A Sanctuary and a Resource for our People and Values

In my message to the campus on Saturday, I underscored that  “Wesleyan will never retreat from our mission of creating an inclusive and equitable community. We are open to debate, to challenging ideas, but we will never back down in the face of crude bigotry.” Threats of mass deportation is one of the forms that crude bigotry has recently been taking, and this threat is totally at odds with our decision last year to treat undocumented applicants just like other applicants from the United States.

This weekend I have been asked by students and faculty about Wesleyan becoming a sanctuary campus, which means (at the very least) that we would not cooperate with any efforts at mass deportations. I find this a very promising direction, having said that “we will find ways to cultivate the values that sustain our educational community and protect the people who have made it their home.” In the coming days and weeks I will discuss this option with the appropriate offices and Trustees. I will report back to the campus on what we can do in this regard.

Inside Higher Education asked me for further thoughts in the aftermath of the election:

Like many university people, I kept underestimating the phenomenon of Donald Trump. Months ago, I called attention to “The Trumpian Calamity,” hoping that more college presidents and other education leaders would condemn his campaign of hate-filled demagoguery. Now, like so many around the country, I find myself wondering whether I should have done more.

My essay, parts of which come from earlier communications I’ve made to the campus, is here.

Campus Update

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

Dear friends,

In the past few days a few Wesleyan students have received racist, threatening messages. This is completely unacceptable, and the University will fully support anyone targeted by hateful messages of this kind. We will also deploy our resources, including appropriate law enforcement agencies, to discover who was responsible for sending any threatening messages. There will be accountability.

The public sphere in this country has been for months polluted with an outpouring of racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic rhetoric. The pain of targeted groups is real because the threats are real, and we must acknowledge those threats and work to stop them from infecting our lives and our campus. We must fight to protect people of color and religious minorities from violence driven by socially sanctioned scapegoating and bullying. We must ensure that our friends in LGBTQ communities are not marginalized by newly empowered narrow-mindedness taking control of our legal system. And we must ensure that our campus is free from threats emerging from vile ideologies and hate-filled hearts.

Wesleyan will never retreat from our mission of creating an inclusive and equitable community. We are open to debate, to challenging ideas, but we will never back down in the face of crude bigotry.

If you know of people who have been targeted, please support them and urge them to report online HERE.

This is a challenging time in our country and on our campus. By looking out for one another, taking care of one another, we will find ways to cultivate the values that sustain our educational community and protect the people who have made it their home.

Sincerely yours,

Michael Roth

President

Veterans Day

For many years now, veterans have enrolled at Wesleyan or worked here as faculty and staff. Since the fall of 2014, we have cooperated with the Posse Foundation to bring cohorts of 10 undergraduate veterans to Wes each year. Here is the latest group:

Posse Class of 2020
Posse Class of 2020

You can learn more about the program here and here. Some of our Wesleyan undergraduate veterans are featured in this video:


Tomorrow we will have a “salute to service” just before our final football game of the year. Today is Veterans Day, and I ask that we pause and remember the men and women who have served our nation in uniform. They are family members, neighbors, friends, faculty, staff, alumni, and students. They deserve our acknowledgment and our gratitude.

Now, More than Ever: Vigilance and Inclusivity

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

Dear friends,

Early this morning when it became clear that Donald Trump would become our president-elect, my thoughts shifted from the good of the country to the good of the University. An international student here, and a friend, texted Kari to ask if the University would be alright. Yes, we will. This election has heightened feelings of alienation and vulnerability. The pain of targeted groups is real, and we must acknowledge it and work to mitigate its effects. But we will be alright because we will continue to strive to build the inclusive community that rejects white supremacy, bigotry and fear; we will be alright because we will express our care for one another in a context of fairness.

It just so happens that in my class on Virtue and Vice this week, we are focusing on how some artists retreated from the public realm after the crushing failures of the revolutions of 1848 in Europe. Around that time, Karl Marx wrote: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves.” But many great poets, novelists and painters grew bitterly ironic about making history and the possibilities of progress. Recognizing that there are no guarantees about who was going to end up on the “right side of history,” they became cynical about change, detaching themselves from any possibility for a meaningful work in the public sphere.

My friends, we must resist any temptation to abandon the public sphere to those who would return to a past in which people of color, women and queer folk were even more systematically excluded from access to basic rights. As engaged participants in the polity, we have to remain vigilant to protect the people and values we care about. This is not the time to close one’s eyes or to stop listening. We need more conversation across political and cultural differences – and we need new modes of engagement. Faculty, staff and students will be thinking hard about this in the coming days and weeks. We must continue to work to defend those who are disenfranchised and oppressed, and to create opportunities for greater numbers of people.

Cynicism and irony are too easy a response to disappointment. Regardless of political affiliation, we can work together—beyond the university—to solve specific problems and create opportunities. And here on campus, we will create a community that offers opportunities to all our students, staff and faculty to thrive, to be challenged, to be at home.

 

Michael S. Roth

President

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!!

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Seniors!
Seniors!

 

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!!

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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.

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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!

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Now onward to the rest of the semester!!