Economic Realities and Wesleyan Hopes

The economic turmoil of the last several months has shaken our confidence in the future. As we turn to see our retirement savings depleted, or as we recognize job loss and diminished expectations, it is difficult to know where to turn for a reasonable basis for hope.

At Wesleyan, I have spent a good part of the last year planning for the future, working with colleagues to put the university on a more secure economic foundation, to develop new curricular initiatives that are exciting and dynamic, and to expand our facilities in the sciences in a dramatic way. Some of these projects (the Molecular and Life Sciences Building being the largest by far) have been discussed by faculty, alumni and trustees for many years. Others, like the decision I made last year to expand our financial aid program to reduce our reliance on required loans, are new programs that promote a core university value. We have created faculty working groups to promote creativity, civic engagement and internationalization, and to develop ideas for a College of the Environment. In this time of economic disruption, what happens to all these plans?

I don’t want to minimize the impact of the economic situation on Wesleyan. A good portion of our annual budget comes from the generosity of our alumni and parent base, as well as the return on our endowment. Fundraising will be difficult this year, we expect, but we remain confident that the extended Wes family will recognize how important their gifts are in this climate. Our endowment, already down last fiscal year, has taken a hit in the first quarter of this one. Although we fully expect the investments to recover over time, there will be a period of smaller returns from the endowment going to support the operating budget.

This means there will be cuts in the Wesleyan budget, but, as I said in my last post, I will do my best to protect teaching, research and the student experience from the impact of our cost cutting measures. Over time, we will shift more of our fundraising efforts toward building the endowment, rather than supporting current spending. This will allow us to build economic capacity for the long term. We will continue to offer our community the very best liberal arts education, but we must do so in a more cost effective way. We must delay for some years our major facilities projects, like the Molecular and Life Sciences Building, and we are looking at every department at the university for budget savings. We are also looking for revenue opportunities, particularly in the summer months

What happens to the great hopes and plans of the last year? I believe we must continue to be ambitious, and that we must develop new programs through, when necessary, a reallocation of resources. We will continue to offer a robust financial aid program, and we remain committed to hiring and retaining a faculty dedicated to advancing their own fields while they make a powerful impact on the lives of their students. I believe we can continue to internationalize our campus while enhancing creativity and civic engagement in the curriculum and in the community. We will continue to focus attention on enhancing the experience of our students, especially in their frosh and senior years. And though there may be delays in realizing the vision for a College of the Environment, I am confident in the merits of developing this broad based, interdisciplinary environmental studies program.

In challenging economic times, it is more important than ever to enhance one’s core competencies and build a platform for innovation. These next few years will be difficult ones, but with the talent, energy and generosity of the Wesleyan community, we will emerge from this economic turmoil an even stronger, more dynamic institution. This is our reasonable basis for hope.

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Economic Dissonance and a Community in Tune

Sunday night I spent an hour with the Wesleyan Student Assembly, answering questions on the recent Board of Trustee’s retreat and on the general state of the university in this time of economic turmoil. I am always impressed by the WSA’s combination of organization, feistiness and school spirit. They are devoted to our university, and they are eager to explore ways of making it an even better place to live and learn. The student body can be proud of its elected representatives.

A concern of many of our students, faculty and staff is the effects of the contemporary economic turbulence on Wesleyan. We discussed this at length with the trustees last weekend. The university’s endowment declined almost 4% in the last fiscal year (ending 6/30/2008), and the first quarter of this year has been dismal. Wesleyan does not currently face short-term liquidity issues, but we are monitoring that situation closely. Over the next months we will be developing the budget for next year, and we will have to make some cuts to bring it into balance. My priority is to protect the core academic mission from serious budget cuts, but we will certainly have to delay some of our long planned facilities projects. In times of economic distress fund-raising is even more challenging than usual. However, our generous family of donors also understands that at a time like this their gifts are more meaningful than ever. We depend on their generosity.

While uncertainties in the economy rattle the world, many turn to the major political choices we face in the coming month. Well over 100 people gathered in the Usdan University Center last week to watch the recent Vice-Presidential debate, and the voter registration efforts on campus are in high gear. Wes students are finding their political voices as they debate the issues and ponder the future.

Even as we are part of the system affected by the recent credit crunch and market slide, there is a sense in which Wesleyan remains an oasis from these preoccupations. The culture here continues to thrive in so many interesting ways! For example, as I stroll around the campus on a weekend I am struck by the rich diversity of sound one hears. Whether it’s in the CFA’s Indian music and art festival, a jam session on Foss Hill, or in a raucous Eclectic dance party, there are dozens of people at any given time making music on this campus. Students, faculty and staff are picking up guitars and drums, horns and fiddles (and more than a few laptops!), joining together to create joyful sounds. When we make music we’re also making community, finding one another as we get in tune, and inviting others into our circles as listeners, dancers, new members of the band.

Speaking of joining musical groups, I am going to sit in with Busted Roses for a gig at Usdan on Oct 16. I posted a blog about this “geezer rock band” a few months ago, and now I will be challenged to keep up with these excellent musicians.

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Making Ideals Effective

This past week Wesleyan’s students’ “Fast-a-Thon” raised $11,000 for the Amazing Grace Food Pantry in Middletown. Growing out of the observance of Ramadan, this was a great initiative to encourage students to be more mindful of the meals we eat, and to remember those who can’t afford to put food on the table. Starting with our Muslim students and extending across the religious and secular spectrum, this was a strong reminder of how our spiritual communities reach out to do good work on and off campus. Wesleyan students find ways to make their ideals effective!

The Board of Trustees just had its annual Fall Retreat on campus, working through some complex issues facing the university in these uncertain economic times. The trustees, all of whom are alumni or parents of students, volunteer their time, expertise and their financial resources to help make Wesleyan a stronger, even more dynamic institution. At this meeting we planned our work for the year, and we re-examined some of the financial assumptions in place for our major projects going forward. Over the next few months the staff will be gathering information to present to the Board in November, so that we can continue to develop resources to enhance the educational experience of all Wesleyan students. We have great aspirations, and we try to balance them with practical realities.

This is the season when I, like many Jews around the world, reflect on the past year and consider how I might turn more of my thinking and action to worthwhile goals in the future. It’s also a time to express gratitude for what we have, and for those who are close to us. The past year has been an extraordinary one for my family and for me. I so appreciate having been welcomed back to the Wesleyan community, of having the opportunity to be its president, and of sharing the commitment with you to build a university dedicated to offering the very best progressive liberal arts education in the world.

May it be a sweet year!

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Teachers Needed!

The New York Times Sunday Magazine today published a special “College” issue. Wesleyan figured prominently in it. A story about the use of student evaluations features a teacher whose contract the university did not renew last year. Another article describes a recent Wesleyan grad, Jordan Goldman ‘04, who has developed UNIGO, a web-based guide to schools based on mass input rather than on “expert evaluation.” Jordan had an idea that defied the well-worn genre of the college guide. His Internet version gathers information from anyone who wants to send it in. This young entrepreneur is launching his business with the help of some other Wesleyan alums.

A key focus of the magazine is teaching. Reading it led me to think about some of the inspirational teachers with whom I studied over the years, and about the great faculty I see here at Wesleyan. When you think about your best teachers, what is it that makes them great?

Mark Edmundson introduces the theme of the magazine with an insightful essay on the ingredients of good teaching. Mark has been an English professor at the University of Virginia for many years, and he underscores that “really good teaching is about not seeing the world the way that everyone else does.” The strong teacher opens up new ways of seeing the economy or works of art, new ways of recognizing patterns in cell division or in music. Fundamentally, strong teachers undermine conventions — they don’t appeal to whatever happens to be popular.

It is also vital that teachers not merely offer an alternative orthodoxy in their classes. The classroom isn’t a place to convert students to a model that has all the answers; it’s the place to discover that nobody has all the answers, and that inquiry, self-criticism and an openness to changing one’s mind are key to leading a meaningful life. That’s probably why Mark Edmundson writes that the great enemy of knowledge isn’t ignorance but “knowingness.” When teachers encounter students who think they have all the answers, our job is to undermine their certainty. And when students find teachers who think they know it all, they are usually savvy enough to look for different classes.

One of the reasons I enjoy teaching so much is that students open up new questions for me about things I thought I’d understood. At the same time, it is thrilling to see them changing their perspectives on things they had thought were clear. Together, we open ourselves to new ideas and to different ways of seeing the world. At least that’s what we’re aiming for. When we open ourselves to new ideas, we stand a better chance of discovering what we love to do.

Perhaps this all sounds too easy, too positive. It isn’t. It’s difficult to open yourself to questioning the things you deeply care about, and there is always the temptation to defend oneself against painful uncertainty by latching onto some orthodoxy – something that “goes without saying.”

This may be why there is so much anti-intellectualism in the current national election (see the Times interview with Charles Murray today). We should have learned in the last two presidential elections the danger of choosing someone on the basis of the candidate being “the kind of guy you want to have a beer with.” In this time of international crisis, the last thing we need in our country’s leadership is more close-minded arrogance masquerading as friendly populism. We do need leaders with the courage to defy knowingness – leaders who can think as well as act. We need teachers, teachers who are open to learning!

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Wesleyan Vanity Fair

When we talk to alumni and prospective students, we often boast of how our grads play an enormous role in Hollywood, the news media, and in the world of entertainment generally. The new issue of Vanity Fair contains an article by Wes alum Sebastian Junger, and also cites Robert Allbritton as a leader in the “new establishment” because of his television, newspaper and web network. On p. 180 of the magazine, they’ve devoted a full page to “Wesleyan’s Entertaining Class.”

Vanity Fair
Credit: Vanity Fair

It’s great to see the work of these wonderful alumni and our “tiny Connecticut University” recognized in this way. Of course, there are many more alums out there doing compelling work in this area. Jeffrey Richards, for example, has had an extraordinary career producing shows on Broadway, including August: Osage County, which won five Tony Awards this year, including Best Play. When I sent the Vanity Fair page to Jeanine Basinger, she came up with dozens of other names. Send them in! Wes alums are shaping our culture!!

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Among the myriad of sports contests, exhibitions and films on campus this weekend, I find especially noteworthy a concert in Memorial Chapel Sunday night at 7:00 pm. Charles Simic, former Poet Laureate of the United States, will join a great group of singers led by Professor of Music Neely Bruce. It should be a wonderful evening of poetry and song.

And the Wesleyan Bowl takes place on Sunday when the Jets face off against the Patriots. Both head coaches are Wes grads, so we can expect a thoughtful, strategic contest!

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A Great Night for Wesleyan

Friday was a great night for Wesleyan. Thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor, we were able to raise 1.5 million dollars for scholarships and treat more than 1,300 students, alumni and friends to a high energy, moving night of musical theater. The donor gave us all the seats to the September 5 performance of In the Heights so that we could re-sell the tickets for scholarships. In the Heights, which won the Tony for Best Musical this year, was originally created at our own Patricelli ’92 Theater. The creator and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda ’02, was joined by director Tommy Kail ’99 and co-orchestrator Bill Sherman ’02 in creating a show that has expanded the genre of musical theater on Broadway. On Friday night they brought on the stage other Wesleyan alumni who helped them: Gilbert Parker ’48, John Mailer ’00 and Neil Stewart ’00

I can’t tell you how joyful it was to see W46th Street filled with Wesleyan folks – and even the Cardinal! After the performance many danced to the stupendous Wes Band, Kinky Spigot and the Welders, who were rocking the Edison Ballroom. It was a high-energy celebration, and we funded 38 new scholarships.

As Kari and I took the train back on Saturday, I learned that our women’s volleyball team had beaten Williams on Friday for the first time since 2001. GO WES!!

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And the Semester Begins

Yesterday I met with my first class, and it was wonderful to join students and faculty racing across campus to begin focusing on Enzyme Mechanisms or on Emerson, on Film Noir or on French Intellectual History. The students in my seminar are mostly seniors, and there are majors from all three divisions enrolled. It’s a stressful time for some students, as they figure out their schedules and determine whether a class they want is already full. Last year I wrote about my own (fortunate) experience of getting only my third choice for a class, and how that course really changed my life. Within the next week or so all of our almost 3,000 students will have their schedules in place, the library will be packed late into the night, and we teachers will start worrying about how we will grade all those papers. Intellectual excitement, new discoveries, lots of work….summer is really over!

This academic year one of Wesleyan’s real treasures will begin celebrating its 50th anniversary. The Center for the Humanities has for decades brought to our campus major intellectual figures, artists and writers who share their insights with the Wesleyan community (and often write their books here, too!). Hannah Arendt Edmund Wilson, and Stanley Cavell spent extended residences at the Center in its early years. When I was a student here, the Center was at the heart of intellectual life on campus, and the tradition continues each Monday with lectures devoted to a specific theme but coming at it from diverse disciplines. Student Fellows join with faculty and visitors to create an incubator of new scholarship. My time as a student fellow was one of the highlights of my Wesleyan experience.

The theme this year is “Figuring the Human,” and the speakers and Fellows are all concerned with understanding the conception of the “human” that is at the core of the humanities. How have definitions of the human developed in relation to changing conceptions of technology, machines, animals? How does recent work in the sciences and the arts challenge our notions of “human nature?” These are just some of the ideas in play this year at CHUM. Under the leadership of Prof. Jill Morawski, there are plans for exciting classes and public events. You can check them out online, or visit the Center (on the corner of Washington and Pearl Streets).

We are ending the first week of classes with an exciting fundraising event on Broadway. Friday night will be Wesleyan night at In the Heights, winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical (and led by a troika of Wes alums). Thanks to all who purchased tickets, which will support financial aid at the university.

This weekend will also see our athletic teams get underway. Come cheer the Cardinals in Volleyball, and Cross-Country, and check our all the teams’ schedules at http://www.wesleyan.edu/athletics/.

GO WES!

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WELCOME TO WESLEYAN!

Yesterday we welcomed Wesleyan’s class of 2012 to campus. It was a splendid day! Andrus Field was filled with cars and trucks unloading boxes of clothes, books, cds and computers. Many Wesleyan staff members, including this president, donned WESHAUL t-shirts and helped our new families carry luggage to their new dorms. I met parents, grandparents and friends who were (anxiously) helping their students set up their rooms. In a matter of hours they would be heading home, and the students would be (eagerly) beginning their Wesleyan careers.

This is such an exciting time. Most students come to Middletown with a wide variety of interests. They want to study music and math, economics and poetry; they want to participate in athletics and theater, in politics and in religious practice. When I meet the new students, I often ask what they intend to study. It might be more efficient to ask what they don’t want to study. The Wes frosh are intensely curious and eager to engage. We will engage them.

Here are a few facts about 721 members of the class of 2012. It’s a class filled with academic distinction. More than three-quarters of the class have already done advanced work in mathematics, lab sciences and foreign languages. 17% of them come from the Western states, and 11% have their primary residence outside the country. About 6% of the class has a parent who graduated from Wes, and 16% are first generation college students. This year we’ve welcomed the largest group of international students (9%) to campus. They come from India and Ghana, Bulgaria and New Zealand — and many points in between.

For the rest of the week, the class of 2012, new transfer, exchange students and graduate students will be learning the ropes at Wes. They will meet with their advisors, make new friends, and begin to explore Middletown. Over the weekend, the rest of the Wesleyan student body will join them. Classes get underway Tuesday. I am still tinkering with my “Photography and Representation Syllabus,” but it has to be ready for distribution Sept 2. I can hardly wait until we are fully underway. It’s going to be a great year!

Welcome to Wesleyan

PS: Here’s a link to my Chapel talk to new Wesleyan families

http://www.wesleyan.edu/president/speeches/2008/arrivalday_0809/index.html

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Getting Ready

Perhaps it’s the cool breezes in the morning and evening, or perhaps it’s the student workers who have begun to settle in, but as I walk around campus I’m getting that “back to school” feeling that makes every fall so special. After bookending my summer with vacations in Norway and Maine, I am eager to see our Wes students and teachers trotting to classes, sharing a meal at Usdan, or simply taking in the late summer sunshine on Foss Hill. We are getting ready!

During the summer I’ve been able to work with colleagues on evaluating how we did last year, and to plan the next steps for enhancing the curriculum, supporting the faculty, and making our students’ experience as meaningful as possible. Last year we gathered proposals that have helped us establish working priorities for improving class access, stimulating research, and enhancing the integration of the curriculum in the first two years. This summer we have built on those ideas and also prepared a new initiative to improve co-curricular offerings that link residential life with what students are learning in their classes.

In addition to the regular cycle of planning and goal development, this summer we have also created a task force to examine our policies and procedures in light of the incident with the police that occurred at the end of last semester on Fountain Ave. This committee of students, faculty and staff — led by Mike Whaley (VP for Student Affairs) — will report to me by the end of the summer. I will be meeting with Middletown police and civic leaders after I receive this report. My goal will be to ensure the safety and freedom of our community in a context that promotes a positive relationship with our town and region. Wesleyan has long been known for civic engagement, and that starts right here in Middletown.

Speaking of civic engagement, I hope that many of our students will be returning to campus with thoughts of the upcoming national election. I expect that there will be robust dialogue on the issues raised by various campaigns, and that our students will play a role in stimulating political participation. This is a time to make one’s voice heard, and it is also a time to listen to different voices. Elections matter, and this election offers opportunities for education and action. The stakes are very high.

Since I’ll be teaching a course on photography and philosophy this fall, I’ve also spent some of my summer getting ready for my first Wes seminar in 30 years. Whereas my film course last spring was a large lecture format, this will be a small class focused on contemporary scholarship. I have long been interested in how photography has changed the ways we make sense of the past, and the ways we represent the world. At CCA I taught this class for students in the visual arts, and I am excited to see how Wesleyan students respond to these issues in a liberal arts context. It won’t be long now!

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Our Shared Loss, David Harris Class of 2008

David Harris ’08 died recently while hiking in the Pacific Northwest. We have been in contact with his family, and will be circulating more information, including notification of memorial plans, as soon as it is available.

My heart goes out to David’s family and friends at this very difficult time.

I want to make sure that readers are aware of the Memorial Service in New York mentioned below:

New York Culture Center, SGI-USA(212.727.7715)
7 East 15th St., New York, NY 10003 US
When: Thursday, August 14, 6:30PM

David, as many have said in the last several days, was a person of extraordinary generosity, energy and talent. Through his volunteer efforts, his campus activities, his activism, and his exuberance, David spread joy, light and kindness all around him. His sudden death is a profound shock to his friends and family. As we come to terms with this loss, we try to make the memory of his diverse contributions a blessing for the future.

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