Spring Break but No Rest from our Anxious Times

It’s usually the most chill part of the year – two weeks away from classes just as winter turns to spring. Wesleyan has a generous two-week break, though truth be told many faculty and students work hard during the change of season. Athletes are training or competing right through the time away from classes (how about that Men’s Hockey NESCAC Championship!); thesis writers are intensely moving their projects toward completion; professors often count on this period to make progress on their research. And the staff continues to labor away, planning everything from graduation to how to repair parts of campus strained by the first two-thirds of the academic year.

BUT THIS YEAR! This year we have a world seriously shaken by a pandemic, with repercussions ranging from a reeling global economy to changing how we casually greet one another. We are bombarded continuously with information, some of it very suspect. Authorities in Washington try to reassure, but conflicting (and sometimes nonsensical) pronouncements breed further confusion. State and local officials are scrambling to get current information, but the shortage of tests for Covid-19 has made this very difficult. Some schools are closing, and many organizations have canceled travel. Here at Wesleyan, hundreds of students—many of whom felt unsafe returning home—have stayed on campus for spring break, and we are asking everyone to contribute to a supportive community. We are also asking for social distancing. Oy.

To reiterate what we do know:

Similar to the flu, symptoms of coronavirus are mild to severe respiratory illness including:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

At this time, the CDC reports that symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as long as 14 days after exposure.

The CDC recommends preventative actions to reduce the risk of developing the flu or other respiratory diseases, including:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • When you are sick, stay home.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.

More information can be found here, and we will update this page frequently.

If you feel sick, please get assistance from the Davison Health Center. If you need help managing your anxiety and emotions in this stressful time, the folks at CAPS are there for you.

And wash your hands.

We have a good team working on contingency plans for classes and other events. We’ll get through this by relying on what we at Wesleyan call compassionate solidarity. We may be instructed in new forms of “social distancing,” but we’ll also take care of each other. Reach out. Help is nearby.

On Testimonies from Student Athletes

Today, I read the powerful, devastating accounts of the awful experiences that several of alumnae members of the Wesleyan women’s cross-country team published in Wesleying. The Director of Athletics has asked for an investigation by the Office of Equity and Inclusion, and this will begin immediately. I apologize for the profoundly negative experiences that the women recount in their moving testimonies. As I await the results of the investigation, I promise that we will take all necessary steps to fix any systemic issues and to ensure the health and well-being of our student-athletes.

Michael Roth

Reviewing Susan Stewart’s “The Ruins Lesson”

Recently The Washington Post published my review of Susan Stewart’s excellent The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and Material in Western Culture. As we contemplate the renovation of some of our historical buildings, the lessons of the built environment are much on my mind. I repost the review here.


How to explain our taste for ruins? Are we attracted to their echoes of transience and decay, and perhaps of our own mortality? Or are we moved by traces of a past that has not quite disappeared — messages from an era otherwise inaccessible? “We are so often drawn to the sight of what is broken, damaged and decayed,” notes Susan Stewart in her admirably researched and beautifully produced volume, “The Ruins Lesson.” Ruins excite our imagination with the lesson that our greatest structures will one day return to the ground, while reminding us that in their fallen states these sites are endowed with beauty, even redemption.

 (University of Chicago Press)
(University of Chicago Press)

Stewart, a distinguished poet, a former MacArthur fellow and a Princeton professor of the humanities, charts the West’s fascination with decayed remains, from Egyptian relics to contemporary monuments of destruction and trauma. “The Ruins Lesson” is a sweeping cultural history that draws in Renaissance humanism, 18th-century changes in representing the past and the Romantic reconfiguration of memory. Our buildings, no matter how grand, are bound to fall. This is a lesson of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel; we are fated to live in a fallen, scattered state. God does not, Stewart notes, strike the builders mute, but they are condemned to a confusion of tongues, to the ruins of communication. For Western traditions, only the divine is preserved from decay; human achievement will always be marked by the inevitability of a fall.

Ruins are ripe for allegory, but they are also very material. Old stuff, even ancient stuff, can just get in the way, or it can be reused for new buildings. A classical pagan temple can be repurposed as a church; stones used to mark the advance of a historic empire can come in handy when you have to build a new wall. But sometime in the Renaissance, writers and artists began to see ruins, particularly Roman ruins, as having intrinsic value. Their antiquity was taken to be both beautiful and meaningful. Poets rhapsodized about the excavation of traces of the mighty empire more than 1,000 years after its fall. The corpse of the great city still breathes warnings, wrote the 18th-century Welsh poet and painter John Dyer. It’s often the poets, Stewart emphasizes, who “dream of making artworks that will not be vulnerable to the erosion that weather and time can wreak upon even the greatest of built human structures. Even so, the anxiety that their words, too, might not endure is palpable.”

At the center of Stewart’s study is the mid-18th-century artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi. The son of a Venetian stonemason, his effort to preserve ruins forever through printmaking illustrates the paradox implicit in the representation of decay. We are attracted to slowly falling buildings because they embody the effects of time passing, yet the artist attempts to defy time by creating a representation aimed at permanence. Piranesi strove for scientific rigor in his depiction of Roman ruins; he was determined to represent the exact proportions of architectural achievements from the past. Yet he was also determined to create art that would itself stand the test of time. He wanted to be at once faithful to the material artifacts and unbounded in his creative practice. As Stewart puts it, “Rarely has an artist been able to combine rationality, measure, and science with a near-melodramatic theatrical sense of presentation as Piranesi.” The artist’s many depictions of Roman ruins were so powerful that they came to define the experience of the past for those visiting the ancient sites — with some visitors afterward recalling Piranesi’s prints even more vividly than the ruins themselves.

In the 20th century, culture came to be seen as a ruin, a troubled witness to human violence. We are struck less by nature’s sublime powers than by the enormity of our capacity for ruination. The sentimental attachment to the ruin, the contemplative gaze that finds signs of renewal in mossy growth on broken stones, has been deconstructed. In our age of climate crisis, we might ask: When humans cause mass extinction, what does it mean to find beauty in decay?

“The Ruins Lesson” is in many respects a scholarly tome, with hundreds of footnotes and an extensive bibliography. But Stewart writes with poetic grace and a nonspecialist’s appreciation of printmaking, painting, literature and architecture. Readers outside the academy will find much to value in this lovely book. It takes no scholarly preparation to appreciate the ways in which culture-makers grappled with the lessons of decay even as they strove to create works of lasting value. The book is copiously illustrated, and the color prints powerfully illuminate the detailed descriptions of prints and paintings.

As part of the opening of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 1997, I co-curated “Irresistible Decay,” an exhibition on ruins and their representations. It seemed worthwhile to recall the veneration of decay as we welcomed visitors to the beautiful new cultural center in the hills of Southern California. A museum can be like a monument, which Stewart reminds us “can be a temporary means of teaching the living about the past.” She goes on to conclude, though, that “it is only in the continual transmission of our values, in the life of thought, language, and critical reconsideration, that we can find any permanence.” With “The Ruins Lesson” she has made a critical and substantial contribution to that ongoing but fragile transmission.

The Ruins Lesson

Meaning and Material in Western Culture

By Susan Stewart

Chicago. 378 pp. $35

Committed to International Diversity

With all the attention being devoted in recent weeks to the assassination of Suleimani and potential war with Iran, to Ukraine and impeachment, and to China and the coronavirus, it’s easy to lose sight of an isolationist trend in Washington worrisome in its own right. Although not everyone who wants to “make America great” means to cut it off from the rest of the world, the current regime’s isolationist instincts are powerful, persistent and perverse.

This came home to me during my recent trip to India to visit with Wesleyan families and to talk with prospective liberal arts students. Many told me that the United States seems less welcoming than before, and concerned parents wondered whether their children would feel at home in a country that seemed determined to cast foreigners in a harsh light. In some cases, they were attuned to this hostility because they saw their own government in Delhi using similar tactics. I tried to assure them that most Americans were open to meeting foreigners and that our traditions of hospitality remain strong. But they contrasted the current US climate with what they see in Canada, and to some extent in Australia.

Here at Wesleyan, we have a long tradition of collaboration with scholars and teachers from outside the United States. Nobel Prize winning chemist Satoshi Omura still looks back on his time as a researcher at Wes as formative to his experiments in developing new medicines from organic materials. African drummers like Abraham Adzenyah, Javanese gamelan virtuosos like Sumarsam, and dancers like Eiko Otake, have made Wes their home for decades because of its open learning environment, one that cultivates respect for tradition as well as enthusiasm for innovation. I proudly told my interlocutors in India about our longstanding Navaratri Festival of music and dance, and about the recent book by Hari Krishnan on how Bollywood creatively appropriated those traditions.

Shortly after I returned to campus, the Trump administration announced a new set of travel restrictions on people coming to the US. On Jan. 31 the President signed a proclamation banning visa applications from Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar and Nigeria. The reason given was that these countries presented risks because of their security procedures and information sharing. The administration’s announcement also included harsh immigration restrictions for people from Sudan and Tanzania.

The announcement is of a piece with the administration’s goal to restrict immigration of (almost) all kinds. For months in 2019, it refused to sign off on a new framework for refugees – the result being that in October ZERO refugees were legally admitted to the US. That’s the first time a month went by without the US providing legal refuge to someone. When President Trump eventually approved a legal ceiling for those seeking refuge here, it was for a mere 18,000 refugees, an all-time low. Even the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page complained in regard to the latest executive order that “punishing innocent people trying to come to America legally undermines Mr. Trump’s claim that he opposes illegal immigration, not immigrants more broadly.”

At Wesleyan, we value the vibrant, cosmopolitan community that we build in Middletown. About 15% of our students come from outside the US, and we cherish the opportunities to learn from one another. Rather than blocking off parts of the world from interactions with Americans, we believe in building positive, effective interconnectivity. Rather than refusing to listen to others we perceive as different from ourselves, we should cultivate the sharing of stories as a path to a broader more powerful education.

Let’s take Ahmed Badr’s ’20 Narratio project as our inspiration. Ahmed came to the US as a refugee from Baghdad and will graduate from Wesleyan in May. Determined to empower others, he created Narratio which invites youth around the world to share their stories  through the publishing of poetry, photography, art and narrative. Already Narratio has published 300+ works across 18+ countries.

Let’s push back against the anti-immigrant, anti-refugee messages coming from Washington. And let’s remember to listen to one another’s stories – lending an ear with special care to those that may come from faraway places.




Beginning the work of 2020!

This morning I sent the following message to the campus community. Classes have begun, and we are looking forward to a great semester.

Over the past weeks, a number of our students have been traveling around the country as part of the new Wesleyan Engagement 2020 Initiative (E2020), which offers internship funding and credit to work in the public sphere during academic breaks. By facilitating students’ direct participation in civic life—and we expect many more to take advantage of E2020 in the spring and summer—we believe Wesleyan can help them gain valuable organizational skills and learn to engage more productively with others, even (or especially) those with whom they disagree.

While E2020 is a new initiative, its spirit has been part of Wesleyan’s DNA from the very beginning. In 1831, Wesleyan’s first president aimed our mission at both the good of the individual and the good of the world. In 1963, nine Wesleyan students traveled to the Deep South to assist with voter registration, the establishment of Freedom Schools, and their larger stated goal of “breaking the system of segregation in Mississippi.” Just last year, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of African American Studies at Wesleyan and the Vanguard Class of 1969, members of which advocated for more university support for the Black community here on campus and beyond. In recent months, we have eliminated our fixed investment allocation to fossil fuels, and in the coming year we will develop a new Sustainability Action Plan.

A decade ago, we named our strategic plan Wesleyan 2020, and now here we are! We’ve made important progress on all three of its overarching goals—enhancing the distinctive education we offer, growing the reputation of our extraordinary University, and making our economic model more sustainable. Faculty have spearheaded several new interdisciplinary colleges and exciting collaborations; Communications and Admission staff have effectively cultivated and recruited many new members to our community; and all those involved in the hugely successful THIS IS WHY fundraising campaign helped us strengthen our financial footing and position ourselves for a bright future.

Of course, some of the goals of Wesleyan 2020 are really FOREVER goals. Professors FOREVER seek to improve classroom success; Academic Affairs FOREVER seeks to make the curriculum more powerful and relevant; Student Affairs FOREVER seeks to ensure the student experience is meaningful and inclusive; and all those involved with University infrastructure and resources FOREVER seek to provide a stable platform for it all.

But we must also align our pursuit of these goals with our current circumstances and ambitions. As we work to update our strategic plan by the end of the calendar year, we must keep in mind that higher education—and Wesleyan, specifically—has always been fertile ground for bold and productive experimentation. We have a responsibility to find new ways to empower our students and our broader community to act for both the good of the individual and the good of the world. E2020 is one of the first steps in that direction, and the imperative to integrate civic engagement with liberal learning has rarely had the urgency that it has today. You can find out more about E2020 here.

In this spirit of developing civic preparedness, we will be honoring the civil rights legacy of the courageous activist Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Friday, January 31 (12:15 pm – 1:15 pm in Crowell Concert Hall). This year, our keynote speaker will be writer, producer and activist Bree Newsome.

I thank you for all your efforts and look forward to the exciting work ahead!

Winter Travels for Wesleyan

Early in the new year I traveled to Seattle where I participated in a celebration of the life of my mentor Hayden White, a long-time faculty member at Wesleyan who shaped philosophy of history in the U.S. for the last 50 years. While in the Northwest, I hosted  a reception with alumni, students, and families to share news from campus and to discuss Safe Enough Spaces. As always, I loved meeting with the engaged and vibrant members of our far-flung Wesleyan community.

Speaking of far-flung, I went from Seattle to Mumbai, where I moderated a forum on Liberal Arts, Film and Storytelling with Mad Men co-creator Matthew Weiner ’87, P’18, ’23 and Charles W. Fries Professor of Film Studies Scott Higgins. In India we crossed paths with a group of Wesleyan scientists here on grant support to develop partnerships with Indian labs.

Manisha Vaghani P’18

Director and writer Navdeep Singh, Scott Higgins and Matthew Weiner, ’87, P’18, ’23

We met with several parents of Wesleyan students and alumni here in Mumbai, and we even had a chance to talk with some current students home for winter break. Manisha and Raja Parthasarathy P’22 welcomed us for a convivial dinner and discussion.


I leave Mumbai tomorrow for New Delhi and a reception with alumni, families, and other friends of Wesleyan. Then, it’s back home for a bit before heading to Washington, D.C. and Michigan for more discussions of liberal arts education in these challenging times.





E2020 — Supporting Student Engagement in Elections

Rob Rosenthal, Clifton Watson and I sent out this message to the campus last week.

Wesleyan has a long history of supporting student engagement in the public sphere, and our Civic Action Plan sets goals for building civic preparedness among students, faculty and staff and for enhancing the University’s role in public life.

The 2020 election cycle represents a crucial opportunity for civic engagement and liberal learning through engagement with the public sphere. We launch the Wesleyan Election 2020 initiative (E2020) with the goal of encouraging and supporting thoughtful participation of students, faculty and staff in the public sphere. Wesleyan will support electoral participation regardless of political affiliation, and we encourage work across the political spectrum.

The first stage of E2020 will make funds available to students who wish to engage in political campaigns, voter registration efforts, and issues advocacy at the local, state or national level. This kind of direct participation in civic life provides an educational richness that will help students develop skills for lifelong active citizenship, learn about themselves and how to engage productively with others with whom they disagree, and gain organizational skills.

E2020 welcomes all ideas for student work, though we will prioritize applications that seek financial or academic support:

work on campaigns, advocacy, or voter registration that will take place during school breaks (winter, spring, or summer)

work of large groups of students in the electoral process

work on local or national elections and issues that are especially contested

Since winter break will be here before we know it, we encourage students interested in financial support for this kind of work to consult this webpage and submit an application by Friday, December 13.

In the coming weeks, we will announce additional programs aligned with E2020, including service-learning courses and other credit opportunities as well as public programs and additional on-campus activities. In the interim, we welcome your suggestions for programs and other campus activities aligned with the mission of the Wesleyan Election 2020 Initiative.


It’s Almost #GivingTuesday

There is still turkey in my fridge, even though our guests are long gone. Mathilde seems to like the broth on her dog food, and I’ll be enjoying turkey soup for quite some time. I don’t do much shopping online, but I can’t avoid all the Black Friday and Cyber Monday ads. Tomorrow brings a different kind of post-Thanksgiving online transaction: Giving Tuesday.

There are so many ways to express gratitude, and I find a powerful one to be showing generosity toward organizations and people one cares about. A few years ago, my friend Henry Timms (now the president of Lincoln Center in New York) came up with the idea of a “giving day” to follow Black Friday and Cyber Monday. And so #GivingTuesday was born. It’s a simple idea. Just find a way for your family, your community, your company or your organization to act philanthropically. Then tell everyone you can about how you are giving. Generosity is contagious! Be a part of a national celebration of our great tradition of philanthropy.

#GivingTuesday has become internationally recognized as a time to show one’s support for the values and missions one cares about. People all over the world use the occasion to support their favorite causes. This is Wesleyan’s sixth year participating. During that time, thousands of Wesleyan alumni, parents, students and friends have chosen to make donations. Together, we have unlocked millions of dollars in matching funds for financial aid.

Every gift made through Tuesday, December 3, 2019 will be matched with a dollar-for-dollar contribution to Financial Aid, up to $100,000, thanks to the generosity of Stuart Ellman ’88 and Susan Berger Ellman ’90.

I hope you will be giving to your favorite causes tomorrow, and I am especially hopeful that Wesleyan will be among them. Don’t forget about WESUFM, and other university initiatives. There are many worthy causes out there, and this university is very grateful for any and all gifts.

Happy Thanksgiving!

As we prepare to welcome family, students, and alumni to Thanksgiving here in Middletown, I send out my best wishes for all of you celebrating the day. I am so grateful for this Wesleyan community of ours—cantankerous and compassionate, exuberant and empathic.

A few years ago, I recalled John Berryman’s great poem for the holiday, and his writing: “we stand again in debt/and find ourselves in the glad position: Gratitude.” It is a glad position! Today, in honor of all those welcoming home students, let me cite Sharon Olds’ lovely “First Thanksgiving.” You can find the full poem here, and it ends like this:

As a child, I caught
bees, by the wings, and held them, some seconds,
looked into their wild faces,
listened to them sing, then tossed them back
into the air—I remember the moment the
arc of my toss swerved, and they entered
the corrected curve of their departure.

May the “correct curve” of your departures be safe and lovely.

Student Striving — From Theater to Volleyball

On Friday, Kari and I went to see the Theater Department’s production of The Laramie Project. It’s a painful, powerful account of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a queer student who was viciously beaten and left for dead, tied to a fence. The town wrestled with how to make sense of the event, and of itself, and the writers used ethnographic techniques to present a wide range of responses to this trauma. The brave student cast performed with sensitivity and intelligence, and the whole production was animated by the striving of all those who worked on it to make great theater. It’s so much work to put on a show like this at such a high level–emotional, physical, intellectual, work. And, led by the director Edward Torres, assistant professor of the practice in theater, they succeeded admirably.

Over the weekend I also got to see another form of student striving, though this time at a distance. The Wesleyan volleyball team was playing in the NCAA tournament — contests that bring the best of the best in a sport from around the country. The Wes women had handily dispatched their first opponent, but then they faced an excellent team (and recent rival) in Ithaca College. It was a terrific match, and although our team came out on the losing end in the 5th set, I was so proud of their efforts. Led by coach Ben Somera, they were striving to go beyond any expectations others had for them. Having worked so much, they were playing at the highest level.

Performances at Wesleyan come in many forms–in science and music, in film and poetry. I continue to be proud of and impressed by the ways that Wesleyan students go beyond what had been their personal bests to create new standards of courageous excellence. Bravo!