Pain and Anger, Solidarity and Engagement

Like many citizens around the country, I have been deeply disturbed by the reports of  African-American men being shot by police officers. Of course, the words “deeply disturbed” fail to convey the pain and anger generated by the latest violence. At lunch time today students and others stood in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. There is so much eloquence in their shared, communal silence.

From AJ Wilson Twitter Post
From AJ Wilson Twitter Post

This afternoon a group of Cabinet members and I sent the following to the campus:

As we continue to witness acts of violence around our country – especially toward black and brown and other marginalized persons – we are filled with many strong emotions based upon our own identities and experiences.  But, we all worry about those of us and those in our communities who are impacted by these events in myriad ways. 

As a sign of our solidarity and our commitment to do whatever we can to address bias and inequity in our hearts, on our campus, and in our communities, we ask you to gather in the Huss Courtyard outside of Usdan on Tuesday 9/27 at noon.  Immediately after this moment of silence and reflection, members of the CAPS team will be available in Boger 111 and staff from the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life will be available in Usdan 104D for faculty, staff and students who may want to (or need to) talk about recent events.

Beyond this visible sign of solidarity, we commit to continue our personal and institutional work toward peace, justice, equity and inclusion.  We hope that you will too.

I will be traveling for Wesleyan on Tuesday, but I will be with the group in spirit in the Huss Courtyard at noon. Solidarity is crucial to building our community and to making a difference.

Solidarity is crucial and so is engagement. This is a season of change, an election season. I urge all our students, as well as faculty and staff, to play active roles as citizens. The stakes are so high.

Two More MacArthurs for Wes Alumni!

The MacArthur Foundation today announced its class of 2016 Fellows — commonly known as the genius awards — and there are two Wesleyan alumni among them.Vincent Fecteau ’92 is an artist of distinctive subtlety, craft and care. I visited his studio in San Francisco when I was president of California College of the Arts, and I have long admired his work. Here’s part of what the foundation said about his practice:

Fecteau imbues his work with philosophical content, just as the work assumes psychological dimensions through its uncanny correspondences with the human body. In our age of ever-increasing distraction, Fecteau’s sculpture offers a place for the sustained experience of thought and observation to unfold and flourish.

Vincent Fecteau, 2016 MacArthur Fellow, San Francisco, CA, September 9, 2016.
Vincent Fecteau, 2016 MacArthur Fellow, San Francisco, CA, September 9, 2016.

You can read more about Vincent’s work and see some images here.

Maggie Nelson ’94 is a writer of uncommon gifts, able to blend theory, memoir, poetry and criticism into new genres of expression and insight. Kari and I were reading her work during the summer a couple of years ago, and recently my son gave me a copy of Bluets. I passed it along to our daughter Sophie, who was inspired by it (and made friends in NYC just carrying and reading it in public!).

Reading Bluets made me aware of my color-blindness more than anything I’ve ever encountered. Here’s part of what the foundation said about her work:

Nelson remains skeptical of truisms and ideologies and continually challenges herself to consider multiple perspectives. Her empathetic and open-ended way of thinking—her willingness to change her mind and even embrace qualities of two seemingly incompatible positions—offers a powerful example for how very different people can think and live together. Through the dynamic interplay between personal experience and critical theory, Nelson is broadening the scope of nonfiction writing while also offering compelling meditations on social and cultural questions.

Maggie Nelson, 2016 MacArthur Fellow, At home, Los Angeles, CA, 09.07.2016.
Maggie Nelson, 2016 MacArthur Fellow, At home, Los Angeles, CA, 09.07.2016.

You can read more about Maggie’s writings here.

Congratulations to our new alumni MacArthur Fellows! We are so proud!!

Starting College: What You Should Learn

Fall semester schedules are now set, and students are preparing for their first exams, finishing problem sets and writing essays. Just a few weeks ago I gave a talk to family members dropping off their new students in Middletown. It was a time of joy and poignancy, and a time for remembering those core things one should discover while at college: what you love love to do; how to get better at it; how to share it with others. Here’s a video of the talk.


Remembering September 11

here is new york collection, School of Visual Arts Archives/Visual Arts Foundation
here is new york collection, School of Visual Arts Archives/Visual Arts Foundation

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center. It is a day of pious remembrance of the thousands who were killed in that awful act of terrorism, of the courage and care of first responders, of the brutal aftermath of continued terrorism and the war against it that has scarred countless lives around the globe.

This week a photography exhibition marks this anniversary at the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery at Wesleyan’s Center for the Arts.

here is new york: a democracy of photographs is an exhibition of photographs made in response to the events of September 11, 2001. What began as one photo hung in the window of a SoHo storefront directly after the attacks became a means for everyone to have a voice beyond the conventional networks of reportage. Marking the fifteenth anniversary of September 11, this is the first time the photographs have been exhibited in Connecticut. At Wesleyan, the exhibition will replicate the democratic setting of the original exhibition, featuring photographs given to the Davison Art Center at Wesleyan University by Charles Traub and Aaron Traub in 2014.

Charles Traub and I will have a public conversation about the exhibition at the gallery on Tuesday, September 13th at 4:30 pm.

Photographs are a crucial way of directing attention, of creating a recollection, of paying respect. They seldom speak for themselves, but speak they do. Mark the day with remembrance in ways that feel appropriate. A democracy of memory, if you will.

Here Comes the Music!

This afternoon, on the first Friday of the school year, the Wesleyan campus hosts The Mash — a music festival that showcases plenty of student talent. There are stages at various places on campus, and this morning at 6:30 am Mathilde, Kari and I heard a lone guitarist on Foss Hill playing some sweet tunes. Come on out and listen. Or come on out and make some music!! It will be hot out there, but it should be a great day!

Kari and I are sitting in with The Highlanders at 5:00 pm at the base of Foss Hill. We are followed by some great student groups and an alumni band.


Here’s the schedule:

Olin Library
2pm-2:20pm     Slavei
2:30pm-2:50pm     Hari
3pm-3:20pm     Slender James
3:30pm-3:50pm     Birchbark
4pm-4:20pm     Fortune Plays Sax
4:30pm-4:50pm     Anna Savage

North College Lawn (Rain Site: Patricelii ’92 Theater)
2pm-2:20pm     Sneaky Boy
2:30pm-2:50pm     MEG
3pm-3:20pm     Dinomanic
3:30pm-3:50pm     Yer Trash
4pm-4:20pm     the good lonely
4:30pm-4:50pm     Mom

Center for the Arts (Rain site: World Music Hall)
2pm-2:20pm     Rui Barbosa
2:30pm-2:50pm     BOSSY
3pm-3:20pm     Lo-Qi
3:30pm-3:50pm     McCleary McCleary
4pm-4:20pm     Going Up North for the Weekend
4:30pm-4:50pm     Slouch

Main Stage on Foss Hill (Rain site: Crowell Concert Hall)
5pm-5:20pm     The Highlanders
5:30pm-5:50pm     Jal & Locus
6pm-6:20pm     Chef
6:30pm-7:30pm     El Niño


The semester is finally underway, and I am delighted to greet students on campus as they make their way to classes. The First Year Seminars are particularly attractive this year; they are a great way to improve one’s writing while also learning about a fascinating subject area.

I was excited to meet my Virtue and Vice class yesterday, and we had an animated conversation about the traditional virtues, and an even more pointed back and forth about the vices that are linked to them. When I asked the class about who they most admire, celebrities got by far the most votes. I wonder if that will change as we dig into the texts about moral philosophy….

Our athletes are already working hard at practice, and try outs for music and theater groups are getting underway. What performances will stand out this year? Maybe something from Friday’s MASH music festival…

This first Tuesday of the semester is a VEG OUT! day. You’ll find a cornucopia of vegetarian options at our dining facilities. Here’s what I heard from a student organizer:

Our Green Fund sponsored campaign “Veg Out” launched last October as a subcommittee of the Real Food Challenge student group, which aims to shift Usdan purchasing to socially & environmentally responsibly sourced food. The goal of Veg Out is to spread awareness of the negative impacts of the animal agriculture industry (both social & environmental), which we’ve done through a public forum, film screenings, posters, photo campaigns, an official Bon App banner in Usdan, a publication, an all school event, and most recently with the establishment of Veg Out Tuesdays. Starting on September 6, every other Tuesday for this Fall 2016 semester, Usdan will serve more vegetarian options (and no meat options). The upcoming dates are: September 20; October 4 & 18; November 1 & 15; December 6. We’re excited to Veg Out together! For more information, or to get involved, people can reach out to either Ingrid Eck or Mya Valentin or check us out on facebook at

Eat plants!

Soon I meet the faculty for the first meeting of the year. And we’re off!!


Updated with more information on VegOUT

Free Speech, Political Correctness and Higher Education

In the past week the University of Chicago made big news by defending academic freedom in a letter to incoming students. “Finally,” a distinguished alumnus wrote in a subject line of an email to me, “some sanity on campus.” Really? How is it possible that a distinguished university polishes its own apple by stating the obvious, that freedom of thought and expression are essential to its mission?

Well, last year was a tumultuous one for campus politics. Events from Claremont California to the University of Missouri to Yale gave plenty of fuel to older pundits already asking, “What’s the matter with kids today?” A chorus of critics of political correctness found common ground in mocking students’ desire for “safe spaces,” their concern over micro-aggressions, their need for trigger warnings. Kids today are coddled, we were told, and when they get to college, they fail to respect the rough and tumble contest of ideas that middle-aged alumni remember as being part of their own college experience. No matter that when most of us oldsters were in college, the campuses were far less diverse places than they are today. There were many voices back then that none of us got to hear.

Why did the Chicago’s Dean of Students feel the need to remind the happy few chosen to be part of the class of 2020 that the university does not support trigger warnings, intellectual “safe spaces” or the cancelling of visiting speakers? What if a faculty member wanted to give students a heads up that they would be reading a racist text or a book about rape so as to help them understand the reasons why it was part of the work of the class? Would giving this “trigger warning” not be part of the professor’s academic freedom? And what if students, as Northwestern’s president Morton Schapiro explained in an op-ed last year, sometimes wanted to hang out in the university’s Hillel so as to feel comfortable (safe) in discussions about Israel? What if students decided to protest a visiting war criminal who has been invited to lecture? Would these run afoul of Chicago’s posture of intellectual toughness?

When confronted with issues of power and inequitable distribution of resources, it’s far too easy to fall back on talk about abstract commitments to freedom and procedures. At a time when violent racism has been exposed as a systematic part of law enforcement, at a time when the legitimation of hatred in public discourse has become an accepted part of national presidential politics, it seems more than a little naive to tell incoming frosh that “civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us.” These students are coming to Chicago, after all ― one of the most violent cities in America. But perhaps the Dean’s letter was aimed at a different audience ― those concerned with the bogeyman of political correctness and those who worry that free speech isn’t the absolute value it used to be. That would explain the concerted efforts of the University of Chicago’s administrators to push for their unfettered marketplace of ideas version of free speech.

That said, I agree that freedom of expression is essential for education and for democracy. But speech is never absolutely free; it always takes place for specific purposes and against a background of some expression that is limited or prohibited. Hate speech and harassment fall into these legal or procedural categories. And there are some things, after all, that a university should refuse to legitimate or dignify by treating them as fit subjects for academic discussion. When we make a subject part of a debate, we legitimate it in ways that may harm individuals and the educational enterprise. We must beware of the rubric of protecting speech being used as a fig leaf for intimidating those with less power.

Last year at Wesleyan University, we had an intense debate about freedom of the press. Some students initially wanted to defund the student newspaper because they found it offensive, but others rushed to its defense. At that time, I wrote:

Debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are made uncomfortable. As members of a university community, we always have the right to respond with our own opinions, but there is no right not to be offended. We certainly have no right to harass people because we don’t like their views. Censorship diminishes true diversity of thinking; vigorous debate enlivens and instructs.

It’s still the case that the great majority of those studying on American college campuses would agree.

Over time, our students realized that censorship in various forms is antithetical to our educational mission, and they also recognized that the school newspaper could do a better job soliciting diverse of points of view. Rather than merely affirming abstract principle, they worked through an on-the-ground commitment to freedom of expression along with the cultivation of diverse points of view and a sense of belonging. This is not “free speech absolutism” or even a pure standard for campus decision makers to apply. But it is a winning combination for those entering a university, in Chicago or anywhere else.

Cross-posted with the Washington Post.

Welcome to Wesleyan!

It’s finally here! Many athletes, international and first-generation students have been arriving over the last few days, and today the Class of 2020 arrives in force. Here’s Dean Mike addressing international students:

International Students Dinner
International Students Dinner

This morning, all was calm as Kari, Mathilde and I walked the campus. But soon hundreds of cars will be unloading on Andrus Field, and the full orientation will begin. I look forward to greeting new students and their families and posting more pictures today.

Calm before the Arrival Day excitement
Calm before the Arrival Day excitement

If you have Arrival Day photos you would like to submit to Wesleyan’s Communications office, please send them to

Images from Arrival Day 2016:

IMG_2529 IMG_2528 IMG_2527 IMG_2524 IMG_2523 IMG_2519 IMG_2518 IMG_2516 IMG_2511 IMG_2510 IMG_2509 IMG_2503 IMG_2501 IMG_2499 4 3 2 1 IMG_2530

Wesleyan Translators!

Yesterday Kari received a note from Jim Kates ’67, a College of Letters alumnus sharing the news that he had recently received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship to continue his work on translating the Kazakhstani poet Aigerim Tazhi:

Until recently, female poets writing in Russian did not receive attention commensurate with their male counterparts, and female poets living outside Moscow and St. Petersburg even less so. Tazhi (b. 1981) is helping to change that. This new bilingual edition of An Astounded World will have particular significance both in the U.S. and in the poet’s native Kazakhstan because, as the poet herself states (as translated by Kates), “In Kazakhstan, not even one independent publishing house remains. Most publishers work … as typesetters, living on government subsidies, and publish mainly Kazakh classics or textbooks.” The press that published her book, she adds, closed years ago. The author of numerous award-winning poems, Tazhi was a finalist for the prestigious Russian Debut Prize in Poetry.

J. Kates is a poet, literary translator, past president of the American Literary Translators Association, and current president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a nonprofit publisher of works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Asia. He is a recipient of NEA fellowships in both poetry and translation, as well as the Cliff Becker Book Prize in Translation for his Selected Poems of Mikhail Yeryomin (White Pine Press, 2014). His most recent translation, Muddy River: Selected Poems of Sergey Stratanovsky, was published by the Carcanet Press in 2016.

Jim let us know that his fellow COL alumnus, Mark Schafer ’85, is also a distinguished translator who has garnered support from national foundations for his work.

Wesleyan has been a home for translators for a long time. When I was a student, the distinguished poet Richard Wilbur was also translating texts in a most powerful way, and my teacher in philosophy Victor Gourevitch published translations of Jean-Jacques Rousseau that are still widely used. We would later collaborate on translating and preparing a critical edition of the correspondence between Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojève. Today, Norman Shapiro in Romance Languages holds the title “Distinguished Professor of Literary Translation.” He has been honored time and time again for his work at once so elegant and faithful to the original. In Russian, Susanne Fusso recently published an “outstanding” translation of a novella by  Sergey Gandlevsky, and she has been praised for her deep knowledge of the history and culture of the author and attentiveness to his “relentless allusiveness.” In German Studies, professor Krishna Winston is a prolific, thoughtful translator of texts literary, philosophical and scholarly. Her work is widely read and regularly praised.

I know there are many more faculty engaged in translation projects. Please forgive me for not listing everyone!

All this brings to mind Prof. Katherine Kuenzeli’s recent award from the National Endowment for the Humanities to prepare a critical edition and translation of a selection of writings by Henry van de Velde. Katherine is an art historian, and she will work with a team to bring the work of this Belgian architect and art critic to a wider audience. Philosopher Stephen Horst has also received a major fellowship from the NEH to continue a project that might be described as translation in a less literal sense. Stephen is going beyond his specialized professional work to write a book aimed at a general audience “that examines the story of early modern science to demonstrate the compatibility between science, humanism, and theism.” I am so proud to see the work of our colleagues recognized by the NEH  in this way.

I’ve been thinking this summer about the ways in which liberal education increases our abilities to translate lessons learned in one area to other domains. We learn to discover new possibilities of resonance, new avenues of relevance. At Wesleyan we aim to enhance the ability of students to translate what they are learning into what they will do after graduation. Indeed, the pragmatic liberal education we offer at Wesleyan may be described as translational liberal learning – broad, contextual education aimed at giving our students tenacious yet flexible ways of thinking appropriate for a rapidly changing world.

 Wesleyan translators unite! We have nothing to lose but our parochialism!!

Stop the Trump Calamity

I published this opinion piece at Inside Higher Education this week. I take seriously the fact that a university should be a place where people from a very wide spectrum of political opinion can discuss their ideas in a context of non-violence. In the past, I have urged students to vote, but I have not played a public role in any election. This year is different, and I don’t think even a college president should be a mere “bystander.”


Over the past few years, Wesleyan University, like many across the country, has provided incoming students (and sometimes staff and faculty members) with classes in bystander intervention. The idea is simple, really. We want to give members of the campus community the tools to act in situations where somebody is at risk: when you see something amiss, do something so as to protect others from harm and make the campus a safer place.

I’ve been thinking about bystander intervention lately in the context of the presidential race. As the president of a nonprofit university, I am advised by legal counsel that I should not take public positions in elections. I know this makes a lot of sense, and over the 15 years or so that I’ve been a college president, I have encouraged electoral participation without being overt about where I stand in regard to any particular candidate.

This year is different. Donald Trump has been using the tools characteristic of demagogues and fascists to do the only thing that really matters to him: gaining power. He will say anything that he thinks will help him win, and there is no telling what he will do if he is successful.

Does he really believe that the “Mexican heritage” of a judge disqualifies him from a case? Does he genuinely condone “Second Amendment people” using violence to stop a newly elected president from making court appointments? Does he actually feel nostalgia for the days when you could beat up protesters?

He does affirm his intention to build a wall and ban Muslims from entering the United States, and he repeats a contention that Barack Obama is the founder of ISIS. You don’t need a fascistic theory of government to use the inflammatory tactics of fascism. It is clear enough: given his rhetoric and behavior, Donald Trump’s election would undermine the foundations of the republic and cause fundamental harm to the country.

Now, I can imagine that some readers will be rolling their eyes and thinking, “What a surprise … another liberal academic trying to use the university to push his own ideological agenda!” And I know that some people would prefer I not opine on politics at all lest I give the impression of speaking for the university and compromise institutional neutrality. Finally, in political matters, university presidents may have a megaphone but not necessarily, so the criticism goes, the relevant expertise.

I agree that my academic position gives me no special skills when it comes to electoral politics. Even though I am a historian, I don’t have much confidence in my profession’s capacity to offer sage counsel in contemporary political matters. But when we ask bystanders to intervene in an unfolding medical emergency, we are not calling on their knowledge of biology. We are asking them to call for help, to sound an alarm. When we ask a student to dissuade friends from binge drinking or other risky behavior that makes them vulnerable, we don’t expect them to be experts in a field. When we encourage people to stop a sexual predator from acting, we don’t need them to have law enforcement experience. We want them to be aware and feel responsible.

I also agree that many colleges and universities suffer from political biases that distort the educational experience of our students. At my left-leaning Wesleyan University, I have found it important to support Republican groups and faith-based clubs. Although I identify as a person on the left, I am developing programs to bring more conservative intellectuals to the campus to teach classes in a variety of fields and to present points of view not heard often enough in the liberal campus bubble. Intellectual and political diversity is a pressing problem in undergraduate education, and teachers have to be much more aware of the dangers of using their classrooms as a platform for ideology.

I do not believe that presidents or other university leaders should normally throw their institutional weight behind a specific public policy or a candidate. But despite my worries about institutional biases, this year I feel strongly that I need to intervene more directly, to join others in sounding an alarm about the grave danger to our political culture. I’ve done this in speeches and in the press, but I don’t think I am intervening enough, given the gravity of the situation. That’s why I am publishing this piece, and why I will continue to call out the dangers that the Trump campaign poses to our political ecosystem. I urge other higher education leaders to do the same. Some of the damage has already been done, as the bar for racist, hate-filled public discourse has been lowered in ways that would have shocked us just a few years ago. Even many who support candidate Trump are revolted by his intemperate, cruel and dangerous remarks.

When we teach students the skills for bystander intervention, we want them to feel empowered to make our campuses safer, more humane places. If faculty, staff or students see a dangerous situation unfolding, we expect them to act. After all, if someone on campus sees sewage spilling into a classroom, detects a noxious odor in a residence hall or simply sees a hallway filling with smoke, we don’t want them just to hope that someone with expertise and responsibility will arrive. We want them to feel responsible for bringing attention to the developing calamity. At the very least, we expect them to sound an alarm when danger threatens.

Donald Trump is a developing calamity for our polity. Whether from conservative, libertarian, religious or leftist positions, we should protect our culture from further Trumpian pollution. Even university presidents, as citizens, must use the tools available to us to sound the alarm as long as the danger threatens. And threaten it does.