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!

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Technorati Tags: , , , ,

Musical Competition — Rock On!

Dean Louise Brown tells me that there will be a great musical competition between classes on February 19. Wesleyan has been known for a long time as the “singing college of New England,” and more recently as the fertile soil for adventuous rock bands to grow in. I’m told the acoustics in the bathrooms at West College are particularly good…

So, submit your musical entry and participate in what should be a great evening. The music will be judged by Rob Rosenthal, Barry Chernoff and Sarah Lazare, and there will be prizes! The promised (threatened) opening act is “Lou and the Blues,” and I may join in to see if my harp lessons have worked….

A more detailed description of all this can be found on the entry form at:  www.wesleyan.edu/deans/music.pdf.

Come make some music. Entries are due on Feb 12, so get busy.

Technorati Tags: , , , ,

The place is Wesleyan

It’s always a pleasure when our alumni return to campus to visit with students. This weekend my classmate (and star!) Dana Delaney ’78 was here to talk about her film and TV career as well as her new project with Janet Grillo ’80. I myself was just getting back from the road, but I heard the event was a great success. The Wesleyan Film program continues to support current students by bringing back fascinating alumni who can reflect on their careers in interesting ways.

On Sunday I stopped by the Wesleyan wrestling team’s match against Williams College. Coach Black has put together a great roster of students who have had a truly impressive season. We didn’t beat Williams yesterday, but every match I saw was competitive. I have to admit that I don’t know much about wrestling, but even I could see how much these young men have worked at becoming stronger, more agile and more focused. Hats off especially to Greg Hurd ’10 who is ranked 8th nationally and who finished the season 16-0 in duals.

We all owe Coach Black a debt of gratitude for his effective actions in providing CPR to an alumnus who suffered a heart attack in the gym last week. Coach Black and student Jamal Ahmed ’09, who made good use of his defibrillator training, heroically saved a life! Our whole community is indebted to them.

Such is the excitement of the Wesleyan campus that I went directly from the tournament in the Freeman Athletic Center to a senior thesis presentation in the theater department that was wrestling with fundamental issues of gender, freedom, reality and illusion. Gedney Barclay ’09 presented a thoughtful, provocative and intense production of Fefu and Her Friends.  The demanding production made use of many spaces in the Malcom X House, and the audience moved into zones of believability, uncertainty and concern as we shifted from room to room. The entire cast (Ali San Roman ’11, Emily Levine ’11, Emily Caffery ’10, Kiara Williams-Jones ’12, Elissa Heller ’11, Sarah Wolfe ’12, Arielle Hixson ’12, Alli Rock ’10), was excellent, and I left with a feeling of having been transported to a very special place.

Of course, I had been transported. The place is Wesleyan!

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Africa in New York

I spent a few days in New York this week to visit with parents and alumni. On Wednesday I attended a great reception that brought together current students, trustees and alumni all of whom had a strong connection to Africa and the Caribbean. Co-hosted by Chair Emeritus Steve Pfeiffer ’69 and Wesleyan Trustee Mora McLean ’77, there were people from Jamaica, Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria – to name just a few of the countries represented. There were teachers and doctors, humanitarian workers and investment bankers. A group of current students came down from Wesleyan, and with them I discovered an intense connection between Africa and our chemistry department. We shared stories of how people got connected to Wes in the first place, as well as our plans for future internationalization. Afro pop, an amazing archive of African music led by a group of our alumni, provided the soundtrack for the reception, and Sonia Manjon told me that the party continued until somebody at the law firm turned the lights out.

It was great to be reminded in this time of economic contraction and budget cutting that Wesleyan’s reach across the globe remains strong. We intend to make it even stronger by raising funds for additional scholarships for African students. I’m grateful to Lagu Androga ’07, Chinelo Dike ’00, and Miriti Murungi ’99 for making this happen, and I look forward to seeing Wesleyan deepen its interconnections with Africa!

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Winter’s Spring Attractions

Although the temperature was below 20 degrees this morning when I walked to my office, what we call the spring semester is now fully underway. The campus is still blanketed in white, but the icy New England weather makes the snowy landscape deceptively slippery.

One of the most exciting bits of news we had over break was the extraordinary number of applications we’ve received for next year. More than 10,000 students have asked for a place in the class of 2013, a surge of well over 20% from last year. As many of you know, our Early Decision Applications were up over 30%, and we’ve now learned than most of our peer institutions are not seeing anything like this spike in interest. It’s a lot more work for the tireless group in the Admissions Office, but the fact that more and more people are hearing about the great things going on at Wesleyan is very good news indeed.

As I look around at the amazing array of courses offered this term, I can well understand why so many want a crack at a Wesleyan education. Here are just a few examples I’ve taken from the catalogue:

The 60s: Henry Abelove
This course will focus on the 1960’s in the United States. Topics to be considered will include: the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the Goldwater conservative movement, gay liberation, second-wave feminism, pop art, the New York School poets, Judson School dance, the new journalism, tendencies and developments within American Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism, student movements, the Black Power movement, the rise of Asian American and Latino/a cultural nationalisms, electoral politics, environmentalism, Phyllis Schlafly and the Eagle Forum, the Cuban missile crisis, the counter-culture.

Developmental Neurobiology: Jan Naegele
Near the top of the list of unsolved mysteries in biology is the enigma of how the brain constructs itself. Here is an organ that can make us feel happy, sad, amused, and in love. It responds to light, touch, and sound; it learns; it organizes movements; it controls bodily functions. An understanding of how this structure is constructed during embryonic and postnatal development has begun to emerge from molecular-genetic, cellular, and physiological studies. In this course, we will discuss some of the important events in building the brain and explore the role of genes and the environment in shaping the brain. With each topic in this journey, we will ask what the roles of genes and the environment are in forming the nervous system. We will also discuss developmental disorders resulting from developmental processes that have gone astray.

Zombies as Other from Haiti to Hollywood: Liza McAlister
The Afro-Creole religion of the Haitian majority is a complex system of inherited roles and rituals that Afro-Creole people remembered and created during and after plantation slavery. Called “serving the spirits,” or “Vodou,” this religion and cultural system continues as a spiritual method and family obligation in Haiti and its diaspora, and draws constantly on new symbols and ideas. A small part of Vodou mythology involves the zonbi: a part of the soul captured and forced to work. Vodou, and especially the zonbi, has also captured the imagination of Hollywood and television, and the entertainment industry has produced numerous films and television episodes, and now computer games, with “Zombie” themes. …What constitutes the thought and practice of Haitian zonbi? How is the Zombie represented in American media?…

Of course, I could list dozens of other classes from various parts of the curriculum that I would love to take, or others that are rather intimidating.  From the most traditional to the most experimental, you can find it all. I make my own small contribution to this list. After giving a seminar on photography and philosophy in the fall, this term I have my large class, The Past on Film.

A small selection of classes and lectures from Wesleyan can now be found on iTunes. If you look at the iTunes University section of the store, you can search for Wesleyan and see our first group of lectures (all free downloads). We are adding more regularly, so please check back often.

Before long on iTunes and on Wesleyan’s YouTube site you will also be able to find many student performances featured along with faculty presentations. There are auditions going on almost every night on campus at the beginning of the semester. Dance, music and theater are gearing up for performances that will be perfected before finals week. Much to look forward to as winter turns to spring!

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Ives, Ives, Ives!

When Wesleyan’s Professor of Music Neely Bruce told me about his plan to perform all 185 songs of Charles Ives over the last weekend of January 09, I thought he was kidding. Silly me. Neely Bruce doesn’t kid about music, unless, that is, the music calls for a wink and a grin.

Today through Sunday Neely and and a fine group of musicians and scholars will be exploring the vocal works of Charles Ives, that enigmatic yet quintessentially American composer. Ives seemed afraid of nothing in the world of sound, and he drew on it all to make challenging, delightful and thoughtful song. Tonight, Thursday January 29 at 8:00 pm in the Chapel, Kyle Gann will give the keynote address: “Must a Song Always be a Song?”

Much music will be made through Sunday. Check out the website: http://www.ivesvocalmarathon.com/

Sing! Sing! Sing!

Technorati Tags: , , , ,

Senator Michael Bennet ’87: Pragmatist with Vision

Michael Bennet ’87 was recently sworn in as the United States Senator from Colorado, the seventh Wesleyan alumnus to serve as a United States Senator. I’ve only met Michael briefly through his father Doug, just as Doug was finishing his very successful tenure as Wesleyan’s 15th president. Reading about Michael Bennet’s career this week, I am struck by how he exemplifies so many of the virtues and values we hope to impart to our graduates.

After Wesleyan, where he majored in History and graduated with Honors and Phi Beta Kappa, Michael went onto Yale Law School and a position in the Justice Department during the Clinton Administration. He then went into the business world, working for Philip Anschutz’s investment firm in Colorado. Learning on the job, he had real success turning around distressed companies, but eventually he went back into public service. The first stop was chief of staff for Denver’s mayor John Hickenlooper, a Wesleyan grad (and microbrewery entrepreneur from the class of ’74 !) Bennet then became superintendent of the Denver School system, where he was able to implement changes that have resulted in a surge in enrollment and test scores in the city.

I expect that Michael Bennet’s pragmatic approach to problem solving and long term investments in education will serve his state and our country well. I wish him well in Washington, and hope to see the red and black on the Senate floor!

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Dear Mr. President…

I sent the following letter to our 44th President a few days ago.

Dear President Obama,

I write just a few days before your Inauguration to send you my congratulations, best wishes, and deep hopes as you begin your tenure as president. The impact of your Commencement Address at Wesleyan University in the spring still echoes on our campus, and although we know that college students everywhere identify with your message of hope and change, we at Wesleyan feel a special kinship with you.

In a recent video communication you call on Americans to step forward in service to our communities, our regions and our country. This is a call that resonates powerfully with the Wesleyan family. For generations our students, faculty and alumni have connected their education with making a positive contribution to the world around us. We have long believed in the power of a liberal arts education to help one not only to live a more reflective and considered life as an individual, but to enable one to engage with one’s community in an effective and generous way.

In response to your call Wesleyan will strive to reinvigorate the public service dimensions of the education we offer. You have inspired us to find “our moon, our levee, our dream,” and we will set our goals and work together to accomplish them.

From the same marble terrace from which you delivered your Commencement Address, Martin Luther King Jr. told our students that “the arc of history bends toward justice.” Like you, he knew that we must join forces to realize the potential for justice in our country, in our history. Mr. President, I pledge that we at Wesleyan will do everything we can to help you in this endeavor.

Congratulations on your inauguration. With your leadership and our joint service we can make substantial progress in achieving our goals.

Yours sincerely,

Michael S. Roth
President

Congratualtions, Mr. President

click photo to enlarge

Technorati Tags: , , , , ,