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Last week, I was in New York to receive the Benjamin E. Mays award from the A Better Chance Foundation for our work at increasing diversity in higher education. While in the city, I  took the opportunity to evangelize for liberal education in conjunction with “Beyond the University.” I very much enjoyed my conversation with Leonard Lopate at WNYC, and I also wrote a piece that first appeared on The Daily Beast and is now on the Huffington Post.  

It is crucial to support efforts to reduce student indebtedness and increase access to higher education. However, we should beware of those who want to turn this moment of educational reform into a program of vocationalism and tracking as a substitute for liberal education.


How to Destroy College Education

In America we fight about education. One of the key struggles today is centered on whether we should retool the college years so that we get students to be “job ready” and tracked into some specific task needed in the economy now. This retooled version of instrumentalism is diametrically opposed to our great tradition of liberal education that envisions learning as a vehicle for social mobility and effective citizenship. This tradition stretches back to the foundation of the country. “Wherever a general knowledge and sensibility have prevailed among the people,” John Adams wrote, “arbitrary government and every kind of oppression have lessened and disappeared in proportion.”

But alongside commitment to education, there have always been suspicions about what really went on in colleges. As I show in Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, from Benjamin Franklin to today’s Internet pundits, critics of higher education have attacked its irrelevance and elitism–often calling for more useful, more vocational instruction. Franklin skewered learning that took pride in its freedom from labor (in its uselessness) as just a mask for snobbism–learning “to exit a drawing room properly.” Contemporary commentators question whether young people learn anything useful in their “four year party” that culminates (occasionally) with a diploma. Education, from this perspective, is a luxury bought with a loan.

But in his day Franklin went on to propose a compelling version of a broad education that was useful without being narrowly instrumental. And Thomas Jefferson thought that nurturing a student’s capacity for life-long learning within a university structure was necessary for science and commerce while also being essential for democracy. Neither believed a university should merely train young people for jobs that old folks had already picked out for them–but neither thought that college should be merely academic.

Over the past several years, however, we have seen a new sort of criticism directed at the academy. These critics no longer claim to be in search of “true liberal learning,” but instead call for an education that simply equips people to play an appropriate role in the economy. Economists wanting to limit access to education question whether it’s worth it for mail carriers to have spent time and money learning about the world and themselves when they could have been saving for a house. Sociologists wonder whether increased access to college creates inappropriate expectations for a work force that will not regularly be asked to tap into independent judgment and critical thinking. And then there’s the cost of a liberal education, its so-called disconnect from the real world, its political correctness. Columnists write that we must make it more relevant, while politicians growl about making it more efficient. Through “disruptive innovation,” we are told, educational institutions can be “disintermediated”– like middlemen cut out of a market transaction.

Many today are calling for us to create a much more vocational style of teaching. They claim that in today’s economy we should track students earlier into specific fields for which they seem to have aptitude. This is exactly the opposite of the American tradition of liberal education. From the revolutionary war through contemporary debates about the worth of college, American thinkers have emphasized the ways that broad, pragmatic learning enhances the capacities of the whole person, allowing individuals greater freedom and an expanded range of possible choices. Liberal education in this tradition means learning to learn, creating habits of independent critical and creative thinking that would last a lifetime.

The effort today to limit higher education to only a certain class of students or to constrict the college curriculum to a neat, instrumental itinerary is a critical mistake, one that neglects this deep current of humanistic learning. Under the guise of practicality, this is old-fashioned, elitist condescension combined with a desire to protect the status quo of inequality.

Since the founding of this country, education has been closely tied to individual freedom, and to the ability to think for oneself and to contribute to society by unleashing one’s creative potential. The pace of change has never been faster, and the ability to shape change and seek opportunity has never been more valuable than it is today. If we want to push back against inequality and enhance the vitality of our culture and economy, we need to support greater access to a broad, pragmatic liberal education.


Wesleyan out West

I’m getting ready to return to Wesleyan after a few days in Los Angeles followed by a brief visit to San Francisco. The occasion was the Shasha Seminar on the road, organized by Jeanine Basinger. The topics for the day were Women in Film, TV Writing, and the Business of Film. Each panel was thoughtful, funny and very engaging. We had almost 200 alumni, students and friends at William Morris-Endeavor, and there was plenty of time for making new connections and pursuing good conversation among old friends. Scott Higgins and Steve Collins joined us for the discussions, and I spoke about the Mellon Foundation encouraging us to build an endowment for the College of Film and Moving Image with a $2 million challenge grant. If we raise $4 million, the foundation will make a $2 million contribution to the endowment of the CFMI. It’s a great time to support film at Wesleyan, and many alumni and parents have already made significant donations.


Marc Shmuger ’80, Jan Eliasberg ’74, Brad Fuller ’87, Jane Goldenring ’77, Matthew Greenfield ’90, and Paul Weitz ’88


With me are David Stone ’04, host; Scott Higgins, associate professor of film studies at Wesleyan; Professor Jeanine Basinger; and Steve Collins ’96, assistant professor of film studies at Wesleyan

While on the West Coast I made a quick trip to San Francisco to meet with Wesleyan supporters of financial aid. I am so grateful for their efforts to provide scholarships for Wes students. Before heading to the airport, I spent an hour talking about liberal education at KQED, the Bay Area’s NPR station. On Michael Krasny’s Forum show, we talked about Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters and took questions from callers. A couple of Wes alumni called in, and there was strong support for broad, contextual education. There was also recognition that we must make it more affordable and reduce student indebtedness. You can listen here.

Driving away from campus this week, I was surprised that my car radio was playing “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” With your mercury mouth in the missionary times And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes…. I was brought back to long ago, lots of emotions swirling. I thought, what radio station could possibly be playing a 11 and half minute Bob Dylan song? With your sheet-metal memories of Cannery-Row… I looked down at the radio….88.1 Good old WESU. Should I leave them by your gate Or sad-eyed Lady, should I wait?  The show was Acoustic Blender, and the DJ was playing an extra bonus Dylan birthday set.

WESU has been serving up surprises for 75 years. Whether it’s avant-garde or bluegrass, alternative news or Middletown events, WESU provides a wonderful contribution to cultural life in central Connecticut. And it’s so cool for our student and community DJs and listeners. Here’s what recent president of the station, Mary Barret ’14, has written for the spring fund drive:

We have been celebrating our landmark birthday, on air, since January with our oral history radio show “Welcome Back” as well as “75 Years Of…,” a program highlighting radio content that wouldn’t likely be heard without stations like WESU. And if you haven’t yet read it, check out the Wesleyan magazine Historical Row column, “WESLEYAN’S UNDERGROUND RADIO STATION,” chronicling the earliest days of radio at WESU.  You can a find links to that article and special 75th anniversary programming and events on our website.

Right now we need your support to keep our unique free form music and public affairs programming on the airwaves. This spring’s pledge drive is especially exciting because it is the first of our 75th anniversary year. As such, we are asking you to consider giving us an extra-special birthday present to help raise additional capital funds to install a backup power system and update our studio equipment. If we raise enough funds by the end of 2014, we hope to also be able to kick off a film documentary project about the history of WESU. Many thanks if you have already made your donation!

Your support for WESU will honor a landmark anniversary and legacy of one of the first student owned and operated college radio stations.  You can donate by e-check, debit, or credit card online here.  

Please support WESU. It’s college/community radio with a vital, progressive tradition.


I published this op-ed in Inside Higher Education this morning. I’ve also been talking about liberal education on the NPR here and here.


“What would the United States look like if we really gave up on liberal education and opted only for specialized or vocational schools? Would that really be such a bad thing?”

The interviewer was trying to be provocative, since I’ve just written a book entitled Beyond The University: Why Liberal Education Matters. What exactly would be the problem, he went on, if we suddenly had a job market filled with people who were really good at finance, or engineering, or real estate development?

Apart from being relieved that he hadn’t included expertise in derivatives training in his list of specializations, I did find his thought experiment interesting. Would there be real advantages to getting students to hunker down early into more specific tracks of learning? In that way they would be “job ready” sooner, contributing more quickly to the enterprises of which they are a part, and acquiring financial independence at the same time. Would that really be such a bad thing?

The debate between those who want students to specialize quickly and those who advocate for a broad, contextual education is as old as America itself. The health of a republic, Thomas Jefferson argued, depends on the education of its citizens. Against those arguing for more technical training, he founded the University of Virginia, emphasizing the freedom that students and faculty would exercise there. Unlike Harvard University and its many imitators, devoted to predetermined itineraries through traditional fields, he said, Virginia would not prescribe a course of study to direct graduates to “the particular vocations to which they are destined.”

At Mr. Jefferson’s university, “every branch of science, useful at this day, may be taught in its highest degree.” But who would determine which pursuits of knowledge would prove useful?

Jefferson, a man of the Enlightenment, had faith that the diverse forms of learning would improve public and private life. Of course, his personal prejudices limited his interest in the improvement of life for so many. However, his conception of “useful knowledge” was capacious and open-ended – and this was reflected in his design for the campus in Charlottesville. He believed that the habits of mind and methods of inquiry characteristic of the modern sciences lent themselves to lifelong learning that would serve one well whether one went on to manage a farm or pursue a professional career. It is here we see the dynamic and open-ended nature of Jefferson’s understanding of educational “usefulness.”

His approach to knowledge and experimentation kept open the possibility that any form of inquiry might prove useful. The sciences and mathematics made up about half of the curriculum at Virginia, but Jefferson was convinced that the broad study of all fields that promoted inquiry, such as history, zoology, anatomy and even ideology would help prepare young minds. The utility was generally not something that could be determined in advance, but would be realized through what individuals made of their learning once outside the confines of the campus. The free inquiry cultivated at the university would help build a citizenry of independent thinkers who took responsibility for their actions in the contexts of their communities and the new Republic.

Jefferson would have well-understood what many business leaders, educators and researchers recognize today: that given the intense interconnection of problems and opportunities in a globalized culture and economy, we require thinkers who are comfortable with ambiguity and can manage complexity. Joshua Boger, founder of Vertex Pharmaceuticals (and chair of the board at Wesleyan University), has pointed out how much creative and constructive work gets done before clarity arrives, and that people who seek clarity too quickly might actually wind up missing a good deal that really matters. Boger preaches a high tolerance for ambiguity because the contemporary world is so messy, so complex.

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, one of the most innovative design firms in the world, has lamented that many designers “are stuck with an approach that seems to be incapable of facing the complexity of the challenges being posed today.” He calls for a flexible framework that leaves behind static blueprint preparation for “open-ended, emergent, evolutionary approaches to the design of complex systems can result in more robust and useful outcomes.” Like many CEOs across the country, Brown recognizes that more robust and useful outcomes will come from learning that is capacious and open-ended — from liberal education.

At the Drucker Forum last year, Helga Nowotny, president of the European Research Council, described what she called the “embarrassment of complexity” – efforts based in data analysis to dissolve ambiguity that lead to more conformity and less creativity.  She called for an ethos among business and government leaders that would instead “be based on the acknowledgement that complexity requires integrative thinking, the ability to see the world, a problem or a challenge from different perspectives.” That’s a call for integrative thinking based in liberal learning.

In America, liberal education has long been animated by the tension between broad, open-ended learning and the desire to be useful in a changing world. Calls for dissolving this tension in favor of narrow utilitarian training would likely produce just the opposite: specialists unprepared for change who will be skilled in areas that may quickly become obsolete.

So, what would America look like if we abandoned this grand tradition of liberal education? Without an education that cultivates an ability to learn from the past while stimulating a resistance to authority, without an education that empowers students for lifelong learning and inquiry, we would become a cultural and economic backwater, competing with various regions for the privilege of operationalizing somebody else’s new ideas. In an effort at manic monetization without critical thinking, we would become adept at producing conformity rather than innovation.

The free inquiry and experimentation of a pragmatic liberal education open to ambiguity and complexity help us to think for ourselves, take responsibility for our beliefs and actions, seize opportunities and solve problems. Liberal education matters far beyond the university because it increases our capacity to shape a complex world.

Fraternal Discussions

Near the end of my first year as Wesleyan’s president, I wrote the following:

Fraternities have historic roots with alumni that are important to maintain, and I believe that the frats (including Eclectic) at Wes can continue to play a very positive role at the university. We will not be adding any new Greek societies because there are now many other ways for students to join together in residentially based groups. Wesleyan’s students have a rich choice of social organizations in which to participate, from the very traditional to the most avant-garde. I’m committed to keeping it that way.

In my April 2014 blog post, “Campus Conversations on Fraternities,” I described how my thinking had changed. Six years of hearing about high-risk drinking at fraternities and dealing with fallout from highly publicized incidents of sexual violence have had an effect.  Of course, the larger world has changed too. Today there’s more emphasis upon Title IX and a much greater awareness of sexual assault. The U.S. Department of Education says that under Title IX, schools must “take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the sexual violence, eliminate the hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, and, as appropriate, remedy its effects.”

Are fraternities at Wesleyan hostile environments? It was striking to everyone here when so many students said yes. The students just conducted a survey on their own which indicated that 47 percent feel less safe in fraternity spaces than in other party spaces; the great majority of those thought that making the fraternities co-educational would be helpful in making those spaces safer. But is that true?

Last week at the Annual Meeting of the Board of Trustees we discussed this issue in executive session. Some found the experiences of peer institutions instructive. Connecticut College and Vassar have no Greek life and Bates has never had it. Amherst, Williams, Bowdoin, Middlebury and Colby all eliminated Greek. Amherst abolished fraternities on campus in 1984 (after a brief failed experiment with co-education) and earlier this month eliminated even unsanctioned Greek life. Williams did it in 1962 and students still sign a pledge not to participate in Greek life. By 2000, the Greek system was officially dismantled at Bowdoin, in part because it was losing high-quality students who didn’t want to go to a school with fraternities. At Colby fraternities and sororities were abolished in 1984 because they were inconsistent with the fundamental values of the community, and in 1992 Middlebury did likewise because it found fraternities to be “antithetical to the mission of the college.”

Swarthmore still has two fraternities, and now a new sorority to provide access to Greek life for women. And then there’s Trinity, still in the anguished throes of dealing with angry alumni and students after it mandated co-education of fraternities, raised GPA requirements for frat membership, and did away with the pledging process. There are some who believe that the most draconian approach, eliminating Greek life entirely, is no more painful.

As you might imagine, many Wesleyans don’t care much about the experience of our peer institutions. Others point out that many fine institutions still have active Greek life, or that Wesleyan shouldn’t imitate any institution. Still others emphasize that the rates of sexual assault at schools that have eliminated fraternities don’t give any indication that those institutions are safer environments. For many, the issue is about equity and inclusion more than about direct correlations with rates of reported sexual assault. How can a co-educational institution approve of having a significant percentage of its social spaces controlled by all-male organizations?

Following our discussions, the trustees have asked me to prepare a plan to address the future of Greek life. Ideally, this would be ready before the school year begins, but certainly no later than the November board meeting. Here are the options before us:

(1) We can require fraternities to become safer places through training and education.

(2) We can eliminate single-sex residential organizations or require co-education (with full membership).

(3) We can eliminate Greek residential life entirely.

(4) We can eliminate all Greek life (on campus or off).

(5) We can dramatically expand Greek life so that there are social spaces controlled by women.

None of these options will eliminate the problems of binge drinking and sexual assault. That’s not the point. Which changes in our residential and co-curricular program will make us a more inclusive, educational and equitable place? For now, our question is simple, but it may not be easy to arrive at a consensus on the answer to it: Will Wesleyan be a stronger university (“dedicated to providing an education in the liberal arts that is characterized by boldness, rigor, and practical idealism”) with or without Greek life?

Many people have written to the president’s office to weigh in on this issue. If you would like to do so over the next month or so, we have set up a special mailbox: comments@wesleyan.edu.

We will report back to the trustees and the Wesleyan community at the end of the summer on our plans concerning co-curricular life at the university in general and residential programs in particular. Stay tuned.

Wonderful conversations yesterday with trustees and trustee emeriti were followed by great encounters with old friends returning to campus for Reunion. Late in the afternoon, we dedicated a plaque in the chapel for John Woodhouse. John was one of Wesleyan’s deepest supporters, and he was an invaluable source of wisdom for me when I began my presidency.

The dinner with the class of 1964 last night was a blast. The alumni had many questions about the changes at Wesleyan, and we discussed how the contemporary Wes was in many ways still working to fulfill the mission that Victor Butterfield set out for liberal education in the 1950s. After dinner we had the enormous pleasure of listening to Randy Newman sing some of his great old songs, and even a few new, unfinished tunes.

I look forward to seeing the thousands of returning alumni, friends and parents today and tomorrow. Reunion and commencement bring out some of Wesleyan’s deep traditions in synergy with the great vitality of today.  It’s a celebration of independence of spirit and practical idealism.

This is Why.

Family with cardinal



Wesleyan University; Reunion & Commencement; rc2014



The baseball team just returned to campus after having a great run in the NCAA tournament. The NESCAC champs had some thrilling victories, and at times it seemed like every position player was going to take a turn on the pitcher’s mound. The game against Susquehanna was particularly thrilling, with the Cardinals coming back to win with 2 outs in the ninth. There were many standout performances you can read about here. Mark Woodworth and the guys did us proud, making this season one of the best in Cardinal history.

Speaking of Cardinal history, women’s crew is busy setting it. Since the end of the semester, the team has earned an invitation to the NCAA championships at the end of the month, after a great job in the regional races.  The fifth-place effort in the ECAC regatta was the highest finish by Wesleyan since last qualifying for Nationals in 2001. Clare Doyle ’14 and Kayla Could ’14 were named all-NESCAC rowers, and you can read more about the team’s accomplishments here. In men’s crew, Nick Petrillo ’14, Keegan Dufty ’14 and Peter Martin ’14 were named all-NESCAC rowers.

Finally, Sierra (If I had a Hammer) Livious ’14 has been on a tear through the competitions this spring. She has piled up the points, set Wesleyan records and is off to the NCAA tournament. Go Sierra!

Sierra Livious '14



As students were packing up their rooms, distributing good-bye hugs and posting final papers to Moodle, I had the great pleasure of meeting Oliver James ’14. Professor Barry Chernoff, the founding director of the College of the Environment, brought him by to show me the wonderful work Oliver did on his senior thesis.

Oliver James '14, Prez, Barry Chernoff

Oliver has many interests, and as a senior he wanted to combine his study of the environment with his interest in birds. How to represent the many birds he sees on campus? Oliver learned the great art of watercolor and used his observational skills to produce A Field Guide to Birds of Wesleyan. Artist, scientist, environmentalist? Why choose? THIS IS WHY.

birds of wesleyan cover

It’s finals week, and students are working hard to finish up their projects and study for exams. Still, on Monday about 100 very engaged students made the effort to express their strong concern about the current state of the African-American Studies program. They made the excellent point that a strong program is important for the health of the university. I have also heard from faculty and alumni, as have a number of trustees, the deans and the provost.

There are long-term issues and short-term ones. In the short-term, Academic Affairs has already been working on replacements for two wonderful professors in Af-Am who are leaving (one to Yale, the other to Harvard, alas). These replacements will be visitors who will ensure that we have classes staffed for the coming year. I have also talked with Academic Affairs about two hires on a more permanent basis. We will accelerate the plans to search for a tenure-track (or tenured) professor in African-American studies in global context whose research is in the social sciences. That search will get underway as soon as possible. After filling this first position, we will begin a second search for another social science scholar whose work in Af-Am complements that of the first hire.

While these searches are underway, the provost, deans and I will be talking with faculty across the curriculum whose teaching and research is relevant to African-American studies from a variety of post-national and diasporic perspectives. We have real strength in these areas, and we should tap into it more fully. Indeed, I will be talking with Wesleyan professors who have had shared responsibilities in the past and inviting some to devote their efforts full-time to AFAM in coming years. We will also ensure that the Center for African American Studies can play an important role in bringing some of the most interesting scholars to campus from a variety of fields. This will inform our search process as well as bring powerful intellectual benefit to campus.

We have a challenging but also rewarding endeavor before us, and we will count on the help of key leaders in this area like Professors Lois Brown and Ashraf Rushdy to help us in maintaining a strong curriculum, mentoring students in the program, and conducting successful searches.

Together, we can build a program that will be defined by inspired teaching, advanced research and compelling creative practice.


This past weekend I published some op-eds and did an interview on liberal education in conjunction with the appearance of my Beyond The University: Why Liberal Education Matters. There’s even a radio spot Wisconsin Public Radio!

The following op-ed is from the Boston Globe‘s Sunday opinion section.


‘Is c” — that’s all I have to type before the search engine jumps to “Is college worth it?” I hit return, and there are more articles on this question than even I, a college president, want to read. Pundit after pundit (most of whom have had the benefit of a liberal education) question whether so many Americans should be going to college. Pulling the ladder up after they’ve already made the climb, they can’t seem to see why future students would want the same opportunities that they’ve had.

When I began my freshman year at Wesleyan University more than 35 years ago, there were no search engines, and I had only a vague notion of what a liberal arts education entailed. My father and my grandfather were furriers, and my mother a big band singer. Giving their children access to a college education was part of their American dream, even if they had little understanding of what happened on campus. Today I head up the same institution where I first stumbled into courses like Intro to Philosophy and Art History 101.

Much has changed in higher education in the past three decades. In the past year, for instance, I’ve taught not only on campus but also more than 150,000 students enrolled through Wesleyan’s partnership with Coursera, a provider of free massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

But students and their expectations have also shifted. Many undergraduates now behave like consumers, intent on building resumes. Parents often want their children’s education to be immediately useful, and with a dramatically shrinking job market, undergrads themselves are often eager to follow a straight and narrow path that they imagine will land them that coveted first job. A broad liberal education, with a significant opportunity to explore oneself and the world, is increasingly seen as a luxury for the entitled and scarcely affordable in a hyper-competitive world.

Throughout most of our history, Americans have aimed to expand the realm of what counts as a liberal education. In recent years, however, in sync with growing inequality, critics have argued that some people just don’t need a broad education because these folks will not be in jobs that will use advanced skills. Richard Vedder, director at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, puts it this way: “Do you really need a chemistry degree to make a good martini?”

The bartender with a chemistry degree is the contemporary version of the Jeffersonian ideal of a farmer who reads the classics with pleasure and insight, or John Dewey’s image of the industrial worker who can quote Shakespeare. For generations of Americans, these have been signs of a healthy republic. But, for many critical of liberal education today, these are examples of a “wasted” — non-monetized — education. Furthermore, if ever more people are encouraged to get a college degree, won’t the degree be worth less — who wants to be a part of a club with that many members? We should beware of critics who cloak their desire to protect privilege (and inequality) in the garb of educational reform.

But employers do recognize the importance of a liberal education. The majority of those hiring agree that what’s important for recent college graduates to achieve long-term career success is having both field-specific skills and a wide range of knowledge. According to a recent survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 80 percent of employers agree that, regardless of the major, every college student should acquire a foundation in the liberal arts and sciences.

Even many of those enrolling in online courses want this broad-based education. The “massive” part of these open courses is the least interesting thing about them. And I don’t treat my students online like a mass. My aim, the same as with my “in-person” classes, is to “ignite the fire of learning” — as a student from Singapore put it — while bringing them into a more thoughtful and productive conversation with the world around them. I am trying to help them develop their critical thinking skills while also inviting them to become absorbed in great achievements in philosophy, history, and literature. And they respond with curiosity and enthusiasm and, most importantly, a desire to continue learning. “Learning makes me feel alive,” an older student in South India related.

The willingness today by some to limit higher education to only certain students or to constrict the college curriculum to a neat, instrumental itinerary is a critical mistake, one that neglects a deep American tradition of humanistic learning. This tradition has been integral to our nation’s success and has enriched the lives of generations of students by enhancing their capacities for shaping themselves and reinventing the world they will inhabit. Since the founding of this country, education has been closely tied to individual freedom, and to the ability to think for oneself and to contribute to society by unleashing one’s creative potential.

The pace of change in American higher education has never been faster, and the ability to shape change and seek opportunity has never been more valuable. Our rapid search engines can only do so much: If we want to push back against inequality and enhance the vitality of our culture and economy, we need pragmatic liberal education.

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