How to Choose a (our) University

I’ve just spent a day meeting with the presidents of the schools in our athletic conference (NESCAC): Amherst, Bates, Bowdoin, Colby, Connecticut, Hamilton, Middlebury, Trinity, Tufts, Williams. Fine schools every one. Although we all believe in the virtues of a well-rounded liberal arts education, we also each think that we offer this education in distinctive ways.  Often students who visit Wes on their campus tours have already seen or are on their way to see some of the other NESCAC schools.  Do the distinctions that are so important to the students, faculty and staff who are already part of the schools come through to visitors?

This question seems especially germane now when graduating high school seniors are trying to decide among the colleges to which they have been accepted. The thick envelopes (or weighty emails) arrived a couple of weeks ago, and the month of April is decision time. Of course, for many (especially this year) the decision will be made on an economic basis. Which school has given me the most generous financial aid package? Wesleyan is one of a small number of schools that admits students irrespective of their ability to pay, and which meets the full need of 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.

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. In recent years, campuses in New York and Boston, for example, have become increasingly popular. But if one seeks out small classes and strong, personal relationships with faculty, then liberal arts schools, which pride themselves on providing cultural and social life 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 of the liberal arts colleges, but much smaller than the urban or land grant universities. We feel that this gives our students the opportunity to have 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 teacher/scholars, 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 Middlebury?

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 — and they wonder whether they will be happy in that particular context. Hundreds of visitors will be coming to Wesleyan this weekend for WesFest (our annual program for admitted students). They will go to classes and athletic contests, musical performances and parties. And they will 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 diversity in which difference is embraced and not just tolerated, and for which public service can become part of one’s education and approach to life.

We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into (especially this year!). 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 celebration of senior theses completions at the library this week said a lot about who we are. 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 strike many of our visitors, too.

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Small Class Initiative

Not long after becoming president I noticed that Wesleyan did not have as many small classes as I had expected given the close relationships between faculty and students that have always existed here. I had fond memories of a class I had taken in 1977-1978 on Hegel taught by Victor Gourevitch to just myself and two other hard-working undergraduates. And at the Center for Humanities I took a number of other small classes on topics that likewise wouldn’t have won any popularity contests. I always assumed that my own experience was not untypical and that many of my classmates also took courses with few enrollees. Of course, I also had fond memories of my larger classes, such as Nat Greene’s introduction to modern European History. These survey courses were engaging and informative in different ways, and the mix of small classes with the occasional large lecture class has always seemed to me to be the way to produce an especially stimulating educational experience.
At Wesleyan today there are still many classes with somewhere between ten and 20 students. Nevertheless, given the size of the student body and the number of classes we offer each term, I would have expected the percentage of seminars to be higher. Admittedly, small classes also create frustration for students when a certain topic or professor is very popular but the teaching style is built around a restricted enrollment. If too many of these sought-after classes are small, too many students don’t get the classes they most want. Thus, if we were simply to restrict the class size of existing courses, we would create significant course access issues for students. Better to add small classes to our existing offerings. Noting that several of our professors proposed each year to offer extra classes for the program in Graduate Liberal Studies for a modest stipend, I thought I might find interest among the faculty in teaching additional, small classes. However, in my second year as president we’ve been grappling with the economic crisis, and for a time it has seemed that my ideas about adding a group of seminars and other small classes would have to wait.

Happily, we have recently received a commitment for 1 million dollars over four years to proceed what we’re calling the “Small Class Initiative”. Beginning this coming fall, we will be able to divide some of our mid-size classes into two sections (each with fewer than 20 students) and to add small seminars (around 15 students) in a variety of fields. The instructional budget for these additional courses will be on a scale similar that of our current GLSP classes. We can now offer our faculty the opportunity to teach these extra classes, which in many cases can be tied to their current research. The idea is that many of those who volunteer for this kind of teaching will do so because the small research seminar will contribute to their own ongoing projects. Depending on the level of interest and the fields of participating faculty, we may also hire visitors to complement these offerings. The result will be an increased number of small classes available to Wesleyan students.

Some have wondered whether this is an attempt to increase the required teaching load among faculty. Not at all. It is very important for faculty teaching here to have significant time and support for their research. This research time is also a great benefit to students, who get to work with teachers who are actively advancing their fields. Students learn to shape the culture of the future themselves by working with teachers doing just that in their publications and performances. Adding a few dozen small classes (many tied to the research of faculty) should complement – not detract from – the research environment on campus.

A good thing all around, I think!

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Thick Envelopes, Tough Decisions

In the next few days students across the country (and around the world) will be opening their mail hoping for what, back in the day, was the thick envelope from one’s top choice school. This week, many students will get the news by pressing a computer key, but the feelings of hope, anxiety and anticipation will still be there. By the weekend, students invited to join the Wesleyan Class of 2013 will be comparing notes, preparing to revisit campus, and trying to imagine themselves thriving in this distinctive environment.

In meeting applicants over the last several months, I am humbled by the extraordinary talents of those hoping to join our community. The competition, especially this year, is very intense. Many smart, accomplished and hard working high school seniors will not be accepted. There isn’t anywhere near enough room at our small university for all the qualified people who want to be here. That’s why the Admissions team works so hard in finding the right fit between applicant and school. As many of you know, our applicant pool surged by more than 22% this year, and that means the staff of Admissions had to give the same level of attention to thousands more applications. I am proud of the work they’ve done and grateful for their efforts.

Many current students, staff, faculty and alumni will be asked to offer final words of advice: What kind of place is Wesleyan really? I trust we will offer honest appraisals, giving our visitors a sense of what it’s like now, as well as the potential we see at Wes. As I always say to the tour groups I meet on campus, Wesleyan is not for everybody. Some people want a more structured environment where their education will be more institutionally directed. Others want a more homogeneous climate in which they can find people like themselves who are working toward similar goals. Students like this would probably be happier elsewhere. The folks who thrive at Wes are those who have great academic (intellectual, artistic) potential, who are open to experimentation, are excited by independent learning, and want to engage with a campus culture that values difference and community. Wes students learn how to be more effective in whatever field they choose to apply themselves, and in the process also discover some of the core things they really love to do. In this way, as graduates, they take with them the discipline and the capacity to continue doing those things about which they are most passionate.

More than thirty years ago I received that thick envelope and began imagining what I could achieve at Wesleyan.  Today, when I look around campus, I see all the great things that students, faculty, and staff still can achieve. Even with our long history, Wesleyan is very much a school in the process of realizing its potential, and those who join the class of 2013 will help us do just that.

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For generations of students, the Eclectic Society has been a home for adventurous and ambitious students with an independent streak. At times the society has been highly intellectual, often with an artistic slant. In recent years the grand house on High Street has also been a place to hear popular yet original contemporary music. Eclectic has long been an important part of the social life of the Wesleyan campus and beyond.

Eclectic’s role in campus social life has also led to problems over the years. There have been concerns about the health and safety of residents, and about social events that have gotten out of control. The intense party atmosphere that had recently characterized Eclectic scared off many older alumni who felt that the great House at 200 High Street (designed by Henry Bacon and owned by Wesleyan) was being compromised. When I started as president several alumni asked me to protect the House from too much wear and tear. I found that when I met with current members of the society that they, too, wanted to protect the house. They also wanted to maintain the feisty, creative spirit of the society, and we agreed that with some effort we should be able to do both. I was impressed by the devotion of the Eclectic members, and I went to a great rock band senior thesis performance at the house last spring. How to balance the legitimate community concerns with artistic freedom and campus social life?

If you follow news of Wesleyan, you already know that there has recently been disciplinary action taken by the Student Judicial Board against Eclectic because of an incident at the house in December. The student board that heard the case found that the society had been guilty of violations of the party and noise policies and a failure to comply with requests from Public Safety. They thought a proper penalty for this would be to forbid Eclectic from hosting social/musical events at night through the end of April.

Many students have been very upset about this ruling because it doesn’t only affect Eclectic but the whole musical culture of Wesleyan. I understand the basis for this concern: the society does provide a vital function for the presentation of music in a distinctive setting. Much of the great musical culture we prize at Wesleyan passes through Eclectic. However, if the society can not present music in a way that is safe and that recognizes the rights of the neighborhood, then Eclectic won’t be able to play that role in the future.

I am confident that the SJB and Dean Backer acted in accordance with our procedures, and that their findings in regard to the events of December 8, 2008 were correct. However, based on communication with Eclectic since that time, and my belief that the society is committed to acting as responsible hosts for events, I have reconsidered and modified the sanction in this case.
I take seriously (and appreciate) Eclectic’s desire to host events in a way that works for the artists, is safe for those who attend, and respects the rights of neighbors. This is also my intention and the intention of Student Affairs. So, rather than ban events for the remainder of the semester, I have asked Marshall Ball, Eclectic’s President, and Dean Rick Culliton to work together on a written agreement that delineates Eclectic’s responsibilities for events going forward. If they can reach the agreement quickly, events can resume under the specific guidelines. As long as the events continue according to those guidelines, the ban will remain lifted.

At the end of the semester representatives of Eclectic and Student Affairs can discuss what went well, and where we need to pay more attention to run the kinds of events we all want. If we are unable to run events this term in accord with the principles with which we all agree, then we will not plan any social or musical events at 200 High Street going forward. Thus, this is a probationary period that should allow us to move to a better platform for events in the future.
I very much appreciate the difficult work that the Student Judicial Board did in sorting out the facts in this case. I also am grateful for the thoughtful responses from many in the Eclectic Society, and others who cherish the vibrant music scene on campus. I hope that by developing a framework for hosting events at 200 High Street we will continue to have interesting artists perform in a context that is exciting and safe for those who attend, and that is respectful of the community in which we live.

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Deceptive Tranquility

After a frenetic if fascinating trip to some major cities in Asia, it is a real pleasure to come home to Wesleyan, which is enjoying spring break. When I left 10 days ago, there was a frantic energy in the air in the wake of meetings with students and faculty regarding recent conversations with the Board of Trustees about Wesleyan’s finances. Many people were feverishly dealing with midterms, papers and the various pressures that arise just before the final push of the academic year.

The quiet on campus is deceptive. Some people are working very hard, indeed. On Saturday I watched the men’s lacrosse team win a closely fought contest with rival Middlebury – always a tough match. Wes prevailed 8-7, led by Russ Follansbee’s three goals and an assist, and 16 saves from goalie Mike Borerro. On Sunday the women’s lacrosse team had a strong showing in beating Eastern Connecticut State by a score of 13-6. Jess Chukwu had three goals and Erin McCarthy had two goals and two assists in a great team effort.

There are many students whose work over spring break is much less visible but just as intense as that of our athletes. At CFA members of the Javanese Gamelan orchestra have been rehearsing, and over the weekend I crossed paths with more than a few musicians heading for their practice rooms. On my late night walks with Mathilde I see studio lights still burning as our artists and designers prepare their final projects for April exhibitions.

Many seniors are putting their best efforts into writing up their research into senior theses. On subjects ranging from comic memoirs (Jon Short, English) to Quranic conceptions of justice (Benedict Bernstein, CSS), our young scholars are making original arguments that advance the work of their chosen fields. Toshi Osaka (Design) is considering how to construct an interactive space by collapsing a swimming pool and a train station, and Alison Ringel (Molecular Biology — Biophysics) is examining how proteins interact to determine how genes are activated in yeast. Seniors are writing novels, making films and developing new scholarship in anticipation of that April deadline. For these students, spring “break” is just an opportunity to get lots of work done!

It’s good to be back home in Middletown. But the campus isn’t as tranquil as it might appear…

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Freeman Travels

During this first part of spring break I have traveled to

Photos by Gina Driscoll
Photos by Gina Driscoll

Southeast Asia to meet with the Freeman family and participate in some of the interviews for next year’s Freeman Scholars. This is my first trip to this part of the world, and so I am keeping my eyes and ears open. Last night in Singapore we held a reception for alumni, parents and prospective Wesleyan students. It was so impressive for me to hear about the many different things our alumni are up to. From traditional drumming and performance, to teaching and NGO work, from law and medicine to entrepreneurship, the Wesleyan-Freeman alumni are activating their education in powerful ways.

Although my stay in Singapore was very brief, I did have a very interesting meeting with the leadership team of the Singapore Management University, a relatively young school that is developing a very innovative curriculum. SMU had reached out to Wesleyan because its faculty is developing a new core program in the liberal arts. It seems that the government has recently decided to invest in higher education programs that move away from the early specialization required in the British model long popular here. SMU’s president (who once worked with former Wes prez Bill Chace!) talked about an education that would allow students to access their creativity, prepare them for a changing world. enhance their ability to think about problems using a broad range of disciplines… all the things that we emphasize at Wesleyan! Perhaps we will have some student exchanges with SMU in the future. For now, I am just pleased to know that our vision of the importance of the liberal arts is resonating here on the other side of the world.

Last night I received a strong shot of hopefulness from meeting prospective and former Freeman Scholars. In these difficult times, it is crucial that Wesleyan continues to recruit talented students from Asia, and that we continue to support their work after graduation. The generosity and thoughtfulness of the Freeman family is legendary, and now alumni of the program are continuing that tradition. It’s both a pleasure and a learning experience to participate in these activites of the program. which has given so much to Wesleyan over the years.

We are now in Bangkok, and I’ve attached some photos from Gina Driscoll.

Bankok from the river
Bangkok from the river

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Budget Update

The Board of Trustees meetings this past weekend were focused and productive. Most of the discussions centered on Wesleyan’s response to the world economic crisis. As readers of this blog know, because of our endowment decline, we must deal with a significant reduction in revenue. In this economic climate we feel that it is not appropriate to try to compensate for this loss of revenue with a large tuition increase. Instead, we plan on a 3.8% tuition increase for next year—one of the smallest hikes at Wesleyan in decades. We also plan to increase the financial aid budget next year by more than 8%.

The trustees heard how we plan to bridge what now looks to be an emerging $20 million budget gap. I’ve discussed specific cuts in earlier posts and in a letter going out to our alumni today. The links below will take you to those documents. With the continued deterioration of the financial markets, we must be prepared for further, more difficult cuts, and we must redouble our efforts to create more academic programs throughout the summer so as to attract additional students to the university. We have no plans to add any more students other than phasing in the less than 5% per class growth we proposed in the fall. Over the last several months I have underscored our priorities in confronting the budget crisis: maintaining a strong academic core (teaching and research), providing an excellent student experience, and ensuring access to Wesleyan through a strong financial aid program. These will remain priorities as we decide how to deal with our budget shortfall.

On Sunday night I met with the students to talk through the process for determining the specific mix of budget changes that may become necessary for our long term planning. Student input will continue to be crucial in monitoring the impact of fiscal decisions on the lives of our young people. Later this week I will meet with the senior administrative staff to seek their input as well. I recognize that staff have already been working diligently to cut expenses, and I am grateful for their efforts.

Today I will meet with the faculty in an open meeting to discuss how we can ensure that our programmatic structures enable Wesleyan to deliver a great education in ways that maximize our resources. Faculty at schools like Wesleyan have a crucial role in governance, and I very much look forward to working with my colleagues to create a more solid foundation for our school in these very uncertain times.

In my last post I wrote that: “We must preserve our ideals and principles while remaining realistic about the sustainability of our economic model.” Finding the right mix of idealism and practicality has been a hallmark of Wesleyan grads for many decades. May we be inspired by their example, choosing the best of our history as we work together to lay the groundwork for the Wesleyan of the future.

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Trustee Time

At the end of this week the Board of Trustees will come to town for its annual winter meeting. The February trustee conversations are usually focused on the budget for the next year, and this time, due to the economic climate, those discussions will take on a sharp sense of urgency. Although Wesleyan is fortunate to have generous supporters and a significant endowment, there is no question that its economic base has been shaken. Wesleyan now must make appropriate changes to its spending patterns to maintain fiscal stability, and we will be discussing the impact of such changes this coming weekend.

The trustees’ primary responsibility is fiduciary. They are entrusted with the future health of the institution, and their duty is  to ensure that the educational and economic capacity of alma mater will be passed on to future generations of students. Board members volunteer their time and their resources to help Wesleyan to both navigate difficult times and seize opportunities to advance its mission. Consulting with faculty, alumni, current students and staff, trustees make strategic policy decisions for the long term, and during these parlous times I know they feel the weight of that responsibility.

This meeting will begin with discussions of next year’s budget, but the issues to be considered have more widespread implications. Wesleyan has stood for something distinctive and admirable in American liberal arts education, and over the decades other schools have followed our lead. How we can continue to be a leader of creative, progressive liberal arts education while living within our means has always been a great challenge. We must preserve our ideals and principles while remaining realistic about the sustainability of our economic model.

With the intelligence and hard work of our faculty and staff, with the generosity of the extended Wes family, and with the thoughtful stewardship of our Board of Trustees, I am confident that we will strike the proper balance to meet these challenges.

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California Dreamin’

I spent Monday and Tuesday of this week in Los Angeles, attending the annual Wes Film Family gathering — a truly impressive assemblage of alumni working in the media and entertainment world. Game designers, writers, cameramen, agents, actors, distributors, directors… they have all been coming together on President’s Day for decades now. This year there were more than 200 people for the event, held at the Creative Artists Agency. I saw some grads from 2008 who have migrated West, screenplays or DVDs in hand. I also met alumni from the past forty years who look forward to re-establishing Wesleyan connections and to hearing about what’s happening on campus. Jeanine Basinger was there to offer advice, celebrate personal and professional accomplishments, and to remind everyone that Wesleyan continues to offer an extraordinary liberal arts approach to making movies and understanding their cultural significance. There is great support for financial aid in this community, and in these difficult times we are especially counting on their generosity.

One of the highlights of my trip was a long conversation with Matt Weiner ’87, the creator of the extraordinary AMC show Mad Men. Matt was a College of Letters student at Wesleyan, and you can see that distinctive education resonate throughout the episodes. He wrote poetry while an undergraduate, and his show is filled with allusions to the books and cultural themes that have been key to COL over the years. Matt’s uncanny attention to historical detail has been much remarked on, but I found myself especially drawn to the way the past haunts his young Americans striving to find themselves in a world they almost believe they can remake. The pull between the ghosts of the past and the shaky promises of desire finds its way into every episode. Watching Mad Men I think I can see how its creator continues to draw on his liberal arts education in a most profound (and funny) way. I look forward to welcoming Matt back to campus sometime soon to talk about his journey after Wesleyan.

While in Los Angeles I also met with the parents of some of our current students, as well as the families of a few of our recently admitted early decision applicants. Spirits were high, though there were some complaints about the excessive length of our winter break!

Everyone asks me how it feels to have moved back East from California. I do love to visit CA – after all, I spent over 20 years there, and I get to visit with my older son (a writer) who is working in LA. But Middletown is home now, and, as I write these words on the return flight, I realize how excited I am about the lectures, athletic contests and art performances that will fill the next few days. Oh yeah, we also have to wrestle the budget into balance. Welcome home!

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Messy Cooperation or Isolated Purity?

Reading the announcement of Senator Gregg’s embarrassing withdrawal from consideration for Secretary of Commerce, I began thinking about the temptation to maintain one’s purity by staying away from people one doesn’t always agree with. In the case of the would-be Secretary of Commerce the issue might have simply been Republican pressure to close ranks around unthinking obstructionism (the old fashioned way to avoid responsibility), or perhaps it was just that he discovered a principle “in his heart” that he just didn’t realize he had when he lobbied for the post. But the tendency to avoid working with people who might not share your ideas extends far beyond Washington.

The college years are supposed to be a time when you have uncommon and unparalleled opportunities to engage with talented people who have ideas and experiences very different from your own. On campus we should be hearing different points of view, meeting people from different walks of life, participating in vigorous debate, while we also work together to get things done, to build community, or simply to have a good time. These are some of the challenges and joys of being at a university.

But there is also a tendency at many schools to find people who have made the same choices as you, who want what you want, and then to spend all your time deepening your connections to them. Isolated micro-communities spring up, and they also contribute to one’s education and life. There is a cost to this, though, because it means a diminished capacity for real teamwork — a compromised ability to work together while acknowledging difference.

As Wesleyan moves into the heart of the semester, we all — students, faculty and staff – experience many demands on our time and energies. Will we continue to work together in messy cooperation to get things done, or will we drift to like-minded groups that take comfort in isolated pockets of agreement rather than general effectiveness?

Seeing some of the economic and educational challenges that lie ahead, I count on us remaining a variegated community that is home for many differences while being still capable of uniting behind common purposes. To meet these challenges we will need the diversity and the commonality.

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