Trustees’ Statement on Equity and Inclusion

At its Annual Meeting just before Commencement, Wesleyan’s Board of Trustees’ Equity and Inclusion Task Force presented the full Board with a statement of principles. This task force’s work grew out of the board retreat in 2014 at which trustees made the commitment to pursue fairness and community building throughout the University’s functions. Here is the statement:

The Wesleyan University Board of Trustees is committed to a campus culture characterized by diversity, equity, and inclusion. We believe that in order to meet the University’s educational mission and provide a thriving educational environment, the University’s governance, curriculum, and operations should be regularly reviewed and renewed to ensure that they reflect and address the broad diversity of the Wesleyan community.

The members of the board commit to conversations regarding diversity, equity and inclusion, and to monitoring progress in promoting equity and inclusion in all aspects of University life, including:

Eliminating the comparative disadvantages in educational experience that may separate student groups on the basis of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and/or other factors; and

Honest conversations, openness, and metrics regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion and evidence reflecting student success, faculty and staff recruitment and retention, and institutional performance.

This morning I read an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that noted that efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion can be most effective with strong commitment from the top of the organization. I am proud to work with trustees who have embraced these goals and are working to integrate them throughout our operations.

 

Board of Trustees on Diversity

One of the points that emerged from last year’s campus-wide discussions concerning diversity was that all constituencies of the university should think hard about what it means to create an inclusive, equitable educational institution. For its part, the Board of Trustees decided to devote its fall Retreat to this topic. We just finished our meetings yesterday, and they served to raise crucial issues and affirm core values.

The Retreat weekend began with a lecture by Al Young ’88, a distinguished professor and chair of the department of sociology at the University of Michigan. Al has done much research on issues of race and inclusion, research he began in a Wesleyan context by studying the Vanguard Class of African American men who attended Wesleyan in the late 1960s. He spoke at the Retreat about the challenges faced by the students then, and he compared them to the challenges faced by students from under-represented groups today. What will be our institutional response to these challenges, he asked? Chair of the Board Joshua Boger and Vice-Chairs Irma González and Ellen Jewett played leading roles in keeping us focused and productive, and they were well supported by staff, Wesleyan Student Assembly and faculty representatives.

Over the next 48 hours, Retreat participants addressed issues of diversity, equity and inclusion with respect to various aspects of the university experience. How does one weigh the imperatives of free speech against the offense caused to others by those words? How do we reflect the changing interests of students while retaining core areas of study? How do we select a student body in a highly competitive admissions process that makes the most educational sense for all?  How do we recruit and retain faculty and staff who exemplify talent, diversity, curiosity, empathy and achievement? How do we build a culture at Wesleyan in which all can thrive? …We didn’t expect to arrive at a consensus on answers, but we did commit to remaining mindful of the importance of these questions for our community.

As I reflect back on the meeting, three streams of concern are paramount: Admissions, Campus Learning, Alumni Engagement. I share in the most general terms my own thoughts about our goals in these areas.

1. Admissions. We should recruit extraordinarily talented students with a commitment to find people with the kind of deep potential that will enable them to learn in a residential community dedicated to “boldness, rigor and practical idealism.”

2. Campus Learning. We should ensure that all at our university have the maximum opportunities to realize their potential and to make use of untapped resources they hadn’t previously recognized. This exploration takes place in a context that amplifies personal benefits by creating possibilities for their social resonance and relevance. People discover what they love to do; they get better at it; they share it with others.

3. Beyond Campus. We should engage alumni so they are a resource to help support goals 1 and 2, and we should make the university a resource for lifelong learning. This commitment to lifelong learning is reflected in the support of research and creative practice that makes a contribution to “the good of the world.”

Diversity and Inclusion, as I wrote in a series of blogs in August, touch on almost all aspects of the university. By addressing these issues at its Retreat, the Board of Trustees re-affirmed the institutional commitment described in the Mission Statement: “to build a diverse, energetic community of students, faculty, and staff who think critically and creatively and who value independence of mind and generosity of spirit.”

 

Affordability, Sustainability and Diversity: Class of 2017

The class of 2017 arrives on Wednesday. The competition to be a member of that class was more fierce than ever given our record number of applications, and to no one’s surprise the class is remarkably strong. Given the metrics we use for judging academic preparation, this is the most well-prepared class we have ever admitted. The average SAT scores are just above 700 (on all three tests), and most of the first-year students have already been successful in advanced foreign language study, mathematics and the sciences. They are a socially conscious group, and we expect them to continue their already impressive track record of turning their talents to helping those around them. Their achievements and qualities are reason for optimism for all those who care about Wesleyan and its future.

This was the first class admitted under our new need-sensitive admissions policy, and we proceeded exactly as we said we would: We read all files in a need-blind fashion and, as predicted, ended by being need-blind in roughly 90% of the decisions. Details about the class will be posted presently on the Admissions site. As always, we are meeting the full demonstrated financial need of all our students, and since there were considerably more financial aid applicants this year than ever before (6,660 in total), it does not seem that the change in our admissions policy (to be need-aware for roughly 10% of the applicants) discouraged interest in Wesleyan.  And there’s no doubt that, from a financial point of view, our new policy puts us in a much better position to secure Wesleyan’s future by helping us to control costs. That future had also been clouded by the question of affordability with Wesleyan nearing the top of the list of most expensive schools in the country, and here too we’ve made progress, with smaller tuition increases, drops in student loan levels and loans replaced by grants for the highest-need students. More reasons for optimism.

At the same time, our “yield” this year with respect to admitted students with highest need turned out to be less than what we expected. Why is a bit of a puzzle. Students to whom we offered the most aid (meeting their full need) were the ones who disproportionately chose to go elsewhere. Based on what we know about our admission and financial aid model this year, it would be hard to argue that the drop was due to our policy change. Also this year, albeit with a much smaller group, we had dramatically more success in yielding Native American students. We have no explanation for the drop (or the increase), and we don’t have the data to do more than speculate. But the drop concerns us. Is it an anomaly?

Given what we know about inequities and income distributions in the US, having fewer than anticipated highest-need students also means a drop (about 2%) in minority representation. That particular drop is small, but it’s not what we want. At Wesleyan, we are committed to affordability, sustainability and diversity.

There is some guesswork (and many statistical models) involved in putting any class together. This has been the first year operating within the parameters of our new admissions policy, and we have already begun revising our models for the future. How financial aid plays out in individual years will vary (slightly), but Wesleyan will remain among the most generous schools in America, devoting some $50 million to financial aid each year.

We are already proud of the Class of 2017’s preparation, and we eagerly anticipate their contributions to Wesleyan and the Middletown community. With boldness, rigor and practical idealism they are sure to shine!

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.

Inclusion: Obstacles and Opportunities

This is the first of a series of summer blog posts on obstacles to and opportunities for  inclusion. Subsequent posts will focus on gender, political and religious beliefs, and economic inequality.

As we prepare for our discussions on campus planning this fall, I am eager to gather student, faculty, trustee and alumni views on what we can do to make Wesleyan’s residential learning experience as powerful as possible. Today we re-launched the online version of my Modern and Postmodern class, and I have been impressed with what students have reported from their work in this and our other Coursera classes. While we experiment modestly with online courses, I want to double down on our commitment to residential learning. Campus planning discussions will be a key part of that.

I am particularly concerned with issues of inclusion, and summer events have provided plenty of food for thought. Issues of diversity and inclusion were highlighted last year in two campus-wide diversity forums and in countless conversations among staff, faculty, students and alumni. Wesleyan has proudly adopted the label “Diversity University” for a long time. Two years ago I wrote the following in an essay entitled “Why We Value Diversity.”

At Wesleyan University our mission statement reminds us that we aim to prepare students “to explore the world with a variety of tools.” Diversity is an aspect of the world we expect our students to explore, turning it into an asset they can use. We expect graduates to have completed a course of study in the liberal arts that will enable them to see differences among people as a powerful tool for solving problems and seeking opportunities. We expect graduates to embrace diversity as a source of lifelong learning, personal fulfillment, and creative possibility. Selective universities want to shape a student body that maximizes each undergraduate’s ability to go beyond his or her comfort zone to draw on resources from the most familiar and the most unexpected places.

How can we live up to our aspirations to make “excellence inclusive?”

This question has been much on my mind in thinking about the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin in Florida. Zimmerman followed Martin because he found the young man suspicious – Trayvon was black and he was wearing a hoodie. Martin was guilty of “walking while being black,” and many of our African and African-American students have told us that they feel likely to be profiled in similar circumstances. Profiling has no place on our campus, and we will not stand for it.

Officially prohibiting profiling is one thing; promoting inclusion is another, more complex challenge. How do we promote inclusion here? In classrooms and dorm rooms, from athletics to the arts?  We do it in part through administratively organized programs, such as the new work in orientation we’ve added in this year. But my hope is that we will rise to this challenge through myriad, informal discussions across campus to become more mindful of any barriers to inclusion that still exist at Wesleyan.

Let me quote President Obama on what might come of these efforts: there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?  Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?  That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.”

Trying our best to be “a little more honest” and to “wring as much bias” out of ourselves as possible will be important tasks as we discuss how to ensure that  Wesleyan provides the very best residential education for all our students. We can’t pretend that we are immune to the violence and prejudice that infects much of the world around us. But we can stand with those who promote fairness and inclusion, making the most of out of diversity in the service of education.

Our campus is not a “bubble” that keeps the world outside at bay. Our campus should be a place of inquiry at which “boldness, rigor and practical idealism” are put in the service of “the good of the individual and the good of the world,” to paraphrase Wesleyan President Willbur Fisk (1831). By building a more inclusive and dynamic campus community, we are encouraging everyone at Wes to use the lessons learned here, with “independence of mind and generosity of spirit,” to make a positive difference beyond the borders of the university.

 

Affirmative Action Preserved (for Now)

Yesterday the Supreme Court decided to return Fisher v University of Texas to a lower court to further examine the university’s admissions policies to ensure that its use of race as one factor in a holistic process of admitting students was essential to achieving the diversity that contributes to an effective learning environment. Critics of affirmative action are pleased that strict scrutiny will be used to ensure that any use of race meets a high standard of fairness to individuals, while defenders of affirmative action take some solace that current practices consistent with previous Supreme Court decisions will be allowed to stand. At Wesleyan, we have long believed that race and ethnicity are factors that legitimately play roles in an admissions process that aims to create a diverse student body, and we also are mindful of using our financial aid to ensure that students with great ability but limited economic means (of whatever race and ethnicity) are given a chance at the kind of progressive liberal arts education we provide here.

Defining who deserves to be admitted to any particular university is notoriously difficult. Every year I meet people who attended elite Ivy League schools and who were rejected from Wesleyan. And I hear about Wesleyan admits who were rejected at schools that are supposed to be easier to get into. Each year we strive to put together a class that has enormous potential to learn in an open curriculum on a residential campus — a class that is exuberant about learning, eager to look at the world from a variety of perspectives and prepared to experience the creative and scholarly dimensions of university life. In most cases, the students admitted have great test scores and high grades, but in some cases those conventional measures do not adequately reflect the student’s real potential. That’s why our Admissions Office employs a holistic approach. We want students who will thrive  at Wesleyan, and we are lucky that they choose to come here from across the globe.

Race remains very relevant to the lives of students before they apply to Wesleyan, and that is one of the reasons we take it into account in admissions. To ignore race in contemporary America would be to perpetuate racist practices that still exist. But race is not our only measure of diversity. For now, we have the ability to use race among other factors in building campus diversity. We will continue to do so with all the scrutiny this sensitive area deserves.

 

 

Commencement 2013 — Tradition, Activism, and Living With Contradiction

Presiding over the Commencement ceremonies is one of my most moving and fulfilling duties. Each year I not only get to congratulate several hundred deserving Wesleyan students and their families, but I also get to soak in speeches from wonderfully interesting honorees. This was a year of many highlights, from Jim Dresser’s reminder of the deep traditions of excellence (and humor) on which we draw still today, to Majora Carter’s reminder that we must continue to struggle against long odds if we are devoted to change that matters. Joss Whedon had me in stitches when he told us gravely that our commonality was based on the fact that we were all going to die. His killer address brought home the importance of living with contradiction, with the energetic ambivalence that we should never try to smother.

I can’t reproduce the honorees remarks here, though soon we will have videos to share. Meanwhile, I humbly present some excerpts of my own remarks to the class of 2013.

During your four years here, Wesleyan has been largely isolated from many of the troubles of this world. While you have been students, the United States has been engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and on this Memorial Day Weekend, I begin by asking us all to take a moment to remember that these wars have cost the lives of thousands of American soldiers and tens of thousands of civilians in those countries.

Economic times have been difficult as well. When you first arrived, in the fall of 2009, the global economy was reeling from the most massive disruption since the Great Depression. Unemployment in this country quickly skyrocketed and is only now slowly receding, while the distance between the very wealthy and the average American has increased enormously. 2009-2013 has been a good time to be in a bubble—even a pretty leaky bubble like our own here on campus.

You have spent four years taking advantage of an education that we believe is devoted to boldness, rigor, and practical idealism, and now as I speak to you for your last time as students here, I’d like to underscore three ideals that I hope you will take with you and make practical in your lives going forward: non-violence; diversity; and equality.

Campus culture is something that students, faculty, and staff create together, and for all the glories of the culture we’ve created here, it has not been immune to violence. Whether the subtle aggressions of institutionalized racism or the trauma of sexual assault, we have witnessed how violence disrupts lives—how it infects our heads and hearts. One of the tragedies of university campuses across this country is that, for all their purported liberalism, they often cater to a culture of privilege in which under-represented groups and women are subjected to forms of violence that preserve social hierarchies as they destroy individual lives. I trust we have learned at Wesleyan how important the aversion to violence is for education. The free inquiry at the core of learning certainly depends on vigorous discussion and debate; it depends on our willingness to take risks and to discover that even our deepest convictions may be mistaken. But learning also requires freedom from the senseless wounding of aggression.

In a land all too prone to pointless violence, I trust that in the future you will work to create non-violent communities that promote creative experimentation, and that you will reject cultural tendencies that subordinate patient inquiry to macho projections of force.

A second ideal I hope you will make practical in your lives after graduation is the value of diversity as anti-conformity. At Wesleyan our commitment to diversity is related to our belief that we have a better chance of developing powerful ideas and practices if we work through a multiplicity of perspectives. We know that homogeneity kills creativity and that diversity is a powerful hedge against the “rationalized conformity” of groupthink. Productively connecting things that had not previously been brought together is very much in the Wesleyan spirit. For example, think of your experience with Wescam these last few weeks Of course, not all combinations will be productive—some creative experiments fail. But without divergent thinking we will be more likely to fall into patterns of enforced conformity that undermine our potential for the future.

You are beginning your post-collegiate years at a time when the phrase “potential for the future” points to something extremely fragile for many young people in this country. This brings me to the third ideal: equality. I trust you have experienced a spirit of egalitarianism here at Wesleyan—a spirit that celebrates great performance rather than great privilege. But while you have been in college, the privileged have become more and more powerful across this land. And this may well continue as entrenched elites forge better and better tools to protect their advantages. Access to a real education is the best antidote to the unnatural aristocracy of wealth. Education creates opportunity, allowing for the experience of freedom as one’s capacities are enhanced and brought into use. Access to education has never been more important, and that’s why I pledge to you today that as long as I am president, financial aid will remain my highest fundraising priority.

Wesleyan will remain a place where students from diverse backgrounds come to rely on themselves, their neighbors and teachers in a context of non-violent egalitarianism and community. Having made this education your own, I am confident that you will resist the trends of inequality that are tearing at the fabric of our country.

Non-violence, diversity and equality…these are ideals shared by generations of Wesleyan alumni. As I say each year, we Wesleyans have used our education to mold the course of culture ourselves lest the future be shaped by those for whom creativity and change, freedom and equality, diversity and tolerance, are much too threatening. Now we alumni are counting on you, class of 2013, to join us in helping to shape our culture, so that it will not be shaped by the forces of violence, conformity and elitism.

We are counting on you because we have already seen what you are capable of when you have the freedom and the tools, the mentors and the friendship, the insight and the affection to go beyond what others have defined as your limits. What you can do fills me with hope, fills me with confidence in the potential of education. I know that you will find new ways to build community, to experience the arts, to join personal authenticity with compassionate solidarity. When this happens, you will feel the power and promise of your education. And we, your Wesleyan family, we will be proud of how you keep your education alive by making it effective in the world.

My dear friends and colleagues, four years ago we met while unloading cars together here on Andrus field. Later that day, many of your family members sat teary-eyed in the chapel as we spoke about how they would be leaving you “on your own” at Wesleyan. It seems like such a short time ago. Now it’s you who are leaving, but do remember that no matter how “on your own” you feel yourselves to be, you will always be members of the Wesleyan family. Wherever your exciting pursuits take you, please come home to alma mater often to share your news, your memories and your dreams. Thank you and good luck!

 

 

How to Choose a (Our) University

WesFest is over, and in the next ten days all those folks who are fortunate enough to have choices about what college to attend will make a big decision: choosing the college that is just right for them. They are trying to envision where they will be most likely to thrive. Where will I learn the most, be happiest, and form friendships that will last a lifetime? How to choose? I thought it might be useful to re-post my thoughts on this, with a few revisions.

Of course, for many the decision will be made on an economic basis. Which school has given the most generous financial aid package? Wesleyan is one of a small number of schools that meets the full financial need of all admitted students according to a formula developed over several years. There are some schools with larger endowments that can afford to be even more generous than Wes, but there are hundreds (thousands?) of others that are unable even to consider meeting financial need over four years of study. Our school is expensive because it costs a lot to maintain the quality of our programs. But Wesleyan has made a commitment to keep loan levels low and to raise tuition only in sync with inflation in the future.

After answering the question of which schools one can afford, how else does one decide where best to spend one’s college years? Of course, size matters.  Some students are looking for a large university in an urban setting where the city itself plays an important role in one’s education. New York and Boston, for example, have become increasingly popular college destinations, but not, I suspect, for the classroom experience. But if one seeks small classes and strong, personal relationships with faculty, then liberal arts schools, which pride themselves on providing rich cultural and social experiences on a residential campus, are especially compelling. You can be on a campus with a human scale and still have plenty of things to do. Wesleyan is somewhat larger than most liberal arts colleges but much smaller than the urban or land grant universities. We feel that this gives our students the opportunity to choose a broad curriculum and a variety of cultural activities on campus, while still being small enough to encourage regular, sustained relationships among faculty and students.

All the selective small liberal arts schools boast of having a faculty of scholar-teachers, of a commitment to research and interdisciplinarity, and of encouraging community and service. So what sets us apart from one another after taking into account size, location, and financial aid packages? What are students trying to see when they visit Amherst and Wesleyan, or Tufts and Middlebury?

Knowing that these schools all provide a high-quality, broad and flexible curriculum with strong teaching, and that the students all have displayed great academic capacity, prospective students are trying to discern the personalities of each school. They are trying to imagine themselves on the campus, among the people they see, to get a feel for the chemistry of the place — to gauge whether they will be happy there. That’s why hundreds of visitors came to Wesleyan last week for WesFest. They went to classes and athletic contests, musical performances and parties. And they asked themselves: Would I be happy at Wesleyan?

I hope our visitors have gotten a sense of the personality of the school that I so admire and enjoy. I hope they feel the exuberance and ambition of our students, the intelligence and care of our faculty, the playful yet demanding qualities of our community. I hope our visitors can sense our commitment to creating a diversity in which difference is embraced and not just tolerated, and to public service that is part of one’s education and approach to life.

Whatever college or university students choose, I hope they get three things out their education: discovering what they love to do; getting better at it; learning to share it with others. I explain a little bit more about that in this talk:

YouTube Preview Image

We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into (even more difficult this year!). But even in the group of highly selective schools, Wes is not for everybody. We aspire to be a community committed to boldness as well as to rigor, to idealism as well as to effectiveness. Whether in the sciences, arts, humanities or social sciences, our faculty and students are dedicated to explorations that invite originality as well as collaboration. The scholar-teacher model is at the heart of our curriculum. Our faculty are committed to teaching and to shaping the fields in which they work. The whole country seems to be in a debate about MOOCs, massive on-line classes in which many thousands of students enroll. At Wes most of our classes are small, but we are also the only liberal arts college currently offering several MOOCS. While the Homerathon was taking place on campus these last few days, thousands of students around the world were listening to Andy Szegedy-Maszak’s lectures on Greek History. Lisa Dierker’s statistics class, to take another example, is being used in graduate programs and businesses, with students enrolling from all over the world. Here in Middletown, Prof. Dierker’s students are working to improve local schools with the lessons they learn from analyzing the district’s data. Good teaching all around. Effective scholarship that makes a difference in the world and right here on campus.

The commitment of our faculty says a lot about who we are, as does the camaraderie around the completion of senior projects that we’ve seen these past weeks. We know how to work hard, but we also know how to enjoy the work we choose to do. That’s been magically appealing to me for more than 30 years. I bet the magic will enchant many of our visitors, too.

Diversity Work this Weekend: Blueprint Roundtable

Thanks to VP Sonia Mañjon and the Invisible Men group, Blueprint Roundtable will hold a workshop on Saturday at Wesleyan. Three of our colleagues (and students) from California College of the Arts (Chris Johnson, Hank Willis Thomas and Bayete Ross Smith) began this work as an outgrowth of an innovative transmedia art project, Question Bridge: Black Males. Question Bridge creates a platform to represent and redefine Black male identity in America. Question Bridge is on exhibit at the Hartford YMCA, hosted by the Amistad Center for Art and Culture, Hartford, CT. The Blueprint Roundtable is a collaboration with the Amistad Center for Art and Culture.

While filming Question Bridge, the artists heard a compelling exchange between a younger participant and an older civil-rights activist, “Why didn’t you leave us the blueprint?” This sparked a series of multi-generational conversations about how to pass along experience and wisdom. Wesleyan’s Invisible Men, a forum for people who identify as men of color, will host Blueprint Roundtable with three goals:

  1. To solidify a working group of inter-generational male participants to take part in a community conversation about issues facing Black and Latino men,
  2. To galvanize support for Invisible Men at Wesleyan University, and
  3. To reach out to younger male students and older Black and Latino men in Middletown to establish a framework for support, mentoring, and further collaboration.

This program reaches beyond the borders of campus. The Roundtable will be moderated by acclaimed actor Delroy Lindo, star of Romeo Must Die and Malcolm X.

Panelist and performers include:

Wesleyan Students: Ismael Coleman, Reese Poddel, Jalen Alexander, Phabinly Gabriel, Shasha Brown, Nkosi Archibald and Maurice Hurd.

Middletown Youth: AJ Hart (senior, Capital Prep Magnet School), Zyan VanEwyk (freshman, Capital Prep Magnet School), Deontrae Taylor (Middletown High School graduate, current Job Corp member)

Middletown Community Leaders: Antonio Rivera (former Wesleyan Prison Education Project participant), Tony Bostick (Wesleyan Associate Director Public Safety), Pastor Willis McCaw (Ministerial Alliance), Ronald Edens (Community Leader), Kevin Woodard (United Fathers) and Grady Faulkner, P’11 (Common Council)

Blueprint Roundtable

 

Conformity, Education, Diversity

I am just on my way back from Pennsylvania State University, where I gave a lecture on liberal education as the kick-off to a conference on the University and Society. My host was Matt Jordan a former graduate student of mine who is now an associate professor in Communications and an active participant in the Social Thought Program. As I was preparing to return home to Middletown, I posted the following on the HuffingtonPost.

As we marked the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war, over the last month many stories emphasized the false pretenses under which we entered the conflict, the surprising rapidity with which American armed forces deposed Saddam Hussein’s regime, and our extraordinary lack of preparation for the ensuing conflicts among Iraqi groups. Commentators used the idea of “groupthink” to describe the enormous enthusiasm for war in the spring of 2003 and how many in the political class went along with the invasion.

We must be wary of attributing too much power to “groupthink” for what came to seem like an inevitable United States attack on Iraq. After all, there is a good case to be made that many knew that they were simply disseminating false information in order to create a quasi-legal basis for war. These folks weren’t swept along by unconscious conformity with a group. They were lying to the American people and the rest of the world about the threat posed by Saddam’s regime.

We must also be wary of the retrospective notion that there was a universal desire for military action 10 years ago. From January through the summer of 2003, many thousands of people across the country participated in organized protests against the rush to war, and more than a million protestors hit the streets in Europe. On February 19 President Bush was quoted as saying, in his inimitable style: “Size of protest — it’s like deciding, well, I’m going to decide policy based upon a focus group. … The role of a leader is to decide policy based upon the security, in this case, the security of the people.” No focus groups or groupthink for him! We remember that for this president, thinking meant listening to your gut. And he wasn’t about to hear any outsiders’ perspectives that might get in the way of him hearing himself.

But soon after the war began, it became clear that groupthink had in fact played some role in the government’s (and the press’) eagerness for military conflict. Although incompetence and dishonesty were part of these war preparations, the quasi-automatic process of “groupthink” unconsciously swept many along into conformity with “expert” opinion.

William Safire discussed this in his “On Language” column in the summer of 2004, pointing back to William H. Whyte Jr’s coinage of the term “groupthink” in a 1952 Fortune magazine article. Whyte, the author of The Organization Man, bemoaned the “rationalized conformity” that had become a “national philosophy.” He was pointing to orthodoxy that is justified through conventions deemed efficient, right and good. Twenty years later, Irving Janis published Victims of Groupthink, in which he explored how cohesive groups create pressures so that “the members’ striving for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”

You can see the vicious circle: the more cohesion, the more pressure toward “rationalized conformity.” The more conformity, the more cohesion. Outsiders, and ideas from the outside, are not welcome. Everybody hears the same one-note chorus.

Meanwhile, in the same year in which the Iraq war began, the Supreme Court upheld affirmative action policies within a holistic admissions process. In 2003 the court recognized that maintaining diverse student bodies served an educational interest. Sometime in the next several weeks the court will issue its decision on Fisher v. University of Texas, and then on Michigan’s Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, the latest challenges to 2003 ruling. Many are expecting judgments that sharply reduce a university’s ability to take race into account as it tries to create a diverse campus culture.

Educators are rightly concerned that this will lead to more homogeneous student bodies. We are concerned not because of a shared political commitment, but because we know that homogeneity kills creativity. We know that diversity is a powerful hedge against the “rationalized conformity” of groupthink.

We have learned that when conformity is rationalized it becomes a powerful enemy of democracy. It is also a powerful enemy of learning. Inquiry, especially at the highest levels, depends on challenges to convention, as American writers on education have known from Jefferson to Emerson, from du Bois to Addams, from Dewey to Ravitch. Since the late 1960s many universities steered away from cultivated homogeneity and toward creating campus communities in which people can learn from their differences while still finding their commonalities. This means working in teams with folks from different backgrounds while developing shared loyalty to the school’s mission.

Alas, American universities have at times produced their own bizarre forms of conformity, even under the guise of celebrating difference. Partisan visions of social change are taken by some to have the status of established social science, and campus clubbiness can mean enforced homogeneity of political opinion. A colleague of mine was shocked when I raised this point with him about the leftist assumptions of many college classes. What did I mean, he asked, citing several schools offering classes that explored an impressive variety of radical movements.

As educators, we must fight conformity by subjecting it to scrutiny from a variety of perspectives. Without the push to explore alternative possibilities, we are more likely to miss potential opportunities, even rush headlong into catastrophes. Diversity of background, of values and of methods are all assets in developing iterative cross-pollination — ongoing inquiry that productively connects things that had not previously been brought together. Of course, not all combinations will be productive — some creative experiments fail. But without divergent thinking we will be more likely to fall into patterns of rationalized conformity that undermine research and teaching.

Conformity, whether rationalized or simply imposed, undermines our government, our press, and our educational systems. We have had to learn some hard lessons about this over the last 10 years. Surely one of them is that we must defend diversity as a tool for innovation and for responsible decision-making.