On Political Correctness, Free Speech and Higher Education

This morning the Washington Post published the op-ed below in Valerie Strauss’s education blog, The Answer Sheet. I reproduce it here. 

It would be hard to find a period in peacetime when our government has made a more concerted effort to undermine freedom of inquiry and expression. These attacks start with the press and extend to education. Every week President Trump takes aim at journalists, calling them enemies of the people, or deriding sources he dislikes as “fake news.” As many have documented, his administration has engaged in an assault on the very notions of investigation and truth, doubling down on lies about Russian cyberattacks, economic markets and tariffs, and his own past behavior.

Along with attacks on the press have come attacks on colleges and universities. The link between them is the idea of being politically correct. President Trump made political correctness his personal bogeyman, so that when challenged about any variety of salacious improprieties, he would respond that he didn’t have time to be politically correct, or, put more stridently, “political correctness is killing our country.”

Last week Attorney General Jeff Sessions joined the gratuitous, overheated criticism of higher education — which remains one of the sectors of American culture and economy that has continued to attract respect and engagement from the best and brightest from around the world. Participating in the pile-on culture he claims to deride, Sessions attacked the usual caricatures in his speech to a gathering of conservative students: “Through ‘trigger warnings’ about ‘microaggressions,’ cry closets, ‘safe spaces,’ optional exams, therapy goats, and grade inflation, too many schools are coddling our young people and actively preventing them from scrutinizing the validity of their beliefs. That is the exact opposite of what they are supposed to do.”

In the wake of the awful cruelties and dramatic embarrassments of the Trump administration in regard to immigration and foreign policy, these kinds of attacks are nothing more than a political distraction. At a time when law enforcement is separating families and the racist rhetoric of “infestation” has become a regular part of national presidential discourse, we must recognize that criticizing pc culture is just a fig leaf for intimidating those with less power.

When confronted with scandal, conflicts of interest and the inequitable distribution of resources, it’s far too easy to fall back on talk about threats to conservative activists on campus. I have argued before that many universities should do more to represent conservative points of view in their approaches to the humanities and social sciences. And there is plenty of room for improvement in our efforts to cultivate intellectual diversity. But it is downright unseemly to hear speakers trumpeting their own courage in “not being pc” as they attack especially vulnerable groups in society. As the midterm election battles develop, we should expect to see candidates rush to show they can stand up to this phantom force against speaking one’s mind. Racism and xenophobia get a free pass when folded into an attack on pc elitism.

When his audience of high school students began repeating the irresponsible, uninformed chant from the last campaign, “lock her up,” our nation’s foremost guardian of due process and law enforcement had an opportunity to educate them. Did he take that opportunity?  No, he smiled and joined in the groupthink, while also hypocritically calling for “the molding of a generation of mature and well-informed adults.” He went on to claim that colleges and universities “are doing everything they can to create a generation of sanctimonious, sensitive, supercilious snowflakes.” With the moral spinelessness and alliterative verve of Spiro Agnew, Jeff Session played to his base while championing openness to others.

Political correctness remains a scapegoat with strange powers to titillate liberal and conservative writers alike. Sure, there are campus groups that form around common values and ideas, and sometimes a group can be close-minded. But on my college campus and others I’ve visited, I also see vigorous discussion within the faculty about ideas that matter, and I hear plenty of students rebelling against the notion that young people all think alike. Campuses are challenging places when they cultivate diversity of perspective, a sense of belonging and a common devotion to rigorous inquiry. In an America where there is deep polarization and segregation, one might ask if there are other places today where these arguments are taking place among people from very different backgrounds, and where the conclusions aren’t set in advance.

While the president legitimates fatuous attacks on the press and education, on inquiry and truth telling, let’s recognize the constructive value of ongoing debate, intellectual diversity and rigorous inquiry. These have made American universities attractive to people from all over the world, while our government officials offer a spectacle of cruelty, pandering and corruption.

Time for Summer Sendoffs!

One of the first things Kari and I did after I was appointed Wesleyan’s president in 2007 was to attend a Summer Sendoff. We were living in Berkeley at the time, and the gathering of Wesleyans from around the Bay Area was both welcoming and exciting. We are grateful to the parents and alumni who host these special events at which pre-frosh get to meet others just starting their college careers. This year members of the class of ’22 will also discover the alumni and parent network, a resource that will be part of their lives for decades.

  • Summer Sendoffs are starting this month in New York and will be occurring around the globe.
  • These casual gatherings are the perfect opportunity to welcome our newest students and their families to Wesleyan.
  • All alumni, students and their families, faculty, staff and friends are invited.
  • Specific details and registration can be found here.

If you send in photos, we can add some to this blog post.

Defend Affirmative Action

About a year ago the Trump administration shook up higher education when news leaked that it was to “redirect resources” of its civil rights division “toward investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants.” Recently, the administration weighed in on the lawsuit against Harvard University that claims that the ways Harvard takes race into account discriminates against Asian-American applicants. This week the Departments of Education and Justice rescinded Obama-era guidelines that encouraged taking race into account in a holistic admissions process as a path towards the educational benefits of having a diverse campus.

This last move by the Trump administration was not surprising, but it does not change the law. Given recent court decisions, colleges and universities are still free to develop policies that take race into account in relation to a number of other factors in their efforts to create a diverse educational environment. Wesleyan University will continue to use our nuanced, holistic admissions procedures, which act affirmatively on our core priorities and values ― including diversity.

Promoting access to a high-quality education has been key to turning American rhetoric of equality into genuine opportunity. And throughout our history, elites threatened by equality, or just by social mobility, have joined together to block access for groups striving to improve their prospects in life. In the 20th century, policies were enacted to keep immigrants out of colleges and universities and to limit the number of Jews who enrolled. In more recent decades, referenda and legislators in states red and blue have attempted to block consideration of race at public universities, undermining opportunity for minorities, especially African-Americans.

Creating a diverse campus is in the interest of all students, and it offers those from racial minorities opportunities that have historically been denied them. That’s why governing boards and admissions deans have crafted policies to find students from underrepresented groups for whom a strong education will have a transformative, even liberating effect.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has written that the equal protection clause of the Constitution “guarantees that the majority may not win by stacking the political process against minority groups permanently, forcing the minority alone to surmount unique obstacles in pursuit of its goals ― here, educational diversity that cannot reasonably be accomplished through race-neutral measures.”

Many citizens, but particularly citizens from racial and ethnic minorities, have turned to the federal government to ensure access to political and economic opportunity. That’s why it’s particularly appalling to see the Trump administration attempting to push higher education away from affirmative action. This latest threat to higher education ― like recent decisions undermining voting rights and plans for a “merit-based” immigration system ― is at its core another attempt by elites to hold on to their privileges by limiting access to political participation, social mobility and economic opportunity.

We who work in educational institutions must push back against this threat, recognizing our responsibility to provide real opportunity to those groups who historically have been most marginalized.

College and university admissions programs are not the place to promote partisan visions of social justice, but they are the place to produce the most dynamic and profound learning environments. Higher education institutions need more (not less) diversity broadly conceived ― including intellectual diversity ― and we should enhance our efforts to make them inclusive, dynamic places of learning through difference. A retreat from affirmative action will just return us to the orchestrated parochialism of the past. We must resist it.

Inspiring Fourth of July!

In one of the great speeches of American history, in 1852 Frederick Douglass reminded Americans of the sinful inconsistency that was the perpetuation of slavery, “a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic.”

You declare, before the world, and are understood by the world to declare, that you “hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal; and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; and that, among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;” and yet, you hold securely, in a bondage which, according to your own Thomas Jefferson, “is worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose,” a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country.

…notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work The downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind.

In the summer of 1876, marking one hundred years since the founding of the United States, Susan B. Anthony’s words resounded:

 Our faith is firm and unwavering in the broad principles of human rights proclaimed in 1776, not only as abstract truths, but as the cornerstones of a republic. Yet we cannot forget, even in this glad hour, that while all men of every race, and clime, and condition, have been invested with the full rights of citizenship under our hospitable flag, all women still suffer the degradation of disfranchisement.

It was the boast of the founders of the republic, that the rights for which they contended were the rights of human nature. If these rights are ignored in the case of one-half the people, the nation is surely preparing for its downfall. Governments try themselves….Woman’s wealth, thought and labor have cemented the stones of every monument man has raised to liberty.

And now, at the close of a hundred years, as the hour-hand of the great clock that marks the centuries points to 1876, we declare our faith in the principles of self-government; our full equality with man in natural rights; that woman was made first for her own happiness, with the absolute right to herself–to all the opportunities and advantages life affords for her complete development; and we deny that dogma of the centuries, incorporated in the codes of all nations–that woman was made for man–her best interests, in all cases, to be sacrificed to his will. We ask of our rulers, at this hour, no special favors, no special privileges, no special legislation. We ask justice, we ask equality, we ask that all the civil and political rights that belong to citizens of the United States, be guaranteed to us and our daughters forever.

In the summer of 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a stirring speech on Independence Day.

In 1776 we waged war in behalf of the great principle that Government should derive its just powers from the consent of the governed. In other words, representation chosen in free elections. In the century and a half that followed, this cause of human freedom swept across the world.

But now, in our generation—in the past few years—a new resistance, in the form of several new practices of tyranny, has been making such headway that the fundamentals of 1776 are being struck down abroad and definitely they are threatened here,

It is, indeed, a fallacy, based on no logic at all, for any Americans to suggest that the rule of force can defeat human freedom in all the other parts of the world and permit it to survive in the United States alone. But it has been that childlike fantasy itself- that misdirected faith—which has led Nation after Nation to go about their peaceful tasks, relying on the thought, and even the promise, that they and their lives and their government would be allowed to live when the juggernaut of force came their way.

It is simple—I could almost say simple-minded—for us Americans to wave the flag, to reassert our belief in the cause of freedom-and to let it go at that.

Happy 4th of July! Believe in freedom, wave the flag…..But let’s not “let it go at that.”

Talking About Free Speech on and off Campus

Last week I attended the very interesting meeting of the Heterodox Academy in New York. The association emphasizes the importance of what they call “viewpoint diversity,” and in our time of polarized politics the defenders of free speech the group attracts are often labeled as right wing. In fact, there were people from various parts of the political spectrum at the meeting, even if it is true there were plenty of centrists in attendance. Given our efforts to create greater intellectual diversity at Wesleyan, I was happy to listen and to be a part of the conversations.

My panel at the Heterodox meetings dealt with how academic administrators could help create a more robust culture of free inquiry and expression. Videos of all the panels can be found here (my panel is about a third of the way down the page).

This morning I’m off to Banff for a debate on the impact of safe spaces on the commitment to free speech. I’ll argue that one actually needs a level of safety to have fair access to learning, and that this level (“safe enough spaces”)  creates room for productive intellectual diversity and reasonable argument. The program is part of the Intelligence Squared series, which you can read about here.

I’m pleased to be part of conversations in which I’ll hear different points of view — that’s how learning happens, as I know from my Wesleyan classes.



American Horror

This past weekend former First Lady Laura Bush wrote:

Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso. These images are eerily reminiscent of the Japanese American internment camps of World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history. We also know that this treatment inflicts trauma; interned Japanese have been two times as likely to suffer cardiovascular disease or die prematurely than those who were not interned.

This spring Attorney General Sessions described a zero tolerance policy that would result in the separation of parents and children. “If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally,” Sessions said in May. “The laws are the laws. But a big name of the game is deterrence,” Chief-of-Staff John Kelly told NPR. “It could be a tough deterrent—would be a tough deterrent,” he added. This week, however, in reaction to the outrage about separating families, Kirstjen Nielson, the head of Homeland Security tweeted: “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”  She means that the administration is “only enforcing the law.” Whatever your politics, it seems clear that the current administration has a new tactic: children are being used as human shields to dissuade people from coming to the United States for asylum or in search of a better life.

As Ms. Bush said: “I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.”

Why is this relevant to a university president? In the spring of 2016, we announced that Wesleyan would treat DACA-eligible students as we do other domestic applicants. This means that these applicants, who have spent the bulk of their lives in the US, would have their full financial needs met if they were admitted to study here. In November, 2016, we declared Wesleyan a sanctuary campus, with two basic components:

  • Wesleyan will remain committed to the principles of non-discrimination, including equal protection under the law, regardless of national origin or citizenship.
  • Wesleyan will not voluntarily assist in any efforts by the federal government to deport our students, faculty or staff solely because of their citizenship status.

As I said at the time, “supporting these talented and deserving young people is the right thing to do, and is consistent with Wesleyan values and our commitment to equity and inclusion.” As I wrote last year, “Since our very beginnings, our country has been immeasurably strengthened by immigrants. Turning our backs on those in need today is worse than heartless.”

The heinous practices initiated by the United States government on the southern border are not consistent with our university’s values, nor our country’s. Listening to the cries of the children on the recording published this afternoon by ProPublica, I wonder what it will take for education leaders across the country to reject this viciousness.

We must stop these vile practices before they entirely erode our civic life. We in the education community depend on that life for our purpose and our practice. Let’s make our voices heard!


Douglas J. Bennet (1938-2018)

I received word this morning that Douglas J. Bennet ’59, P’87, ’94 , Wesleyan’s 15th president (1995-2007), passed away last night. From the moment I was interviewed on campus for the presidency, Doug was warm and welcoming, wise and full of love for the many facets of alma mater. He believed that Wesleyan gave him so much, and he gave back unstintingly with deep affection. His wife, Midge Bennet, has been kind and generous to Kari and me, and to Wesleyan, which she always embraced with open arms. Our condolences to Midge, Michael ’87, Holly ’94, James and the entire Bennet family — and to all of us in the Wesleyan family who were touched by this devoted leader, student and educator.


Doug served 12 years as president, retiring in 2007, and those were years of remarkable progress for Wesleyan. He oversaw the rejuvenation of the heart of the campus—from Memorial Chapel to Usdan University Center and Fayerweather—as well as the addition of the Freeman Athletic Center and the Film Studies Center. Doug’s accomplishments, however, went well beyond bricks and mortar.

He set an ambitious strategic direction for Wesleyan with two planning initiatives, the first of which became the basis for the $281 million Wesleyan Campaign—at that time the most successful campaign by far in the university’s history. Under his leadership, Wesleyan saw a 25 percent growth in applications for admission, a doubling of the endowment, and an invigorated relationship with Middletown. In improving this relationship, as in so many aspects of his work for Wesleyan, he could always count on the extraordinary efforts of his wife, Midge.

Doug’s presidency was the culmination of a truly distinguished career that included service as assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs under President Clinton, chief executive officer and president of National Public Radio, and head of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

When Doug announced his intention to retire as president, he spoke about the “Bennet family love affair with Wesleyan since 1929,” the year that his father enrolled as a first-year student. Doug never stopped showing his love for Wesleyan, and he, in turn, was a beloved member of the Wesleyan community. He will live on in our cherished memories and in Wesleyan history.

Answer Cynicism and Insults with Inquiry and Reflection

The following is an op-ed I published this morning in the Washington Post. It is based on my remarks at the Wesleyan commencement this year.

I’ve been a university president for almost 20 years now, and each spring I stand at the podium to address graduating students and their families. The climate on campus is always festive, but this year, we can’t help but be affected by the pollutants of cynicism and craven disregard for principle in our national atmosphere. The Trump White House has set the tone, and far too many politicians and pundits are dancing to the tune. Graduating students will be entering a world in which invective, insult and manipulation threaten to become the norm. These are antithetical to the inquiry, compromise and reflection that are crucial to democratic governance and to a liberal education that aims at empowerment through learning.

I’m hopeful that students graduating this spring, regardless of what they’ve studied, do feel empowered and that their capacity for inquiry, compromise and reflection has been enhanced by their college years. Empowerment was what W.E.B. Du Bois looked for in the best of American education. He knew that people had to earn a living, but he believed that a truly pragmatic education would not just prepare someone to fit in to an existing occupational slot. A true education would increase one’s abilities to act purposefully as a citizen, a neighbor and family member as well as an economic provider. Inquiry, compromise and reflection are essential ingredients for the development of these abilities.

As president of a residential university, I know that when an education is successful, students find satisfaction in the search for better ideas and find meaning in the pursuit of ways of living that will be in accord with deeply held values. And when they find their own values to be in conflict with those held by others, their education turns them to inquiry, compromise and reflection either to resolve those conflicts or to learn how to live in peace with them. In this regard, the campus is an oasis, not where students are coddled, but where they develop skills to deal with the differences among people that beyond the university are usually met by cynical disregard or avoided through economic and cultural segregation.

One doesn’t need to believe in an absolute Truth in order to commit oneself to inquiry, compromise and reflection, although many of our students surely do have such beliefs. One does need to consider the possibility that one might be wrong, that one might be blind to other possibilities, other ways of living. If you think you might be wrong, you need other people with ideas different from your own in order to consider a range of alternatives. That’s one of the reasons diversity, including intellectual diversity, is so important. Listening seriously to others and trying to understand why they hold the views they do without immediately judging those views – this is at the core of pragmatic liberal education.

In the United States, we now live under an anti-educational regime. President Trump’s disregard for facts didn’t prevent him from being elected, of course, but that doesn’t mean as educators we should give him a pass when he lies, when he incites hatred, or when he engages in reckless behavior that undermines the very notion of learning from one’s mistakes. Even many who supported candidate Trump have been revolted by his intemperate, cruel and dangerous rhetoric, and by some of his policies. To call attention to this degradation of our culture is not to support political correctness, but to support our ability to learn from one another.

One of the reasons I love being a university president is that I learn so much from the enthusiasms, convictions, and reasoned arguments of our students – be they addressing the racist evils of mass incarceration or the persistent poison of sexual violence. Religious students have shown me what it means to integrate faith and inquiry, and conservative students have taught me to be mindful that even well-intentioned policies can undermine individual freedom and group identity. There have been many times when our campus community seems to come together in recognition of unjust situations that need fixing, but it has also been clear that there can be plenty of disagreement about what would constitute real solutions that don’t themselves create even graver injustices. On our best days, we are able to explore our differences without fear, just as we are able to work toward positive change with courage. A campus is the place to explore difference, to have one’s ways of thinking tested – not just protected.

Healthy student cultures at colleges and universities are generous, even as they are critical; they are open to inquiry and compromise even though they sometimes erupt into loud demands for tangible change. I don’t see only coddled snowflakes or ironic hipsters dominating these cultures. Instead, I find many studious undergrads taking time to work with refugees around the world or making room in their schedules to tutor poor children in local elementary schools. I find athletic teams raising money for cancer research, and activists volunteering their time to tutor incarcerated men and women. At campuses across the country, students are working to reduce suffering and to create opportunity.

In this time of rampant cynicism and flamboyant government corruption, students across the country are refusing to retreat from the public sphere. They refuse the dismissal of norms for telling the truth or the labeling of anything one doesn’t like as “fake.” They refuse stifling limitations on speech and action by creatively responding to changing community norms. They refuse the caricature of political correctness by listening carefully to those with whom they disagree, prepared to broaden their thinking rather than merely reinforcing their pre-conceived notions.

In graduation ceremonies around the country, oldsters like me are called upon to offer a few words of wisdom. The wisest words I can think of given our national context are ones our students already know well: inquiry, compromise and reflection. These are words they are turning into action at schools around the country. Having learned to work across differences, they are finding ways to go beyond cynicism to build a better future. Wise beyond their years.

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. His most recent books are “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters” and “Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living With the Past.”

Campus Celebrations!

The tents have sprung up on campus, the seniors are lounging on Foss Hill, and alumni all over the world are preparing to come home to Wesleyan for Reunion/Commencement. This aged president is celebrating his fortieth reunion with classmates, and preparing to send off the class of 2018 along with our distinguished Commencement speaker, Anita Hill. Join us!

Senior Reception in our backyard


Roadside Girls group serenading the seniors


Coach Raba addressing just graduated lacrosse seniors



















Finals — And National Tournaments

UPDATE 5/23/18:

The men’s lacrosse team is heading to Foxboro for Memorial Day Weekend to play for the NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP OF DIV. 3 LACROSSE. We held a special graduation ceremony for the seniors today, and we will be cheering them on from our ceremonies on Andrus Field graduation on Sunday. Here are some pics from today’s ceremony.


Dean Mike Whaley addresses lacrosse seniors


We are in Finals Week at Wesleyan, and the libraries, labs, and studios are full. Students are preparing projects, studying for exams, and doing their best to show themselves and their professors what they can do. Many of these students are also athletes competing at the national level. Somehow, they manage to do it all. Let’s cheer them on!

The women’s crew team has had a great season. Led by coach Pat Tynan, the rowers are headed to Sarasota Florida, for races May 25-26. The Cardinals were named one of four at-large teams, returning to the national championships for the third consecutive season, but first as a team since 2014.  Wesleyan excelled in its last two races, claiming two medals at both the New England Rowing Championships and the National Invitational Rowing Championships (NIRC), while narrowly missing out on a third at the NIRC.

The women’s tennis team, led by coach Mike Fried, is traveling to Claremont California for the elite 8 phase of the NCAA tournament. This is the first time in program history that we’ve gotten that far, and you can read about our path here. Both men and women tennis players are competing as individuals in the tournament, with senior Eudice Chong defending her singles title, and with Victoria Yu defending the doubles title.

Women’s lacrosse, led by Coach Kim Williams, is playing in the NCAA tournament, advancing further than ever before. This is a highly talented team of student-athletes, and they face off against Amherst on Saturday, May 19 in Gettysburg. You can read about their path through the tournament here.

Vicious Circles, the Wesleyan women’s ultimate frisbee team, is also on the road to a national tournament. This superb team has been there before, winning their regional tournament again this year. You can learn more about the team here or check them out on Facebook here.

Finally, after a thrilling victory over a very tough Tufts team yesterday, the men’s lacrosse team is headed to the final four of the NCAA tournament. Led by Coach John Raba, the squad has had an extraordinary year, and they are headed back to the semi-finals of the tourney for the second year in a row.

Somehow all these athletes are also juggling finals and other end-of-the-semester tasks. Let’s cheer them on. Go Wes!