How to Choose (Our) University

Throughout the month, high school seniors with the acceptance letters in hand, will be visiting campuses as they try to decide where to attend college. They are trying to envision the school at which they will be most likely to thrive. Where will I learn the most, be happiest, and form friendships that will last a lifetime? How to choose? As I do each spring, I thought it might be useful to re-post my thoughts on choosing a college, with a few revisions.

Of course, for many the decision will be made on an economic basis. Which school has given the most generous financial aid package? Wesleyan is one of a small number of schools that meets the full financial need of all admitted students according to a formula developed over several years. Wesleyan has made a commitment to keep loan levels low and to maintain only moderate (very close to inflation) tuition increases. We also offer a three-year program that allows families to save about 20% of their total expenses, while still earning the same number of credits.

After answering the question of which schools one can afford, how else does one decide where best to spend one’s college years? Of course, size matters.  Some students are looking for a large university in an urban setting where the city itself plays an important role in one’s education. New York and Boston, for example, have become increasingly popular college destinations, but not, I suspect, for the classroom experience. But if one seeks small classes and strong, personal relationships with faculty, then liberal arts schools, which pride themselves on providing rich cultural and social experiences on a residential campus, are especially compelling. You can be on a campus with a human scale and still have plenty of things to do. Wesleyan is somewhat larger than most liberal arts colleges but much smaller than the urban or land grant universities. We feel that this gives our students the opportunity to choose a broad curriculum and a variety of cultural activities on campus, while still being small enough to encourage regular, sustained relationships among faculty and students.

All the selective small liberal arts schools boast of having a faculty of scholar-teachers, of a commitment to research and interdisciplinarity, and of encouraging community and service. So what sets us apart from one another after taking into account size, location, and financial aid packages? What are students trying to see when they visit Amherst and Wesleyan, or Tufts and Pomona?

Students who are visiting campuses this month are trying to discern the personalities of each school. They are trying to imagine themselves on the campus, to get a feel for the chemistry of the place — to gauge whether they will be happy there. That’s why hundreds of visitors come to Wesleyan each week. They go to classes and athletic contests, musical performances and parties. And they ask themselves: Would I be happy at Wesleyan?

I hope our visitors feel the brave exuberance and ambition of our students, the intelligence and care of our faculty, the playful yet demanding qualities of our community. I hope our visitors can sense our commitment to creating a diversity in which difference is embraced and not just tolerated, and to public service that is part of one’s education and approach to life. Our students have the courage to find new combinations of subjects to study, of people to meet, of challenges to face.

Whatever college or university students choose, I hope they get three things out of their education: discovering what they love to do; getting better at it; learning to share it with others. I explain a little bit more about that in this talk to admitted students a few years ago:

We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into, especially this year (once again) with a record number of applications. But even in the group of highly selective schools, Wes is not for everybody. We aspire to be a community committed to boldness as well as to rigor, to idealism as well as to effectiveness. Whether in the sciences, arts, humanities or social sciences, our faculty and students are dedicated to explorations that invite originality as well as collaboration. The scholar-teacher model is at the heart of our curriculum. Our faculty are committed to teaching and to shaping their disciplines. At Wesleyan, we know how to work hard, but we also know how to enjoy the work we choose to do. That’s been magically appealing to me for more than 30 years. I bet the magic will enchant many of our visitors, too.

Free Speech and Protest at Wesleyan

There have been many times at Wesleyan when student input, including protests, have convinced the administration to take action – the creation of the Resource Center and additional therapists at CAPS are recent examples. This year, when a group of concerned students raised the issue of hiring additional custodians, we studied all the cleaning assignments and found places to make improvements. The students have asked for five more custodians to be hired, but given the analysis of work assignments, we do not think that appropriate. If presented with more data, we can certainly study the assignments again.


Reasonable people can come to different conclusions about this, and students are free to protest the situation and the conclusions we have drawn. At yesterday’s WesFest event (Wesleyan’s admitted students day), while I spoke with visiting families, about a dozen students held signs and stood on the stage in protest. That was within their rights.


But students are not free to disrupt events. University policy allows members of the Wesleyan community to show up at events to protest, though they may not disrupt the event or hinder the ability of the University to conduct normal operations. Today, students have made it impossible for presenters to speak, and for audiences to hear. They have gone beyond the free speech rights guaranteed to protestors.


Those who attempt to shut down events will face disciplinary measures as outlined in the University’s rules and regulations. These make clear that “demonstrators do not have the right to deprive others of the opportunity to speak or be heard…physically obstruct the movement of others, or otherwise disrupt educational or institutional processes.”


We will continue to protect the rights of protestors, but we will also protect the rights of speakers—even those with whom some students disagree—to give their presentations.

Art Rules at Wesleyan

Wesleyan is famous for its open curriculum—for the freedom it gives students rather than the experience of following the rules of having to take one course in a specific field just to say you’ve done it. We do have expectations for students that guide them to some very cool classes—from the Astronomy Department’s always popular classes on the cosmos to the Music Department’s most excellent course on the history of rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe it’s the soft suggestion rather than a hard requirement that enables our students to really find what interests them in an area of the curriculum that they might have missed.

Many people come to Wesleyan intending to study the arts, of course. Our Music, Dance and Film departments have launched students into the forefront of their fields—and I haven’t even mentioned Hamilton and Theater, or the Studio Art Department’s uncanny ability to inspire students to become shapers of adventurous art-making (Cameron Rowland ’11, anyone?).

Spring is an especially great time for the arts at Wesleyan. I went to the senior studio art opening yesterday at Zilkha, and once again the students have produced stunning work. This time of year there are music recitals each week from our inventive graduate students and undergrads presenting their thesis recitals. And this weekend the Theater Department offers Eurydice. Creativity blooms!

The fabulous Davison collection is on display now in a show curated by DAC curator Miya Tokumitsu called “For Effect: Emphatic Bodies from the Renaissance to the Industrial Age.” The show has synergies with the Center for the Humanities theme of hyperbole, presenting “bodies exaggerated in their accouterments, pose, and anatomical proportion from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Across artistic movements and historical contexts, artists exaggerated bodies to evoke from spectators responses as varied as sympathy and shock, offense and desire.”

Jacques Callot (French, 1592 – 1635). The Two Pantaloons (Les Deux Pantalons), 1616. Etching. Second of two states. Friends of the Davison Art Center, Theater Department, and purchase funds, 1971. DAC accession no. 1971.18.1. Open Access Image from the Davison Art Center, Wesleyan University. (photo: M. Johnston).

And you can now take work from our Davison collection home with you! No, not stuff from the gallery walls, but you can order museum quality reproductions of our print masterpieces here.

Art rules at Wesleyan!

Fish Species Named After Professor Barry Chernoff

How cool is this? Some Brazilian scientists have named a new species of fish after Wesleyan Professor Barry Chernoff. Barry is the founding director of the College of the Environment and the Robert F. Schumann Professor of Environmental Studies. The abstract from the scientific journal Zootaxa reads as follows:

The species of Bryconops is described from the rio Maicuru, a tributary of the left margin of the lower Amazon River, Pará, Brazil. Bryconops chernoffi new species, differs from all its congeners by the presence of an elongated dark patch of pigmentation immediately after the posterodorsal margin of the opercle, running vertically from the supracleithrum to the distal margin of the cleithrum (vs. absence of a similar blotch), and by a dark dorsal fin with a narrow hyaline band at middle portion of dorsal-fin rays (vs. dorsal fin hyaline or with few scattered chromatophores). It differs further from all its congeners, except B. colanegra, by the presence of a blurred black stripe at the anal fin.

It doesn’t really resemble my friend Barry, who in addition to being a fish scientist and environmentalist, is also a guitar player and songwriter. And now he has fish named in his honor. A true species of Wesleyan, IMHO.

Requiring Kindness and Our New Affirmative Speech Codes!

UPDATE: Happy April 1st!

Over the years, Wesleyan University and many other schools have been criticized for speech codes that can having a “chilling effect” on the exchange of ideas on a campus. Critics have emphasized that even saying you have “zero tolerance for hate” can backfire because hate, like love, may just be in the eye of the beholder. These critics are right. We need positive speech! I announce today that Wesleyan will go far beyond policies to prevent discrimination, harassment and hate; from now on we will promote positivity, nurturing and love.

Preventing hate speech is not enough! We need a positive program for promoting community through exuberant affection. The administration has decided to require students to be good to one another, to show compassion, and to build community through kindness. There will be monitors, and there will be a point system. Sure, it will seem to some artificial at first, but the latest research in neuroscience shows that after you act in a certain way, the feelings will catch up to the actions. In other words, if you smile a lot, you will begin to feel happier — even if the smiling was just a requirement!

So smile, Wesleyans! Over the next few weeks we will roll out policies (with points to incentivize friendly behavior!) to go beyond prohibitions on nastiness. We will nudge ourselves to niceness, and our community will be all the more welcoming for it!

Go Wes!


From Spring Break to Senior Projects

Although many students are returning today from spring break, there are scores of their fellow undergrads and graduate students who have been hunkered down working on student projects. Senior theses are due in April, and from African American studies to writing, folks are working hard on developing creative practices and original research. I’ve heard about theses that concern working-class issues and avant-garde film, dairy farmers in New England and practices of commemoration in Latin America. Many Wesleyan students work in teams, especially in the sciences, and I am frequently impressed by their combination of rigorous methodological attentiveness and leaps of imaginative possibility. Some are focused on historical issues, from French cuisine to the evolution of capitalist economic policies, while others are imagining futures less fraught by inequality and environmental danger than our own present.

Over the next month the campus will bloom with the spring’s creative projects. Music, dance, and theater performances have already been flowering, and you can see listings of more of them here. The visual art presentations kick into high gear with the thesis shows, which start this week.

Let’s show our support to all those Wesleyans who have worked through the break and are now coming to the finish line with these projects. May they all come to happy fruition!


Visiting Some Far-Flung Alumni

We had the good fortune last night to attend an alumni event in London. There were a couple of dozen current students, parents and alumni gathered together to swap stories and to find out the many different things folks are doing with a Wesleyan education.

There were professors and writers, bankers, graduate students and theater people—a good range of Wes folks united in wanting to stay connected to one another and to the campus. It was a pleasure to hear their stories and to bring the news from Middletown. And don’t worry, there were current students there (on spring break) to keep me honest.

Coming home tomorrow!


Supporting Muslim Friends, Colleagues and Neighbors

Kari and I found ourselves in a London airport en route to France when we heard the news of the horrific attacks on Muslim worshippers in New Zealand. I know that Rabbi David and Dean Mike have already written to our students, but I want to add my expression of outrage and sorrow to their message. This was a brutal hate crime, targeting worshippers at mosques during Friday prayers, and early indications are that the murderer planned his attack in the name of what he called white nationalism. Our revulsion is great, but our resolve to stand against hate and bigotry is even greater.

At Wesleyan, the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life will facilitate a gathering on Monday, March 18 at 4:30pm at the ORSL multi-faith space, 169 High St. second floor.  If you are on campus next week, please come to express and find support.

May those who are grieving find comfort in community, and may they find strength and peace in the face of this tragedy.



A Snowy Start to Spring Break…Thinking of Summer Session

The beginning of Wesleyan’s spring break finds us in the Berkshires, where it is beautiful and snowy. This is from our porch:

So, when we’re not chasing Mathilde in the show, we are thinking about summer….. and, of course, Wesleyan’s Summer Session. Here’s the official line: “students can complete semester-long courses in just under five weeks; courses are offered in June (Session 1) and July (Session 2). Wesleyan Summer Session is open to students who feel they have the academic qualifications and stamina to complete intellectually challenging courses in a compressed schedule.” There are some very cool classes, which you can find here.

You can find out more information about the summer session, and sign up for alerts, here.

Coaches and Players of the Year!

Peter Solomon, head coach of our Wesleyan swimming and diving teams, was recently named Co-Coach-of-the-Year for women’s swimming by the our athletic conference. In giving Peter this honor, NESCAC recognizes his leadership and team building. Peter is a mentor to our students, and an inspiration to our swimmers.

Chris Potter was named Coach-of-the-Year for our men’s hockey team. Chris established a new conference record for longest unbeaten streak (13-0-2) during the regular season, and the guys continue their season in the NESCAC semi-finals next weekend. Speaking of men’s hockey, Tim Sestak ’20 was named Player-of-the-Year by the conference for his outstanding play throughout the winter. His uncanny ability to keep the puck out of the goal has been crucial for the Cardinals. In women’s hockey, Allegra Grant ’20 was named to the first NESCAC team this year, as was Walker Harris ’20 on the men’s side.

Spring sports will be here before you know it, but for now let’s give a cheer for these NESCAC honorees!!


Coach Solomon reports:

Wesleyan has 6 women (see below) competing in the Div. III NCAA Championships March 20th – 23rd in Greensboro, NC.  Caroline Murphy is seeded 2nd in the 100-yard Backstroke.  Here is a video of one of the races (400-yard Medley Relay) from our recent NESCAC Championships that Michael may enjoy.  Caroline Murphy is swimming the 1st leg of the relay (backstroke), Mengmeng Gibbs (breaststroke), Grace Middleton (butterfly), & Hannah O’Halloran (freestyle). Hannah is also swimming the 200 backstroke at the NCAAs.

Wesleyan’s relay is in Lane 2 (closest to the camera). The time (3:48.07) was a Varsity Record by 1.4 seconds, 2nd at the Conference Championships, and presently ranked 10th in the country for Div. III.

And this reminds me that Zach Murillo ’19 is off to the NCAA wrestling championship in 125 pound weight class. You can read more about him here.

UPDATE 2 Don’t forget about basketball

Congratulations to Jordan Bonner ’19, Austin Hutcherson ’21 and Caleigh Ryan ’22 for earning NESCAC honors today.  Bonner was named NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year, Hutcherson was named first team all-conference and Caleigh Ryan was recognized as the NESCAC Women’s Basketball Rookie of the Year.