From ‘Unruly Hearts’ to Open Minds

Inside Higher Ed asked me for a response to the new Pew survey results regarding colleges, and I wrote the following op-ed, which was published this morning. 


Commencement was over, and we had awarded diplomas to the more than 800 graduates in a timely way. I had made remarks, as I always do, connecting the education they had received with events in the world at large, especially the combination of corruption and inertia in Washington. While marching across the stage, a few dozen graduates managed to express their disappointment that the administration in general and the president (me) in particular weren’t as progressive as they would like on issues such as sexual assault, divestment from fossil fuels and support for underrepresented groups.

The commencement address at Wesleyan University this year was given by the MacArthur grant-winning poet Claudia Rankine. As president and master of ceremonies, I admit I was focused on the way she engaged the students — no easy task. The address was political, as antiracism speeches must be, and it was smart, funny and moving by turns. She concluded by expressing, “Love to each of you and love to your bad behavior in the boardroom, on juries, in the office, on the street, at your dinner tables in all and every space that believes it can hold racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Muslim rhetoric and on and on. Love to you and your wild and unruly hearts imagining our world again.”

As families milled about after the ceremonies, taking pictures, sharing hugs and high fives, I was suddenly called out by an angry voice: “You annihilated my existence,” yelled a middle-aged man. Taken aback, I wasn’t sure I heard him right. “You annihilated my existence,” he repeated and went on to say that the ceremony had left him out and was an example of why people hate closed-minded universities today. Evidently, he did not feel included in the poet’s reference to unruly hearts.

I was surprised by this outburst, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been. I had recently encountered pushback from some on the other end of the political spectrum when I published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling for an affirmative action program for conservative ideas on campuses. Noting the tilt to the left in many humanities and social-science divisions at selective colleges, I argued that it was not enough to take a free-market approach to intellectual diversity. Being unruly at a Northeastern university these days should include making a special effort to enhance the study of conservative (religious and libertarian) traditions, broadly conceived. We should avoid the hate-filled provocateurs of the alt-right and instead encourage the serious study of ideas outside the progressive consensus.

Many students and colleagues who think of themselves as being on the left, as I do, worked themselves into a position of outrage, even victimization, after hearing about my short essay. A young alumna returning to campus for her reunion told me that I had made it more difficult for people like her to get an education because I was claiming that this education should contain ideas contrary to her own. She didn’t say I had “annihilated her existence” but seemed to feel that way.

What’s going on?

Survey data released this week by the Pew Charitable Trusts have given me a better feel for the intensity of such reactions. It is clear that many national institutions with hitherto broad public support are now viewed very differently depending on one’s ideological position. Perhaps it is unsurprising that Republicans and right-leaning independents have a far more positive view of churches and a more negative view of labor unions than do Democrats and left-leaning independents. Although the media’s popularity among those tilting left has grown over the last year, that doesn’t offset the steep decline among Americans on the right who think the national media is having a positive impact on the country. Interestingly, one can’t find a majority who think favorably about banks and financial institutions, though Republicans are more positive (46 percent) than Democrats (only 33 percent positive).

The sharpest partisan divisions appear when people are asked whether colleges are “having a positive or negative impact on the way things are going in the country.” Fifty-eight percent of Republicans and their ideological friends now say that colleges are having a negative impact, while 72 percent of Democrats and their comrades see colleges as positive. This gap has widened significantly in recent years. In 2015, a majority of GOPers thought positively about higher education; in fact, the decline among those who lean to the right is close to 20 percent! The views of colleges of those who fall toward the left have been pretty stable.

Colleges and universities have long been the screens upon which groups project their own fears and anxieties. Older people wonder what the next generation is coming to, or worry that their children are having their lives distorted by a professoriate not part of their “real world.” In the past two years, the fantasy of political correctness on college campuses has been a catch-all for a range of people angry about the world, especially those concerned about their status in our age of rapidly growing inequality. The PC campus bogeyman has an important function — it pumps up the myth that our biggest problems stem from a lack of tolerance for ideas friendly to the status quo. When fraternity brothers are disturbed by university restrictions on how they organize parties, they find a new rallying cry in bemoaning “political correctness.” When middle-aged veterans of college protests of yesteryear no longer see their own battles and slogans repeated by today’s students, they complain about PC culture undermining free speech. When men, even elected officials, are caught bragging about sexual assault, they punch back at political correctness.

As I noted in the run-up to the presidential election, there just isn’t any downside to attacking this imaginary monster of groupthink, and so people friendly to the status quo will continue to trumpet their own courage in “not being PC” as they attack society’s most vulnerable groups. Racism and xenophobia get a free pass when folded into an attack on PC elitism.

At the same time, those attacked as PC shouldn’t take the bait and content themselves with labeling anyone who attacks them as racist. Those who point out the dangers of big government, emphasize the needs of national security in an age of terrorism, extol the virtues of family and religion, or defend free speech deserve intellectual engagement — not insult and irony. Those who support a progressive campus culture make a big mistake if they think they are protecting that culture by insulating it from ideas that come from conservative, libertarian and religious traditions.

Demonizing people because they have ideas different from your own has always been a temptation, and lately it has become a national contagion. College campuses are not at all immune from it, but this malady is fatal for liberal education. Many people are so accustomed to curated information — be it from social media feeds or just from one’s choice of cable news — that they have lost the ability to respond thoughtfully to points of view different from their own. When they are confronted with disagreement, they may feel their “existence is annihilated” or that the person with whom they disagree wants “to make it harder for people like themselves to get on in the world.”

So those on the left and on the right surveyed by the Pew Foundation may actually share the same picture of colleges but just evaluate it differently. Democratish survey respondents may be imagining campuses as places where they would find people who hold views like their own, and Republicanish respondents may be thinking that people like them would simply be called nasty names were they to speak out there. Both groups may be imagining colleges in blue states and red states as places where like-minded people go to become more alike.

This is a disastrous view of colleges and universities, one that we who work on campuses must do our best to dispel. We must highlight and enhance the ways that students and faculty members consider alternative perspectives on culture and society; we must promote vigorous debate that doesn’t degenerate into personal attack. This kind of consideration and debate is increasingly rare in the public sphere, and that’s why it is more important than ever to cultivate the terrain for it on our campuses. By this I don’t mean inviting provocative entertainers to the campus so as to get free speech points at the cost of providing a platform for idiocy and abuse. I mean enhancing conditions for the serious study of alternative visions of justice, freedom, individual rights and communal responsibilities. I mean not just sharing biases with students in acts of solidarity, but testing one’s biases by engaging with ideas that also challenge the campus consensus.

Even when colleges and universities are seen as places to engage with ideas and inquiry that break a consensus rather than support it, when students and faculty are seen as capable of trying out ideas without fear of reprisal, not everyone will say that colleges are having “a positive effect on the way things are going in the country.” If we are doing our jobs, some should always object to what happens on campus. But when we are getting objections (and support) from people who hold a variety of perspectives, then we can be more confident that we are fostering the intellectual diversity essential for higher education’s role in this country.

Summer Send-Offs Underway

One of the first things Kari and I did after I was appointed Wesleyan’s president ten years ago was to attend a Summer Sendoff. We were living in Berkeley at the time, and the gathering of Wesleyans from around the Bay Area was both welcoming and exciting. We are grateful to the parents and alumni who host these special events at which pre-frosh get to meet others just starting their college careers. This year members of the class of ’21 will also discover the alumni and parent network, a resource that will be part of their lives for decades.

  • This year 21 Summer Sendoffs have been planned and they are occurring around the globe.
  • These casual gatherings are the perfect opportunity to welcome our newest students and their families to Wesleyan.
  • All alumni, students and their families, faculty, staff and friends are invited.
  • Specific details and registration can be found here.

These events are already underway. Here are pics from Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.

Taipei, Taiwan summer sendoff
Tokyo, Japan Summer Sendoff
Seoul, South Korea Summer Sendoff

Happy July 4th! Happy Summer

On this Independence Day, I am eager to share with readers of this blog a video by a Wesleyan alumnus who has done more than anyone to turn our attention to the revolutionaries who helped found the United States. Here is Lin Manuel Miranda ’02 and friends’ “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done).”

And since I know many of you will have already seen that video, I offer you a picture of simple summer happiness. Happy 4th!

Mathilde on Vacation

Support Wesleyan through the Cardinal Challenge!

Friday is the end of the fiscal year, and the Wesleyan University Trustees are adding generously to any gift that comes in during the next few days.

  • Every gift of any amount will be matched with $500 for financial aid by the Board of Trustees, up to $1 million

That means if you give $50, it has the impact of a gift of $550!!

Why is it important to make an annual gift to support students at Wesleyan?

  • Annual giving by alumni, parents and friends makes up 5% of our annual budget.
  • Your gift goes right to work in all areas of the campus; academics, arts, athletics, and student life.
  • It feels great to give back.
  • You’re helping the creators, innovators, and engaged citizens of tomorrow.

Thanks to our trustees and to everyone who supports our amazing Wesleyan students!

Civic Engagement with Middletown

When Wesleyan opened Green Street Center in January 2005, it signed a lease with the City of Middletown to improve an old school building so as to operate after-school educational and art programs in the North End of the City. The plan was that over time the programs would become self-sustaining through private and foundation support. Despite the best efforts of the University and the Green Street staff, sustainability has proven elusive. Wesleyan has spent more than $4 million on these programs, a significant percentage of which has gone to overhead expenses. While Green Street contributes to the community in many important ways, we believe we need a new model for supporting the community engagement of our students. In the wake of the university’s decision in regard to Green Street, Prof. Rob Rosenthal, director of the Allbritton Center, and Cathy Lechowicz, Director of the Jewett Center for Community Partnerships, are leading work on a Civic Action Plan to determine how the University can have the greatest impact on the community, including families and children.

Wesleyan’s lease on the facility that houses the Green Street Teaching and Learning Center expires in July 2018, and this week we informed the six members of the regular Center staff that over the course of the next year we will be winding down operations there. We are very grateful for their efforts and wanted to be sure to give them a full year to prepare for the future—a future that we hope will continue to involve working with Wesleyan.

The students and staff who work at Green Street have done a wonderful job in engaging members of the community in high-quality arts, math and science programs. We plan to continue aspects of these programs in on-campus settings and also to develop other community-based resources so as to continue our involvement in local, diversified education projects. We will continue to offer volunteer and employment opportunities for our students to work with children in the North End and throughout Middletown.

At Green Street, and at local schools, Oddfellows, Traverse Square and other organizations, Wesleyan students have learned invaluable lessons about making a positive difference in the lives of children. Over the next year, as part of our Civic Action Plan, we will be working to provide our students with a variety of community engagement opportunities. Those opportunities should include the most effective elements of the programming at Green Street. Engagement of Wesleyans with the community will take wide-ranging forms in the future, and the University will strive to help them make that engagement as productive as possible.

Summer at Wesleyan’s Center for the Arts

The Wesleyan campus has summer sessions, sports camps, and many researchers from mid-June through mid-August, but it does become a quiet place for a few months. Not so the arts on campus, which continue to provide enlivening, beautiful and thought-provoking programs. The College of Film and the Moving Image has its annual free July film series, this year featuring Gary Cooper. All screenings take place at C-Film on Tuesday nights at 7:30 p.m., beginning on July 11. The movies will be introduced by Marc Longenecker.

  • Tuesday, July 11:  BALL OF FIRE
  • Tuesday, July 18:  MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN
  • Tuesday, July 25:  HIGH NOON
Gary Cooper Film Series

On Tuesday, August 1 C-Film will sponsor Spotlight on the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival:  WALK WITH ME, THE TRIALS OF DAMON J. KEITH. Marc will also introduce this film.

Wesleyan’s Center for the Arts is sponsoring a series of events:

  • The series opens on Thursday, June 29 with a free outdoor concert by singer-songwriter, acoustic guitarist, and conga player Aurelio and his band in the CFA Courtyard (rain location: Crowell Concert Hall). He performs traditional Garifuna music from Honduras, which has its roots in West Africa, and has shared the stage with Youssou N’Dour and recorded with Orchestra Baobab, among other artists. 
  • Jazz vocalist Alicia Olatuja brings her quintet to Crowell Concert Hall on Thursday July 6. She has worked with Christian McBride, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Chaka Khan, and others. She was also the featured soloist with the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration in 2013. Following Wesleyan, she will perform at the Montreal Jazz Festival. 
  • The New England premiere of “Beyond Sacred,” an interview-based theater production by Ping Chong + Company, takes place in the CFA Theater on Thursday, July 13.  The work explores the real-life stories of five young Muslim Americans, from a range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, coming of age in New York City at a time of increasing hostility towards, and violence against, Muslims in the United States. This is a continuation of the “Muslim Women’s Voices at Wesleyan” programming that began during the 2014-2015 season at the Center for the Arts, which expanded awareness, knowledge, and understanding of Muslim cultures through the lens of performance.  
  • Wesleyan’s John Spencer Camp Professor of Music Neely Bruce presents the twelfth in a series of CD-length recitals of his piano music on Sunday, July 16 in Crowell Concert Hall. The free concert will feature three world premieres of his compositions, plus guest artists Professor of Music Jay Hoggard on vibraphone, and Wesleyan Jazz Ensemble Director Noah Baerman on piano.

Summertime and the arts at Wesleyan!

Support WESU — Community Radio

Today I received the following email from Ben Michaels, station manager at WESU radio. I’m passing it on, hoping you will join me in supporting the station.

Help preserve the legacy of WESU with a donation today!

As we approach the home stretch, the flow of incoming pledges has diminished to a trickle and we need your help to achieve our goal.  This has been a challenging pledge drive and we know there are many organizations that are likely asking for your support.  Know that your gift is essential to sustain free form community programming and our diverse offering of public affairs. Your donation also helps to ensure WESU will remain common ground for students and community volunteers to work together in service of communities that stretch far beyond the footprint of Wesleyan University.If you’ve been holding out on making your contribution, now is the time to take action. For nearly 80 years WESU has offered discerning listeners music and ideas outside of the main stream. WESU is a place where listeners expect to hear new music and challenging concepts from a variety of perspectives.  Help us wrap up this fiscal year and protect this important legacy with a donation today! 

PS-If you’ve already made a contribution, please consider reaching out to a friend on behalf of WESU. Perhaps who you know someone else who also values WESU, that can help us bring our spring pledge drive to a close.

Supporting the Paris Accords on Climate Change

Since the cynical, know-nothing announcement from the Trump Administration that it was withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Accord on Climate Change, many people across the country have reaffirmed their commitment to take action to reduce the pernicious effects we have been having on our environment. Here at Wesleyan, we have been taking a public stand to fight climate change. I am among over a hundred university presidents who, together with mayors, governors and business leaders, are preparing to submit a plan to the United Nations pledging to meet greenhouse gas emissions targets outlined in the Paris climate accord. This early story in The New York Times describes the effort. Wesleyan has reported on this and other efforts here.

Gary Yohe, Huffington Professor of Economics and Environmental Science, has been working for decades to understand more deeply and to mitigate more effectively the effects of climate change. Prof. Yohe has underscored the importance for institutions at various levels of civil society and for individuals to do their part to meet the goals set forth in the Paris Accord. Along these lines, just yesterday colleagues from MIT sent the following message:

We are writing to invite you to join academics across America in signing a new statement on climate change that is going live right now: statement enables the faculty, staff, and students of American universities and colleges to join groups of mayors, business leaders, and university/college presidents who are announcing that even though the federal government is withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, we will do our parts to fight climate change. Please consider signing the statement, and forwarding this invitation to any colleagues at any American university or college who you think might be interested.

The silver lining in all this, I suppose, is that citizens are becoming more engaged in working for sensible environmental policies. As I’ve said to the press, it’s extraordinary that supporting a basic commitment to lessen a source of pollution in the world is seen as a particularly strong civic or political act. It is nonetheless crucial at a time when the White House is promoting an anti-scientific assault on public policy and research, that universities defend the values that are necessary for us to be institutions of learning. The economic nationalism promoted by the administration is in great tension with our mission as educational institutions, if only because inquiry and pedagogy take place across borders. The environmental nationalism currently embraced by the White House is an exercise in lunacy. What’s next….Americans will be told that we can smoke without fear of lung disease, or that we no longer have to wash our hands after using the bathroom? Is this what “America First” will mean?

Protecting the environment is not a partisan issue. It is a vital responsibility for our time. Wesleyan will continue to explore ways to do our part.


Tennis Rules

Hearty congratulations are in order for Eudice Chong ’18 and Victoria Yu ’19, for their extraordinary success in the NCAA Division III Tennis Championships. Eudice is first person in Div III tennis history to win three consecutive singles championships. She did this by winning a thrilling three-set match against Rebecca Ho from Washington University in St Louis.

Not long after that singles victory, Eudice teamed up with Victoria to claim the national championship in doubles. They were unstoppable all year long, and they earned the national championship in decisive fashion. This is the first time that Wesleyan students have won the crown.




Is it any wonder that coach Mike Fried was named Division III Coach of the Year by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association? He has built a fabulous program, with both men’s and women’s team achieving top 10 national rankings. He’s a great mentor to many Wesleyan students.



Congratulations! Go Wes!!


Welcome Home!

Yesterday trustees, trustee emeriti, parents, graduating seniors, alumni from reunion classes — thousands began arriving on the Wesleyan campus for Commencement and Reunion Weekend. This morning, I am having a public conversation with the scholar/public intellectual Leon Wieseltier, and then off to other great Wes Seminars, Alumni Parades and a bevy of celebratory festivities. It all culminates in Commencement tomorrow.

The fun has begun! (keep those pictures coming!)


IMG_3216 IMG_3219 IMG_3220 IMG_3223 IMG_3225

Senator Michael Bennett addressing Trustees
Senator Michael Bennett addressing Trustees


Selfi with Koki
Selfi with Kofi
Selfie with Austin
Selfie with Austin

IMG_3238                                                                                                         Phi Beta Kappa Inductees

Alumni on Foss on Commencement Eve
Alumni on Foss on Commencement Eve


Tent Party Dancing - Commencement Eve
Tent Party Dancing – Commencement Eve