Normalized Nastiness

The election season is finally coming to an end. I published this short essay at the end of last week in Inside Higher Education

It was a debate moment that historians will surely return to — like Richard Nixon’s sweaty brow and George H. W. Bush’s impatient glance at his watch. When Donald Trump lost composure and interjected “such a nasty woman” (twice), the game was over. Respect for women? Please.

From mocking disabled people to stigmatizing immigrants to encouraging violence against one’s enemies, the Trump campaign has indulged in a startling variety of transgressions of normal political discourse. The Clinton campaign’s counterpoint “when they go low, we go high,” suggested by the extraordinarily popular first lady, seems to be more about political advantage than moral elevation.

Few people seem to be turning to college campuses lately for moral elevation. Videos go viral of undergraduates screaming their demand for a peaceful home, while deans make a virtue of their commitment to academic freedom by undermining their faculty’s ability to prepare students for disturbing content. Absolutist rhetoric circulates easily at our universities when they should be cultivating subtle analysis and nuanced interpretation.

Some have pointed out that coarse political discourse goes way back in American history and that Trump is following in the footsteps of other titans of transgression. Politicians have said the darnedest things for a long time, we are told, and the Trump campaign’s invective is not actually as unusual as today’s oversensitive onlookers like to claim. The same might be said of our campuses, which have long been hotbeds of contention.

Back in the 1970s there was a Saturday Night Live routine, “Point/Counterpoint,” in which Dan Aykroyd would turn to fellow commentator Jane Curtin and exclaim, “Jane, you ignorant slut.” The funny part of this bit was that it was hard to imagine anyone on a real news show ever saying something like that as a prelude to articulating a disagreement.

Over the last decade, however, we have grown accustomed to the rabid fulminations of talk radio and to cable news pundits cultivating personae of perverse aggressivity. And now we have been treated to the spectacle of political candidates commenting on penis size, assaultive groping and vicious denigrations of the physical appearance of women. Today the Dan Aykroyd line would not be so funny because it would not be so preposterous.

The expectation of excoriation has become a fact of public and academic life — with consequences in the civic realm. Disagreements — be they on social media or at the neighborhood watering hole — can get nasty very quickly. And it’s sticks and stones as well as words. Americans are killing one another at alarming ratesin disputes over everything from what to play next on the jukebox to the best car brands. A verbal shot can have an awful counterpoint when somebody has a pistol tucked into his belt — whether he’s in a bar or a classroom.

Although this growing barbarism is much remarked on in the political realm, when it comes to colleges we hear about a very different kind of concern: political correctness on campus. Somehow, the enforced niceness of PC culture is dangerous because it protects “coddled” millennials from having to challenge their own assumptions. While the rest of the country is engulfed in a dangerous war of words, campuses are accused of caring too much about triggering painful memories and providing safe spaces. This fantasy about PC culture has been weaponized in the current electoral campaign, so that all kinds of assaultive speech (and worse) are celebrated as evidence that candidates aren’t caving in to political correctness.

When you spend time on college campuses, however, you find plenty of debate that is actually substantive — about the role of systemic racism in our institutions, about the possibilities for meaningful work after graduation, about the struggle for transparency in our public institutions. Transparency in particular is a key value for many students across the country, and this often leads to controversy because privacy is also a value they cherish.

That said, undergraduates today are often repulsed by official politics, and they are too likely to be cynical about the possibilities for building responsive institutions that can support the most vulnerable or empower the most innovative. It’s been observed that they are no longer inspired by abstract calls for “free speech” or by warm and fuzzy talk about “diversity and inclusion.” No wonder nihilism seems to be making a comeback among those who want to show how sophisticated their suspiciousness has become. If you’re really smart, the thinking seems to be, you won’t believe in anything that promotes possibilities for change. “We won’t get fooled again!” is the defensive cry of those afraid of being disappointed if they seek to engage with anything beyond themselves and their immediate peer group. Disillusionment is harder to mock than idealism and is in great supply on our college campuses.

It’s less risky to undercut an opponent’s stand than to take a stand of one’s own, and mocking the commitments of others from a distance is the safest route of all. Proposing practical programmatic change in areas like refugee resettlement, mass incarceration, the minimum wage or gender equality may indeed lead to social media storms of abuse from the alt-right or from a holier-than-thou left. That doesn’t make the proposals bad or good, but it does make it easier to propose nothing at all.

What’s most worrisome about the normalized nastiness is that it will surely discourage even more people from participating in public life, regardless of political persuasion. Nobody likes being called a racist, a loser, a fascist or even a neoliberal. And nobody enjoys being the object of mockery that is eminently retweetable.

The solution isn’t censorship or pious calls for more civility. Nor is the solution “rising above it all” to a “know-it-all position” that is smugly pessimistic because it is “all so smart.” The solution is to keep engaging on issues and proposing ideas that address real problems with full knowledge that one will be attacked for doing so. Fear of attack is no excuse for the failure to take a stand.

We must not abandon the public sphere to those who have successfully polluted it. It has always taken courage to take a public stand, and courage is still the best counter to nastiness.

Little Three Champs in Football!

I drove up to Williamstown yesterday to see a stunning performance by the Wes Football team. Hats off to Coach Dan DiCenzo and his staff, and to all the athletes who made Wesleyan proud. One more game left in this season — next week at home against undefeated Trinity. It should be a good one!!




Sultan Olusekun and the prez in matching garb
Sultan Olusekun and the prez in matching garb
What a game!
What a game!

Help for Haiti

I received the following message from a student concerning a campus drive to support relief efforts in Haiti on Monday, November 7.

Dear Faculty, Staff, and Students,

The Haitian Student Collective (HSC) is holding an electronic drive this Monday, November 7th, as part of an immediate contribution to the relief efforts for those recently affected by Hurricane Matthew. On top of the numerous lives taken, the hurricane caused severe physical damages as properties/personal belongings of many got destroyed.

Many groups and organizations are helping out with the distribution of water, food, and health supplies so response to some of urgent needs of people has been going well. However, assistance in other areas also heavily affected by the Hurricane is practically non-existent.

Professor Elizabeth McAlister, who’s maintained close ties to Haiti for a very long time, informed members of the HSC about the urgent needs for electronics, especially in the academic community. She is traveling to Haiti on November 9th for a conference and offered to carry the electronic devices that we collect during the drive. They will be distributed at a university in Haiti and make their way to many individuals in need of a new device.

The electronic drive will happen from 11am until 5pm in Usdan and we will be having bins to collect smartphones, tablets, and laptops in good working-condition.

Thus, throughout the week you can gather your devices and then on Friday stop by our table to drop off your items. The devices need to have their charger. You will receive a couple of reminders later this week so that we have a successful turn-out! We’re also asking you to spread the word to as many people as possible who might be interested.

We hope that you will participate in our efforts to ensure that Haitians continue to have access to resources essential to their livelihood. We sincerely appreciate your solidarity during these tough times and thank you in advance for your donations.

Kind regards,

The Haitian Student Collective (HSC)

Documentaries Are Wes

On Saturday night this Family Weekend, the College of Film and the Moving Image is screening Hamilton’s America, a film directed by Alex Horwitz ’02.

Hamilton’s America shows just how timeless the hot-button issues of today’s America are: immigration, States’ rights, debt, income inequality, and race relations. These were the same fights that defined Hamilton’s time, and they are the driving force of Miranda’s historic work. The film endeavors to brush the dust off American history, much as the musical does, and provide a unique new way for us to view our national heritage and current political landscape.

A unique window into the artistry and research involved in making the show, viewers will witness Miranda at the White House in 2009 performing an early version of what would become “Alexander Hamilton,” the first number in the musical, and they will also be given an inside view of Miranda as he composes songs in Aaron Burr’s Manhattan bedroom. They will travel to Virginia with Christopher Jackson – who was Tony®-nominated for his portrayal of George Washington in the musical – as he reveals his personal struggle preparing for the role, while grappling with our Founder’s legacy of slavery. Back in New York, Miranda, who originated the Tony®-nominated role of Hamilton in the musical and Leslie Odom, Jr. – who won a Tony Award® for his portrayal of Aaron Burr – visit the Museum of American Finance to get a deeper understanding of the historical figures they are depicting on stage, including a memorable moment from this research trip, when the two actors brandish authentic 19th-century dueling pistols.

It will be wonderful to see this film on the big screen. If you can’t make it Saturday night, you can still watch the film here.

Two other recent documentaries directed by Wesleyan alumni were recently brought to my attention. Randy McLowry ’86 has a new film airing on PBS’s American Experience on November 1st. Professor Scott Higgins tells me that “Randy is a terrific filmmaker who continues to produce and direct interesting work for PBS and others.” The Battle of Chosin tells the story of a crucial, and harrowing, battle in the Korean War.

“The Battle of Chosin contains remarkably compelling archival footage and photographs, but its real strength is its cast of veterans, who recount their experiences in intimate detail,” said Mark Samels, American Experience executive producer. “Representing a cross section of America, these men tell stories that are often heartrending, but which affirm the valor and dedication of those who served during the brutal days and nights at Chosin. It’s important that we capture their stories now, in their own words, before we lose them.”

You can read more about the film here.

Finally, Roger Weisberg ’75 directed Dream On, which also premiered this fall on PBS. This film examines what’s happened to the American Dream in the age of downsizing and disinvestment from the public good.

Dream On investigates the perilous state of the American Dream after decades of rising income inequality and declining economic mobility. In an epic road trip, political comedian John Fugelsang retraces the journey of Alexis de Tocqueville, whose study of our young country in 1831 came to define America as a place where anyone, of any background, could climb the ladder of economic opportunity.

Roger has a long list of distinguished documentaries to his credit, and Dream On powerfully demonstrates his continued passion for filmmaking in the service of social justice. You can read more about the film (and see it!) here.

Wesleyan documentary filmmakers challenge the world as they envision it for the screen. I’m so proud of the work they are doing!

Black Lives Matter — Thinking About Civil Rights as the Election Nears

A few weeks ago a Wesleyan student asked me if the University would be willing to fly the Black Lives Matter flag as a sign of our commitment to deal with the persistent effects of systemic racism on campus and off. When he posed this question, I had already been thinking about how to turn Wesleyan’s attention to the importance of the coming election. Perhaps raising the flag would remind all of us of what’s at stake on November 8th.

Black Lives Matter has been the most significant civil rights movement in decades. It has raised questions fundamental to American democracy, law enforcement, mass incarceration, voting rights, access to resources and much, much more. I know very well that not everyone agrees with its tactics or its goals — and the movement itself has many components with different points of view. We raise the flag at Wesleyan not to tell people what to think but to remind people that the time to think, to discuss, to act…. is now.

The Anthropology Department is sponsoring a panel discussion on Black Lives Matter at 4:30 Nov 1st in the Russell House. The Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life has put together a series of panels on election issues more generally. The first one is on the Role of Religion in Politics and takes place October 27 at 7pm PAC 001. More information on the series can be found here.

Whatever one thinks of Black Lives Matter, I hope by raising the movement’s banner we are instigating more discussion, more engagement, more efforts to promote civil rights and to eradicate racism. We will fly the flag until Election Day.


What a Homecoming!

Homecoming this year was marked by some valiant efforts by teams that fought hard every step of the way. From field hockey to soccer, Wes athletes competed with energy and smarts. There were heartbreaking losses and terrific winning efforts.

Special shout outs go to the women’s volleyball team that had some dominating performances. The remarkable Nicole Hilton ’20 was named NESCAC Volleyball Player-of-the-Week. Congratulations!!



And the football team was glorious in its convincing win over a strong Amherst team, 20-0. Ike Fuchs ’17 was named NESCAC Special Teams Player-of-the-Week, and there were great performances on both sides of the ball on Saturday. Congratulations to all on this wonderful team effort.

IMG_2625 (1)

At the end of the weekend we received news of another triumph. The Wesleyan Women’s Crew Team had taken a first place at the prestigious Head of The Charles Regatta. Congratulations!


Now onward to the rest of the semester!!

Welcome Home to Wesleyan!

Thousands of alumni will be heading to campus this weekend to celebrate Wesleyan and Middletown. There are athletic contests galore, seminars and lectures….lots of things to remind us of the resources and creativity of alma mater. Our university thrives in the context of a great community, and we will be celebrating our city and its residents. Find out more here.




Friday, October 21

2:00 PM
Wesleyan Admission Information Session
Gather insight into the admission process at Wesleyan by attending this information session for prospective students.
Presented by: The Office of Admission
McKelvey Room, Stewart M. Reid House, Office of Admission (show in map)

3:00 PM
Tour of Campus
Presented by: The Office of Admission
Meet in the lobby of the Stewart M. Reid House, Office of Admission (show in map)

7:00 PM
Volleyball v. Connecticut College
Silloway Gymnasium, Freeman Athletic Center

7:00 PM
Athletics Hall of Fame Ceremony & Dinner
Celebrate the eighth class of inductees to the Athletics Hall of Fame. Buy tickets to the dinner and ceremony by October 7.

8:00 PM
Television Reality! Shark Tank Director Ken Fuchs ’83 in Conversation
Fuchs is a television director with expertise in non-scripted series. He will share his experiences directing  SHARK TANK, THE BACHELOR, FAMILY FEUD, and more.
Moderator: Scott Higgins, chair of film studies, College of Film and the Moving Image
Goldsmith Family Cinema

Saturday, October 22

8:00 AM to 4:00 PM
Usdan Cafe Hours
The Usdan Cafe is open for beverages and snacks.
Usdan Univerisity Center

9:00 AM
Women’s Lacrosse Alumnae Game
Smith Field

9:30 AM to 10:00 AM
Joint Meeting of the Alumni Association Executive Committee,
Wesleyan Fund Volunteer Leadership Committee
By invitation only.
Taylor Meeting Room (108), Usdan University Center

10:00 AM to 4:00 PM
Tailgating and Parking on Andrus Field
The Wesleyan men’s and women’s tennis teams oversee and direct visitor parking at all home football games.  In return, many visitors choose to make a donation to the tennis program that goes towards defraying equipment, travel, and numerous other expenses to the program.  The suggested donation is $3 per car, but any amount, more or less, is graciously accepted.  Further, the donations are optional and at the complete discretion of individual attendees.  The tennis teams thank you for your support.
Open Container Policy: University policy and NESCAC regulations state that alcohol is not allowed at any sporting event with the exception of the tailgate area on Andrus Field.  Open containers are not allowed near the football field.
Andrus Field and Foss Hill (show in map)

10:00 AM
Wesleyan Admission Information Session
Gather insight into the admission process at Wesleyan by attending this information session for prospective students.
Presented by: The Office of Admission
McKelvey Room, Stewart M. Reid House, Office of Admission (show in map)

10:00 AM to 12:00 PM
Wesleyan Fund Volunteer Leadership Committee Business Meeting
and Lipman Hearne Focus Group
By invitation only.
Andersen Meeting Room (110), Usdan University Center

10:00 AM to 11:30 AM
Alumni Association Executive Committee Business Meeting
and Lipman Hearne Focus Group
By invitation only.
Taylor Meeting Room (108), Usdan University Center

10:00 AM
Team Tailgates
The following teams are hosting tailgates during the football game.  Please check back often as more teams are added.
Baseball (Concessions) 
Men’s & Women’s Basketball

Men’s Ice Hockey 
Women’s Lacrosse
Softball (Concessions)
Men’s & Women’s Swimming & Diving

11:00 AM to 3:00 PM
Lunch in Honor of the Class of 1966 Football Team
By invitation only.
Daniel Family Commons, Usdan University Center

11:00 AM
Tour of Campus
Presented by: The Office of Admission
Meet in the lobby of the Stewart M. Reid House, Office of Admission (show in map)

11:30 AM to 2:30 PM
Middletown Day Festivities
Wesleyan alumni, students, families, faculty, staff, and the Middletown community are invited to join us for Middletown Day as we cheer on the Cardinals.  Stop by the Spirit Tent for fun activities for everyone including, face painter, balloon animals, bouncy house, snacks, spirit gear and more.
Located behind North & South College

12:00 PM
Field Hockey vs. Amherst College
Smith Field

12:00 PM
Women’s Soccer vs. Amherst College
Jackson Field

12:00 PM to 1:00 PM
Young Alumni Tailgate
Stop by for food, fun, friends, and of course FOOTBALL. What more can you ask for?
Tent in the tailgate area parallel to the Fayerweather parking lot on Andrus Field

12:00 PM to 4:00 PM
“Saddle Up! The Western Film” Gallery Exhibit
“Saddle Up! The Western Film.”  The exhibit showcases western-themed film posters from 1936 to 1992, and features films  from directors including Cecil B. DeMille, John Ford, Raoul Walsh, King Vidor, and Clint Eastwood.  The Gallery is open Friday and Saturday afternoons from 12 to 4 and admission is FREE.
Center for Film Studies Film Studies Rick Nicita Gallery

12:30 PM
Alumni of Color Council Meeting
Center for African American Studies (CAAS)

1:00 PM to 4:00 PM
Wesleyan Women of Class of ’74 Gathering
By invitation only for the women of 1974.
Klingher Classroom (113), Boger Hall

1:00 PM
Dream Dangerously offers viewers a fly-on-the-wall look at Gaiman (SANDMAN, AMERICAN GODS, CORALINE) on the road, interacting with fans and experiencing the struggles and joys of being an acclaimed public speaker and in-demand personality. At the same time, the film delves deeply into Gaman’s writing process, exploring the childhood origins of his love of mythology, up to his struggles to keep his writing fresh after 25 years of successful storytelling.
DIRECTOR, Patrick Meaney ’07, will conduct a Q&A after the film screening.
Powell Family Cinema

1:00 PM
Tour of Campus
Presented by: The Office of Admission
Meet in the lobby of the Stewart M. Reid House, Office of Admission (show in map)

1:00 PM
Football vs. Amherst College
To view a live streaming video of the game, log on to approximately 1/2 hour prior to game time and follow instructions. Halftime show featuring the Middletown High School Marching Band.
Corwin Stadium, Andrus Field (show in map)

2:30 PM
Men’s Soccer vs. Amherst College
Jackson Field

3:00 PM to 5:00 PM
President’s Reception Honoring Leadership Donors & Volunteers
Please join President Michael Roth ’78 and the Wesleyan Board of Trustees at a reception celebrating members of the Wesleyan Leadership Societies. The Wesleyan Circle, the 1831 Society, and the Olin Associates recognize members of the Wesleyan community who put the University first in their philanthropy—as donors and volunteers. All are welcome.
Olson Commons, Gordon Career Center, Boger Hall

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Eiko Wins a Bessie!

a-body-in-fukushima_eventEiko Otake, who for many years has taught dance and performance at Wesleyan, was recognized this week with a “Bessie” Award for her work in 2015 at Danspace Project Platform. “A Body in Places,” photographs of which (taken by Wes historian and photographer Williameiko_otake_body_places_eventJohnston) were exhibited here, was recognized with this prestigious award. The jury cited Eiko “For making herself ‘radically available’ in public and private spaces over several weeks, actively engaging with pressing political and environmental issues of our time. For collaborating with a wide range of artists through performances, readings, films, discussions, and rituals to evoke the power and meaning of the human body inhabiting a planet in crisis.”

Congratulations Eiko, for this important recognition of your extraordinary work!

Campus Update

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

Dear friends,

The news that a former staff member of the University had been fired by his previous employer for grossly inappropriate behavior has led to student protests and powerful expressions of pain. At a time when we are confronted by cavalier discussions of sexual abuse even in the presidential campaign, the revelations here have reopened wounds of many on campus who are survivors. Their anguish is all too real, and we must work to change the conditions that gave rise to it.

What can we do? What will the administration do? As I’ve listened to campus concerns, they seem to fall into three key areas: transparency; Title IX issues; and following up on task force recommendations on equity and inclusion.

Transparency only exists with communication, and we are reaching out to student representatives in a series of meetings throughout the rest of the semester and beyond. We are also putting together resources where all students can find information on what we are doing to address major concerns. Are there other ways in which we can be more open about our decision-making processes? If you have ideas about this, let me or others in the administration know. I have office hours on most Monday afternoons, but I can make appointments to talk any day I’m on campus (contact or 860-685-3500).

In regard to Title IX, we are meeting with students and bringing in a consultant to review all our procedures and help us decide if we should use outside personnel to handle accusations of sexual misconduct involving students. In the meantime, we are working hard to make sure that the procedures we have are put to best possible use in meeting the needs of our students.  If you would like to make a Title IX report or have questions about the process, please contact Debbie Colucci, Equity Compliance Director & Deputy Title IX Coordinator, or 860-685-2456, or Alysha Warren, Therapist/Sexual Assault Resource Coordinator, or 860-685-3217.

Finally, we are working on the Equity Task Force recommendations from last year. We have put in place a new Opportunity Hires policy to facilitate the diversification of our faculty and staff, and we have identified possible locations for the new Resource Center as well as allocating resources for a dedicated staff person. Next step: more student input.

These are only some of the initiatives underway to respond to the student concerns. But administrative initiatives, no matter how well-intentioned, can only do so much. We need to care for one another. Some of the most meaningful voices I’ve heard come from students describing the pain they are in, pain that haunts their lives, suffering that is heightened every time another attack is reported, every time we display the failure to have moved our campus far enough toward a culture of belonging and away from one of marginalization. Like so many others on the faculty and in the administration, I both want to acknowledge the awful reality of this anguish and pledge to work across the campus to address its sources.

Students, staff and faculty desire and deserve a transparent, responsive, and respectful community. This is work in which we all have a part. It depends on listening, on caring for one another, and on work that leads to real results. As president, I pledge to do my part.

Michael S. Roth


Turning, Listening

I spent yesterday observing Yom Kippur – absorbing the wise words and expressions of deep feeling of others, engaging in self-reflection and consideration of forgiveness and responsibility. In the Jewish traditions in which I participate, we speak of “turning,” of positioning ourselves to live a more just and meaningful life, of listening to others and acting on our values. I will continue this turning.

I have tried hard to listen to the concerns of all members of the Wesleyan community, and especially to those students who want our school to do more to acknowledge their experience – their accomplishments, to be sure, but also their pain and vulnerability. Over the years I have heard from countless young people who have found at Wesleyan – through their friends, teachers and staff mentors – the path to developing the capacity to do work they find fulfilling, to live lives they find meaningful. But I have also heard from many who believe alma mater can do much more — that we must do more if we are to become a truly equitable and inclusive place.

I’ll have more specific things to say about this early next week with specific ideas of how to increase transparency, to improve our disciplinary and Title IX adjudication processes, and to follow up on recommendations concerning faculty/staff diversity and a student resource center.

These are some of the areas in which I know we can improve. But we all need to see results and not just rhetoric. By working together, by making real changes that matter to students, I hope we can rebuild trust while building a campus culture in which everyone takes pride.