Celebrating Slobin

I was delighted to welcome guests to a conference in honor of Mark Slobin on Saturday. Mark, the Winslow-Kaplan Professor of Music, has taught at Wesleyan since the early 1970s, and he has had a mightily distinguished career as a scholar-teacher.


Growing up in the remarkably rich musical soundscape of Detroit (which he is currently writing about), Mark did early fieldwork in Afghanistan, followed by research on musical subcultures in various parts of the world. He is at home with all kinds of sounds, and his students (many of whom were present at the conference) work on everything from Mongolian throat singing and African funeral music to hip-hop and klezmer. He’s even written the book on music at Wesleyan.

In addition to academic talks celebrating Mark’s leadership in ethnomusicology and his caring, inspiring mentorship, there was a concert Saturday night with performances of Irish, Jewish and very hybrid music (to name only a few). The culmination was a Gamelan Ensemble performance in Professor Slobin’s honor—with shadow puppets, too.

Mark spoke briefly at the conference about how Wesleyan has fostered groundbreaking research, practice and teaching in music for a very long time. Thanks to him, and to his colleagues and students, we expect that to continue far into the future.


Mazel tov, Mark Slobin!!

How to Choose a (Our) University

The happy emails and web links have gone out (replacing those thick envelopes of yesteryear), and all those fortunate enough to have choices about what college to attend will make a big decision: picking the college that is just right for them. They are trying to envision where they will be most likely to thrive. Where will I learn the most, be happiest, and form friendships that will last a lifetime? How to choose? As I do each spring, I thought it might be useful to re-post my thoughts on choosing a college, with a few revisions.

Of course, for many the decision will be made on an economic basis. Which school has given the most generous financial aid package? Wesleyan is one of a small number of schools that meets the full financial need of all admitted students according to a formula developed over several years. There are some schools with larger endowments that can afford to be even more generous than Wes, but there are hundreds (thousands?) of others that are unable even to consider meeting financial need over four years of study. Our school is expensive because it costs a lot to maintain the quality of our programs. But Wesleyan has made a commitment to keep loan levels low and to maintain only moderate (very close to inflation) tuition increases. We also offer a three-year program that allows families to save about 20% of their total expenses, while still earning the same number of credits.

After answering the question of which schools one can afford, how else does one decide where best to spend one’s college years? Of course, size matters.  Some students are looking for a large university in an urban setting where the city itself plays an important role in one’s education. New York and Boston, for example, have become increasingly popular college destinations, but not, I suspect, for the classroom experience. But if one seeks small classes and strong, personal relationships with faculty, then liberal arts schools, which pride themselves on providing rich cultural and social experiences on a residential campus, are especially compelling. You can be on a campus with a human scale and still have plenty of things to do. Wesleyan is somewhat larger than most liberal arts colleges but much smaller than the urban or land grant universities. We feel that this gives our students the opportunity to choose a broad curriculum and a variety of cultural activities on campus, while still being small enough to encourage regular, sustained relationships among faculty and students.

All the selective small liberal arts schools boast of having a faculty of scholar-teachers, of a commitment to research and interdisciplinarity, and of encouraging community and service. So what sets us apart from one another after taking into account size, location, and financial aid packages? What are students trying to see when they visit Amherst and Wesleyan, or Tufts and Pomona?

Knowing that these schools all provide a high-quality, broad and flexible curriculum with strong teaching, and that the students all have displayed great academic capacity, prospective students are trying to discern the personalities of each school. They are trying to imagine themselves on the campus, among the people they see, to get a feel for the chemistry of the place — to gauge whether they will be happy there. That’s why hundreds of visitors come to Wesleyan each week and why there will be the great surge starting today for WesFest. They go to classes and athletic contests, musical performances and parties. And they ask themselves: Would I be happy at Wesleyan?

I hope our visitors get a sense of the personality of the school that I so admire and enjoy. I hope they feel the exuberance and ambition of our students, the intelligence and care of our faculty, the playful yet demanding qualities of our community. I hope our visitors can sense our commitment to creating a diversity in which difference is embraced and not just tolerated, and to public service that is part of one’s education and approach to life.

Whatever college or university students choose, I hope they get three things out their education: discovering what they love to do; getting better at it; learning to share it with others. I explain a little bit more about that in this talk to admitted students a few years ago:

We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into, especially this year with a record number of applications. But even in the group of highly selective schools, Wes is not for everybody. We aspire to be a community committed to boldness as well as to rigor, to idealism as well as to effectiveness. Whether in the sciences, arts, humanities or social sciences, our faculty and students are dedicated to explorations that invite originality as well as collaboration. The scholar-teacher model is at the heart of our curriculum. Our faculty are committed to teaching and to shaping the fields in which they work. The commitment of our faculty says a lot about who we are, as does the camaraderie around the completion of senior projects that we are seeing right now on campus.  We know how to work hard, but we also know how to enjoy the work we choose to do. That’s been magically appealing to me for more than 30 years. I bet the magic will enchant many of our visitors, too.


Equal Pay Day on April 12th

Antonio Farias let me know about the work of Krystal-Gayle O’Neill, an Area Coordinator, who is helping to draw attention to “Equal Pay Day,” which is being observed this week. Here’s what she writes about it:

Tuesday, April 12, 2016, is the national observance of Equal Pay Day, the day when women and men around the country recognize the wage gap between working women and men, and offer remedies to address pay inequity. According to statistics released in 2014 by the United States Census Bureau, women are paid, on average, 79 cents for every dollar their male counterparts are paid – a gap of 21 cents.
Here in Connecticut, working women do a little better than the national average. They are paid about 83 cents on the dollar compared to men. That’s hardly a cause for celebration, when women and their families are being shortchanged thousands of dollars a year and hundreds of thousands of dollars over a lifetime. With more families relying on women’s paychecks for their livelihood, the US must address the wage gap for the sake of American families and their financial stability.
How can you show your solidarity –  wear red on equal pay day.

Visit the Women at Wes webpage for more information on events related to this one.

On “The Argus” and Freedom of Expression

With the recent WSA discussions concerning funding for The Argus, I have been asked several times about my views on the status of freedom of expression at Wesleyan. I have pulled together some earlier things I’ve written on the subject, and added some new thoughts on recent debates.

Wesleyan students have long been concerned with issues of “freedom of expression,” and since 1991 the topic has been the focus of our annual Hugo Black Lecture. Several years ago Justice Scalia was our speaker, two years ago it was Aharon Barak, President of Israel’s Supreme Court, and this year it was scholar Stanley Fish. For several months free speech issues have been vigorously debated on our campus centering on questions about the role of the student newspaper The Argus. The immediate catalyst for these discussions was an op-ed written by a student, Bryan Stascavage, raising critical questions about the Black Lives Matter movement. 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. 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. 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. They also realized that funding a single newspaper for the campus raised all kinds of issues about representativeness and inclusion, but also about editorial autonomy and freedom of expression. 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. More recently, the Wesleyan Student Assembly used a standard accounting measure to redistribute funds among student groups as the end of the academic year gets closer. Argus supporters were afraid this was an attempt to take away donated dollars that might be necessary in the future should they lose some funding. Again, students are meeting to discuss their concerns together, and I am confident that they will find a vehicle that protects editorial autonomy without just writing the newspaper a blank check. A resolution recently passed by the student government attempts to do just this.

Unfortunately, many of the student discussions this year have taken place under the harsh spotlight of the national press. As once major newspapers and magazines are remade just to attract “more eyeballs,” as budgets for investigative journalism are slashed, journalists around the country have gotten all lathered up about The Argus. 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, we see lots of attention given to the dangers of political correctness on campuses. But are efforts to fight discrimination and marginalization at universities really the most important threats to free expression? I fear that this focus only diverts 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.

Don’t get me wrong, because there is so much intense discussion these days, campuses can be challenging places. Conversations about race and about the economy, about bias and sexual assault, about jobs and the shrinking middle class…all these topics stimulate strong emotions, intense language, and, sometimes, bruised feelings. Sure, some people will complain that they don’t want to speak up because they don’t want to be “criticized” or “stigmatized.” These people should recognize that their fear isn’t a sign of a lack of free expression; it’s just a sign that they need more courage.

Debates on campus can get nasty, but compared to what one sees on the national political stage, I feel pretty good about our community’s ability to tolerate conflict. I hope there are other places in America today where arguments about important issues are taking place among people from different backgrounds, and where the conclusions aren’t set in advance. However painful this may be at times, I am proud these conversations are happening on our campuses.

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. On today’s campuses, this may come from deeper investigation of conservative and religious traditions – from bodies of thought and modes of inquiry that challenge the status quo. This may come from recognizing 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.

I applaud the students, faculty and staff who have been engaged in discussions of how to maintain, even enhance, a campus newspaper’s editorial autonomy while ensuring that it continues as an organization open to publishing a variety of views and engaging writers from diverse segments of the student body. I have every confidence that the newspaper will have the funding it needs to remain an effective platform for news and opinion.

Wes Conversations Making a Difference

This morning I sent the email below to all Wesleyan students. I want to remind students that many of the issues they have raised have resulted in positive changes at Wesleyan. Of course, we haven’t pleased everybody, but we have listened carefully to how we can make alma mater an educational institution that aims at continuous improvement.

Dear friends,

A little over a week ago, after taking in some wonderful thesis projects at the Zilkha Gallery, I went over to Davison to view the exhibition of renowned photographer Philip Trager ’56 and listen in on his conversation with his long-time friend Professor Andrew Szegedy-Maszak. Andy has written an essay for Phil’s latest book, based on the pictures on display. The exhibit itself reflected a half-century’s visual conversation between Philip and his wife Ina and stimulates deep contemplation about long-term relationships. Certainly Philip and Ina have had a long-term relationship to Wesleyan, and they announced at the Davison that they have made yet another generous gift of prized images to the university collection.

When Philip was a student here in the ’50s, he surely never thought he’d be back in 2016. I doubt few of you have thought about being back here decades hence, but I have no doubt that many of you will be back. For Wesleyan has made contributions to your life and you have contributed to the life of Wesleyan. Indeed, the two are intertwined – in the projects that you’ve shared with others, in your athletic efforts on behalf of your teammates, in your theatrical collaborations, in the friendships you’ve made. And, of course, in your ideas on how to improve our university.

You’ve made your ideas known through gentle suggestions, vigorous public demonstrations, written arguments, and informal conversations passed along over a meal. And we have heard you. Your concern about social life with the closure this year of Greek Houses prompted us to make more funds available to sponsor large gatherings. Many students were experiencing long wait times for certain counseling services, and so we hired a new staff member in CAPS and have focused on more responsive protocols. When young alumni pointed out that even small loans could be a burden for folks from low-income families, we increased the no-loan threshold of family income. This, combined with changes to expected family (often student) payments, should ease some of the burdens we’ve heard about, as should our new emergency fund to support those in need who encounter unexpected expenses during the school year. When students expressed worries about running out of meal points before the end of term, we set up a fund to help; we also plan to provide more flexibility for students to use meals during the semester. And when students pointed out problems with our summer housing, we reduced housing costs for students with high financial need. Don’t get me wrong: I know that these steps haven’t eliminated all the issues, but I do think they are signs of progress.

We also launched a mentoring program and skill-building workshops for those students who might benefit from additional support as they transition to Wes. We have responded to your concerns about course access by adding additional sections in high-demand areas, such as computer science, economics, and psychology. Our shared concerns about faculty departures in African American Studies has led to hiring two new full-time members of the program and others who work in this field. The new Workshop at Hewitt 8 is the result of a student proposal last year. And we will soon see the report of the Equity Task Force, which should help us improve the campus experience more generally. Again, these steps are not meant to be definitive. We must continue to address issues raised by students, faculty and staff.

At Wesleyan we respond to students not as consumers in a transaction, but as members of a community, as participants in an extended conversation. Our goal is always to improve the distinctive quality of the educational experience of our students, whether we’re hiring a new staff member, renovating a building, or deciding a tenure case.

I look forward to hearing more from you—be it at a scheduled appointment (my Drop-In hours are most Mondays 4:30 – 5:30 p.m.), at an impromptu meeting over lunch, or if our paths cross at some event. When we talk about improving our university, we may not always agree, but I trust we are all listening closely. It’s a conversation helpful to Wesleyans now and those who follow. And who knows? It’s a conversation that may last a lifetime.

Saluting Pam Tatge and Wes Dance Seniors

CFA Director Pam Tatge
CFA Director Pam Tatge

Director of Wesleyan’s Center for the Arts Pam Tatge has been named the head of Jacob’s Pillow, a great venue for contemporary dance in the Berkshires. Many colleagues gathered together to salute Pam’s extraordinary contributions to campus and community over more than fifteen years.

Jay Hoggard plays the vibes
Jay Hoggard plays the vibes

Lots of folks in attendance had benefited from Pam’s creative contributions over the years. Professors Nicole Stanton, Lois Brown and Jay Hoggard have been supported in their collaboration on “Storied Places,” a project inspired by African American histories of migration and arrival. A dance concert from the project will take place on April 14-15 at the CFA Theater at 8 pm. Jay treated us to a selection from the piece.

Last night Kari and I were fortunate to see the senior thesis dance recital at the Patricelli ’92 Theater. Trinithas Boyi, Eury German, Lakisha Gonsalves, Sarah Greizer, Ari Kaufman and Djiby Sall choreographed an evening of moving, funny, elegant and challenging performances. This was the final night of performances —  a full house —  and we were thrilled to be there to see these young artists.

"Cinderella" at Senior Dance Recital
“Cinderella” at Senior Dance Recital

Roth to Headline Spring Fling!!!

I was very sorry to hear about the Wesleyan Student Assembly’s budget problems, and I perfectly well understand how economic challenges can force administrators (even student administrators) to come up with “creative solutions.” So, it was with mixed feelings that I received a call from the Spring Fling Music Committee this week. I thought they might be in search of funds (which I couldn’t provide), but no, they had something much more radical in mind.

Roth to Headline Spring Fling!
Roth to Headline Spring Fling!


Yes, I’ll be happy to get out there on Foss Hill to lead my fellow Wesleyans in song. Following in the footsteps of the Grateful Dead, Santigold and Kendrick Lamar before me, I am honored to headline Spring Fling 2016. #ThisisWhy

Talking With Faculty on Distinctive Wes Education

For the last several years the Provost and I have periodically hosted luncheons at which a professor gives a short talk about his or her research to dozens of colleagues.  I look forward to these events because I have the opportunity to break bread with faculty I may not often see and because the talks are always stimulating.  The faculty who attend do so, I think, for the same reasons.

Each year at one (or two) of these luncheons I share some of my thoughts on Wesleyan’s future, particularly with respect to the academic program and faculty mentorship of students. My goal is to solicit input on what we can do together to improve the distinctive educational experience of Wesleyan students. At our most recent gathering, I spoke in general terms about the importance of having enough faculty so that students can have a mentored research experience. David Westmoreland (Chemistry) pointed out that we already have effective programs that allow students to do summer research with faculty, but we don’t have the funds to support all the qualified students who want to do this. Finding more funds for these programs would be a quick, concrete and powerful way to enrich teaching and mentorship. I’m on it. We should be able to raise additional funds quickly for this purpose. Another, somewhat broader idea, was shared by Stephanie Weiner (English). She thought Wesleyan, already renowned for its creative writing, could be better known for writing in general.  Clarity of expression is so crucial to clarity of thought.  Writing could be emphasized more across the curriculum and become part of our identity in the academic marketplace. Stephen Angle (Philosophy) expressed interest in how the Center for Pedagogical Innovation might bring research on best teaching practices into productive conversations among faculty. Even professors who have been teaching for many years are eager to explore the data on how students learn in different settings.

This input from faculty complements what we have been hearing from students and alumni. Engaged education, intellectual cross-training, and understanding how what we learn in classrooms can be translated beyond the university remain high priorities as we plan Wesleyan’s investments in providing our community with a curriculum and pedagogy that is bold, rigorous and inspired by practical idealism.

Creative Performances

Yesterday I was thrilled to see Wesleyan senior Clara Pinsky‘s dance performance featuring members of our Physical Plant Department. It was spirited, fun, and at times inspiring. There are two additional performances today (Thursday) and tomorrow in Usdan’s Marketplace at 12:30 p.m.





In the afternoon I went to the first in a series of senior theses exhibitions at the Zilkha Gallery. On display were Rebecca Brand’s “ex situ,” Rachel Fox’s “Home Improvements,” Addison Rose McDowell’s “middle grey,” and Elissa Palmer’s “perspective.” The students have created subtle, moving and inquiring works of art.




Check them out at the CFA, and stay tuned most Wednesday afternoons for other openings—and many days of the week for performances of all kinds.

Speaking of openings, today there is a chance to see (starting at 5 p.m.) and hear from a world-class photographer. Philip Trager ’56 will be in conversation with Professor Andrew Szegedy-Maszak this afternoon (Thursday) at 5:30 at the Davison Art Gallery.

Ina, Rockport 2008 by Philip Trager
Ina, Rockport 2008 by Philip Trager

STEM vs. Liberal Education a False Choice

This is college admissions decision season — a time when many young people have traditionally looked forward to an educational experience quite different from what they had (sometimes just endured) in high school. The days of checking off boxes to prove their worthiness to some future gatekeepers would be over. In college there might be requirements, but there would also be much more freedom, much more relevance, and much more intellectual excitement.

But the discourse about colleges and universities today is undermining these hopeful expectations. Everywhere one looks, from government statistics on earnings after graduation to a bevy of rankings that purport to show how to monetize your choice of major, the message to students is to think of their undergraduate years as an economic investment that had better produce a substantial and quick return.

There are good reasons for this. One is the scourge of student indebtedness. When students graduate with mountains of debt, especially from shady institutions graduating a small percentage of those who enroll, they can fall into a vicious cycle of poor choices and ever more limited horizons. They are collateral damage in a world of rising tuition. While the wealthiest families have been benefiting from enormous tax breaks, many states have dis-invested in public universities, putting great pressure on these institutions to collect tuition dollars. Middle-class and low-income students often borrow those dollars to pay the bills. And the bills grow ever greater as colleges raise tuition in part to meet the demands of rich families for campus amenities so that their children can live in the style to which they have grown accustomed.

But even students without the pressure of loans are being encouraged to turn away from “college as exploration” and toward “college as training.” They hear that in today’s fast-paced, competitive world, one can no longer afford to try different fields that might improve one’s ability to interpret cultural artifacts or analyze social dynamics. Learning through the arts, one of the most powerful ways to tap into one’s capacities for innovation is often dismissed as an unaffordable luxury.

Parents, pundits and politicians join in the chorus warning students not to miss the economic boat. Study science, technology, engineering and mathematics, they chant, or else you will have few opportunities. Other subjects will leave you a “loser” in our not-so-brave new world of brutal change. College, they insist, should be the place where you conform and learn to swim with this tide.

As president of a university dedicated to broad, liberal education, I both deplore the new conformity and welcome an increased emphasis on STEM fields. I’ve been delighted to see mathematics and neuroscience among our fastest growing majors, have supported students from under-represented groups who are trying to thrive in STEM fields, and have started an initiative to integrate design and engineering into our liberal arts curriculum.

Choosing to study a STEM field should be a choice for creativity not conformity. There is nothing narrow about an authentic education in the sciences. Indeed, scientific research is a model for the American tradition of liberal education because of the creative nature of its inquiries, not just the truth-value of its results. As in other disciplines (like music and foreign languages), much basic learning is required, but science is not mere instrumental training; memorizing formulae isn’t thinking like a scientist. On our campus, some of the most innovative, exploratory work is being done by students studying human-machine interactions, using computer science to manipulate moving images to tell better stories, and exploring intersections of environmental science with economics and performance art.

Fears of being crushed by debt or of falling off the economic ladder are pressuring students to conform, and we must find ways to counteract these pressures or we risk undermining our scientific productivity as well as our broad cultural creativity.

I’ve heard it said that students today opt for two fields of study, one for their parents and one for themselves. Examples abound of undergrads focusing on: economics and English; math and art; biology and theater. But we make a mistake in placing too much emphasis on the bifurcation. Many students are connecting these seemingly disparate fields, not just holding them as separate interests. And they are finding that many employers want them to develop these connections further. Exploration and innovation are not fenced in by disciplines and majors. Students who develop habits of mind that allow them to develop connections that others haven’t seen will be creating the opportunities of the future.

When Thomas Jefferson was thinking through a new, American model of higher education, it was crucial for him that students not think they already knew at the beginning of their studies where they would end up when it was time for graduation. For him, and for all those who have followed in the path of liberal education in this country, education was exploration – and you would only make important discoveries if you were open to unexpected possibilities. About a century later W.E.B. Du Bois argued that a broad education was a form of empowerment not just apprenticeship. Both men understood that the sciences, along with the humanities, arts and social sciences had vast, integrative possibilities.

This integrative tradition of pragmatic American liberal education must be protected. We must not over-react to fears of being left behind. Yes, ours is a merciless economy characterized by deep economic inequality, but that inequality must not be accepted as a given; the skills of citizenship acquired through liberal learning can be used to push back against it. We must cultivate this tradition of learning not only because it is has served us well for so long, but because it can vitalize our economy, lead to an engaged citizenry and create a culture characterized by connectivity and creativity.

Cross-posted with Washington Post and the Huffington Post