It’s Time to Come Home to Wesleyan!

This weekend is Homecoming/Family Weekend, and we are expecting a great turnout from the Wes family. The activities get underway on Friday, November 3 with a fascinating array of WesSeminars throughout the day. These culminate in the evening at Wesleyan’s RJ Julia Bookstore on Main Street at 7 p.m. when Beverly Daniel Tatum ’75, P ’04, Hon. ’15, will be discussing the revised 20th anniversary edition of her landmark study,  WHY ARE ALL THE BLACK KIDS SITTING TOGETHER IN THE CAFETERIA? And Other Conversations About Race.

There are lots of events on Saturday as well, with topics ranging from the environment to journalism, from photography to immigration. The Dwight Greene lecture features Judge Denise Jefferson Casper ’90 in Memorial Chapel at 4 p.m. Wesleyan alumni created the feature film Patti Cake$, which screens at C-Film at 8 p.m.

We are hoping for  a record-breaking athletic/science event on Foss Hill from 10 am–noon:

The Wesleyan Mathematics and Science Scholars (WesMaSS) Program plans to break the Guinness world record for the largest number of people rolling down a hill within an hour.

Come join the fun and raise Cardinal spirit by having students, staff and the Middletown community work together to break a world record and get into the Guinness Book!

There’s also what promises to be a hotly contested football game against Williams at 1 p.m. GO WES!!

Welcoming Students from University of Puerto Rico

Before my trip to China and Korea, I asked Provost Joyce Jacobsen to work with colleagues on a plan to offer help to students enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico who can not continue their studies because of the devastation caused by the recent hurricane. I am happy to report that Wesleyan is offering a free semester of study in the spring of 2018 to some students currently enrolled in the University of Puerto Rico. Students will be expected to pay tuition at their home institution, and Wesleyan will offer free housing and meals as needed.

Students enrolled at other institutions in Puerto Rico may be eligible as well, and should contact Wesleyan at for more information.

In addition, responding to a request for faculty across the United States who could teach online in Spanish for students at the University of Puerto Rico, James Lipton, professor of computer science at Wesleyan, will be teaching a course in programming in Spanish through videoconferencing software that will be supported by the Center for Pedagogical Innovation.

These are meaningful ways to provide assistance that will make a real difference in student lives. Details are available here, including information regarding how to apply.

Talking about Liberal Education in China and Korea

I write this post from Seoul, South Korea, where in a little while I’ll meet with a group of alumni, parents and prospective students. For the past few days I’ve been in China, giving lectures on liberal education and meeting with Wesleyan folks in Shanghai and Beijing. I try to visit with the Wes community in China on a regular basis, and this year I’m able to spend some time with our friends in Korea.

The interest in liberal education in Asia certainly seems to be growing. I was delighted when my Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters was translated into Korean a few years ago, and now it’s appeared in Chinese translation as well. We had a lively “book launch” in Shanghai, and I lectured at Shanghai International Studies University and Peking University. Tomorrow I head home so that I’m ready to be back in the classroom on Wednesday.

Here are some photos from the trip, courtesy of my colleague Frantz Williams ’99. Both of us were supported (led, really) by Andrew Stuerzel ’05.

Wes Family in Shanghai for book launch of Chinese translation of Beyond the University
With students at Shanghai International Studies University
Seminar with United World College Changshu Seniors
Talking with undergrads at PKU
At PKU with Wesleyan folks
Seoul Wesleyan Reception
Seoul Wes Family
Beijing Wes Family
Go Wes!

Hurricane Relief for the U.S. Virgin Islands

I received the following note from a faculty member and wanted to share it:

As many of you know, many Caribbean islands are still recovering from the devastation caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria last month. The United States Virgin Islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John are the childhood homes of Professors Rashida Shaw McMahon and Tiphanie Yanique, and the current homes of their families. These islands were struck twelve days apart by Irma and Maria, both as category 5 hurricanes. The airports and post offices are now open and, with your help, we would like to send small packages of life-sustaining goods to the region.

To this effort, we have assembled a small relief drive that will run from this Wednesday (October 18th) through next week Friday (October 27th). Donations will be collected in bins located in the Downey House lounge (294 High Street) and The Shapiro Writing Center (116 Mount Vernon), from 8a.m. to 6p.m. Please see below for our list of suggested donations.

We thank you in advance for your consideration, as there are many charities and people in need, both nationally and globally.

Nonperishable candy
Nonperishable snacks
Peanut Butter (small jar)

Coloring books
Paperback books
Playing cards
Miniature board games

Baby wipes
Flushable wipes (i.e. Cottonelle)
Hand sanitizer

Batteries (all sizes)
Bug repellent for skin
Bug spray
Flashlights (small)
Ziploc bags (gallon size)
Ziploc bags (“Big Bags” size for storage)

Intellectual Diversity and Liberal Education

Late in the summer the Hechinger Report asked me to write an opinion piece on the importance of “intellectual diversity.” I cross-post that essay here.

Faculty and administrators know that, in principle, if you are never asked to examine, let alone defend, your beliefs, your education will be deficient.

That’s one of the key reasons we educators value diversity, including intellectual diversity: people with different points of view make you think about what you believe.

When there is a strong ideological bias among faculty and students — which there is at many schools (particularly selective ones in the Northeast) — and when as a result beliefs go unexamined, people will learn less.

I myself share the leftist leanings of the university world, and until a few years ago I supposed them to be just rational dimensions of scholarship or benign assumptions about social justice, fairness and equality.

As I talked about these issues with people outside the academy, however, I had to confront the fact that I was taking for granted many ideas or values that needed discussion and argument.

People who didn’t agree with me about the content of what I called social justice were not actually in favor of injustice. When I turned to my colleagues in the academy, many seemed uninterested in (or even incapable of) discriminating between their own political views and the issues with which they were concerned in their professional work.

One may never be asked to legitimate one’s assumptions (and thus understand them more profoundly) if all participants in the conversation share those same assumptions. That’s why diversity is an educational issue and not just a question of political fairness.

The cultivated parochialism of American college campuses should not be surprising. After all, across America, groups are enclosing themselves in bubbles that protect them from competing points of view, even from disturbing information. This has always happened to some extent; it’s easier to be with people who share your views.

Today, however, we are able to curate the information we receive so that we are validated more than we are informed. As George Packer recently noted, “we live in a time of total vindication, when complication and concession are considered weaknesses, and counter examples are proof of false consciousness.” Academia suffers from some of these same tendencies.

Academia may be vulnerable to protests from the right about hypocritical intellectual intolerance (“left-wing tyranny”), but this is surely a case of “protesting too much.” Intellectual narrow-mindedness is hardly limited to the left. Harvard’s Kennedy School, for example, just rescinded an invitation to Chelsea Manning, who went to jail for disclosing classified information that exposed murderous government misconduct. Harvard disinvited her because of complaints from current and former CIA officials who themselves condone the use of torture. When left wing professors, like Princeton’s Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, give speeches critical of the current regime, they don’t just get criticized; they receive death threats. Conservatives have gotten a lot of mileage out of complaining about so-called campus totalitarians, but intolerance is, in turns out, a widely shared value.

Demonizing people because they have ideas different from your own has always been a temptation, and in recent years it has become a national contagion. College campuses are not at all immune from it, but this malady is fatal for liberal education. Many people are so accustomed to curated information ― be it from social media feeds or just from one’s choice of cable news ― that they have lost the ability to respond thoughtfully to points of view different from their own. Instead of seeing disagreement as an occasion for learning, many today have become so unaccustomed to robust exchanges of ideas that they feel threatened when confronted with information and arguments with which they may disagree or with which they are simply unfamiliar.

This is anathema to pragmatic liberal education, a broad, contextual form of learning that has been the hallmark of American higher education at its best.

We can change this unhappy trajectory. Instead of training our students to call out as morally inferior people with whom they have intellectual differences, we must cultivate curiosity and openness. We must highlight and enhance the consideration of alternative perspectives on culture and society; we must promote vigorous debate that doesn’t degenerate into personal attack. This kind of consideration and debate is increasingly rare in the public sphere, and that’s why it is more important than ever to cultivate the terrain for it on our campuses.

By this I don’t mean inviting provocative entertainers to campus so as to get free speech points at the cost of providing a platform for idiocy and abuse. I mean enhancing conditions for the serious study of alternative visions of justice, freedom, individual rights and communal responsibilities. I mean not just sharing biases with students in acts of solidarity, but testing one’s biases by engaging with ideas that also challenge the campus consensus.

In the late 1960s, many schools steered away from enforced homogeneity and toward creating a campus community in which people could learn from their differences while forming new modes of commonality. This had nothing to do with what has come to be called political correctness or even identity politics. It had to do with preparing students to become lifelong learners who navigate in and contribute to a heterogeneous world after graduation. Today we must ensure that intellectual diversity is part of this mix.

A “dynamic community” is one in which members have to navigate difference — including intellectual and political difference. Their interests, modes of learning, and perspectives on the world should be sufficiently different from one another so as to promote active learning in and outside the classroom.

We want our students to be stimulated by intellectual, aesthetic and political differences; we want them to treat those differences as assets for learning.

The alternative is to shield oneself from difference, to protect one’s prejudices by interacting only with others who share them. A liberal education should enable graduates to see differences among people not as threats but as tools for solving problems and seeking opportunities. We expect graduates to embrace diversity as a source of lifelong learning, personal fulfillment, and creative possibility. Universities want to shape a student body that maximizes each undergraduate’s ability to go beyond his or her comfort zone to draw on resources from the most familiar and the most unexpected places.

Academic departments should be willing to discomfort themselves similarly in hiring new professors. Search committees should see political, cultural and intellectual differences as resources for a more powerful education just as admissions officers do. Intentionally cultivating such diversity in the student body and on the faculty is key to fulfilling the promise of pragmatic liberal education.

Tyshawn Sorey, MacArthur Fellow

His music is challenging and beautiful, makes you want to move, makes you think, makes you feel while you move and think. Tyshawn Sorey is both an alumnus and a new faculty member — and now he is a winner of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship!

Tyshawn Sorey, 2017 MacArthur Fellow, Wesleyan University, Mittletown, CT. on Sept. 21, 2017.

We salute Professor Sorey and look forward to musical adventures over many years to come.


Podcast on Intellectual Diversity and Free Speech

Yesterday I was very pleased to hear the pointed, smart questions posed to lecturer Mark Bauerlein, who was meant to be making arguments about non-conformity and political correctness. Students pointed out that his so-called non-conformity or anti-political correctness has also been a cover for mobs energized by misogyny, racist hatred and resentment. Others emphasized that intellectual diversity shouldn’t only be about adding conservative voices to the campus mix, it should also be about adding perspectives outside of the technocratic, liberal mainstream (and this student didn’t mean more Trump supporters). Wesleyan students and faculty certainly were able to listen and respond to the speaker with critical perspectives from which everyone learned, myself included.

A few weeks ago I was interviewed at Wesleyan about related issues. Here is our conversation about free speech and intellectual diversity, this time in podcast form.

“Where the hell did he get automatic weapons?”

That was the question asked by the brother of Stephen Paddock, the latest American mass murderer whose access to weapons turned whatever madness he had inside into an immense public menace. Of course, our hearts go out to the many, many victims of the carnage, but our thoughts and energies have to turn to prevention. We must implement common sense gun control. I can do no better than to quote Connecticut’s Senator Chris Murphy:

It must be said that nowhere else but in America do these horrific, large-scale mass shootings happen with this degree of regularity. Tragically, this epidemic is uniquely American.

This madness has to stop. And the collective silence from Congress in the face of these mass shootings is complicity — it sends a quiet message that as a legislative body, these murders are something that we are willing to accept.

It’s time for us to stop pretending that there aren’t public policy responses to this epidemic.

There are. And the thoughts and prayers of politicians are cruelly hollow if they are paired with continued legislative indifference. It’s time for Congress to get off its ass and do something.

I am not ashamed to admit that no legislation will suddenly stamp out every act of mass violence in this country. But the excuse that legislative action is not a guarantee that we will prevent future tragedies is just a mask for cowardice, or cold-hearted political calculation.

Should we pass comprehensive background checks? Should we take weapons off the streets that are designed solely to kill lots of people with speed and efficiency? Should we do more to ensure records are getting into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System? Should we act to make sure it’s easier to get mental health care than it is to buy a gun in this country?

Yes. Yes. Yes. To every one of those questions, yes.

At Wesleyan, we can inform ourselves about the role of guns in our history this semester at the Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns. Here’s the schedule.

Human concerns — that’s what will lead us to mourn the victims of this massacre and what must inspire us pass common sense gun control.

Reflecting Again on Free Speech on Campus

The Washington Post asked me to review this slim book on free speech by two senior administrators at the University of California. I repost it here.

Surveys show that more than 70 percent of college students believe that offensive speech should be subject to disciplinary action, and many commentators profess shock at this lack of commitment to the principle of free speech. What’s this country coming to? Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman, academic leaders at the University of California, believe that the commitment to free speech is not only an essential value for any democracy, it is the value upon which all other democratic values depend. They take the “free market” approach to campus speech: Just as more competition in the economic marketplace makes it more likely that goods and services will improve, so more competition in the “marketplace of ideas” makes it more likely that better theories and practices will be developed. The cure for offensive, hurtful talk should be “more speech,” not the regulation of speech. It is through more speech that avenues for social change and scientific advances are created. It is through more speech that bigoted attitudes about minority groups are changed. Free speech, in this view, is the fuel for progress, bending the arc of history toward prosperity, understanding and justice.

As a teacher and president of a university, I find much to agree with in Chemerinsky and Gillman’s account of campus speech issues. And I share their concern that too many people fail to recognize that restrictions on expression have most often been used by those in power to censor those who are trying to create social change. I can admire that the authors, themselves in positions of academic authority, maintain what they call “an instinctive distrust of efforts by authorities to suppress speech.” But I cringe when these senior university officials glorify their favorite examples of liberal social change (such as the first years of the free speech movement at Berkeley) and self-righteously proclaim, “If you value social order and conformity more highly than you value liberty and democracy, then you will not support free speech no matter what else we say.” Readers may be forgiven for wondering whether they must be conformists if they fail to agree.

To find justifications for their dogmatic approach to freedom of expression, these fundamentalists, like so many others, look to the past. “History demonstrates,” they write with abandon, “that there is no way to define an unacceptable, punishment-worthy idea without putting genuinely important new thinking and societal critique at risk.” Their rhetoric suggests that a succession of horrible events will be the unintended consequence of even modest restraints on expression. If any idea is regulated, they seem to think, all ideas are at risk for censorship. As many have done before them, they quote John Milton’s argument that individual opinions must be allowed to flourish if we are to pursue truth. But as Stanley Fish has pointed out, Milton indeed defended diversity of opinion — among Protestants but not Catholics: “Them we extirpate,” Milton wrote.

Fish and others have underscored that defenses of free speech always exclude something. For Milton, it was Catholics; for some today, it might be child pornography or incitements to violence. Usually, the exclusions can be enforced informally by social or professional pressure (appeals to civility, ostracism), but borders for acceptable speech also get codified in rules and regulations. And there are always borders.

Even Chemerinsky and Gillman recognize that the marketplace of ideas on campus needs some regulation. Harassing speech can be punished, they aver, but only if true harassment is taking place. Although they don’t acknowledge it, this is a political determination — a judgment about discrimination, history and power. They write that “speech should be subject to punishment if it causes a reasonable person to fear for his or her safety,” but they insist that only physical safety counts. This, too, is a political judgment about what really counts as harm. Making judgments about harassment is something professors and administrators have to do — but there is no evidence that this leads to conformism or authoritarian control of expression.

Issues concerning either the Citizens United ruling or the value of equality don’t get much attention in “Free Speech on Campus.” And the failure of the marketplace of ideas to create intellectual diversity on many campuses goes unremarked. To be fair, this is a very brief book, and it does a solid job of exploring some of the issues facing professors, administrators and students today. Chemerinsky and Gillman maintain that professional norms should determine how people speak in class, but they are adamant that outside the classroom any regulation of expression must ignore the content of what is being said. They are convinced that the regulation of content, even when the intention is to protect the vulnerable, puts us on a path to authoritarian censorship.


By Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman

Yale. 197 pp. $26