Independence Day, Middletown

Middletown’s Independence Day festivities were held down by the Connecticut River, but the Wesleyan campus offered great views. In the early evening the sky was threatening, and we weren’t sure if there would be thunder or firecrackers. As darkness fell a small crowd gathered on the lawn in front of College Row, and other groups were spreading their blankets on Foss Hill. We were all hoping for good site lines of the fireworks show over the river, and there were also plenty of smaller displays from friends and families on campus. The rain fell for only a few moments, and the sky lit up in glorious display. Mathilde tried to find a place to hide.

This July 4 weekend I found myself missing our old haunts in Berkeley, where each year there was a parade and celebration that wonderfully combined patriotic tradition and the radical energies for which the city is famous. There was an old time brass band that led us all in American songs, and young and old listened attentively as some celebrated resident gave a short speech to commemorate the day. Usually the speeches reminded us all of where we as a nation were falling short of our ideals.

In this election year we have already heard a lot about patriotism or the supposed lack of it. How do we measure allegiance to or love of country during a time when very few are satisfied with the direction in which our nation is heading? Elvin Lim, Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan and author of The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, recently wrote about this on his blog, Out on a Lim: http://www.elvinlim.com.

Of course, thoughtful criticism of any particular representatives may be a strong sign of patriotism – of the thoughtful commitment to see one’s country realize its finest, most admirable aspirations. An even stronger sign of patriotism is participation, engaging in the political process — not just commenting on it from the outside. In this vital election year, I hope to see vigorous, informed political debate at Wesleyan. More importantly, I hope to see Wesleyan students finding ways to participate in the political process in relation to the issues and candidates they care about the most.

My neighbors in Berkeley affirmed our local community as we expressed our desire to see our country reflect the values of freedom and equality that are an essential part of the rhetoric of July 4 celebrations. I bet that in this regard our new neighbors in Middletown feel much the same way.

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Midnight Sun and Scholarship Support

We just returned this weekend from a week visiting Kari’s family in Norway. Here’s a glimpse of what we saw as dusk settled in around midnight. It grew lighter by 1 AM.

It feels good to be back home on campus. The fields at Long Lane are busy with football and lacrosse practices from the high school camps here in the summer. Volleyball players have taken over Freeman. Over the next few months, the painters, carpenters and other physical plant employees will be working hard to get the various buildings ready for the return of the students. Classes in the Graduate Liberal Arts Program begin Monday, and soon I’ll be meeting with our Admissions officers to talk about recruiting the class of 2013. A few weeks ago I wrote about Summer Rhythms. The pace is already picking up!

When we were in Oslo, Kari and I met with a Wesleyan alumna who has settled there. We talked about how the education system in Norway emphasizes skill building early on, and how different that is from a liberal arts approach. In meeting college age relatives, I was struck by how they felt they had to specialize in a course of professional study by the age of 19. When I described Wesleyan to them, they were struck by the freedom that our students have to mold their own educational experience. “Is it only for the very rich?” they asked. When I described our financial aid program, and the work we’re doing to enhance it, they were very surprised. With strong governmental support, there is not the same tradition of philanthropy for culture and education in most of Europe as there is in the US. Of course, I know that there is plenty we still need to do to improve access to Wesleyan.

Even though our Oslo alum is decades out of Wes and thousands of miles away, she recently made a gift to support our scholarship programs through the Wesleyan Fund. She knows the value of financial aid to the students who receive grants, and to all the other students who benefit from a more diverse community. With the economic turmoil of this past year, it has been a challenging time to raise money. I have been reluctant to do any fundraising through this blog, but as this is the last week of our fiscal year, I will ask you to make a gift to our annual fund if you have not already done so. I know how tiresome it is to be asked for support again and again, and I have been so impressed with the generosity of the Wesleyan community. But nonetheless I now ask for your support because I believe that scholarships are a key component of our educational mission – and we need your help. Please give to financial aid through the Wesleyan Fund. Participation counts, as does every dollar we receive. Here’s the link to make a donation:
http://give.wesleyan.edu

Thanks in advance for any additional help you can provide.

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WOW! Wes on Broadway!!

Although I am far from Middletown on a family vacation, I had to share the news of last night’s Wesleyan successes at the Tony awards. Jeffrey Richards ’69 was a producer of “August: Osage County,” a family drama. The play already received a Pulitzer prize and won five Tonys, including “Best Play.”

“In the Heights,” a musical that was first performed as a student play at Wesleyan and written by and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda ’02, directed by Tommy Kail ’99 and with music arranged and orchestrated by Bill Sherman ’02, won four Tonys. These include “Best Musical,” “Best Original Score” (music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda), “Best Choreography,” and “Best Orchestrations” (Bill Sherman and Alex Lacamoire).

Brad Whitford ’81, known to many for his film and television work, has been a hit in the comedy “Boeing-Boeing.” The play won two awards, including “Best Revival.”

What great recognition for these talented alumni, and what a wonderful signal of Wesleyan’s capacity to launch creative students into the limelight!!

Let’s celebrate in September on Broadway!! We are holding a benefit performance of “In The Heights” on September 5, 2008 at The Richard Rodgers Theatre. Proceeds from the event will support our financial aid programs. More information is available online at: wesleyan.edu/intheheights or email ith@wesleyan.edu.

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Understanding and Engagement: Public Service

Last night in Washington, D.C., more than 150 Wesleyan alumni and parents gathered together to catch up with old friends, reminisce about college days, and hear from this not-so-new president about what’s been happening on campus. Although hopes for a cool June evening had given way to the reality of a scorching heat wave stretching along the East Coast, spirits were high as we looked forward to the relief that thunderstorms would bring.

The Wesleyan folks I spoke with throughout the evening seemed optimistic about how our university has remained a beacon for progressive values in liberal arts education. Of course, people of different political persuasions understand “progressive” in a variety of ways, but there remains a commitment to seeing our university graduate students who would continue to make a positive contribution to public life.

Robert and Elena Allbritton, two Wesleyan alumni who graduated in the early 1990s, hosted the event. Elena is a physician with a D.C. practice, and Robert (a Wes trustee) recently started the web-based political news organization, POLITICO.COM. They have also made the leadership gift to establish the Center for the Study of Public Life, an interdisciplinary effort to better understand national and international issues with the tools of social science and the humanities. The Allbritton Center will enable our students to study issues such as Violence and Public Life, Faith and Politics, or Health Care Economics in a project-based format using a variety of methodological tools. The study of issues in public life should increase our students’ capacity to contribute to its betterment. The new Center will open in the fall of 2009 in the building that many of you know as either Davenport or Scott Labs.

Among our Washington guests last night there was still much discussion of Barack Obama’s participation in Commencement this year. In my conversations with alumni with very different political views, I could see that the senator’s call to public service resonated in important ways. There is a long history of Wesleyan students engaging in public service, from volunteering for the military, to signing on for Teach for America. A great figure in this regard was John Macy ’38, who held a variety of posts in the government and was executive vice-president at Wesleyan from 1958-1961. John returned to Washington when President Kennedy asked him to chair the Civil Service Commission. He would later direct the White House Personnel Office and become president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Countless Wesleyan students heading to Washington received a warm welcome from John, along with counsel on how to develop fulfilling careers in public service. Many are still here in D.C. We plan to honor John Macy as we develop new programs that help students to engage in public life.

As the Allbritton Center takes shape, I imagine that it will navigate between stimulating the scholarly study of complex issues and inspiring students to find ways to turn their studies into practical applications that enhance the public good. As I finish my Washington meetings and head back to Connecticut, I realize that we need both: a deeper understanding of difficult issues, and an active engagement in the public sphere. Wesleyan will enhance understanding and engagement – that certainly is part of what it means to remain “a beacon for progressive values in liberal arts education.”
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PS Speaking of public issues, some of you may have seen my review of Philip Gourevitch’s new book on Abu Ghraib. If you missed it, here’s the link:

http://www.latimes.com/features/books/la-bk-roth25-2008may25,0,3903424.story

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Summer Rhythms

After the frenzy of activity over the last month, the campus is oddly quiet. As I stroll across Andrus Field I expect to greet students heading to class, or going for coffee and conversation at the Usdan Center. Instead, I am more likely to run into a lone jogger or a dog walker taking in the open space, very green now with the spring rains.

But the calm in the center of campus belies an intense level of activity in a variety of areas. Graduate students are busy working on experiments, theses and dissertations. There are a surprising number of undergraduates here, too, some focusing on research in the sciences, others studying Arabic or Russian. The staff at the Graduate Liberal Studies Program is gearing up for classes. This remarkable program welcomes students from all walks of life. There are undergrads mixed with teachers, professionals and various people from the area just eager to continue their education. There is still time to register for some classes at:
http://www.wesleyan.edu/glsp/courses_registration/course_information/Summer_2008/summer08_concentration.htt

The Wesleyan Writers Conference will be underway in less than two weeks. You can read about this exciting program at:
http://www.wesleyan.edu/writing/conference/

This afternoon I will meet with elected student leaders to discuss our follow-up to the Fountain Ave. incident. Our interest is twofold. On the one hand we want to understand what went wrong that night, and who should be held accountable. On the other hand, we want to put in places policies and practices to ensure that this kind of incident doesn’t happen again.

At the end of the semester I received reports from the task forces working on the planning themes that emerged during the winter. There are five areas: strengthening the undergrad experience; internationalization; creative campus; civic engagement; College of the Environment. I will be reviewing the reports and preparing for next steps for moving forward in each of these areas. We are also focused on developing resources for enhanced financial aid and to stay on track for building our new complex in the molecular and life sciences.

One of the projects that has already emerged from our planning talks is the need for more support for undergraduate research during the summer. We currently have McNair, Hughes and Mellon foundation support for scientific research that supports the work of several students in the life sciences. These are great programs that open opportunities for students who might not otherwise have the chance to engage in advanced research. The programs are emblematic of what Wesleyan stands for more generally: helping students make a positive contribution through excellent academic work.

Now that I’ve taken stock of only a few of the activities on campus, it no longer seems so calm! I’d better get back to work!!

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Great Day for Wesleyan

Sunday’s Commencement Ceremony was a wonderful conclusion to my first year as Wesleyan’s 16th president. The graduate students and the class of 2008 received more than their diplomas on Andrus Field. They were able to listen to one of America’s most eloquent speakers reflect on the call to service that characterizes the Kennedy legacy, and renew that call for this generation of students. Senator Kennedy’s family helped make this happen, and we are so grateful to them. Senator Obama energized his audience not with a partisan political message, but with a challenge to us all to live up to our best selves by connecting to a larger purpose. We are deeply grateful to Senator Obama for “pinch hitting” for his friend, and we extend to Senator Kennedy our heartfelt best wishes as he confronts his health issues in the coming weeks and months.

The Wesleyan staff worked continuously to ensure that Commencement and Reunion Weekend was a success, and I was so impressed with the effort, their good cheer and their talents. Thanks to all – student workers, public safety, volunteers, faculty and staff – for making our Commencement memorable and enjoyable!!

Senator Obama’s speech and my own remarks can be accessed via our homepage, or at: http://www.wesleyan.edu/newsrel/announcement/rc_2008

The campus is almost empty now, and the crews are taking down the tents. I’ve said my goodbyes to the many seniors I got to know this year, as they packed up, vowed to stay in touch with friends, and headed off into life after college. I told them all to come back to campus often, and I look forward to reminiscing with them about the great 2008 Commencement when they return for their own reunions!

PS HERE IS A FINE SET OF PHOTOS VIA THE LINK

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Friendship

It has been a very moving and intense few days. We were delighted to be hosting Senator Edward Kennedy as this year’s Commencement speaker, and then deeply disturbed about his hospitalization and cancer diagnosis. Our hearts go out to the Kennedy family. Senator Kennedy, a Wesleyan honorary degree recipient, has great family ties to our school. His son, Ted Jr., graduated 25 years ago, and his stepdaughter Caroline is in this class of 2008. Senator Kennedy has been one of the great supporters of higher education during his many years of public service. His dedication to civil rights, to labor, to health care, and to a pragmatic and principled politics, has made him one of the most productive legislators in modern American history.

When news of Senator Kennedy’s medical condition became widely known, his family assured me that they would see to it that if he were unable to deliver the Commencement address they would suggest a suitable alternative. Among those asking the Senator what they could do to be helpful, was Barack Obama. “Ted and I talked about me filling in for him at Wesleyan University earlier this week. Considering what he’s done for me and for our country, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for him. So I’m looking forward to standing in his place on Sunday even though I know I won’t be able to fill his shoes,” Senator Obama said.

Senator Obama’s speech to our graduates this Sunday is an act of friendship, and friendship is one of the defining features of our Commencement. The graduate students who have finished their degrees and the class of 2008 will be leaving Middletown on Sunday afternoon, but they will be taking with them relationships that will last a lifetime. As I meet with alumni across the country, a common thread in their description of why Wesleyan is important to them is that they developed relationships here which last a lifetime. The devotion to alma mater is also a devotion to the friendships forged in study, or in sports, in the arts, or in civic engagement.

We will see that devotion in these days leading up to commencement. Alumni from more than fifty years ago, and alumni from our most recent classes are coming back on campus for the weekend. My own class, 1978, will be celebrating our 30th reunion, and I look forward to seeing many friends as they re-discover their old homes, dorms and classrooms.

Senator Obama’s willingness to “stand in his friend’s place” on Sunday is not a campaign event but a poignant expression of friendship. There will be many other such expressions occurring all over campus as we welcome a new group of Wesleyan grads into the alumni family.

P.S. Please remember that Commencement is not a grand public occasion but the culmination of the Wesleyan experience for the graduates and their families.

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Following Up

This is an email that was sent to the Wesleyan community this morning.

I have now reviewed police and public safety accounts and dozens of student eyewitness reports of what occurred when Middletown police, supported by other local and state law enforcement, broke up a student gathering in the early morning hours of Friday, May 16. Although it is clear that a few students acted recklessly, and perhaps illegally, and while it is also clear that some students decided to remain in the area despite warnings to disperse, I am seriously concerned about what seems to me to be the disproportionate use of force in this incident. I have communicated my concern to Middletown’s Chief of Police. She has assured me that there will be a thorough investigation, and I will be following up with her and with Middletown’s Internal Affairs Officers to investigate the matter fully.

Students that night on Fountain Ave. were celebrating the end of the semester when they were ordered by Wesleyan Public Safety, and then the Middletown Police, to clear the street. From the evidence I have seen, there was no “riot,” as has been reported, nor was there any obvious public danger. However, it is clear that many students ignored requests to clear the street, and there are very disturbing reports of bottles or other projectiles thrown in the direction of police or their vehicles. We take this very seriously, and any students found in violation of the law or of Wesleyan rules will be held accountable for their actions.

It is apparent that some students decided to ignore the officers’ orders, but it is also clear that many, if not most, never heard the police demand that they leave the area. In any case, I am deeply troubled by what seems to have been an indiscriminate use of pepper spray and dogs to clear an area where students were peacefully gathered. Reports of unprofessional and violent behavior by some police officers are alarming. Again, I will be working with appropriate authorities to address these matters.

We are examining the policies and operations of Wesleyan’s Public Safety Department, and its relation to the Middletown Police Department. We value our positive relationship with Middletown and with the MPD, and we are grateful for the assistance the department provides our community on a regular basis. But let me be clear: we will not tolerate abusive behavior by the police any more than we will tolerate it by our own students.

I deeply regret that these events took place at what should have been a joyous end to the semester. Our goal will be to ensure that these kinds of incidents do not occur in the future, and I have already begun working with Middletown and campus leaders to address our mutual concerns and interests.

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Disturbing Semester’s End

I had anticipated writing a happy “Finals Are Over!” blog entry at the end of the week. Instead, we are dealing with the aftermath of the disturbing events that happened as law enforcement officers broke up a student gathering very early Friday morning.

I was called to the scene by some frightened students at about 2:30 am. After talking with a group of undergrads still gathered there, I went to check on the hospitalized and arrested students. When I came to the office later in the morning, we began gathering information to understand what went wrong. Here is the statement we sent out via email:

This morning at approximately 1:30 a.m., Wesleyan’s Department of Public Safety requested assistance from the Middletown Police Department to help disperse a crowd on Fountain Avenue. According to the Middletown Police, there were in excess of 200 students on and around Fountain Avenue who would not disperse, verbally abused police and threw objects in the direction of police officers. The police decided to forcibly clear Fountain Avenue. The action resulted in the arrest of five Wesleyan students, two of whom were brought to an area hospital for medical attention. Both were treated and then released into police custody. Students who were at the scene have reported to university administrators and to the police that law enforcement officers used excessive force and were verbally abusive during their action in clearing Fountain Avenue.

We have met with concerned students since the incident occurred and request that anyone with first-hand information about the incident please send a statement via e-mail to mroth@wesleyan.edu and mwhaley@wesleyan.edu. We will continue to work with Public Safety, Middletown Police and review statements from student witnesses in order to ascertain the facts surrounding the event. We plan to communicate what we learn about the incident as well as our plans for follow-up as soon as possible. As always, our concern is for the safety of our students and our neighbors in the Middletown community in which they reside.

Mike Whaley (VP for Student Affairs) and I have received dozens of reports from eyewitnesses. I’ve spoken with some police officers and the Chief of Police. We are piecing together the most reliable account possible to understand what went wrong and why. We are reviewing all this information, and I will be meeting with Middletown authorities to follow up on the many complaints our students have made about the use of force. We will also be reviewing our own policies as well as the behavior of some members of the Wesleyan community.

I do not intend to host a debate on this blog about who was at fault. We continue to gather information, and I will consult with student, faculty and Middletown leaders about our findings. By better understanding what went wrong this week, we can greatly improve the chances that an event like this will not happen again in our community.

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Fraternal Wesleyan

Thursday night the brothers of the DKE fraternity invited my family and me to a barbeque, just across the street from the President’s House. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening, and the brothers (many of whom are athletes from football, hockey and baseball squads) made us feel very welcome. Kari saw some of her students, and Sophie was impressed at the prodigious amount of meat and BBQ sauce that seemed to disappear in moments. I hadn’t been in DKE since my student days, when frats held many all-campus parties (they still do). In the intervening years, some of our peer institutions have discontinued fraternities, and I have heard many stories from our own alumni about their perception of unfair treatment of frats at Wesleyan. Yet in the last week or so these organizations have welcomed over 100 new members. What is the role of fraternities at Wesleyan?

As I’ve met with students around campus this year, I have visited with all the fraternities, including the Eclectic Society (which usually doesn’t see itself in this context). I have found them to be energetic, vital student organizations capable of making contributions to the campus as a whole. Of course, there are times when fraternities are part of situations that call for disciplinary measures, and the members have to obey school regulations, like everyone else. Any organization that becomes a locus for serious infractions will lose its standing as a part of the Wesleyan community. Fraternities know this at least as well as everybody else.

During the course of this year I’ve heard lectures at Beta and Psi U, had social dinners at DKE and Alpha Delt, listened to a great band at Eclectic, and in each instance I’ve been impressed with how the membership is adding value to the educational and co-curricular experience on campus. Each organization has a different personality, and they add significantly to Wesleyan’s overall diversity. My own Alpha Delta Phi was already co-educational when I was an undergrad, and the house was the center of my Wes world. We published the literary magazine, and AD still is filled with musicians, writers and theater people (among others). Other frats are homes for athletes, while some are more cultural in their focus. Most combine these elements in different ways, depending on the membership in a given year.

Fraternities have historic roots with alumni that are important to maintain, and I believe that the frats (including Eclectic) at Wes can continue to play a very positive role at the university. We will not be adding any new Greek societies because there are now many other ways for students to join together in residentially based groups. Wesleyan’s students have a rich choice of social organizations in which to participate, from the very traditional to the most avant-garde. I’m committed to keeping it that way.

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