Occupy Wall Street and Education

Students have asked me about how I feel about the protests going on under the banner of Occupy Wall Street. I know several who have been participating in New York, and others who plan to join in during the fall break just about to begin.  Today I posted the following piece on the Huffington Post.

 

The Occupy Wall Street protests have become an important topic on college campuses. At Wesleyan, some of our students have joined the group in Zuccotti Park in New York, and others have found a variety of ways of expressing their support. Given the mainstream media’s treatment of the movement, it’s easy to mock the lack of clear policy initiatives or to roll one’s eyes at the absence of leaders to express a neat list of demands. But in talking with students and reading some of the statements from the Occupy Wall Street participants, it seems to me that we get a pretty clear picture of their discontent. Like many Americans, they are revolted by how huge infusions of money are corrupting our political system. And, they are aghast at the trajectory of increasing inequality.

There is plenty to protest. There is no question that our politicians now spend enormous amounts of time raising money; we all get the robocalls and the junk mail to prove it. And there is little doubt that elected officials make decisions about particular legislation or policy initiatives while considering how those decisions will affect the willingness of their donors to contribute. At least in this way, money is eating away at our increasingly dysfunctional political system. This is not something that other representative democracies accept as a necessary part of politics. We can try to show how the money flows – that’s been one of the tasks of the Wesleyan Media Project – but we don’t stem the tide.

Meanwhile, economic inequality in the country is accelerating in frightening ways. Here are three representative facts from Nicholas Kristof’s column from last Sunday’s New York Times:

The 400 wealthiest Americans have a greater combined net worth than the bottom 150 million Americans.

The top 1 percent of Americans possess more wealth than the entire bottom 90 percent.

In the Bush expansion from 2002 to 2007, 65 percent of economic gains went to the richest 1 percent.

Add to this that in many parts of the country 1 in 5 children are growing up in poverty, and you begin to have a sense of what is fueling the anger of protestors who feel they have to “occupy” public spaces in their own country – a country they feel is being stolen from them.

How have these trends concerning money and inequality affected life on a university campus? We can see it at either end of the college experience, beginning with access and ending with jobs after graduation. More of our students need financial aid than ever before, and they often need bigger scholarship packages to get through school. We also see the effects of rising inequality in the choices students face when looking for jobs as graduation nears. They hope to have had practical internship experiences to bolster their resumes while undergraduates, and they often worry that the first job they get after college will set them in an income bracket that will frame them for life. They worry that if their education doesn’t seem like job training, then it isn’t education at all.

But in the campus’s classrooms, concert halls, theaters and sports facilities, I see little evidence of the pernicious economic-political trends poisoning the country at large. That’s because the educational enterprise assumes a core egalitarianism linked to freedom and participation; that’s because as teachers we are committed to equality of opportunity for our students and to their freedom to participate as they wish in the educational enterprise. In big lecture halls, students can’t buy the best seats or arrange for extra help sessions with their parents’ checkbooks. In small seminars, there is a face-to-face equality altered only by the talent, ambition and creativity of the discussion participants. Differences often quickly emerge, but these are the differences of performance —  variations able to emerge exactly because of the environment of equality and freedom.

As a university president, I do spend a lot of my time fundraising. And I am grateful for the generosity of alumni and foundations who support our financial aid and academic programs. But I am also a professor, and this support has no impact on my teaching role or on the role of my colleagues in the classroom.  Now I know that this will strike some readers as impossibly idealistic.  After all, some of our students  have had great help along the way, while others have had to struggle alone. Some come from wealthy families, others from backgrounds of poverty. There is  no doubt that some students are better prepared than others, and that some of that preparation was facilitated by wealth. Still, in the campus culture at schools like Wesleyan, these advantages of birth or luck don’t mean much over time. In order to learn, you have to park your privilege at the classroom door. In order to teach effectively, we try to ensure that our students have an equality of opportunity that doesn’t erase their differences. Furthermore, in those schools that have protected the autonomy of professors, students come to see intellectual freedom modeled by their instructors in ways not dependent on wealth.

When inequality is a charged political problem, as it is right now in the United States, it is because efforts to scale back disparities of wealth are seen as an assault on freedom.  Increased state power is often needed to redistribute wealth, and many (and not only those with the money) see this as the growth of tyranny. Of course, increased state power is also used to protect wealth, which creates its own assaults on freedom. Universities and colleges are lucky insofar as they still have an ethos of equality that is linked to freedom in the classroom and around campus. You don’t need strong central power to ensure this. That’s why efforts to control speech with university regulations, are rightly seen (by either the Left or the Right) as anathema to the educational enterprise.  But graduation into a world in which inequality is ever more powerful comes as a rude awakening.

The campus as a place of equality and freedom has deep roots in America, at least as far back as Thomas Jefferson.  Even with all his prejudices, he favored education at the public expense to prevent the creation of permanent elites based on wealth who would try to turn the government’s powers to their own private advantage. Jefferson believed strongly that given the variability in human capacities and energy there would always be elites —  his notion of equality was an equality of access or opportunity not an equality in which everybody wins. But he also believed strongly that without a serious effort to find and cultivate new talent, the nation’s elites would harden into  an “unnatural aristocracy,” increasingly privileged, corrupt and inept.

From Jefferson to our own day, we have preserved the belief that education allows for the experience of freedom as one’s capacities are enhanced and brought into use. The author of the Declaration of Independence wanted university students to make these discoveries for themselves, not to be told to study certain fields because their futures had already been decided by their families, teachers, churches or government. Jefferson saw education as a key to preventing permanent, entrenched inequality.

Citizens are feeling they have to “occupy” the public spaces of their own country because they believe their land is being appropriated by entrenched elites. The call to “occupy”  is very similar to the Tea Party cry to “take back” our country. Can we find a way to take the experiences of freedom and equality we find in education at its best and translate them to the sphere of politics and society more broadly without at the same time increasing governmental tendencies toward tyranny? Of course, higher education has its own dilemmas of fairness and of elitism, but that does not absolve us of the responsibility to connect in positive ways what we value in research and learning to our contemporary political situation.  To make these connections productive, universities must at the very least serve as models: they must continue to strive to be places where young people discover and cultivate their independence and must themselves resist the trends of inequality that are tearing at the fabric of our country.


Diversity and Transformation

On Friday, in New York, the president of Middlebury and I co-hosted a meeting of liberal arts college representatives about diversity and innovation. It was an exceptionally stimulating gathering, facilitated admirably by Susan Sturm and Freeman Hrabowski. Susan is the George M. Jaffin Professor of Law and Social Responsibility at the Columbia University Law School, where she also directs the Center for Institutional and Social Change. Freeman has been president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County for 20 years and is widely recognized for his success in steering African American students into research and professional positions in the sciences.

Provost Rob Rosenthal and VP Sonia Manjon joined me at the meeting. The discussions made it clear how important our diversity work is for some of our major initiatives. For example, we have been adding resources and leadership strength to our civic engagement programs over the last few years; now we  must ensure that all our students have opportunities to work in community, find productive internships, and generally translate their education into practical terms off campus. We recognize that inclusion and difference are important to the success of civic engagement; now we must turn that recognition into specific goals for tapping into the strengths of our diverse community.

Over the last few years we have also been emphasizing the role of creativity and innovation throughout our liberal arts curriculum. At the meetings in New York, it was clearer than ever to me that we must leverage the creative spark that comes from having teams of heterogeneous students, faculty and staff. At Wesleyan we have become adept at celebrating difference; now we must become better at finding ways to turn the different perspectives we bring to projects into forms of creative energy. This is less about personal identity than it is about harnessing the productive synergies that come from bringing together folks from different backgrounds with different points of view.

For Wesleyan to continue to thrive in the long run, we must show the relevance of a liberal arts curriculum to students from diverse backgrounds around the world. In our scholarship, teaching and co-curricular activities, we must make this education relevant as a resource to those concerned about the future shape of higher education. By embracing the transformative power of diversity, Wesleyan can help shape the future of higher education rather than just react to the emergent cultural and economic conditions for colleges and universities.

Liberty, Equality and Solidarity

When I first spoke (mp3 audio file) at Wesleyan after being appointed president-elect in the spring of 2007, I talked about education in terms of freedom, equality and solidarity. As an old French historian, I said then, this trinity of values had made a great impression on my thinking. Of course, I’d replaced “fraternity” with “solidarity” in my speech, looking for a gender-neutral way of talking about the bonds of community.

A liberal education, I have said many times since my introductory speech in 2007, is about overcoming your self-imposed immaturity (as Kant said), or learning to obey laws that you give yourself (Rousseau). I had felt liberated by my own Wesleyan education. The sense of freedom that came from discovering what I loved to do, getting better at it, and sharing it with others, is a gift that Wesleyan has given to generations of its graduates.

Equality remains such an important value at Wesleyan, which opens its doors to talented students regardless of their ability to pay. At Wes, our commitment to equality makes our economic diversity possible. Which is why financial aid is such a key part of our budget, allowing us to support students whose families could not otherwise afford to send them to our university. During the last several years, we have seen an unparalleled growth in economic inequality in this country, and wealth increasingly is the primary mechanism for accessing cultural, political and economic opportunity. When access to higher education is based on wealth, even strong universities just reinforce inequality. At Wesleyan, our embrace of equality and diversity is a commitment to fight this trend, and many alumni help in this endeavor by contributing to financial aid.

In my introductory remarks to the Wesleyan community in 2007, I stressed a third theme of “solidarity.” I spoke about how at Wesleyan we were a strong community that valued freedom and equality combined with diversity. I have since written about the affectionate solidarity that runs through our campus culture, and about the exuberance that creates individual excellence and deep social connectivity. Wes students continue to produce work at the highest level while remaining tied to one another in community.

Now, I look out on a peaceful, rainy, Andrus Field, the calm before the outburst of activities around Reunion Weekend and Commencement. As the weather brightens at the end of the week and alumni begin streaming in, I know they will be eager to re-connect with old friends, former teachers and the powerful memories that still reside for them on this beautiful campus. I trust they will be stirred anew by   the excitement of discovery that was part of their transformational Wesleyan experience. Freedom of inquiry combined with an ethos of equality and solidarity remain hallmarks of our campus culture, the culture that returning alumni have helped build over the years.

On Sunday a new group of Wesleyan students will join the alumni ranks. The class of 2011 began their college education with me four years ago, and I am grateful to them for their patience with a new prez, their spirited sense of play and work – their devotion to our traditions and their spirit of creativity.

It will be bittersweet for Kari and me as we say goodbye on Sunday — it seems like such a short time ago that we were all attending pre-frosh summer send-offs together. We wish our new alums only the best, and we look forward to welcoming them back to campus whenever they need to plug into the power of the liberty, equality and solidarity that are hallmarks of the Wesleyan tradition now and forever their own.

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.

Education and the Work of Social Justice

Education can be an important vehicle of social mobility, for giving people the capacity to change their lives for the better. Education should allow students to expand their horizons and to choose (and work for) the kind of life they want to lead — rather than merely accept the lot in life that seemed to have been assigned to them.

Education can also be an important vehicle for protecting social privilege, for giving people the capacity to protect their own and their children’s social standing. Education can be an exclusive good, allowing the sons and daughters of the elite to remain on top.

At Wesleyan we have long believed in opening the university’s doors to talented, creative and ambitious students from all walks of life. We have worked hard to recruit students from groups previously excluded by elite institutions and to provide them with the tools for success here on campus and beyond. We know that everyone in the university benefits from having a diverse campus in which students, faculty and staff educate one another to think critically and creatively while valuing independence of mind and generosity of spirit. That’s our mission.

All around us, however, we see the effects of an educational system that functions to re-empower those with resources while undermining the chances for success of those who do not have that good fortune. There are, however, extraordinary men and women working to change that dynamic, and one of them is here today. Geoffrey Canada, president of the Harlem Children’s Zone, will be our Martin Luther King Jr. speaker this afternoon, and he will share his “simple yet radical idea: to change the lives of inner city kids we must simultaneously change their schools, their families, and their neighborhoods.” He does the work of social justice through education.

Mr. Canada’s talk helps kick-off the year’s Social Justice Leadership Conference. Students, faculty, staff and alumni are coming together to discuss a wide range of issues linking education to other efforts to enhance freedom and fairness. A schedule is here.

Productive Idealists

For many years I would tell friends that Wesleyan entered the 1960s well before the decade really started and continued in the sixties spirit decades after the official end of that turbulent time. I meant that Wes was already exploring uncharted, radical territory in the 1950s, and with Norman O. Brown, Carl Schorske on the faculty, along with the impact of John Cage and Buckminster Fuller, there was a willingness to defy convention and explore new boundaries in culture and society. This was complemented by curricular innovations under Victor Butterfield, and especially with the university’s commitment to affirmative action and diversity long before other schools recognized their importance. When I was a student here in the mid-’70s this legacy was active and creative, with strong feminist and environmental movements that were exploring intellectual as well as political alternatives to the status quo.

It is easy to treat these trends with irony or cynicism. Were they romantic and idealist? Sure they were, and that was part of their ability to inspire many to go beyond what had been expected of them. Recently, I was asked to review a new book that trashed both the spirit and the accomplishments of that time, Gerald DeGroot’s The Sixties Unplugged. Although the author has an easy time of showing how much of the romantic rhetoric of the day was not in accord with what was really happening, his book makes no effort at understanding why people were in fact committed to political and cultural change, to social justice. You can read my San Francisco Chronicle book review at:
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/04/18/RV4GVQU5M.DTL&type=books

At Wesleyan today it is worth trying to understand the value of idealism and the productive role of imagining radical alternatives to the status quo. When I spoke with prospective students and their parents this weekend, I emphasized how Wesleyan students become innovators, intelligent risk takers whose ideals are cultivated rather than punctured by the education they receive. At a time in our history when technological and cultural change will continue to accelerate, we need people who can continue to learn, to adapt and to become leaders of innovation. We need the courageous creativity of Wesleyan grads in the sciences, arts, business world, education and politics. And we need those grads to remember their commitment to justice even when those around them seem to have forgotten the victims of change. Wesleyan graduates have long been productive idealists, and they will continue to play that role in the future.

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Having seen the small but vocal rally for Wesleyan’s physical plant employees this weekend, I can well imagine some reading this thinking: “Well, Roth, if you are so concerned about justice, why don’t your physical plant employees have a contract?” We continue to negotiate with the union representing these employees, but it has been a frustratingly slow process. Nevertheless, we compromised on our initial proposals many times and reached an agreement with the union representative and the union’s bargaining committee more than a week ago when Wesleyan accepted the offer made by the union. To our great surprise, after we reached this tentative agreement on the proposal, the members of the union rejected the proposal their own representatives had made! We are back at the negotiating table, but it is disturbing to see students enlisted in a protest (“No contract, no peace!”) that seems aimed to make up for the failure of the physical plant employees to agree with their own representatives. It is hard to miss the irony of physical plant employees having extra work to do as they clean up the scrawled messages of their student supporters.

Let me be clear: We are and have been negotiating in good faith throughout the bargaining process, and I am committed to see that those who work for Wesleyan are fairly compensated for the good jobs they do. I hope very much we soon reach a fair and economically sustainable agreement.

On a lighter note, when Sophie saw “contract now!” scrawled on our driveway, she thought we were suddenly to become smaller…

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April Visitors

It’s admissions season, and several hundred happy high school seniors recently got a thick packet from Middletown. After considering thousands of applications, poring over transcripts, studying reports of interviews, and reading letters of recommendation, the team in our Admission Office is gearing up to explain Wesleyan to young men and women trying to decide which school to attend. Over the next few weeks, many will visit our campus. What will they be looking for?

Students who make their way to Middletown will want to meet faculty to get a sense of whether they will have a rapport with teachers who could become their mentors. They will also want to meet current students, trying to envision whether they could be happy members of the various communities that make up our student body. I suspect that our recently admitted prospective students will be looking for that sense of fit that gives one a feeling of belonging, of being able to find friends and to make discoveries that will expand one’s intellectual and personal horizons. Many getting ready to begin college want to find a place where they will feel “comfortable.” I’d like to think that would-be Wesleyan students are also looking for an adventure that will alter their comfort zones — that will challenge them to discover more fully who they are, and what they love to do.

I’m told that for the last several years Wes undergrads have been expressing the fear that the student body is changing, and that the university is becoming more like some of the other highly selective liberal arts schools. This is such a Wesleyan concern! We pride ourselves on being different: more creative, more independent, more experimental and more progressive than many of our peer institutions. I think there is much truth in this, actually. Wesleyan continues to attract an applicant pool full of talented men and women who can celebrate difference, who have an exuberant attitude to learning (and much else in life), and who can make use of their freedom to develop qualities of originality in a rigorous, highly demanding context. Of course, the university has changed, and it will continue to do so, but in ways that make us more distinctive. That’s why it’s so cool to be part of the Wesleyan family. What hasn’t changed is the expectation of being able to learn about oneself and the world, and to develop strong personal relationships within an affectionate, open-minded community. And we maintain the expectation that as Wesleyan alumni we will continue to learn, and to have a positive impact on the world around us.

We welcome our visitors in April as they try to discover what Wesleyan is really like, and whether they can see themselves being engaged, creative and happy here. This has long been a very special place, but also one that is always changing in response to the contributions of our students, faculty and staff.

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April brings theses, final exams and papers, recitals and a flurry of theater productions. It also brings senior art exhibitions, and this week I had a chance to meet some of the artists and their teachers. The student work in the Zilkha Gallery this time of year is really stunning, and it is a tribute to our seniors and to the art faculty. BRAVO!!

Thirty years ago I wrote my own senior thesis on psychoanalysis and politics. I’m still going back to those themes, as you can see in a book review I recently published: http://www.bookforum.com/inprint/015_01/2249

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Meetings and Dialogues

Presidents have lots of meetings. At Wesleyan my days are full of scheduled conversations with vice-presidents and deans informing me of ongoing plans, current crises, and budget issues. Students and parents request time to talk over some of the things the university is doing particularly well, or (more often) to discuss areas where we are falling short of expectations. This past week I had three (again three!) very different sorts of meetings that tell me a lot about Wesleyan.

Early in the week some senior administrators and I drove up to Amherst for Little Three meetings. Amherst, Williams and Wesleyan get together once each semester to compare notes on a handful of issues so that we can discover best practices and avoid the worst. There were some interesting exchanges about diversity work on each campus, and I took away the lesson that Wesleyan needs to engage in more serious planning about our goals in this area. How should diversity be part of our recruiting of students, faculty and staff? What is the status of the diversity dialogue on campus? Are we doing enough to ensure that our curriculum and our residential programs are teaching critical thinking about difference as well respect and affection for it? I know that we can do more to create a framework for planning in this area, and we will.

Other topics at the Little Three meeting ranged from library renovation to international students, from co-curricular programs to fund raising. My Wes colleagues and I left feeling especially good about our curriculum and residential learning. Although Williams and Amherst have a great advantage in financial resources, we felt we were using our faculty and student strength for interesting innovations.

Later in the week I had a very different “meeting” with the Wesleyan faculty of Division II – social sciences. The professors from this area gather every few weeks to hear a lecture over lunch, and I accepted the invitation some time ago. I decided to talk about the philosophy of Richard Rorty, who was my teacher at Princeton and a major influence on my work. It was exciting for me to give an academic talk to colleagues about the intersection of philosophy and politics, and I had fun discussing Rorty’s view that there was no longer any need for a “meta-discipline” (or an academic referee) to tell other intellectuals what counted as “real research” or “science” or “Truth.” Although there wasn’t much time, there was a spirited discussion about the future of philosophy after the demise of epistemology. It felt great to be among colleagues in dialogue about ideas.

Speaking of philosophy, the magazine Bookforum recently published my review of a new collection Sarah Kofman’s essays. Kofman was a key French feminist philosopher who wrote in especially powerful ways about Freud and Nietzsche.

Last night was my final meeting of the week, an hour with the Wesleyan Student Assembly. There were great questions about what kinds of students we should be recruiting, about how the campus community can be part of the planning process, about the juvenile Argus headlines, and about weirdness vs. political engagement. We didn’t reach consensus, but we did have a candid conversation that was lively, fun, and, I trust, informative. On this cold, icy night, students turned out who wanted to continue to improve the Wesleyan experience. That’s the best kind of meeting!

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