Hamilton Prize Winner Audrey Pratt  

Yesterday I had the wonderful opportunity to call Audrey Pratt, a senior at Needham High School in Massachusetts, to tell her that she is the winner of the 2017 Hamilton Prize for Creativity. Audrey submitted a short story, and her work was selected through a process that included faculty rankings and final selection by an all-star committee of creative Wesleyan alumni.

Audrey’s “Thorns, Black and White,” is a spooky, unsettling tale. One of the judges called her “a startling and inventive writer.” Another said she “demonstrates sharp narrative instinct…generic suppleness…and raw writing talent/love of words.”

Audrey, who was accepted to Wesleyan early decision, is a top student at her public high school. The committees reading her work didn’t know this, but I can add that she had nearly perfect standardized test scores and is a captain on her school’s speech and debate team.

One member of the alumni jury had this to say about the range of work submitted for the prize: “Very impressed with all of these. What an artistic group of people. I can’t believe that artists this age are so active in so many forms.”

So active in so many forms….. that’s a great description of many Wesleyan students as they develop their creative capacities in a variety of fields, from chemistry and religion, to music and economics. We look forward to welcoming Audrey Pratt as she joins their ranks!!

CONGRATULATIONS, AUDREY PRATT, WINNER OF THE 2017 HAMILTON PRIZE FOR CREATIVITY!!

Casablanca and the Past on Film

This essay on Casablanca and teaching Philosophy and the Movies appeared in last week’s issue of the Chronicle Review. I’ve been teaching this class in various configurations for more than 20 years — and some of what I describe here (like watching Now, Voyager) is based on my experiences several years ago. Each week, I watch the movies with my students, and this year I’ve been particularly gratified by the applause that follows every screening, and the good questions that arise for class the next day. The films are steeped on old conventions, but my Wesleyan students most of the time find ways to open themselves to their power as works of art. I don’t know how to show that the films themselves are “timeless,” but the questions to which they give rise seem to be. 

 

At Wesleyan I teach a course called “The Past on Film,” and one of the films screened is Casablanca, now celebrating its 75th anniversary. It’s the most iconic (and possibly also the most romantic and political) American film on the syllabus, and on my way to class to talk about it, I found myself even more curious than usual about students’ reactions.

In a media landscape in which each individual “chooses” only what algorithms predict he or she will like, would the status “iconic” even be meaningful to them? In a political landscape filled with ultra-jaded cynics, how would they react to a movie that meant to bolster a nation’s commitment to fight for its values?

Today, an almost endless stream of films is readily available. But most students have difficulty getting beyond their everyday habits — the ways they get pleasure from the screen. Not only do I have to forbid the distractions of competing devices in the classroom, I have to encourage students to open themselves to the pace, the acting styles, and the conventions of classical Hollywood cinema. I push my smart, hip, and often progressive students to give up their condescending attitude toward the past.

It is easier to do this with literature and philosophy than with film — perhaps because movies are familiar to students in a visceral way. They are ready to vote “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” on a movie more quickly than on a novel by Virginia Woolf. They don’t need a teacher to “get” a melodrama about an overbearing parent (we watch Now, Voyager, 1942) in the same way they might be willing to rely on a teacher when reading To the Lighthouse (1927). So, when something in an old movie strikes them as “cheesy” or violates their political sensibilities, they are quick to react — often, quick to close themselves off from further engagement. Most of my undergraduates believe it’s a great taboo to be intolerant of others, but intolerance of the past escapes the self-scrutiny of even the most eagle-eyed critics of “privilege.”

Casablanca is usually the movie on my syllabus with which students are most familiar. As Noah Isenberg details in his excellent new book We’ll Always Have Casablanca, the 1942 film is a case study of how history gets depicted for popular entertainment, but it is also a powerful example of how the Hollywood machine produced work that intersected with political commitment while still holding fast to its romantic conventions.

Like Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick Blaine, in 1941 many Americans embraced neutrality — tired of “foreign entanglements” and feeling deceived by participation in World War I. As Rick famously repeats in the first half of the film, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” Gradually, however, with the help of Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), he awakens to his responsibility to others and “who he really is.” That is someone prepared to sacrifice the happiness of “three little people” for the greater good. Not someone looking for a fight, and certainly not a bully, Rick is an American ideal — someone who accepts his duty to do good in a world gone crazy.

My students tend to be skeptical of this aspirational image of the American — though perhaps some feign skepticism in the face of a campus culture that often views loyalty to country as an oppressive force meant to preserve patterns of unjust domination. But when there are Nazis in the picture, it is harder to retreat into irony about all forms of political engagement, and this year I felt solidarity percolating in the screening room as the resistance fighter Victor Laszlo leads the band in singing the “Marseillaise” to drown out the voices of the German officers.

Students are especially interested to learn that the team that made Casablanca was dominated by immigrants, refugees in one way or another from Hitler. Michael Curtiz, the director, was Hungarian, and the crew was filled with actors and technicians who had fled to Hollywood from other countries. The evil Major Strasser was played by Conrad Veidt, who noted the irony of getting star treatment for portraying the kind of character who had forced him to leave his homeland.

This year, the immigrant story at the heart of Casablanca is more powerful than ever. Many of my students are sympathetic to refugees escaping brutal conditions, and in our current political atmosphere this is no small thing. But Casablanca’s themes go deeper than that, depicting a world in which people are willing to work together across differences for shared political goals. There can be no litmus test of political or moral purity when the threat is real and the task is to find common ground from which to take effective action.

On college campuses it is easy to stay locked in the bubble of one’s own friends and allies. A campus may, like Rick’s cafe, pride itself on diversity, but student groups (and faculty allies) often self-segregate, so they rarely put aside their differences to join forces, or increase mutual understanding through conversation and debate.

While administrators talk a lot about helping the world, colleges often seem content to prepare students to maximize personal gain after graduating, encouraging a retreat into a private life in which other people’s problems and political struggles don’t inspire concern — let alone commitment and action.

Despite the lofty rhetoric, colleges are reluctant to stick their necks out for anybody, except their own students, alumni, and faculty. Casablanca forces us to consider what it takes for good people to act in a corrupt world, not just turn their noses up at the corruption. What does it take to say “no” to abuses of power? How does one come to risk one’s life by publicly affirming basic human values?”

These are questions that Casablanca raised when it was released 75 years ago. Today’s undergrads may resist its earnestness and romanticism, and they can easily point out deficiencies in its portrayal of race and gender. But Casablanca’s story of how diversity and solidarity can be combined to fight tyranny still resonates, even if that combination remains more aspiration than reality on campuses. I suppose that’s one reason I continue to teach the film: When neutrality is no longer an option, aspiration counts for a lot.

Can lessons of the humanities help solve problems in the business world?

This book review appeared in Sunday’s Washington Post.

In the introduction to Sensemaking, Christian Madsbjerg writes that “when we devalue humanistic endeavors, we lose our best opportunity for exploring worlds different from our own.” Here, it would appear, is a business book to prop up the spirits of humanists (like me) who worry that over-investment in any discipline that relies only on big data and algorithms is shortsighted and stultifying. Madsbjerg, the founder of the business strategy consulting firm ReD, tells us that the shift to STEM is “doing great damage to our businesses, governments, and institutions.” He counsels, instead, “sensemaking,” by which he means a holistic approach to solving problems: “a method of practical wisdom grounded in the humanities.” Humanists should welcome better translators of academic ideas into nonacademic domains. But we must be careful what we wish for.

Sensemaking repeats many of the lessons of Madsbjerg’s 2014 The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems, a volume co-authored with his ReD partner Mikkel Rasmussen. Martin Heidegger is the intellectual hero of both books — his name used mostly to legitimate the idea that we should pay attention to the world around us and to the ways that human beings construct a world of meaning even as we perceive that world. Heidegger, of course, never practiced anything like the research Madsbjerg recommends. Indeed, the philosopher would have been appalled to see his meditations on the Being of beings used by consultants to increase the revenue of a supermarket chain by redefining its mission as providing cooking experiences rather than just groceries.

Madsbjerg marshals Heidegger, T.S. Eliot, Henry Ford (Ford Motor Co. has been his client) and other luminaries in the service of his argument that we need a complex, multi-layered approach to the most interesting problems facing businesses today. We need techniques from literature, history and philosophy to help us understand what it is like to experience the world from another person’s perspective. But for all his talk about paying attention to the contexts of other people, Madsbjerg has almost nothing to say about the contexts of the thinkers he favors. For example, anti-Semitism was a key part of the worlds constructed by Heidegger, Ford and Eliot. One finds no mention of any of this in Sensemaking because its author just cherry-picks the ideas that fit into a strategy that sells.

Madsbjerg gives lots of examples of business leaders and consultants who get their best ideas when they move away from mere data, when they listen to their bodies. What in 2014 he called “moments of clarity” he now calls “grace,” a special way of being that is both active and receptive. He tells stories of successful investors and creators whose hunches defied common sense and the easiest reading of the data. In his happy examples, people went with the flow and won big. Madsbjerg doesn’t include any stories of people who got terrible ideas by paying attention to their bodies, about failed attempts to implement the inspiration that came to someone while running or about disastrous decisions made on gut feelings. One doesn’t need algorithms to see the selection bias in Madsbjerg’s approach.

The author may indeed be right that the “hardest and most lucrative problems of the coming century are cultural.” But calling something cultural and extoling the virtues of “analytical empathy” are not grounds enough for making sense of diverse environments, solving deep-seated problems or exploring potential opportunities. For these complex tasks, we need more than a light humanistic experience of drive-by philosophy. The problems of the coming century will require a deeper engagement with the humanities and with data than Madsbjerg provides in Sensemaking.

Threats to Academic Freedom in Europe and at Home

Cross-posted with the Washington Post.

In recent weeks, we have seen a barrage of news showing the fragility of support for freedom of inquiry and expression. After disturbances at Middlebury and Claremont McKenna College, Ann Coulter has drawn media attention for being threatened with unmanageable protests at UC Berkeley. Apparently, being denied the opportunity to hold forth at UC Berkeley has made her inflammatory nastiness attractive to those who would otherwise ignore her attempts at provocation. The talk has since been rescheduled on campus. As Robert Reich, who teaches at Berkeley, noted: “How can students understand the vapidity of Coulter’s arguments without being allowed to hear her make them, and question her about them?” What’s next? Will Bill O’Reilly be called a champion of free speech because some university administration denies him a platform to speak on women’s issues?

We must recognize the rights of protestors while at the same time ensuring that those invited to speak on our campuses get a hearing. At most colleges, this proceeds without incident, because invitations go to scholars or other public figures accustomed to engaging in dialogue based in evidence and reasoning. However, when entertainers or other celebrities are invited because of their ability to provoke, we should not be all that surprised that some members of a campus community are in fact provoked. But attempting to shut down speakers is a sign of weakness not strength, and it plays into the hands of those who in the long run want to undermine the ability of colleges and universities to expand how we think and what we know.

As I wrote in this space a few years ago: We learn most when we are ready to recognize how many of our ideas are just conventional, no matter how “radical” we think those ideas might be. We learn most when we are ready to consider challenges to our values from outside our comfort zones of political affiliation and personal ties. …My role as a university president includes giving students opportunities to make their views heard, and to learn from reactions that follow. Debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are uncomfortable. As members of a university community, we always have the right to respond with our opinions, but, as many free speech advocates have underscored, there is no right not to be offended. Censorship diminishes true diversity of thinking; vigorous debate enlivens and instructs.

While we in the United States fret about whether right wing provocateurs can speak in the evening or the afternoon (the current issue at Berkeley), a far more dire situation has developed in Budapest. The Hungarian government is trying to shut down Central European University, a major beacon of research and teaching. The university was supported by George Soros (a multiple Wesleyan parent, by the way), and is currently led by Michael Ignatieff, a champion of freedom of inquiry. The right-wing government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has put enormous pressure on CEU, but supporters around the world have rallied to its defense. We should too!

Here is a letter recently drafted by Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy with bipartisan support:

We are writing today with concern about legislation passed by the National Assembly that threatens the existence of Central European University, an accredited U.S. institution of higher learning and one of Europe’s most renowned universities. Since its founding in 1991, Central European University in Budapest has demonstrated a commitment to rigorous academic study, outstanding scholarly research, and a diverse student body. It has also played an important role in developing cultural and academic ties between Hungary and the United States through student exchanges and study abroad programs that benefit both our countries. In so doing, Central European University has become one of the highest-ranked universities in Europe, bringing new opportunities and prestige to Hungarian citizens.

As you know, the legislation includes a requirement that foreign-accredited universities operate a campus in their own countries. It includes exceptions that would apply to the other 27 international universities in Hungary, so that in the end it applies solely to CEU. This legislation threatens academic freedom and disregards the longstanding relationship Central European University has with the Hungarian people. Cooperation and exchanges in the field of education are foundational elements of the Helsinki Final Act. Instead of shutting down academic institutions that expand bilateral relationships, we should be working together to strengthen them and expand their accessibility.

Ultimately, we fear that this legislation puts at risk academic institutions and academic freedom in Hungary. The Hungarian people have long benefited from Central European University’s educational activities in your country. We encourage you to work with Central European University to find a solution that ensures their continued place as an important center of higher education in Europe and a valuable link between our two countries.

When freedom of inquiry and expression is threatened on campus, it will be threatened elsewhere in society. In the long run, it’s the most vulnerable who have the most to lose.

From Music to Lacrosse to Theater to Science

It’s a great time to catch student achievement on campus. There are plays and art installations, theses to read, and competitions to watch. Last week I was privileged to hear two frosh play pieces in the Elizabeth Tishler piano competition. Receiving honorary mention was Yujie Cai ’20, beautifully playing a program that was both challenging and inviting.

Yujie Cai
Yujie Cai

Ari Liu ’20 is the winner of the of the Tishler award this year. Ari made artful transitions among composers not always thought about in the same breath, and the result was totally enthralling.

Ari Liu
Ari Liu

After WesFest was over, I had the pleasure of seeing the women’s lacrosse team win a great game against NESCAC rival Bowdoin. Meanwhile, the men’s team was winning its match against the Polar Bears up in Maine. Both teams have won Little Three Crowns this year, the first time that’s ever happened in the same year.

While the art exhibitions have been crowd pleasers in the Zilkha Gallery, students in theater have been busy putting on shows of all kinds. I heard great things about Spring Awakening last week (too hard to get a ticket!), and this weekend Second Stage is presenting A Chorus Line. I plan to see the department’s play The Islands, and we are really looking forward to that.

Today I had the privilege of attending the science poster session to hear what kinds of research our undergraduates are doing. I heard about empathy, and I heard about eating disorders. I learned about biophysics and about astronomy. I even had a lesson in Necroplanetology (the student didn’t want his picture taken)!

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How to Choose (Our) University

The crowds that we see visiting campus this week remind us that it is crunch time for many high school seniors. Those fortunate enough to have choices about what college to attend will make a big decision: picking the college that is just right for them. They are trying to envision where 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. There are some schools with larger endowments that can afford to be even more generous than Wes, but there are hundreds (thousands?) of others that are unable even to consider meeting financial need over four years of study. Our school is expensive because it costs a lot to maintain the quality of our programs. But 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?

Knowing that these schools all provide a high-quality, broad and flexible curriculum with strong teaching, and that the students all have displayed great academic capacity, prospective students are trying to discern the personalities of each school. They are trying to imagine themselves on the campus, among the people they see, 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 and why there will be the great surge starting today for WesFest. 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 get a sense of the personality of the school that I so admire and enjoy. I hope they feel the 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.

Whatever college or university students choose, I hope they get three things out 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:

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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 the fields in which they work. The commitment of our faculty says a lot about who we are, as does the camaraderie around the completion of senior projects that we are seeing right now on campus.  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.

Indian students are embracing liberal education

Not long ago I visited with people interested in Wesleyan and liberal education in Mumbai and Jaipur. The conversations we had were very stimulating, and I left India thinking there were many in that country interested in broad, inter-connected, and pragmatic learning. On April 5, I published some reflections on my visit in Inside Higher Education, and I have posted that essay below.

Earlier this semester I traveled to India to talk about the importance of a broad, contextual education — a pragmatic liberal education. Over the last few years, Indian students fortunate enough to have choices about where to pursue their studies have been, like their counterparts in China, increasingly interested in American liberal arts colleges and universities. They see the virtues of studying a variety of subjects before committing to specialization, and they are attracted to small classes and the opportunities to really get to know their teachers. Granted, this is a very small segment of the population, but it is one that, with the growth in the Indian economy, is getting larger every year.

India’s higher education system is the third largest in the world and is expanding at a startling pace. As University of Pennsylvania political scientist Devesh Kapur has noted, over the last few years several new Indian colleges or universities have opened their doors every single day. Most of those institutions are narrowly and professionally focused: engineering, technology, pharmacy and the like. Similar to for-profit universities in the United States, they attract students with the promise of specialized training in specific skills. Yet such for-profits all too often wind up graduating men and women who have a terribly difficult time finding jobs where they can apply what they have learned. Also, when things change, those graduates can find that their skills have become obsolete. And today, things change fast.

The strongest traditional universities in India, like those in Great Britain and many European countries, encourage early specialization. However, many of the families, teachers and students I met with in Mumbai questioned why one’s destiny needed to be decided at age 15. How could one be so sure that engineering or business or medicine was the right path without having had the opportunity to explore a variety of fields — or to develop habits of inquiry and a work ethic to make that exploration productive?

There are signs of change. Education leaders across Asia have become interested in moving away from exam-dominated curricula and their requisite memorization and toward experiential, interdisciplinary learning aimed at exploring connections between research and action. Having traditionally insisted on early vocational specialization, universities in India, South Korea and China are now considering how best to encourage the inquiry, collaboration and experimentation that are key to the American pragmatic traditions of liberal education.

Inquiry, collaboration across differences and courageous experimentation require freedom of thought, freedom of speech and the free circulation of ideas. Conformity is the bane of authentic education. A liberal education includes deepening one’s ability to learn from people with whom one does not agree — an ability all the more important in the face of illiberal forces at work in the world today.

As Pankaj Mishra argues in his new book, Age of Anger , the populist politics of resentment sweeping across many countries substitute demonization for curiosity. New provincialisms and nationalisms are gaining force through fear-based politics. Such orchestrated parochialism is antithetical to liberal learning, and liberal learning is one way to counteract it.

That’s one of the reasons why it’s so disturbing to see outbreaks of intolerance on American college campuses. We expect more from our educational institutions. Troubling though occasional outbursts against provocative speakers may be, they should cause far less concern than American policies that scapegoat immigrants or filter ideas through know-nothing nationalism. A refusal on our campuses to counter ideas with arguments, and the easy recourse to juvenile chants and thuggery are indeed signs of educational failure. But I am confident that faculty, students and administrators will find ways to correct this. I am far less sanguine about the ability of our political leaders to find ways to use evidence, reason together and learn from their differences.

Learning across differences in a context of change is a core aspect of liberal education, and the students, business leaders and professors whom I met in India recognized the power of this pedagogy in the contemporary world. Almost everywhere one looks today — throughout the world — one sees dramatic changes that are eliminating old jobs and creating new ones. Those adept at using a variety of methodologies have experienced “intellectual cross-training”; they have developed the capacity to continue learning so as to be more empowered to deal with an ever-changing environment.

The importance of technical expertise is obvious, but the problems confronting our world today cannot be addressed by technical specialization alone. Environmental degradation, increasing inequality, international political tensions — these are complex issues that demand the kind of holistic thinking characteristic of liberal education. Perhaps that’s why some leaders in India are eager to create new institutions that build on the work of traditional educational theorists like Rabindranath Tagore and the example of contemporary institutions like Ashoka University, which has been in the vanguard of offering a liberal arts education in that country.

In Jaipur, I participated in a panel discussion in which everyone deplored the creativity-killing effects of premature specialization. Business strategist Tarun Khanna told the story of a team he works with that has developed an excellent treatment for diabetes. Without an interdisciplinary approach that included communications, cultural studies and design, the medical advances would have gone nowhere. Members of interdisciplinary teams learn from one another because they approach issues from very different perspectives: pragmatic liberal education at work.

I am encouraged to see more Indian students coming to liberal arts colleges and universities like mine to pursue a broadly interdisciplinary education that they can put to work in the world. With the current administration’s legitimation of hostility to immigrants, this trend may not continue. Be that as it may, I am even more encouraged to know of Indian educators and entrepreneurs developing plans to create higher education institutions in their country that will provide a much larger number of students the opportunity to combine science, the arts, the humanities and social sciences into creative endeavors that will have positive benefits for economic, cultural and political life. Liberal education will prove to be pragmatic for those students, and for India, too.

Time to Plan Your Summer Session!

The weather is slowly turning spring-like, and that means that students will soon be meeting with advisors to plan their fall schedules. As undergraduates think about their future studies, they can also still plan to take a summer class (or two). There’s plenty to learn; it can help one flesh out one’s schedule — or even save big bucks by graduating early. As Jennifer Curran recently announced:

Many students take Summer Session courses to fulfill major requirements, to give themselves more scheduling options during the year, or to take advantage of the quieter campus, smaller class sizes, and intense focus on just one or two topics at a time. 

Summer course information is online at http://wesleyan.edu/summer/curriculum/index.html and also in Wesmaps: https://iasext.wesleyan.edu/regprod/!wesmaps_page.html?summer_crse_list=&term=1176

Registration is open now. To register, students print out a form found in their portfolio, fill it out, get a signature from their advisor, then submit it to the Continuing Studies office with tuition payment. 

If you or your advisees need any additional assistance, please contact us at 860-685-2005 or summer@wesleyan.edu.

There is a wide variety of classes this summer, from screenwriting and painting to biology and chemistry. Session One is from May 29-July 1st. Session Two July 6-August 4.

Grade Inflation Ends Today!

Update: Happy April Fools’ Day!

While lots of people are focused on the change of mascots at Wesleyan—we’ve been the Cardinals for more than 100 years and we are shifting to the squirrel—I want to talk about something serious.

Grade Inflation

The average grade at Wesleyan, like many other colleges and universities in our peer group, has crept up over the years. We are at an A- now, and like many of the Ivies and NESCAC schools we give more “As” than any other grade.

This ends today.

I have met with faculty leadership and we have made a decision. Effective immediately, we are implementing the reverse curve.  We must find a way to keep students engaged and stimulated. From now on, all grades will be reduced by a full letter. If your work traditionally would have received an A+ from your professor, it will now be a B+; a B+ will become a C+, and so on. This reverse curve can be avoided by taking everything Pass/Fail.

I know this will be unpopular, but in the long run it will be better for all of us, and especially for pragmatic liberal education in America. Getting high grades is a form of privilege, and we should no longer participate in this charade of normative, hierarchical thinking. I know the Wesleyan family, a caring and forward-thinking community that prides itself on fairness, will eventually thank me.

We will EXPAND RECOGNITION of Wesleyan as a National Leader in the struggle against grade inflation.

We are investigating whether, and to what extent, we can make this retroactive. We have hired a great group of lawyers from the Federal Liaison in the Undertaking of National Knowledge  — a new initiative from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — to help us in this regard. Starting today, we turn the tide back against the privilege of high grades.

Campus Update

Yesterday afternoon I sent the following message to the Wesleyan community:

Dear friends,

Welcome back from spring break! As we move toward the end of the year, I want to report back on two important developments in our Equity and Inclusion work: the external review of Wesleyan’s Title IX policies and procedures, and our plans to open a student Resource Center.

I want to express my appreciation to the Victim Rights Law Center (VRLC) for providing us with a comprehensive assessment of the ways in which our Title IX policies and practices affect students, faculty, and staff. The VRLC addresses three major themes: reorganization, training, and communication. We must ensure that staff roles are appropriate and clear; offer additional training to help all members of our community better understand our processes; and assure that our policies and procedures are clear and easy to find. The report offers much more detail that I hope will stimulate robust discussion and actions by the relevant offices.

The VRLC suggests several improvements. We need to build trust in our people and processes and reduce complexity wherever possible. We are working with appropriate committees on specific recommendations. The report also notes that our students have strong peer support, faculty members are committed and engaged, our partnerships with community agencies are strong, and the campus community, in its culture and conversations, understands the importance of Title IX related issues. We have work to do, but we can build on these strengths.

Another important step in our efforts to enhance inclusiveness on campus is the creation of a student Resource Center to advocate for students through a mission grounded in social justice with an awareness of what students require to thrive. I want to thank the members of the Equity & Inclusion Steering Committee for envisioning how the Resource Center, as their report notes, will help to meet the needs of students who are most vulnerable, maintain awareness of matters related to intolerance and inaccessibility, and empower collective work to address root issues of injustice and inequity. In this regard we will be helped by our new Dean for Equity & Inclusion, Teshia Levy-Grant, who has extensive experience in anti-bias education in and out of the classroom.

We will soon begin a search for a director of the Resource Center, and we have identified a space (the current Shapiro Creative Writing Center) that we will renovate for opening next fall, a year ahead of the original schedule.

Finally, I would like to solicit comments on Beyond 2020, the addendum to our strategic plan. The document is organized around the three overarching goals of our 2010 plan—energizing the distinctive Wesleyan education experience, building recognition of the university, and maintaining a sustainable economic model. The current draft has greater specificity about investments in faculty, financial aid, and facilities—investments made possible by the success of our THIS IS WHY campaign.

As the semester comes to an activity-filled close, I look forward to welcoming admitted students during WesFest, cheering on our spring athletic teams, and celebrating the many student performances and exhibitions. Commencement will be here before we know it!

Michael S. Roth

President