Renewal of Possibility

It has been an eventful week, and there are many things that were striking about my experiences of Wesleyan since my last posting. I have had a range of contacts with staff, students, faculty, and alumni over the past seven days, and the experience brings home to me some of the challenges in being president of this great university.

Just a couple of weeks ago, we were celebrating the opening of the university center, and this week I find myself listening to students who feel that it isn’t meeting their needs in the ways they expect. Some of this, I am told, is part of the beginning of each academic year. There are lines at certain times of day; some people don’t feel they are getting the choices they want. A part of this, I can see, is working with a new food vendor who is also trying to adjust to the Wesleyan context. I take the students’ concerns and the parents’ concerns very seriously. I want us to be offering quality food at affordable prices, and I will make sure we are doing so. I also have to ensure we are getting the input we need from students, from workers at the facility, and from staff so that we make the most helpful adjustments. The Wesleyan community should know that we have a labor code that describes our community standards for fair treatment of those who work on campus. We will abide by this code, and we will monitor our compliance. Still, I doubt that we will be able to satisfy everyone, because we are a community with diverse needs, tastes, and expectations. We will, however, listen to all suggestions as to how we can do a better job for our students in a context that treats all employees and customers fairly.

In the middle of this week I was in Boston for meetings with our Science Advisory Council and with parents and alumni. The SAC meeting was at the Cambridge offices of Vertex, a biotechnology company founded by Joshua Boger ’73. Josh is on Wesleyan’s board of trustees, and he is a great supporter of the institution. He majored in chemistry and philosophy (!) while here, and has gone on to become a pioneer in the development of new drugs for viral diseases, including HIV, cancer, pain, and inflammation. The discussion centered on the quality of scientific research at Wesleyan and on how we can enhance it. We were very lucky to have input from Geoff Duyk ’80, who helped us think more clearly and precisely about our needs and goals. A key component of our efforts will be to connect research in the sciences to other aspects of the curriculum. When we talk about scientific literacy at Wesleyan, we mean learning habits of thinking, investigation, and evaluation that work in fields seemingly quite distant from biology and chemistry. Another crucial aspect of our work with the SAC is the planning and construction of a major new facility for the life sciences. We saw some very exciting plans at this meeting, and I am sure to be writing about this project in subsequent postings.

The meeting with a small group of Boston parents and alumni was very interesting. It was hosted by Tim Dibble ’86, the son of a beloved Wesleyan faculty member. The conversation was very engaging, and I heard from graduates from the 1950s and the most recent decade. What did they have in common? The first thing was the strong commitment to financial aid at Wesleyan. We must keep the university accessible to people from all social classes. The second thing was the importance of faculty-student relations at Wesleyan. People spoke movingly about how professors made a powerful difference in their lives, inside and outside the classroom. We also spoke about how the relationships formed at Wesleyan continued to be our networks later in life, and about the importance of our school remaining a culture in which accidental encounters can lead to lifelong friendships. I left the meeting reinvigorated about Wesleyan’s potential.

After the meeting I spent an hour or so with Bill Belichick ’75, the coach of the New England Patriots. We talked about the difficulty of getting a team to play together, to have the combination of discipline and passion that makes for the most satisfying experience, that makes for performance at the highest level. Coach Belichick emphasized practice and preparation, the goal of improving each time you work on a specific task. As we drove back to Middletown, I started to think about some of the ways I might work at becoming a more effective president, starting with listening more closely to students and faculty.

I wish all our teams the best in this weekend’s contests. Tomorrow is Wesleyan’s opening football game, but I won’t be there to watch very much of it. Tonight begins Yom Kippur, a day that in my tradition calls for reflection, repentance, and a renewal of possibility. In retrospect, “the renewal of possibility” may be the theme of this past week. May it last!

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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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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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