Best Wishes for the Holidays!

Students have finished up their finals, and the rush of grading and end-of-the-year tasks grows intense for many on campus and off. I wanted to take a moment to thank you for all your efforts this semester, and to wish you joyful holiday celebrations — and some rest, too. Many students are still working, as are plenty of staff who see to admissions applications, December donations, the safety and functioning of the campus (to name only some of the active departments!)…while faculty colleagues are reading papers, grading exams and preparing syllabi.

Still, on this first day of winter, I hope you see your holidays approaching.

May the new year bring you peace and purpose, happiness and health!

 

Ordinary Education in Extraordinary Times

This was published today in Inside Higher Education. As we take and grade finals on campus, I thought I’d share it with the Wesleyan community.

 

People sometimes say that we on college campuses work in a bubble. I suppose that means we are impervious to outside influences and that events in the world don’t really affect us. That certainly isn’t true these days.

In fact, with all that’s going on beyond campuses, I’m often asked, what’s the point of education as usual? To which I respond that these are uncommon times, to be sure, but our traditional educational practices of valuing learning from people different from ourselves have never been more important.

It’s been a difficult season. So much of our nation’s and institutions’ energies were directed toward the U.S. Supreme Court nomination and then the elections, and controversies about their legitimacy remain. Frequent mass killings have started to produce numbness, as hate-fueled, disturbed and well-armed men stalk African American shoppers, Jewish worshippers and college students dancing in a bar.

One would have to be numb not to be awed and appalled by ferocious fires raging in California, killing scores as they tried to escape the inferno. As firefighters struggled in all but impossible conditions, as houses and lives were lost, the president of the United States tweeted his senseless and heartless claims about mismanagement. Climate change alters our seasons and ignites deadly fires, but it doesn’t inspire political change.

It’s in this context that I had to turn to grading papers in my Virtue and Vice humanities class. As I did so, I found myself less focused on today and more toward considering the enduring questions with which the students were wrestling. How does contemporary scientific research influence traditional arguments for equality? What are our obligations to the most vulnerable people among us? What are principles worth to a person who is committed to the pursuit of happiness? How much can one learn from thinkers whom one judges to be immoral?

I left the news behind while I contemplated all these questions with my students, who were considering different points of view without insult or invective. Those students were putting themselves, or trying to put themselves, in someone else’s shoes in order to see what the world looked like from another perspective.

I teach history classes, and this semester we’ve marked the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht and the centenary of the end of World War I. On the night of Nov. 9, 1938, gangs of citizens inspired by racist, anti-Semitic hate attacked Jews all over Germany. “How could it happen?” my students have asked. It wasn’t the government that ordered this pogrom, but its rhetoric of hate and dehumanization legitimated violence against those perceived as less than fully German. Dehumanization and scapegoating are the familiar tactics of the people who want to incite violence without being directly accountable for it.

My students have struggled to understand the dynamics of World War I –“the war to end all wars,” as it was called. They are puzzled by the nationalist gusto that propelled the first few months of fighting, dissipating into a war of attrition that inspired no one. Millions died in those bloody battles, and by the end of it all, few people could remember the reasons why governments were willing (even eager) to send their young people to the slaughter. Peace did not last. And now nationalism is again on the rise.

Amid all of this, we who work on college campuses are meant to be studying for or grading exams, writing papers, or processing registration for classes — in other words, going about the ordinary practice of education. But as students look out at a world of hate and violence, of senseless killings and orchestrated oppressive practices, they may ask, why go on studying philosophy or mathematics, computer science or creative writing? What’s the point?

But, in fact, in a world scarred by violence, instigated polarization and managed parochialism, these educational practices of consideration, critique and empathy are beacons of hope. Seeing the world from someone else’s point of view is no simple task, but you get much better at it when you practice. That’s what we are doing much of the time on our campuses.

When we foster intellectual diversity, we are practicing learning from others different from ourselves. Sure, sometimes people retreat to the “bubbles” of their own tribe, whether they call that safety, tradition or prejudice. But much of the time, our teachers, students and staff encounter difference and try to figure out how to learn from it, sometimes finding out that commonalities are more significant than the distinctions that first impressed them.

Such encounters are woven into the fabric of our everyday educational practices. These days, they are hopeful alternatives to the normalization of violence and the pollution of our public sphere. Now, more than ever, we must work to protect them.

 

Sustainability Beyond 2020

Shortly after arriving as President eleven years ago, I signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (now the Climate Leadership Campus Carbon Commitment), committing the Wesleyan campus to carbon neutrality by 2050. Our sustainability efforts are being guided (through 2021) by our Sustainability Action Plan (SAP). You can find a report on our progress in that regard over the past two years in the first SAP Progress Report. Below I give some highlights of steps we’ve taken recently toward our sustainability goals and steps beyond the scope of our current plan that we plan to make going forward.  We have a long way to go to get to that goal of carbon neutrality, and we will get there only if we quicken our pace. Because sustainability is central to Wesleyan’s planning, I’m framing these remarks using the three overarching goals of our most recent planning document, Beyond 2020. Those goals are: to energize Wesleyan’s distinctive educational experience; to enhance recognition of Wesleyan as an extraordinary institution; and to work within a sustainable economic model while retaining core values.

Sustainability and Wesleyan’s Distinctive Educational Experience

The College of the Environment (COE), characterized by Wesleyan’s distinctive interdisciplinary ethos, continues to be a powerful locus of research, teaching, and practices that explore the connections between environmental work and social and political issues. This year, the Robert F. Schumann Foundation completed its funding of the Robert F. Schumann Institute, which is extending the reach of the COE across campus and the greater Middletown community by collaborating with other centers, colleges and departments within Wesleyan. These collaborations are providing joint and enhanced environmental programming, curricula and research across the campus – particularly in the areas of global studies; civic engagement; arts, environmental justice and sustainability; and food security and agriculture.

The Sustainability Office, in collaboration with the Center for Pedagogical Innovation, hosted the Sustainability Across the Curriculum program (SATC) in October 2016 and January 2018. The program was led by Prof. Suzanne O’Connell and has resulted in thirteen faculty participants amending 13 courses so as to incorporate sustainability as a learning objective. That’s terrific, and there is more to be done here. The Sustainability Office and Prof. O’Connell have convened interested faculty to discuss changes to SATC so as to enliven and grow its efforts to equip students across the disciplines with tools to help them connect their learning to global environmental, social, and economic challenges. Prof. Anthony Hatch will be taking the faculty helm of this program for 2019-2020, and we expect to see more and more courses every year with integrated sustainability content. We are also developing a sustainability and environmental justice course cluster to help students identify these courses and provide recognition for faculty working in this important area. Some of these courses will be First-Year Seminars, a new target for SATC. We hope to reintroduce sustainability into First Year Matters (perhaps by restarting Feet to the Fire). And we will conduct a student sustainability literacy assessment and follow-up assessment to determine what students are learning about sustainability during their time at Wesleyan.

Sustainability and Recognition of Wesleyan as an Extraordinary Institution

Wesleyan must contribute to a sustainable world not just by doing what it does so well – teaching and research – but also by being a model of sustainability itself. In 2013, Wesleyan received a silver rating from AASHE STARS (Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System), a sustainability rating for colleges and universities, and that rating was re-certified in 2016. The Sustainability Office employs 20-25 students each semester working on student involvement in recycling, composting, energy conservation, and engagement with social and political issues bearing on environmental concerns. Our citywide recycling signage project (for which we received a grant in 2017) is creating unified signage connecting campus and Middletown community in the recycling effort. This year, Ingrid Eck ’19, intern at the Sustainability Office, prepared and submitted the City of Middletown’s Sustainable CT Bronze certification, and we expect to continue our support of the City’s sustainability efforts through our paid student internships. As our current Sustainability Action Plan guides us only through 2021, it will soon be time to think about the next plan, which must place more emphasis upon reaching carbon neutrality, integrating sustainability into the curriculum, and building a campus culture rooted in sustainability.

Sustainable Economic Model and Core Values

We continue to address what it means for Wesleyan to be a sustainable campus: in the administration (with respect to planning, engagement, health and well-being), in academics (curriculum and academic operations), and in operations (buildings, grounds, dining, energy, purchasing, transportation, waste, and water). And we’ve focused on sustainability in developing plans for new construction over the next decade, notably in Film, PAC and Science. Part and parcel of these efforts is our new Wesleyan University Building Sustainability Policy. This policy was developed by the Sustainability Office and Green Building subcommittee, working under the auspices of the Facilities Planning Committee and Sustainability Advisory Group for Environmental Stewardship (SAGES. It outlines guidelines and operating procedures for reducing Wesleyan’s carbon footprint, yielding cost savings through reduced operating costs, providing healthy work environments for students, employees, and visitors, and assessing life cycle costs. This policy was adopted in concert with the Purchasing Sustainability Guidelines and Energy Conservation Policy. We also just developed a Grounds Sustainability Policy to be reviewed annually as we integrate sustainability in the maintenance of our campus landscape.

Going forward, we plan to integrate sustainability education into the Residential Life curriculum: Res Life and Sustainability Office student staff will work together on informing students about such things as recycling, composting, and energy conservation. As we integrate sustainability into upcoming new construction and major renovation projects, we will strive to get as close as possible to net zero energy certification, incorporating principles of Living Building Challenge and making these changes visible through educational signage. We expect to continue our annual investments in comprehensive energy projects, now entering their 12th year, to address lighting, mechanical equipment, windows, and insulation so as to decrease energy consumption. Finally, with the help of consultants, we will develop a framework, list of actions, phasing, estimated cost and proposed dates to achieve carbon neutrality for the core campus by or before the established 2050 target date. But we can’t just think about projects in the long term. We must also identify, design and implement near-term projects in moving us closer to our sustainability goals – including, for example, piloting a hot water heating loop, as using hot water rather than steam will better enable Wesleyan to switch to solar, geothermal, fuel cell, or other renewable technologies in the future.

Yes, 2050 is a long way away, but there is so much to do before then. The environmental challenges facing the world are monumental, and they are bound up with social and economic issues difficult to resolve. Our university – though its research, its teaching, its outreach and in modeling sustainability itself – is in a position to make an outsize impact. And that’s what we’ll do.

 

It’s Almost here! #GivingTuesday

I’m still eating turkey leftovers and expect to be doing so for a few more days. No complaints on that score. Our daughter Sophie was home for the holiday, and she joined  some Wesleyan students, friends and family at our table for Thanksgiving. This undoubtedly makes Kari and me feel especially thankful this year. Now Sophie is heading back to her own campus, and those students are home writing papers and preparing for the final weeks of the semester.

There are so many ways to express gratitude, and I find a powerful one to be showing generosity toward organizations and people one cares about. A few years ago, my friend Henry Timms (director of the 92nd St Y in New York) came up with the idea of a “giving day” to follow Black Friday and Cyber Monday. And so #GivingTuesday was born. It’s a simple idea. Just find a way for your family, your community, your company or your organization to act philanthropically. Then tell everyone you can about how you are giving. Generosity is contagious! Be a part of a national celebration of our great tradition of philanthropy.

#GivingTuesday has become internationally recognized as a time to show one’s support for the values and missions one cares about. People all over the world use the occasion to support their favorite causes. This is Wesleyan’s fifth year participating. During that time, thousands of Wesleyan alumni, parents, students and friends have chosen to make donations. Together, we have unlocked millions of dollars in matching funds for financial aid.

This year, when 1,831 members of the Wesleyan community make gifts by or on Giving Tuesday, November 27, our new trustees— Souleymane Ba ’03, Essel Bailey, Jr. ’66, Susannah Gray ’82, Andy McGadney ’92, Michele Roberts ’77, and Luke Wood ’91—will donate $250K to financial aid to support our students.

We need your help to achieve that important goal. Just visit our #GivingTuesday homepage: www.wesleyan.edu/givingtuesday

Thanks in advance for your support in making a transformative Wesleyan experience possible for so many excellent students.

 

“thank you we are saying and waving/dark though it is” – W.S. Merwin

For many, Thanksgiving is a time of remembrance, and gratitude springs from this remembrance. Here is an excerpt of Joy Harjo’s poem, Remember.

Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people
are you.
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.
Remember.
Joy Harjo

The full poem can be found here.

And now I’m reading W.S. Merwin (whom I met many years ago when I invited him to the Getty) as Thanksgiving approaches. Dark times, still thankful.

with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is
W.S. Merwin

The full poem can be found here.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wesleyan Volleyball in Elite 8

The remarkable Wesleyan Volleyball team has just won its regional NCAA tournament, the best results (so far) in program history. This young squad, led by Coach Ben Somera and senior captains Madeleine Lundberg and Emma Robin, has been formidable all year long and now is reaching its peak.

You can catch the Cardinals playing in the Elite Eight on Thursday, November 15 at 8 p.m.. You’ll find the live stream here.

GO WES!!

Remembering John Maguire (1932-2018)

Recently I received a notice from Claremont Graduate University of the passing of John David Maguire, who served as President there. You can find that notice here.  John was President at CGU when I was teaching there and at Scripps College in the 1980s and 90s, and I remember him well. He was my boss, I suppose, but I remember him more as my neighbor. Among the things we had in common was a love of Wesleyan, where he began his own academic career in the Religion Department in 1960. Six years later he was Associate Professor of Religion and a year after that served for a time as Associate Provost. In 1970 he left to become President of SUNY College at Old Westbury. You can find that college’s honoring of his passing here.

John was at Wesleyan for the whole of the 1960s. He arrived here already a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and he arranged for King to speak on campus multiple times. You can find a photo of one such occasion below. John was considered in those days as a “radical” and a “firebrand” for putting pressure on Wesleyan to become more diverse. He and his colleague David Swift made a huge impression on campus in 1961 when they joined the Freedom Ride to Montgomery, Alabama; and when they were arrested there, Wesleyan colleagues raised money to pay his fines and legal costs (until the process ended at the United States Supreme Court). John returned to campus a hero to many but by no means to all. Many alumni in particular disapproved of faculty engaging in such public actions. But momentum for such engagement was growing, and John was at the heart of it. “Moral-based activism,” to use the term of historian of Wesleyan David Potts, was not new to campus, but now, thanks to John, among others, it was being applied in earnest to race relations. Other Wesleyan faculty and staff began participating in civil rights demonstrations in the South, and the campus became civically engaged – in civil rights, in social justice, in the anti-Vietnam war movement – as never before. John was also instrumental in opening the gates to Wesleyan to African American students, setting it on the path to becoming a diverse campus.

Shortly after my appointment as president of Wesleyan, I returned to Claremont for an event celebrating the founding of the Scripps College Humanities Institute. As I crossed the street, a car screeched to a halt in the middle of the road. Out jumped John Maguire, long retired from his post but still living in the college town. He grabbed me in bear hug and expressed his joy that I would be returning to Wesleyan, a university that had formed each of us in indelible ways.

John’s life-long, exuberant dedication to the combination of moral activism and liberal learning (and in this his wife Billie was a powerful partner) is stamped upon the memory of all who knew him. At this time in America, such dedication is needed more than ever. May the recollection of John’s life strengthen our own combinations of moral activism and liberal learning. On behalf of the Wesleyan community, I express gratitude for John’s many contributions and condolences to Billie and their daughters Catherine (Wesleyan class of ’83), Mary and Anne.

Maguire with Martin Luther King, Jr. in January 1963
Maguire with Martin Luther King, Jr. in January 1963

Campus Message On Pittsburgh Shooting

Yesterday I sent the following message to faculty, students and staff at Wesleyan.

Dear friends,

As I’ve done too many times before, I write to the campus now to express grief and anger in the wake of a terrorist attack. Yesterday in Pittsburgh, a well-armed anti-Semite shattered the lives of individuals, families and a community. The number of anti-Semitic acts has been increasing across the country, and, like many Jews, I’ve observed with alarm the mounting use of hate-filled rhetoric. In a country with such easy access to weapons of mass killing, this kind of talk can ignite murderous acts. This is, apparently, what happened in Pittsburgh.

I learned of the attack yesterday when I returned from a study group on the Hebrew Bible. We were wrestling with the relation of hospitality and innocence, with welcoming strangers and making arguments for justice. In Pittsburgh, Jews were gathered to celebrate the naming of a baby when the murderer began shooting, crying out anti-Semitic slurs. Slurs, we are used to. The killer, according to reports in the press, had 21 guns legally registered under his name. He used more than one of them in the killing spree.

Our Middletown synagogue, Temple Adath Israel, is organizing a vigil and candle lighting tonight on the South Green (the park across from Mondo Pizza) at 7pm. Please consider attending to stand together against hate crimes.

Now is a time for grieving, for attentiveness and care. It is also a time to work for hospitality and justice. May we find them in our own lives, and, in remembrance of those murdered in Pittsburgh, work in solidarity to create a more hospitable and just country, and a more hospitable and just world. As we say in my tradition, this would help make their memory a blessing.

Yours always,

Michael

This week the Washington Post published my reflections on this sad event:

Whenever I’m not busy with campus duties, I go to my shul on Saturday mornings to study Torah. About 15 or so of us gather to work our way through the Hebrew Bible, week by week, from the story of creation in Genesis, to the death of Moses in Deuteronomy. We are now early in Genesis, Vayeira, the chapters that describe a crucial part of Abraham and Sarah’s journey, including the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the fates of Ishmael and Isaac.

Ever since I was a child, I have had to deal with people who just didn’t like Jews, and some who were consumed with distrust and malice. Today one finds these views often disguised with more palatable ideologies. But like many Jews, I’ve gotten used to this ordinary nastiness.

The problem for me has never been the “hate” from some other people. Jews have long had to deal with that. The problem was their potential for violence, their access to weapons that could destroy lives. This was the deadly, combustible combination that erupted in Pittsburgh.

In the section of the Torah we studied this past Saturday, Abraham sees travelers approaching and prepares to greet them with kindness and generosity. They might, we are told, be angels. Later in the text, he is wary when journeying among strangers in the desert, unsure of their moral codes and whether he would be safe among them. Throughout these chapters of Genesis, we are asked to consider the relation of hospitality and foreignness, of moral codes and the wilderness. Who can one count on, and whom should one be afraid of?

The killer in Pittsburgh appears to have been particularly enraged by Jewish help for immigrants, especially the group HIAS, with its mission to “welcome the stranger [and] protect the refugee.” This is rage stoked by President Trump and his allies when they talk of the “globalist forces” behind the caravan of Latin American refugees heading north toward the United States. The demonization of outsiders has been normalized at the highest levels of government and a popular news outlet in the country, and it is sometimes flavored with anti-Semitic ingredients.

This demonization was on our minds this week in our study group as we “wrestled” with the relation of hospitality and innocence, with welcoming strangers and making arguments for justice. In Pittsburgh, Jews were gathered to celebrate the birth of a child when the murderer began shooting, crying out his anti-Semitic slurs. We are used to slurs. The killer, according to reports in the media, had 21 guns legally registered under his name. He used more than one of them in the killing spree.

We must do our part to create this peace, reaching across our everyday political and cultural divisions. Professors and administrators, students and staff, must join to push back against bigotry and violence, no matter what its source.

Now, to be sure, is a time for grieving, for attentiveness and care. But it is also a time to work, to work with compassionate solidarity, for hospitality and justice. A meaningful education helps us find these qualities in our own lives, and, in remembrance of those murdered in Pittsburgh, it should empower us to create a more hospitable and just country.

As we say in my tradition, this would help make their memory a blessing.

Standing By Our Trans Friends and Colleagues

Can we still be startled by the cruelties of the Trump administration? Can we still find room for outrage after the separation of immigrant children from the parents, after the denial of climate change, after the mocking of sexual assault survivors? We must. The capacity for outrage is essential in order to stand up to further abuses of power and the insidious pollution of our public life. And outrage is what I feel as I read in the New York Times that the administration “is considering narrowly defining gender as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth, the most drastic move yet in a government-wide effort to roll back recognition and protections of transgender people under federal civil rights law.”

This would be a cruel decision, part of the effort erase transgender people by eliminating their civil rights protections. Recognition is essential to identity and to the protection of rights. The plans currently being considered by the Trump administration would be a huge setback for the broad pursuit of equity and inclusion.

As my friend, Wesleyan alumna and transgender activist, Jenny Boylan wrote:

I admit that I’m reluctant to react to this latest cruelty, which is obviously just one more cynical move clearly designed to stir the pot ahead of the election. Trans people are the latest conservative whipping girl, like African-Americans in the 1950s, or gay people in the 1990s and 2000s. Nothing is more dependable now than the passion the heartless display when trans people’s humanity is offered up for mockery […]

I have news for Donald Trump. I do exist. Trans men and women exist. Genderqueer people exist. We have been part of this country for hundreds of years — since before the Revolution, in fact. Redefining us won’t make us go away. It won’t restore your world to its precious, boring binary — which, I hate to tell you, never existed in the first place.

All it will do is make people suffer.

Can any good come out of this miserable moment? Well, I can hope that this will inspire people, more than ever, to fight back — not just trans people — but our spouses, and our children, and our allies, too. Their numbers will include people not unlike my late mother — conservative Republican women who just can’t stand to see their children bullied by the one person in the country who ought to be most concerned with keeping us all safe.

At Wesleyan we will fight back against any attempt to erase transgender people. We will stand by our transgender friends and colleagues, we will recognize them, acknowledge their struggles, and join with them to fight for equality. The stakes are high for all of us.