Celebrate Abraham Adzenyah!

Abraham Adzenya

Abraham Adzenyah

What can one say about a professor and artist who has had a powerful impact on the lives of Wesleyan students for 46 years? Someone who has opened cultures, traditions, and possibilities for improvisational creativity with energy, intelligence and care while maintaining his own artistic practice at the highest level? How can we express our gratitude?

Abraham Adzenyah is retiring in December after 46 years at Wesleyan! The Music Department, the CFA and University Relations have come together with a group of alumni to host a series of events in his honor at HOMECOMING this Saturday, November 7. This includes a panel in the CFA Hall at 3 p.m., a West African Drumming and Dance Workshop at 7:30 p.m. and a Share/Performance at 9 p.m. both in Crowell Concert Hall.  For more information look here. Please join us to reflect, drum, dance and celebrate all that Abraham has given hundreds of Wesleyan students over so many years!

A group of Abraham’s former students, friends, and Wesleyan colleagues have put together a campaign to raise funds to create a scholarship fund in Abraham’s name.  They have a Facebook page (please like it!) with amazing photos and reflections here.  To honor Abraham and his many contributions, they are working to fund an endowed scholarship in his name. The Abraham Adzenyah Endowed Wesleyan Scholarship will provide financial aid to music majors, in perpetuity.

The steering committee writes:

Abraham’s drumming and dance classes and concerts reflect just the type of unique, surprising, and delightful experiences that many students have at our university. He offers his authentic expertise in a field of art and culture with which many of us were completely unfamiliar prior to our arrival in Middletown.

In celebration of Abraham and in recognition of Wesleyan’s commitment to thoughts, ideas, and arts of interest—wherever they originate—we’ve set out to raise $300,000. That’s huge!—but we are already $77,000 of the way there. Will you help us honor Wesleyan’s diversity, commitment to exposing students to a wide variety of cultures, and providing access to artists from all over the world?

A gift of any size will be a great help!

  • Please click here to make a donation: Wesleyan University – Give Now
  • Under Additional Information, select “Adzenyah Scholarship” as your Giving Priority
  • Consider a planned gift to support the Adzenyah Scholarship:
    Please contact Mark Davis ’96, director of gift planning, for more information at 860/685-3660


I hope to see many of you at the festivities this weekend. Abraham Adzenyah – THIS IS WHY.



Progress Report on Wesleyan Response to Refugee Crisis

On September 18 I sent a message to the Wesleyan community on the plight of refugees from Syria (and elsewhere) struggling to make their way to safety, asking for ideas on what we Wesleyans could do. I want to thank all those who responded with recommendations and expressions of support (as well as some cautions). I asked Professor Rob Rosenthal, Director of the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life, and Charles Salas, Director of Strategic Initiatives, to review the responses received and come up with a plan. They quickly discovered that our current students – Colfax Phillips ’16 and Casey Smith ’17 in particular – were a step ahead, having independently formed a student group called the Wesleyan Refugee Project (WRP). It is especially gratifying to me that our students have proved to be enormously helpful in developing the university plan. The plan consists of four tactics:

1. Facilitate the efforts of students to support current resettlement organizations in person and on-line – (for instance, through internships)

The WRP has been (1) coordinating volunteer efforts for Wesleyan students at Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS) in New Haven weekly, helping refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries access social services; (2) setting up Wesleyan students to tutor Syrian refugees in ESL remotely via Skype through the organization Paper Airplanes; and (3) working with the International Refugee Assistance Project (located in Washington, D.C.) through which Wesleyan volunteers can electronically help Iraqi and Afghan refugees complete their applications to refugee resettlement programs. The University has offered to facilitate these efforts in any way we can.

One way to help is to create internships for students eager to undertake efforts like these, and we have agreed to do just that. I understand word is spreading among students interested in working with IRIS and other organizations, and staff from the Career Center and the Center for Global Studies have also been reaching out to organizations dealing with refugees that might be interested in hosting interns.

2. Mount on-campus series of speakers

Raising awareness of the issues and their complexity is another thing our university can do. We had a number of good suggestions for speakers from Cole and Casey of the WRP, and Rob is planning to put together a series of three panels in February, each of which involves experts from outside campus and within. Provisional titles: Panel 1: The development of the crisis and the response in Europe; Panel 2: The refugee experience; and Panel 3: The U.S. response, locally and nationally.

3. Support student/faculty refugees here on campus

We have been in contact with the Institute of International Education (IIE) about bringing a student refugee to Wesleyan, and Wesleyan (WRP) students are exploring possibilities based upon their own contacts abroad. As the IIE told us, “Higher education is often described as the orphan of every conflict. Your willingness to host a Syrian student will play a crucial role in avoiding a lost generation and providing young Syrians with the skills and education they need to play a vital role in rebuilding their country when the time is ready.” The Admissions office will help ensure that the student(s) we bring are equipped to make the most of what we offer.

Wesleyan is a member of the Scholars at Risk (SAR) network, which is “dedicated to protecting threatened scholars, preventing attacks on higher education communities and promoting academic freedom worldwide.” We are exploring with SAR the possibility of bringing a Syrian refugee scholar to be in residence here, possibly at our Center for the Humanities.

4. Convene Middletown church and nonprofit group to create city plan for infrastructure to take in refugees.

We had a number of encouragements (and some cautions) in this regard from alumni, and Cathy Lechowicz, Director of the Center for Community Partnerships, is exploring the possibilities. Something like this, of course, even if deemed viable, will take some time to arrange.

There are, of course, a great many organizations working to help refugees worthy of our support. Three with Wesleyan connections are RefugePoint, founded by Sasha Chanoff ’94 (recently honored at the White House); Welcoming America, led by David Lubell ’98; and the considerably smaller Collateral Repair Project, a refugee aid NGO based in Amman, Jordan, where Cole volunteered last year and Casey volunteers now.

Some will  wonder if it is “our business” to crowd source ideas on this topic  (or any political/social issue). I believe our educational resources can make a positive difference in this arena, and that our commitment to practical idealism demands that we explore the possibilities. I’m gratified by the responses to my September 18 call for ideas, and I’m impressed by the efforts of the Wesleyan community in seeking to turn at least some of those ideas into concrete actions.

I’ll report back again on concrete steps we are taking in these areas.

Please Support Middlesex United Way!

This is the time when I ask the Wesleyan community to respond generously to requests to support the Middlesex United Way. Although many of us have various organizations to which we contribute, please consider that our gifts to United Way raise Wesleyan’s collective voice in support of programs that help our neighbors in need. Wesleyan faculty and staff have long been known as contributors to this community endeavor – a tradition meriting renewed effort. We are really striving to increase participation this year to show our commitment to the region in which we work. Those of you who are out of town and want to support these efforts can look here.

When you give to Middlesex United Way, your dollars stay close to the campus community. United Way’s local volunteers distribute your dollars to help neighbors in need – neighbors like the scores who recently have found homes thanks to the Middlesex County Coalition on Housing and Homelessness Prevention Fund. Our dollars have helped the Women & Families Center’s Sexual Assault Crisis Services support more than 800 people, and have contributed to school readiness programs for young children in all 15 towns in Middlesex County. In addition to providing vital assistance locally, Middlesex United Way is an effective catalyst for change, bringing many organizations together to improve all our lives.

As co-chair Gloster Aaron has noted, we are making it easier to donate this year with an on-line donation. Employees can use the “United Way Donor Form” in their Employee Portfolio.  Due date for donations is next Friday, Nov. 6.



Further instructions about how to donate via this form can be found here.  More information about the Middlesex United Way can be found here.

Changing lives in this way depends upon our support, and your gift matters. Every gift, at any level, makes a difference. If you are continuing your support, thank you. If you are considering a gift for the first time, I hope you will respond with a generous heart.


Conversations with Faculty

Shortly before Fall Break I met with about 70 faculty members over lunch to discuss resource allocation and strategic planning at the university. Provost Joyce Jacobsen got things rolling by describing the planning process underway with department chairs, and then professors from various departments contributed to the conversation.

How can we be sure that we have the right mix of visiting, tenure-track and other continuing faculty? We certainly don’t want to focus unduly on how many students a teacher has in class, in contradistinction to the quality of the teaching. One of the great strengths of our educational program is the advanced work that students are able to conduct with their professors. Various faculty talked about the importance of mentored research, and the importance of small tutorials or labs for this purpose. Do we need more long-term continuing faculty to deepen this strength? In some fields, do we need more graduate students, or graduate students with enhanced support?

How does the university acknowledge co-curricular work by professors? Wesleyan has taken steps in recent years to reward service, but are we doing enough to encourage teachers to create a learning community beyond the classroom? Do we create too many administrative burdens for faculty, and, if so, how might we reduce these without undermining the faculty’s role in governance? How do professors who are not on the traditional tenure system participate in governance and in campus learning?

On the subject of financial aid, we discussed the “erosion of the middle class” and how that is affecting the student body we enroll. Are there salutary changes to our financial aid program that might address this? We also talked at some length about the ways in which work/study obligations may undermine a student’s ability to take full advantage of educational opportunities, and also how expectations for summer earnings may place undue burdens on students and their families. How to address this without creating new problems?

As expected, we talked more about questions than answers – but this seems appropriate given the long-term work that lies before us. I came away from the lunch reminded how fortunate Wesleyan is to have such an engaged group of scholar-teachers ready to dedicate their talents and energy to benefit of their students and the advancement of their fields. With boldness, rigor and practical idealism, they make alma mater strong.


Biggest Threats to Free Speech Not on College Campuses

In response to some of the misinformation and manufactured outrage in the press, I wrote an opinon piece for the Hartford Courant on Sunday. This was reproduced on the HuffingtonPost the next day. ICYMI, I post it here.


As we prepared to honor Middletown military veterans at Wesleyan University’s first home football game, I sought out one of our engaged and thoughtful student vets. Bryan Stascavage had published an opinion piece in The Argus, the school newspaper, raising critical questions about the Black Lives Matter movement. The reaction to his provocative piece was intense: Some students were angry, some hurt and still others wondered what editors of The Argus were thinking when they published an essay that questioned a civil rights movement that has claimed the hearts and minds of so many of us on campus.

I trust the editors thought that Bryan’s essay would spark real conversations — the kind that make newspapers a vital part of so many communities’ cultural ecology. Sure, the editors got more than they bargained for. Some students argued that the essay was racist (I don’t think it was), or at least that it participated in systems of racist domination (what doesn’t?). They made the important point that opinion pieces like these facilitate the ongoing marginalization of a sector of our student population; and they angrily accused The Argus of contributing to that marginalization.

I’m very glad these important issues were made public — sometimes quite forcefully. Those who think they favor free speech but call for civility in all discussions should remember that battles for freedom of expression are seldom conducted in a privileged atmosphere of upper-class decorum.

Unfortunately, in addition to sparking conversation, the op-ed also generated calls to punish the newspaper. Protests against newspapers, of course, are also part of free speech. But punishment, if successful, can have a chilling effect on future expression. Many students (I think the great majority) quickly realized this and, contrary to what has been reported in the press, the student newspaper has not been defunded. Students are trying to figure out how to bring more perspectives to the public with digital platforms, and I am confident they can do this without undermining The Argus.

Commentators, perhaps weary of their impotence in the face of the perversion of free expression in politics by means of wealth, have weighed in on this so-called threat to free speech on college campuses. “What’s the matter with kids today,” these self-righteous critics ask, “don’t they realize that America depends on freedom of expression?” While economic freedom and political participation are evaporating into the new normal of radical inequality, while legislators call for arming college students to make them safer, puffed-up pundits turn their negative attention to what they see as dangerous calls to make campuses safer places for students vulnerable to discrimination. But are these calls really where the biggest threat to free expression lies? I fear that those who seize upon this so-called danger will succeed in diverting attention from far more dangerous threats.

Students, faculty and administrators want our campuses to be free and safe, but we also acknowledge that the imperatives of freedom and safety are sometimes in conflict. A campus free from violence is an absolute necessity for a true education, but a campus free from challenge and confrontation would be anathema to it. We must not protect ourselves from disagreement; we must be open to being offended for the sake of learning, and we must be ready to give offense so as to create new opportunities for thinking.

Education worthy of the name is risky — not safe. Education worthy of the name does not hide behind a veneer of civility or political correctness, but instead calls into question our beliefs. We learn most when we are ready to recognize how many of our ideas are just conventional, no matter how “radical” we think those ideas might be. We learn most when we are ready to consider challenges to our values from outside our comfort zones of political affiliation and personal ties.

Historically marginalized groups have the most to lose when freedom of expression is undermined by calls for safety. Just look at Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans for silencing anything deemed “extremist” and in conflict with “British values,” or Donald Trump’s fascistic rhetoric about closing mosques as part of his effort to “make America great again.”

My role as a university president includes giving students opportunities to make their views heard, and to learn from reactions that follow. As I wrote on my blog shortly after Bryan’s opinion piece was published, debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are uncomfortable. As members of a university community, we always have the right to respond with our opinions, but, as many free speech advocates have underscored, there is no right not to be offended. Censorship diminishes true diversity of thinking; vigorous debate enlivens and instructs.

Our campus communities, like the rest of society, will be more inclusive and free when we can tolerate strong disagreements. Through our differences we learn from one another.

Scott Plous, Online Teaching and Compassion

I’m cross posting this interview with Wesleyan Psychology Professor Scott Plous, which originally appeared through our partners at Coursera. In addition to being a beloved teacher at Wes, Scott is the Founder and Executive Director of the Social Psychology Network, a nonprofit membership organization whose mission is “to promote peace, social justice, and sustainable living through public education, research, and the advancement of psychology.”

What would happen if thousands of people around the world spent an entire day being as compassionate to fellow human beings as possible? Thanks to Wesleyan University Professor Scott Plous’ Social Psychology course, we don’t have to wonder. The wildly popular class, which debuted on Coursera in 2013, culminates with a “Day of Compassion” assignment, for which students from India to Colombia to Australia have volunteered at hospitals, fought sexual abuse, become grassroots activists and even, in one case, saved a life. And the effects have proved to be long-lasting—as a result of the exercise, many students say their own lives have been transformed. Plous recently appeared on NPR’s “Hidden Brain” podcast to talk about the science of compassion with reporter Shankar Vedantam—and invited radio listeners everywhere to take on the 24-hour challenge. We caught up with Plous to discuss his journey from being an online learning skeptic to an outspoken advocate and to share his hopes for the NPR experiment.

Coursera: You coined the term “action teaching” in 2000. Can you explain what that means?

Scott Plous: In courses that employ action teaching, students contribute to the betterment of society at the same time that they learn about a particular topic. For example, students learning about persuasion or philanthropy might compare the effectiveness of different fundraising techniques by going into the local community and raising money for a nonprofit organization chosen by the class (for some award-winning examples, see ActionTeaching.org). In each of my courses, I include at least one action teaching assignment.

Coursera: You taught our largest single course session (enrolling over 250,000 learners!) and have become the Coursera equivalent of a rock star. But we know you were initially hesitant to develop an online course. Why?

SP: I hesitated for a few reasons. First, I wasn’t sure whether publishers and documentary filmmakers would contribute materials without charge, but, to their credit, McGraw-Hill and others donated free materials that would have cost students a total of more than $1,000 to buy. In addition, I wasn’t sure whether students would do the coursework without receiving college credit. Finally, I wasn’t sure if the course would be well-received by students from other cultures, including people who didn’t speak English as their first language. I’ve now run this course twice and am continually impressed by the effort and ability displayed by learners around the world.

Coursera: Now that you’ve tested the waters with amazing success, what, for you, is the biggest upside to open online courses?

SP: The opportunity to reach a larger and more diverse group of students than I normally would. For instance, in the 2013 session of my Social Psychology class, students came from roughly 200 countries, and about 100,000 of these students lived in countries with emerging economies — places with relatively limited access to higher education and psychology training.

Coursera: The Day of Compassion contest was a resounding success, but it was something that had had been part of your classes for years. What was different for you, as a teacher, about conducting it on such a grand scale?

SP: It was different in two ways. First, students carried out the assignment around the world, which led to a level of cultural exchange beyond what’s typically possible in a traditional college course. Second, students in the online course voted to honor a classmate with a “Day of Compassion Award” that included an expense-paid trip to personally meet the Dalai Lama (in the 2013 session) or Jane Goodall (in the 2014 session). During the award selection process, students also got the chance to read and learn from each other’s work.

Coursera: You’ve said that in order to truly deliver on action teaching, online courses need to “connect to the most urgent and important issues of the day.” What issues do you find yourself talking about most often with your students right now?

SP: The issues I’ve focused on most are peace, social justice, and climate change, but it’s important to note that action teaching isn’t limited to social psychology. Whether a course is in psychology, computer science, creative writing, business, or anything else, there’s usually a way to incorporate action teaching — not as a trade-off at the expense of core concepts but as a way of engaging students even further. For example, after business students learn about topics such as negotiation and conflict resolution, teachers can challenge them to go out and actually reduce a conflict in their life or in the life of others they know. The end result is that students will not only learn in a meaningful way but that the others will benefit, as well. In fact, what Shankar has done with his podcast could be called “action reporting.” He has found a way to improve the social condition even while educating and entertaining his listeners.

Coursera: We’re thrilled that you’re taking the challenge to the NPR audience and excited to see what happens. What are your hopes for what will happen?

SP: First, I hope listeners will give the exercise a try and see what happens. As the podcast suggests, many people find the experience transformative. Second, I hope listeners send their stories of compassion to Shankar, who has promised to showcase them in a future podcast (Shankar can be reached through NPR and is also on Twitter @HiddenBrain). Finally, I hope teachers in elementary school, middle school, high school, and college will try a Day of Compassion assignment with their own students. This year, students at Wesleyan University, where the exercise was first developed, will participate in the 15th Annual Day of Compassion, and I’m eager to read their reports!

Aspirations for Liberal Education

Last week I was on the road for Wesleyan, and I attended admissions events in Los Angeles and Bangkok. On my way back from Thailand, I stopped in Singapore for the opening of Yale-NUS College. I wrote about this in The Atlantic.

Here are a couple of the key points:

Liberal education in American history has often been powerful because it has challenged the status quo. Liberal education today that is worthy of the name must recover the capacity to be untimely so as to equip teachers and students with the courage and the ability to resist the demand for the narrowly vocational.

As I celebrated the establishment of this new college, I found myself recalling that American liberal education at its best has little to do with the debate about a “common core” or about distribution requirements. This tradition is about freedom as the practice of inquiry. That’s why in 1829 David Walker talked about education when calling for slave rebellion among his fellow African Americans: “I pray,” he wrote, “that the Lord may undeceive my ignorant brethren and permit them to throw away pretensions and seek after the substance of learning.” That’s why, almost a century later, W.E.B. Du Bois criticized the call for education to be more vocational, writing that “there is an insistence on the practical in a manner and tone that would make Socrates an idiot and Jesus Christ a crank.”

I also thought of Jane Addam’s commitment to empathy and to affectionate interpretation, and of John Dewey’s “practical idealism.” Addams supported learning that enabled one to better understand and act on points of view quite different from one’s own, and Dewey envisioned a pragmatic liberal education that would address the pressing problems of the day with a variety of perspectives and methodologies. My highest aspiration for the new “American-style” college in Singapore is the aspiration that Walker and Du Bois, Addams and Dewey had for liberal education: to promote freedom as a good in itself and to be a vehicle for expanding individuals’ knowledge of themselves and the world.

These are points I’ve made in Middletown — and anyplace else I get the chance. You can read the full article here.


Prof. Janice Naegele Recognized for Mentorship in Neuroscience

Give a big Wesleyan cheer to Janice Naegele, professor of biology, neuroscience and behavior, for the honor to be bestowed upon her by the Society of Neuroscience. According to the association, the Louise Hanson Marshall Special Recognition Award honors “individuals who have significantly promoted the professional development of women in neuroscience through teaching, organizational leadership, public advocacy, and more.” Here’s what the society says:

Naegele  began her career studying the characteristics of cortical neurons and more recently has performed pioneering studies of transplantation of inhibitory neurons in the brain as a potential treatment for severe epilepsy. She has also been an avid communicator and advocate for the study and treatment of epilepsy. As director of the Center for Faculty Career Development at Wesleyan, Prof. Naegele has worked tirelessly to raise awareness about and reduce bias against women in academia.

Jan is a mentor to faculty colleagues as well as students. An active researcher, she also supports efforts to make science clear to a broad audience. We are fortunate to have Jan Naegele as a colleague, and it is a delight to join in this recognition of her achievements.

Wesleyans Feeling the Sorrow of Atrocities in Sudan

Wesleyan alumna Orelia Jonathan ’15 recently sent the following note to the African Student Association:

As some of you may or may not know, Buagji, the village in Western Equitoria, Sudan, where my father was born and where I based much of the research for my thesis, was burnt to the ground on Friday night by the SPLA armed forced (Southern Sudanese Government). This atrocity occurred after the small village resisted a cattle raid by another tribe and called the government for protection. Instead of protecting the village, the government, who is run by members of the same tribe that attempted the cattle raid, came and opened fire on civilians – my people and family members – as well as burned and looted most of the houses in the village, including the school that Geneva and I have spent the past couple of years raising money to support.

Some of you might also realize that this is the same village where [her sister] Geneva [Jonathan ’15] and I laid down foundations to build a Women’s Maternity Health Clinic and general health center this past summer with a grant we received from Wesleyan University.

Right now there are approximately 1000 families hiding in the mountains and jungle (including my own family and baby cousins) and there are hundreds of children who are terribly hungry because the soldiers took all of the food and the village people were unable to take food because they had to flee.


Orelia has offered this update:

The same region of Western Equatoria, near Jambo, was attacked again on October 5 by armed government helicopters. Still no international news has taken up the story of these civilians, who are NOT part of the military opposition. A very few have taken up (small) arms to defend their land. The only reports come from the opposition army, where they are interpreted as “allegations” only. We cannot believe these attacks have not been reported internationally.

We received word that families (including my own) are still hiding 10-15 miles from the road, with some returning to their villages by dark of night to get food. Those areas that are a little further from the road have not yet been attacked, although people do not feel able to return to them safely. The UN has promised to follow-through with the so-called peace agreement insofar as possible, and has supported the establishment of an African Union war crimes court in South Sudan. These, however, are long-term solutions and do nothing to protect our people right now.

Please continue to help spread the word about these atrocities, for they have gone on for far too long- and hundreds of innocent people are going hungry as a result or worse, being killed. To read a news article about the most recent attack, click here.

Orelia has set up a go-fund-me page here. You can find updates and lend a hand.

History Prof. Jennifer Tucker on Preventing Gun Violence

Wesleyan is very fortunate to have many faculty members who connect their deep academic specializations with urgent contemporary issues. The Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life is the most visible sign of the University’s commitment in this regard. Gun violence is certainly a national problem that shatters lives and communities with sickening regularity. Before the latest school shooting in Oregon, Jennifer Tucker (history, science in society, feminist, gender and sexuality studies) had written a strong opinion piece that contextualized debates about guns. In an op-ed picked up by several newspapers, Prof. Tucker has argued that “one fact stands out: Guns might not kill people, but guns get people killed.” She goes on to say that “it would be great to see gun owners get more involved in arguing for basic limits on the proliferation of firearms that would help reduce the numbers of deaths and casualties of firearm-related violence in America today. One thing they should do is familiarize themselves with the true history of the American frontier, where gun restrictions were seen as conducive to a healthy nation.” She has expanded on this argument in a WNPR interview.

Yesterday, Prof. Tucker joined with health sciences and epidemiology professor Matthew Miller in writing an opinion piece for the Boston Globe that underscores the public health dimension of America’s infatuation with unregulated gun trafficking. They conclude that “firearm violence is a public health crisis no less serious than those associated with automobiles. Our experience with autos and pollution shows that, along with other measures, sensible gun regulations could save lives.

The massacre at Umpqua Community College is another reminder just how catastrophic the combination of mental illness and access to deadly weapons can be. Education can not exist in a context of deadly threats. Civil society, itself, depends on the regulation of the mechanisms of violence.

Thank you, Jennifer Tucker, for combining history, engagement and civic responsibility in your ongoing work. I only wish it was less urgent!