Turning

This week marked the beginning of the High Holiday season for Jews, and for Muslims the beginning of Ramadan. Over the last few years I had grown close to a group of people at my schul in Berkeley (the minyan at Temple Beth El), and I wondered how I would feel this time of year in a new town. I’d met the wonderfully energetic rabbi, David Leipziger, but what would the community be like?

Although my brother and his family live within driving distance in New York, I decided to attend the services at Wesleyan this year. I thought it would be a good way to see how some of our students celebrated the Jewish holidays. It was a lovely experience. I understand from various people that religious (or spiritual) practices of various sorts now play a more important part on campus than they did, for example, when I was a student in the 1970s. It is worth being reminded that students at Wesleyan don’t conform to any rigid stereotypes, except perhaps that they are questioning, searching people. Some of them search through religious practices. Some, through a critique of those practices. Some even do both!

The Rosh Hashanah celebrations were thoughtful, musical, welcoming. I found them very moving. I even got to carry the Torah around our makeshift schul (long ago a gym!), in the tradition that allows congregants to reach out and touch the scroll with a gesture that combines respect and affection. At this time of year, we ask to turn ourselves towards a more meaningful life, and also towards our “best selves” — who we really are and who we want to become. In the Jewish tradition these days of “turning” are called the Days of Awe.

Yesterday, the rabbi asked Imam Sohaib Sultan, the Wesleyan Muslim chaplain, to join him for the sermon. Since Ramadan has just begun, he explained that his voice might be weaker than usual, since he had not eaten or had water since sunrise. In fact, he spoke quietly and powerfully about his traditions. It was a new year’s gift. It was also a “teaching moment,” time for us to think about how our practices overlap, how they differ, how we can learn from one another. Perhaps Sohaib was “turning,” too.

In a community that so values innovation and experimentation, it is also good to find our traditions thoughtfully explored and thus preserved.

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Beginning Conversations: The Board Retreat, A CSS Lecture

The past few days have been extraordinarily busy. On Friday (9/7) we dedicated the new Usdan University Center, and there were many alumni, former trustees, and other friends of Wesleyan in town to help us celebrate. We were able to recognize a variety of contributors who made the planning and construction possible over the last ten years (!), and for me it was an opportunity to connect to many people who care about our school and who help move things forward. Standing on the third-floor terrace of the Usdan Center (or “the Suze,” as I’m told students call it) and looking across Andrus Field and Foss Hill, I am very grateful for the work of Doug Bennet and the trustees who envisioned this building at this location years ago.

Now, I know from reading the parents’ listserv and by talking to students, that our operation of the building has had some bumps in the last couple of weeks. As was true with MoCon, lines at the beginning of the year can be long, and we are still fixing issues in the building and in our getting food to students in a timely way. I can see progress, and we will continue to try to improve service to students, faculty, and staff who use the facility. Indeed, we expect “the Suze” to become a friendly hub for eating, conversation, and student committee meetings. Someone wrote in, concerned about it being “bland” and ordinary. This is a very traditional concern at Wesleyan, and often it is an expression of a desire to see things stay the way they used to be (for whomever is waxing nostalgic). I don’t share this concern myself, as I see students making the place their own, inventing their own education even as they learn from others.

The Wesleyan Board of Trustees begins the academic year with a retreat, which means here a day and a half of meetings focused on strategic issues facing the university. This was an occasion for me to talk with the Board (which includes representatives from the faculty and students) about my first impressions of coming back to Wesleyan, and to lay out some of the planning and research work we are taking on. There were three major areas of focus: endowment growth to make possible more robust financial aid and exciting innovations in the curriculum we offer our students; facilities enhancement, especially in the life sciences; communication effectiveness to clarify what Wesleyan stands for in the world of progressive liberal arts education. We discussed many other topics, but we kept returning to these key themes. I am sure to be writing about them again and again in the months to come as we consult with students, alumni, faculty, and staff about these priorities.

On a very different note, yesterday I had the great pleasure of giving a lunchtime talk for the College of Social Studies. It was wonderful to discuss my academic work in intellectual history, philosophy of history, and political theory – rather than the administrative side of my life. I focused on my work on contemporary French philosophy, psychoanalysis, and American pragmatism. At the beginning of the summer, I published a piece in Bookforum about the work in aesthetics of Jean-Luc Nancy, and I am now trying to finish a piece about my teacher, the great American pragmatist, Richard Rorty. Recently I sent off reviews of Mark Edmundson’s new book on Freud’s final year and of John Brenkman’s on political theory since 9/11. Today, of course, is the anniversary of that awful day. My remarks were about how my recent short writing is connected to my long-term intellectual interests.

The students at CSS are as tough minded and engaged as I remember them. In this program they learn to connect the kind of philosophical issues I was talking about with contemporary social, economic, and policy issues. They seemed engaged with one another and with the issues I brought up. It was only an hour, but it was a great sign to me of the energy and curiosity that have been the hallmarks of this program. We were fortunate last week to announce in The Wall Street Journal the Zilkha Chair in CSS, which is a wonderful way of enhancing the quality of this interdisciplinary program.

Here is the link to my Bookforum review of Nancy. I’ll post the links to the other reviews when they are published.

Thanks again to those people who have commented on what I’ve posted thus far. As I said initially, I won’t be able to respond to individual messages, but I do connect those posts that offer suggestions and criticism to the appropriate offices. I will try to find some time to introduce some more visual interest to the blog, but it may take a little while as I learn my way around the university.

My introduction to Wesleyan continues. THANKS FOR ALL THE HELP!

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Classes Are Underway…

I want to thank the folks who so generously expressed their support and welcome in their comments on my first entry. I am new to blogging, and undoubtedly I will make some mistakes. I guess that’s part of the drill.

Classes are now underway, and it is exciting to see the returning students mixing with our new frosh. Of course, there are the frustrations of the beginning of the semester. Not everyone gets the classes they want on the first try, and advisors are scrambling with their students to put together a rewarding collection of courses for every student. I remember my own disappointment long ago, when the creative writing professor discovered that I wasn’t in the “Junior or Senior” category and had to kick me out of his class. As a frosh, I was very annoyed (and even a little offended by the idea of class entry hierarchy), and I wound up sitting in a philosophy class taught by a visitor. I was very fortunate, and it turned out to be a life changing class. I loved the course, and I still study the philosophers I began reading that semester.

I know not everyone will be that fortunate, and that’s why we will closely monitor our ability to deliver courses that meet students’ needs as early in their careers as possible. We’ve enhanced our advising work this year so that we can meet the needs of our students more efficiently and intelligently. We will study the results of the enhancement to see if it is working.

Walking through the bookstore, I enjoy just perusing the shelves to see what my colleagues are assigning. It has been thirty years or so since I’ve been in the Wesleyan bookstore, but in some ways the experience is very familiar. The store itself seems spiffier, and there are certainly more items for sale to remind us of alma mater. But the textbooks still offer wonderful examples of continuity and change. I see classics that I studied (or wish I had studied!) in my youth, and intriguing new titles that remind me of how much more there is to learn. There are courses, like one in political theory, with many books (one per week, I suppose). Others, like a frosh seminar I wish I could take, with a single slim (and endlessly deep) volume. There are the fat, up-to-date science textbooks, and the skinny poetry paperbacks – each promising measures of insight and mystery. Religions of the world are represented through their sacred texts and commentaries, and the philosophical critiques of faith are there, too.

I am reminded that a great university, like Wesleyan, has an obligation to be innovative, cutting edge, and experimental. And it has an obligation to take care (to understand, appreciate, sometimes preserve) of the cultures that cannot be so easily integrated into our contemporary ways of thinking.
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This weekend is my first meeting with the Board of Trustees since assuming the presidency. I have been very impressed with the individual conversations with board member over the last few months. They are all alumni or parents of students, and they care deeply about Wesleyan. Like the alum who posted a comment on this blog, they are reasonably skeptical. They are not satisfied with what is going on at any particular moment because they want, as I do, Wesleyan to remain self-critical, ambitious, and demanding. Next week I’ll be able to relate some of the major issues that get discussed at the retreat. But being at the trustee retreat means I’ll miss the first sports events of the season. Even the president can’t be everywhere!

Besides blogging and learning the presidential ropes, last week I sent off book reviews to the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. It is important for me to continue to write about topics independent of my administrative work. In this case, the books had to do with Sigmund Freud, on the one hand, and contemporary political theory, on the other. I’ll post the links to the reviews when they are published. On Monday, I am to give a lunchtime talk at the College of Social Studies about my recent scholarly work. I am eager to meet the CSS community, and I’ll be able to report on my impressions of this unique aspect of the Wesleyan community.

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Arrival Day

NOTE: You can view Michael Roth’s remarks to parents on Arrival Day here.

The Class of 2011 arrived on Tuesday this week, and a truckload of boxes containing our household possessions from California arrived the next day. Kari, Sophie and I are moving in and finding our way along with the frosh. Yesterday, as I made my way to the Freeman Athletic Center for a quick burst of exercise, a couple of students stopped their car to ask me for directions to Physical Plant. I had no idea. They asked, “Aren’t you the new president?” They were kind enough not to comment on my inability to help them find their way.

That will change as we find our way together. There are plenty of people here who are expert at helping others and are willing to do so. This was very clear on Tuesday, as staff members at all levels, as well as upperclassmen, headed out to the dorms to carry boxes, refrigerators, stereos, etc., to help our new arrivals move in. I have never seen a better combination of efficiency and graciousness. The excitement of the students and the nervousness of their parents (and vice versa) were palpable, and I met plenty of folks for whom saying goodbye was more than a little difficult. The responsibility of a university like Wesleyan is enormous. We have accepted these wonderfully gifted young people, we have welcomed them, and now we must give them the tools for lifetime learning and help them create a dynamic, generous community.

I am very confident in our ability to do that because in the past weeks I have gotten to know many of the staff and faculty. The operations here are truly impressive, and if move-in day is any indication, we are on top of the major logistical issues. Moreover, there is a consistent desire to keep improving for the welfare of the students, and for the enhancement of Wesleyan. The faculty are returning from summers of research, of writing, of creating. I am impressed with the eagerness with which they face the school year. Some of the faculty here I have known for more than thirty years, and I have personally experienced their remarkable abilities in the classroom. Even these veterans are always looking for ways to improve their classes, to further enhance student learning. And the young faculty come to Wesleyan with more than just impressive credentials. They come with a passion to make a difference in the lives of their students. How fortunate I am to have them as colleagues!

In my opening remarks to parents in the chapel I pointed to a feature of the Wesleyan community that we all know well: our students are intense, creative and engaged. But I also emphasized that they are taught to become self-critical; to be experimental also means to find ways to evaluate whether what one is trying is worth trying. That’s a difficult process, but it is essential in education and in life. Finally, I emphasized that our students learn that it is not enough to be intensely creative, and that it is not enough to be self-critical and experimental. We must also learn to deliver, to make something that others recognize as valuable, or as something that works. Our students are productive (often in surprising ways), and we set the highest standards for judging what they have produced.

Finally, and you will hear me say this often, I said that our students should discover what they love to do at Wesleyan, and then they should get a little better at it. I am confident that this will happen with the guidance of their teachers, and with the help of the staff and their fellow students.

I look forward to reporting to you a few times a month on what I am learning as I do what I love here at Wesleyan (and perhaps get a little better at it). And I look forward to reading your comments (though I won’t be able to respond to them individually) from your perspective on the Wesleyan community.

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