Welcoming Families!

Family Weekend comes early this year, and we anticipate a large crowd of visitors to campus. There will be lots of wonderful events, from art exhibitions featuring photographs and paintings to South Indian music, lectures and athletic contests. You can find plenty more information here.

Parents of new students are often surprised at how quickly their sons and daughters have formed intense friendships — they can sometimes feel like extended families. Whether it’s a cohort formed in sports, science labs, art studios or in a rock band… these new relationships can be profound. Some alumni remember their “Greek” experience as most important in this regard, and recently, we’ve again had searching discussions about the relationships created in these societies. We announced this week that the residential fraternities will have to work over the next three years to become fully co-educational, and we’ve already had lots of positive feedback concerning that decision. Of course, we’ve also had some strong pushback from folks who feel that fraternities represent important traditions that should be maintained. Along with the Board, I am hopeful that these traditions can find new forms as the societies welcome women members and women leaders. Sure, it will be different, as these societies are different in many ways from their incarnations in the 50s and 60s. Working together, I am confident that we can retain some of their best features while building new traditions for the future.

I think we may be creating a new tradition of launching Tony Award winning musicals. OK, we are trying. In the Heights author Quiara Alegria Hudes is now a distinguished professor of playwriting at Wes, and the creator and star of the show, Lin-Manuel Miranda ’02, was back on campus this week to meet the cast of the production that will be staged this fall. By all accounts, he gave a great talk/performance Tuesday evening. Provost Ruth Weissman, Lin and I documented the evening with a selfie:

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The vibrancy of the art scene at Wesleyan is legendary. In recent years, we’ve added another tradition to it with The Mash, our music festival on the first Friday of the semester. This year I played a little with some friends, and I was introduced to many Wes bands and individual performers. Here’s a twelve minute sampler:

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There will be plenty of music, friendships and even a little theater this weekend. It should be a great one!

Trustees and the Future of Wesleyan

This past weekend the Board of Trustees gathered for its annual fall retreat. At this meeting, Trustees and Representatives to the Board discuss a range of issues important for the future of the University. We began on Friday night with conversations about equity and inclusion. Over the last year a task force of Trustees has been discussing how we can better ensure that all people on campus feel they are full members of our community and engaged in our educational project. Everyone at the retreat had taken implicit bias tests in advance of the meeting to better understand how even when we have the best of intentions, prejudice can affect our thinking.

We resumed our meetings Saturday morning with a discussion of the role of residential fraternities on campus, based on recommendations that I had made to the Board after a summer of collecting input. During the course of the weekend, the Board and I agreed on some changes described in a message that went out from Joshua Boger and me this morning. The message reads, in part: “With equity and inclusion in mind, we have decided that residential fraternities must become fully co-educational over the next three years. If the organizations are to continue to be recognized as offering housing and social spaces for Wesleyan students, women as well as men must be full members and well-represented in the body and leadership of the organization….Our residential Greek organizations inspire loyalty, community and independence. That’s why all our students should be eligible to join them.”

Saturday’s discussion moved on to campus life generally and how we might make it as educationally potent as possible. As a residential liberal arts school, it is crucial that outside the classroom our students are being prepared for life after graduation. Trustees shared the ways in which their own experiences on campus have affected their lives beyond the university.

The retreat continued with discussions of how Wesleyan is perceived by prospective students, the campus community, alumni, parents and the academic marketplace. We had vigorous conversations about what Wes stands for today, and how we want our school to be perceived 25 years from now. What should we be doing now to ensure the brightest future for alma mater?

Over the weekend, I witnessed many ways in which loyal and hardworking trustees, students, faculty, staff and alumni are devoted to Wesleyan. It’s a devotion stemming from powerful experiences and strong memories joined with the aspiration to make our university even stronger and the experiences of students going forward even more powerful.

Fraternal Discussions

Near the end of my first year as Wesleyan’s president, I wrote the following:

Fraternities have historic roots with alumni that are important to maintain, and I believe that the frats (including Eclectic) at Wes can continue to play a very positive role at the university. We will not be adding any new Greek societies because there are now many other ways for students to join together in residentially based groups. Wesleyan’s students have a rich choice of social organizations in which to participate, from the very traditional to the most avant-garde. I’m committed to keeping it that way.

In my April 2014 blog post, “Campus Conversations on Fraternities,” I described how my thinking had changed. Six years of hearing about high-risk drinking at fraternities and dealing with fallout from highly publicized incidents of sexual violence have had an effect.  Of course, the larger world has changed too. Today there’s more emphasis upon Title IX and a much greater awareness of sexual assault. The U.S. Department of Education says that under Title IX, schools must “take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the sexual violence, eliminate the hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, and, as appropriate, remedy its effects.”

Are fraternities at Wesleyan hostile environments? It was striking to everyone here when so many students said yes. The students just conducted a survey on their own which indicated that 47 percent feel less safe in fraternity spaces than in other party spaces; the great majority of those thought that making the fraternities co-educational would be helpful in making those spaces safer. But is that true?

Last week at the Annual Meeting of the Board of Trustees we discussed this issue in executive session. Some found the experiences of peer institutions instructive. Connecticut College and Vassar have no Greek life and Bates has never had it. Amherst, Williams, Bowdoin, Middlebury and Colby all eliminated Greek. Amherst abolished fraternities on campus in 1984 (after a brief failed experiment with co-education) and earlier this month eliminated even unsanctioned Greek life. Williams did it in 1962 and students still sign a pledge not to participate in Greek life. By 2000, the Greek system was officially dismantled at Bowdoin, in part because it was losing high-quality students who didn’t want to go to a school with fraternities. At Colby fraternities and sororities were abolished in 1984 because they were inconsistent with the fundamental values of the community, and in 1992 Middlebury did likewise because it found fraternities to be “antithetical to the mission of the college.”

Swarthmore still has two fraternities, and now a new sorority to provide access to Greek life for women. And then there’s Trinity, still in the anguished throes of dealing with angry alumni and students after it mandated co-education of fraternities, raised GPA requirements for frat membership, and did away with the pledging process. There are some who believe that the most draconian approach, eliminating Greek life entirely, is no more painful.

As you might imagine, many Wesleyans don’t care much about the experience of our peer institutions. Others point out that many fine institutions still have active Greek life, or that Wesleyan shouldn’t imitate any institution. Still others emphasize that the rates of sexual assault at schools that have eliminated fraternities don’t give any indication that those institutions are safer environments. For many, the issue is about equity and inclusion more than about direct correlations with rates of reported sexual assault. How can a co-educational institution approve of having a significant percentage of its social spaces controlled by all-male organizations?

Following our discussions, the trustees have asked me to prepare a plan to address the future of Greek life. Ideally, this would be ready before the school year begins, but certainly no later than the November board meeting. Here are the options before us:

(1) We can require fraternities to become safer places through training and education.

(2) We can eliminate single-sex residential organizations or require co-education (with full membership).

(3) We can eliminate Greek residential life entirely.

(4) We can eliminate all Greek life (on campus or off).

(5) We can dramatically expand Greek life so that there are social spaces controlled by women.

None of these options will eliminate the problems of binge drinking and sexual assault. That’s not the point. Which changes in our residential and co-curricular program will make us a more inclusive, educational and equitable place? For now, our question is simple, but it may not be easy to arrive at a consensus on the answer to it: Will Wesleyan be a stronger university (“dedicated to providing an education in the liberal arts that is characterized by boldness, rigor, and practical idealism”) with or without Greek life?

Many people have written to the president’s office to weigh in on this issue. If you would like to do so over the next month or so, we have set up a special mailbox: comments@wesleyan.edu.

We will report back to the trustees and the Wesleyan community at the end of the summer on our plans concerning co-curricular life at the university in general and residential programs in particular. Stay tuned.

Celebrating Co-Education and the Navaratri Festival

Today alumni, faculty and current students will be meeting to discuss the impact of coeducation on education at Wesleyan and across the country. Forty years ago Wes graduated its first class with a substantial number of women who began as frosh. We should also acknowledge the several women who had previously transferred to Wes, or who had registered here through exchange programs. Today Dr. Sheila Tobias, our first woman Provost, will help lead “Campus Transformation Through Coeducation,” a daylong event including a panel discussion with female change agents from the 1970s and discussions with alumni and faculty about campus culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s. As I wrote in a blog post this summer, Wesleyan began an experiment with co-education in the late 19th century that lasted until 1912. At that time, alumni groups put pressure on the administration to return to the status quo embraced by the all-male schools with which the university compared itself. In reaction, a more adventurous group of alumni joined to help found Connecticut College as an institution for the education of women.

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In 1968, at a time when many schools were considering co-education, Wesleyan began admitting women as transfer and exchange students and two years later admitted first-year female students for the first time since 1909. I began as a freshman in the fall of 1975, shortly after those students had graduated. By then, in just those few years, co-education had made great strides, so much so that I wasn’t aware of how recently women had become part of campus culture. Looking back, many of my women friends were doubtless more aware than I of the barriers to inclusion that still existed for female students – and for students of color, and gay, lesbian and trans students. There was certainly an active feminist movement on campus, but (as I recall) the primary focus was on global issues of patriarchy with some activists taking on local issues of campus discrimination and sexual harassment.

Today’s discussion will focus on the transformation of education through co-education across the country. Many of the sessions will be held in Beckham Hall.

 

The Navaratri Festival‘s celebration of Indian music and dance continues today. This is the 37th annual festival, and the concerts, lectures and dance are always at the highest level. Here’s a taste from an earlier festival.

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Inclusion and Gender: Obstacles and Opportunities

This is the second in a series of summer blog posts on obstacles to and opportunities for inclusion. Subsequent posts will focus on political and religious beliefs, and economic inequality. Previous post is here.

 

Wesleyan began an experiment with co-education in the late 19th century that lasted until 1912. At that time, alumni groups put pressure on the administration to return to the status quo embraced by the all-male schools with which the university compared itself. In reaction, a more adventurous group of alumni joined to help found Connecticut College as an institution for the education of women.

In 1968, at a time when many schools were considering co-education, Wesleyan began admitting women as transfer and exchange students and two years later admitted first-year female students for the first time since 1909. I began as a freshman in the fall of 1975, shortly after those students had graduated. By then, in just those few years, co-education had made great strides, so much so that I wasn’t aware of how recently women had become part of campus culture. Looking back, many of my women friends were doubtless more aware than I of the barriers to inclusion that still existed for female students – and for students of color, and gay, lesbian and trans students. There was certainly an active feminist movement on campus, but (as I recall) the primary focus was on global issues of patriarchy with some activists taking on local issues of campus discrimination and sexual harassment.

In recent years there has been a resurgence of efforts on college campuses to eradicate discrimination on the basis of any identity affiliation – be it race, gender, or sexual orientation. Furthermore, students have rightly insisted that the curriculum become more inclusive so that issues related to under-represented groups are reflected in more of the courses we teach. As a teacher and as a university president, I see how this has broadened our work in a wide variety of fields. Sometimes the challenges of curricular inclusion are substantial as we move resources from some traditional areas to newer ones – it’s economically irresponsible just to keep adding things without trimming. The discussions around these topics, although sometimes challenging, have led to a broadening of what we mean by liberal education.

Over the last few years there has been increasing awareness that the oldest barrier to gender inclusion, violence, is still a major issue on American university campuses. Gay, lesbian and trans students are often vulnerable to attack – from the subtle to the most extreme. Violence against women, especially rape, has rightly become a major issue for educators who want their campuses to be safe places at which all students can experience the freedom of a transformative education. Although at Wesleyan there are usually only a handful of reports of sexual violence each year, each one is extremely painful and leaves a scar on the individual and on the community. Furthermore, we know how under-reported these crimes are across the country in general and on college campuses in particular. We have convened task forces and worked together to make it easier to report these incidents and to be confident in the process that would bring alleged assailants to a fair, effective judicial process. Dean Mike Whaley (VP for Student Affairs) and team will be issuing an annual report, as they regularly do, detailing our most recent changes in this regard before the beginning of the school year.

Violence of any kind has no place on our campus, and sexual violence is particularly pernicious in that it plays on social stereotypes and traditions of exclusion. We applaud groups active across the country, like Know Your IX, which are calling on students to stand up for their right to study in environments free from discrimination, harassment and violence. This work is perfectly in accord with our mission to promote progressive liberal arts education for all.

Wesleyan’s history with co-education has gone through different stages. Our experiment in the late 19th and early 20th century was truncated, but it did plant seeds that would be harvested later on. The women who came to campus from the late 1960s on have worked to create an educational environment free from discrimination. There have been moments of pain and frustration, but we are dedicated to continuing the progress toward genuine inclusion.

We honor that history and extend it as we take on with renewed energy the project to eradicate sexual and gender violence from our university. We do so not because of political correctness or issues of liability. We do so because freedom from gender and sexual violence is essential to our mission as a community of learning.

Local Thoughts on Women’s History Month

One of the most dramatic transformations of Wesleyan was the achievement of co-education in the early 1970s. The university had experimented with co-education at the beginning of the 20th century, but the male students just couldn’t deal with women studying alongside them. The contrast with the 1970s was great, and when I arrived in the middle of the decade it seemed that men and women were treated equally on campus. Of course, that was just one guy’s perspective.

And that guy was wrong. Having now spoken with many alumnae from the early 1970s, I have come to realize how difficult gender and sexuality issues were at Wes. Women reported routine harassment, a curriculum and campus culture geared to men, and a reluctance of the institution to change. But change did come, as richly talented women joined the student body and the faculty.

One of the important changes was the development of a Women’s Studies component of the curriculum, a process that culminated in the faculty approving a program in 1979, and a full major about a decade later. More recently, students and faculty changed the name of this concentration to Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies, to better reflect the evolving teaching and research going on in the program. More on the history of FGSS can be found here.

There are plenty of other professors at Wesleyan who have been cultivating this vineyard. Suzanne O’Connell, for example, has received major support from the National Science Foundation to help women at all academic levels take part in programs that emphasize professional development in the geosciences. In addition to being a professor of Earth and Environmental Science, Suzanne also has been directing the Service Learning Center. Carol Wood has been a leader in making the mathematics field more inclusive. Carol is Chair of the Board of the American Mathematical Society, where she continues her long-term work of promoting possibilities for women in math departments across the country. The Edward Burr Van Vleck Professor of Mathematics at Wesleyan, Carol has been president of the Association for Women in Mathematics and represents the United States at the International Mathematics Union.

Su Zheng, Associate Professor Music, has been teaching and writing about the intersection of gender, sexuality, globalization and music. Her interests range from world music and experimental composition to heavy metal. Gina Ulysse, Associate Professor of Anthropology and African-American Studies, has been teaching and writing about gender, transnational feminism, race, class and performance — to name just some of her many topics. I was delighted to learn recently that Ruth Striegel, Walter A. Crowell University Professor of the Social Sciences, will be returning to the psychology department next semester. Her research and teaching on eating disorders has had a deep impact on our understanding of these phenomena, and her teaching has inspired generations of Wesleyan students.

The achievements of these fine scholar-teachers – and there are many others on this campus doing important work in this area – exemplify the Wesleyan spirit of engaging in academic work that reverberates in society. You can find a similar spirit among our campus activists fighting for reproductive freedom, gender equality and civil rights. It is Women’s History Month, and while much has changed here at Wesleyan, we can be grateful that the work of building a more inclusive community continues.