring it into balance. My priority is to protect the core academic mission from serious budget cuts, but we will certainly have to delay some of our long planned facilities projects. In times of economic distress fund-raising is even more challenging than usual. However, our generous family of donors also understands that at a time like this their gifts are more meaningful than ever. We depend on their generosity.

While uncertainties in the economy rattle the world, many turn to the major political choices we face in the coming month. Well over 100 people gathered in the Usdan University Center last week to watch the recent Vice-Presidential debate, and the voter registration efforts on campus are in high gear. Wes students are finding their political voices as they debate the issues and ponder the future.

Even as we are part of the system affected by the recent credit crunch and market slide, there is a sense in which Wesleyan remains an oasis from these preoccupations. The culture here continues to thrive in so many interesting ways! For example, as I stroll around the campus on a weekend I am struck by the rich diversity of sound one hears. Whether it’s in the CFA’s Indian music and art festival, a jam session on Foss Hill, or in a raucous Eclectic dance party, there are dozens of people at any given time making music on this campus. Students, faculty and staff are picking up guitars and drums, horns and fiddles (and more than a few laptops!), joining together to create joyful sounds. When we make music we’re also making community, finding one another as we get in tune, and inviting others into our circles as listeners, dancers, new members of the band.

Speaking of joining musical groups, I am going to sit in with Busted Roses for a gig at Usdan on Oct 16. I posted a blog about this “geezer rock band” a few months ago, and now I will be challenged to keep up with these excellent musicians.

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Making Ideals Effective

This past week Wesleyan’s students’ “Fast-a-Thon” raised $11,000 for the Amazing Grace Food Pantry in Middletown. Growing out of the observance of Ramadan, this was a great initiative to encourage students to be more mindful of the meals we eat, and to remember those who can’t afford to put food on the table. Starting with our Muslim students and extending across the religious and secular spectrum, this was a strong reminder of how our spiritual communities reach out to do good work on and off campus. Wesleyan students find ways to make their ideals effective!

The Board of Trustees just had its annual Fall Retreat on campus, working through some complex issues facing the university in these uncertain economic times. The trustees, all of whom are alumni or parents of students, volunteer their time, expertise and their financial resources to help make Wesleyan a stronger, even more dynamic institution. At this meeting we planned our work for the year, and we re-examined some of the financial assumptions in place for our major projects going forward. Over the next few months the staff will be gathering information to present to the Board in November, so that we can continue to develop resources to enhance the educational experience of all Wesleyan students. We have great aspirations, and we try to balance them with practical realities.

This is the season when I, like many Jews around the world, reflect on the past year and consider how I might turn more of my thinking and action to worthwhile goals in the future. It’s also a time to express gratitude for what we have, and for those who are close to us. The past year has been an extraordinary one for my family and for me. I so appreciate having been welcomed back to the Wesleyan community, of having the opportunity to be its president, and of sharing the commitment with you to build a university dedicated to offering the very best progressive liberal arts education in the world.

May it be a sweet year!

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Teachers Needed!

The New York Times Sunday Magazine today published a special “College” issue. Wesleyan figured prominently in it. A story about the use of student evaluations features a teacher whose contract the university did not renew last year. Another article describes a recent Wesleyan grad, Jordan Goldman ‘04, who has developed UNIGO, a web-based guide to schools based on mass input rather than on “expert evaluation.” Jordan had an idea that defied the well-worn genre of the college guide. His Internet version gathers information from anyone who wants to send it in. This young entrepreneur is launching his business with the help of some other Wesleyan alums.

A key focus of the magazine is teaching. Reading it led me to think about some of the inspirational teachers with whom I studied over the years, and about the great faculty I see here at Wesleyan. When you think about your best teachers, what is it that makes them great?

Mark Edmundson introduces the theme of the magazine with an insightful essay on the ingredients of good teaching. Mark has been an English professor at the University of Virginia for many years, and he underscores that “really good teaching is about not seeing the world the way that everyone else does.” The strong teacher opens up new ways of seeing the economy or works of art, new ways of recognizing patterns in cell division or in music. Fundamentally, strong teachers undermine conventions — they don’t appeal to whatever happens to be popular.

It is also vital that teachers not merely offer an alternative orthodoxy in their classes. The classroom isn’t a place to convert students to a model that has all the answers; it’s the place to discover that nobody has all the answers, and that inquiry, self-criticism and an openness to changing one’s mind are key to leading a meaningful life. That’s probably why Mark Edmundson writes that the great enemy of knowledge isn’t ignorance but “knowingness.” When teachers encounter students who think they have all the answers, our job is to undermine their certainty. And when students find teachers who think they know it all, they are usually savvy enough to look for different classes.

One of the reasons I enjoy teaching so much is that students open up new questions for me about things I thought I’d understood. At the same time, it is thrilling to see them changing their perspectives on things they had thought were clear. Together, we open ourselves to new ideas and to different ways of seeing the world. At least that’s what we’re aiming for. When we open ourselves to new ideas, we stand a better chance of discovering what we love to do.

Perhaps this all sounds too easy, too positive. It isn’t. It’s difficult to open yourself to questioning the things you deeply care about, and there is always the temptation to defend oneself against painful uncertainty by latching onto some orthodoxy – something that “goes without saying.”

This may be why there is so much anti-intellectualism in the current national election (see the Times interview with Charles Murray today). We should have learned in the last two presidential elections the danger of choosing someone on the basis of the candidate being “the kind of guy you want to have a beer with.” In this time of international crisis, the last thing we need in our country’s leadership is more close-minded arrogance masquerading as friendly populism. We do need leaders with the courage to defy knowingness – leaders who can think as well as act. We need teachers, teachers who are open to learning!

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Wesleyan Vanity Fair

When we talk to alumni and prospective students, we often boast of how our grads play an enormous role in Hollywood, the news media, and in the world of entertainment generally. The new issue of Vanity Fair contains an article by Wes alum Sebastian Junger, and also cites Robert Allbritton as a leader in the “new establishment” because of his television, newspaper and web network. On p. 180 of the magazine, they’ve devoted a full page to “Wesleyan’s Entertaining Class.”

Vanity Fair
Credit: Vanity Fair

It’s great to see the work of these wonderful alumni and our “tiny Connecticut University” recognized in this way. Of course, there are many more alums out there doing compelling work in this area. Jeffrey Richards, for example, has had an extraordinary career producing shows on Broadway, including August: Osage County, which won five Tony Awards this year, including Best Play. When I sent the Vanity Fair page to Jeanine Basinger, she came up with dozens of other names. Send them in! Wes alums are shaping our culture!!

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Among the myriad of sports contests, exhibitions and films on campus this weekend, I find especially noteworthy a concert in Memorial Chapel Sunday night at 7:00 pm. Charles Simic, former Poet Laureate of the United States, will join a great group of singers led by Professor of Music Neely Bruce. It should be a wonderful evening of poetry and song.

And the Wesleyan Bowl takes place on Sunday when the Jets face off against the Patriots. Both head coaches are Wes grads, so we can expect a thoughtful, strategic contest!

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