Friendship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Following Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Disturbing Semester’s End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fraternal Wesleyan

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

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

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

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

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Happy Frenzy

As we move into the final days of the semester, the level of activities on campus steps up to an even higher level of intensity. On Friday night after a great introduction to Skull and Serpent, I visited with the Wesleyan Christian Fellowship, which was holding an evening celebration to honor its seniors. WCF has grown over the years, and it is engaged in a variety of civic and spiritual activities. The seniors have clearly made the most of their Wesleyan years, and they have contributed mightily to our campus culture.

On Friday night I also had the chance to hear the thesis project of Zach Fried, whose rock band played at Eclectic. This was my first Eclectic visit this term, and it was amazing. The music was raucous and alive, and the crowd was really into it. I think Zach’s band is opening for Spring Fling. A parent came up to me to say, “That’s my boy playing guitar in his underwear. The one with the tattoo!” While the band was cooking at Eclectic, there were other fine musicians doing their thing all over campus. Here’s how Wesleyan parent Myra Berkowitz described it:

I was lucky enough to visit my daughter this weekend and attended the final concert of the Wesleyan Concert Choir and Wesleyan Orchestra on Friday night. What a special musical event–and congratulations to all the families and students who participated! The concert featured the three winners of the annual concerto competition at Wesleyan, who soloed in the first movements of three different pieces. These students performed beautifully, with great musicality, personality, feeling, and skill, backed by a wonderful orchestral sound. It was a delightful evening.

Even more astonishingly, I witnessed myriads of students busily attending and participating in many performances of all kinds–theater, dance, klezmer, a capella, you name it, this all in the context of the busy year-end schedule of papers, exams, presentations, etc. I’m so impressed by many students’ ability to balance their own academic work, preparation for performing, and attendance/support of their friends’ events. It seems like a happy frenzy (versus the frantic feeling I know I experienced at those times in my past). One common theme might be…lack of sleep.

While everyone can’t do everything all the time, it’s certainly great to see the rich variety that Wes students have available, even at this crunch-time of the semester.

While all this art activity was going on, the Wesleyan Women’s Softball team was making a great run to the NESCAC finals (winning three games on Saturday!), and track meets, baseball and lacrosse games, and regattas saw Wes athletes competing with all their hearts. After watching dance classes yesterday afternoon and hearing the beat of drums from the World Music Hall at night, I was reminded again of how exciting and diverse this place truly is. Happy frenzy indeed!

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Enthusiasm and Excellence

I am writing this entry from New York City, where the Wesleyan Alumni Association held a great event last night. There were about 500 people gathered in Gotham Hall to see old friends, make new connections, and to hear about alma mater. It was thrilling for me to see some of my buddies from the mid 1970s, and I met grads from the 1950s through last year. There were also many parents of current Wesleyan students in attendance, and they reported on the experience of their family members. There were teachers and physicians, managers from community organizations and from Wall Street, writers and interactive designers. In my remarks, I spoke about the creative, practical value of the liberal arts today (yes, that again!), but one could see that value oneself just by looking around the room and discovering the kaleidoscope of careers that become possible in life after Wesleyan. Of course, I also emphasized how the health of our university depends on active, loyal alumni. It is especially through alumni support of financial aid that we are able to keep Wesleyan a vibrant, open place where one can pursue one’s passion and aim at excellence. The enthusiasm of last night bodes well for the future!

Speaking of enthusiasm and excellence, I hope we can show spirited support this weekend as the Wesleyan softball team hosts (for the first time ever!) the NESCAC championships. The Wes women have had a great season, and they deserve our cheers. Their first game is on Friday, May 2, at 2:30 pm, and the tournament continues through the weekend.

Meanwhile, the mighty men’s lacrosse team is off to Middlebury for the NESCAC championships this weekend. Coach Raba’s men have fought hard all season, and we wish them well as they carry the Red and Black against some very tough competition. Their first game is on Saturday at 3 pm, and you can watch it on the Web. Check out the links, and the schedule for other athletic events, as our teams continue to compete as we move into the final weekend of classes: http://www.wesleyan.edu/athletics/

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Dance, Democracy and Devoted Service

As we move into the final week or so of classes, the pace of work has picked up markedly. Among the many great performances that come toward the end of the semester, this weekend we were able to attend the faculty dance concert. Dance has always been a key part of the arts at Wesleyan, and this weekend I was reminded of why that’s the case. I was particularly struck by the boundary-crossing nature of the work presented. Nicole Stanton performed a piece, “Castle of My Skin,” in collaboration with Gina Ulysse (what a voice!), a recently tenured professor in Anthropology and African American Studies. And Katja Kolcio worked with composer Julian Kytasty to create a “living archive” of Ukrainian music and dance. Katja’s students performed the piece with dynamism and sensitivity. The creative collaboration of teachers and students is one of the most exciting aspects of a Wesleyan education.

Another exciting aspect of the Wesleyan experience is the practice of politics. Our student chapter of the Roosevelt Institution will be holding a conference on that subject on Saturday, May 3. The Roosevelt Institution challenges chapters to consider “how to restore government of the people, and for the people.” How can students play a role in creating a more effective and equitable democratic political practice? There will be a series of workshops on Saturday, and I am looking forward to hearing Richard Berke, Assistant Managing Editor at the New York Times, close out the afternoon.

On Tuesday of this week there will be a reception to honor of the service of Peter Patton to Wesleyan. Peter, a professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, has worked in various administrative capacities for many years at Wesleyan. As I look back over the history of the last decade or so, I can see that whenever there was a strong need for a capable, sensitive leader, Wesleyan turned to Peter. Whether it was to be the Dean of the College, or, to help create the Green Street Art Center, to direct the improvements to the central part of the campus (and the construction of the Usdan University Center), or, more recently, to oversee athletics and public safety, the university was able to enlist Peter’s vision and hard work. Over the years of administrative service, Peter continued to teach his science classes, and our reception this week in no way signals his retirement. On the contrary, Peter will now devote his energies full time to teaching and research. A grateful university community will express our gratitude to Peter at reception in his honor this Tuesday, April 29, from 3:30 to 5:00 in Beckham Hall.

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Productive Idealists

For many years I would tell friends that Wesleyan entered the 1960s well before the decade really started and continued in the sixties spirit decades after the official end of that turbulent time. I meant that Wes was already exploring uncharted, radical territory in the 1950s, and with Norman O. Brown, Carl Schorske on the faculty, along with the impact of John Cage and Buckminster Fuller, there was a willingness to defy convention and explore new boundaries in culture and society. This was complemented by curricular innovations under Victor Butterfield, and especially with the university’s commitment to affirmative action and diversity long before other schools recognized their importance. When I was a student here in the mid-’70s this legacy was active and creative, with strong feminist and environmental movements that were exploring intellectual as well as political alternatives to the status quo.

It is easy to treat these trends with irony or cynicism. Were they romantic and idealist? Sure they were, and that was part of their ability to inspire many to go beyond what had been expected of them. Recently, I was asked to review a new book that trashed both the spirit and the accomplishments of that time, Gerald DeGroot’s The Sixties Unplugged. Although the author has an easy time of showing how much of the romantic rhetoric of the day was not in accord with what was really happening, his book makes no effort at understanding why people were in fact committed to political and cultural change, to social justice. You can read my San Francisco Chronicle book review at:
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/04/18/RV4GVQU5M.DTL&type=books

At Wesleyan today it is worth trying to understand the value of idealism and the productive role of imagining radical alternatives to the status quo. When I spoke with prospective students and their parents this weekend, I emphasized how Wesleyan students become innovators, intelligent risk takers whose ideals are cultivated rather than punctured by the education they receive. At a time in our history when technological and cultural change will continue to accelerate, we need people who can continue to learn, to adapt and to become leaders of innovation. We need the courageous creativity of Wesleyan grads in the sciences, arts, business world, education and politics. And we need those grads to remember their commitment to justice even when those around them seem to have forgotten the victims of change. Wesleyan graduates have long been productive idealists, and they will continue to play that role in the future.

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Having seen the small but vocal rally for Wesleyan’s physical plant employees this weekend, I can well imagine some reading this thinking: “Well, Roth, if you are so concerned about justice, why don’t your physical plant employees have a contract?” We continue to negotiate with the union representing these employees, but it has been a frustratingly slow process. Nevertheless, we compromised on our initial proposals many times and reached an agreement with the union representative and the union’s bargaining committee more than a week ago when Wesleyan accepted the offer made by the union. To our great surprise, after we reached this tentative agreement on the proposal, the members of the union rejected the proposal their own representatives had made! We are back at the negotiating table, but it is disturbing to see students enlisted in a protest (“No contract, no peace!”) that seems aimed to make up for the failure of the physical plant employees to agree with their own representatives. It is hard to miss the irony of physical plant employees having extra work to do as they clean up the scrawled messages of their student supporters.

Let me be clear: We are and have been negotiating in good faith throughout the bargaining process, and I am committed to see that those who work for Wesleyan are fairly compensated for the good jobs they do. I hope very much we soon reach a fair and economically sustainable agreement.

On a lighter note, when Sophie saw “contract now!” scrawled on our driveway, she thought we were suddenly to become smaller…

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WesFest

Over the next few days our campus will be filled with visitors checking out Wesleyan as a place to spend their undergraduate years. WesFest combines parties and seminars, musical performances and athletic events, music and fashion shows to celebrate Wesleyan and (finally) the arrival of spring.

I met with a group of pre-frosh and their families this morning in Beckham Hall. They want to know if Wesleyan is the place where they will truly thrive; they want to know if Wesleyan will inspire them to expand their horizons while providing them with a community in which they will develop close friendships that go beyond the circles of relationships they began forming in high school. Students want to sense if faculty truly care about mentorship (they do), and if their fellow students are truly welcoming and supportive (they are). Parents want to understand that the liberal arts education being offered their students will help them know themselves better, navigate in the world more effectively, and remain a resource for life-long learning. I tell them that the liberal arts curriculum at Wesleyan does all these things because I’ve seen it happen time and time again. I’ve also experienced it in my own life. Ours is a challenging community, one that expects much from students, faculty and staff. But it is also a community that pulls together when faced with difficulties, and that celebrates (with gusto) achievement in athletics, scholarship, artistic endeavors and scientific research.

Wesleyan is a joyful place to learn. Now that it is April, I am reminded of this each day when I look from my office in South College over to Foss Hill. If you are here on campus, Welcome to WesFest!! If you are reading this far away from Middletown, just remember the happy music that drifts across Andrus Field as students ask their teachers if they can have class outside, and as we welcome spring to New England.

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Innovation: Economy, Theater, Education

At a breakfast meeting of the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce on Friday, I was invited to talk with approximately 500 guests about Wesleyan’s role in our region, and about the relevance of a liberal arts education today. It was interesting in the context of that meeting to underscore our university’s place in the economy of the region. Not only are we emphasizing (and buying) local food for our dining facilities, but we also hire local artisans, contractors and construction firms for the greatest percentage our facilities projects. Moreover, our graduates have founded cultural enterprises, businesses, and public service organizations that continue to improve the lives of people in our region.

But Wesleyan’s contribution goes far beyond the money we spend and the organizations we support. Our model of liberal arts education emphasizes freedom and experimentation as tools for students to discover what they love to do, and then to get a little better at it. We believe that when students are passionately engaged with their education, that they will be better able to develop meaningful ways of working after graduation. Wesleyan students, as I have been emphasizing since I returned to campus, become innovators and productive risk takers, and I do think this is exactly the right time for our alumni to have a role in shaping our economy and culture. Wesleyan students, long known for our idealism, are also figuring out how to translate ideals into effective, productive work in the world.

After I got down from the soapbox, Kari and I went to see Big Love — a production of Charles L. Mee’s play by the Wesleyan theater department. It was directed by Visiting Professor David Jaffe, with a theater collective (called “the Company”) made up of very talented actors, musicians and other theater artists. The play was performed in the round, with the ancient themes of battles between the sexes brought very much into a contemporary idiom. The acting was superb, and we were so impressed with the ways in which music and physicality were integrated with the powerful plot themes concerning freedom, sexual attraction, violence and control.

Big Love reminded me that Wesleyan’s grand tradition of theatrical excellence remains strong. The student-run Patricelli ’92 Theater (there I was able to catch this weekend only a part of the very funny My Kingdom for a Whore), as well as the academic department and a variety of informal groups, bring challenging theater experiences into a liberal arts context.

Last night I learned that one of our seniors, Max Rose, is a finalist in an essay contest sponsored by The Nation. Reflecting on the legacy of FDR’s New Deal, Max calls for a new social contract, at the center of which should be education. He stresses the importance of innovation in education and recognizes that, “The most potent resource of the 21st century is a nation’s intellectual capital.” I’d like to think that Wesleyan has a role to play in the development of that resource, and in enhancing access to it through a robust scholarship program. You can read his essay at: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20080414/rosen
Congratulations, Max!

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