Student Loans: Congress Must Act!

Over the last five years at Wesleyan we have reduced the use of loans in our financial aid packages because we realize that debt can play havoc with one’s choices after graduation. We are committed to keeping loans as low as possible, and we no longer ask our neediest students to borrow anything at all.

As many of you know, Congress began its 4th of July recess without taking action in regard to the interest rates paid on student loans. The result is that student loan rates will double — from 3.4% to 6.8%. While it’s hard to be surprised anymore by a deadlocked Congress, in this case the inaction is particularly galling.  Young men and women who need to borrow to meet their college expenses face dramatic increases in their payments, and some will choose not to pursue their education as a result. This increase in rates is especially unfortunate because the premium in wages for those who get a college degree (as compared to those with only a high school diploma) has never been greater. Moreover, there are reasonable alternatives before the Congress right now, and any one of them is preferable to inaction. Some propose market-based frameworks for the long term, others propose caps on interest rates for those most in need of assistance. Here is a chart from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators:

interest_rate_proposal_chart-vfinal

Is it too much to expect Congress to reach a compromise to help student and their families? Reasonable solutions are out there. Demand that Congress act now!

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.

From Affordability To Transformation

Since I first posted a blog at the Washington Post about affordability plans at Wesleyan, there has been strong interest in our three-year option. I’m delighted and a little surprised. As I’ve said, it’s not for everybody, but the three-year possibility might make sense for many people. Here are two audio clips in which I’ve discussed what we are doing in this regard:

NPR Marketplace

WOR Radio New York

When I arrived in the office this morning, Heather Brooke asked me how I liked the Wall Street Journal piece. I didn’t know anything about it, and then was surprised to read the opening lines of an op-ed by Fay Vincent:

As the costs of attending college continue to mount, often well beyond the rate of inflation, the search is on for ways to economize. One seemingly obvious way is to reduce the number of years required to graduate. Last month, Wesleyan University, the private liberal-arts college in Middletown, Conn., did just that.

President Michael Roth announced that his institution would encourage students who wanted to complete the requirements for the Bachelor of Arts degree in three years rather than the customary four. These students would take some course work during the summer along with their normal load during the school year.

“I think it’s important to show that liberal arts colleges, even ones as selective as Wesleyan, are trying to do something about affordability,” he told the Associated Press. Tuition, room and board there is nearing $50,000 per year.

There are a smattering of other colleges across the nation that have three-year programs, but none with as high an academic profile. And while the Wesleyan decision has not attracted much attention or discussion, I suspect there will be more such cost-saving efforts in coming years.

Mr. Vincent was underestimating the price of institutions like Wesleyan, but I was pleased to see him encouraging experiments that will enhance affordability. At Wesleyan, we also want our experiments to intensify the educational experience so that it is more compelling than ever. A liberal arts education has long been about transformation. With Wes faculty, students, staff and alumni making contributions, we can also transform liberal learning so that it’s more relevant than ever!

Why Colleges Should Offer a Three Year Option

As I prepare for my commencement speech this year, I remember vividly when I first realized that I could graduate college in three years rather than four. As a freshman, I was certainly in no hurry to leave. Indeed, I loved being in college: I was excited by the combination of freedom and opportunity to work hard on subjects I loved with faculty I admired. I didn’t want to leave – even for vacations!

But I realized that graduating in three years would save my family lots of money. Neither of my parents had attended college, and they had sacrificed for years to send my brother and me to the schools of our choice. My father was a furrier, and my mother had given up a promising singing career to raise us (while earning money selling clothes in our basement). They were proud that they were able to afford good colleges for us, and they would never have asked me to skip a year.

But I was proud, too, and I wanted to show my father that all the studying I had done had paid off in some way. I had accumulated credits through APs and a summer program, and with a little extra effort I could save almost a year of tuition – over $6,000! I loved my alma mater, but it seemed expensive even in the 1970s, and so I became a sophomore during my first year. The campus offered me countless opportunities, and I ran after them: I was president of my (co-ed) fraternity, published fiction, took music lessons, held down more than one job, and sought to excel in my classes. At the time, I thought that given the fact that I was going to be at school for only three years, I’d better take full advantage of everything there that I could.

Well, I have now been back at my alma mater as its president for five years, and I still find it an amazing place full of opportunities for learning. Recently, I have spoken with the trustees here about measures we can take to make the university more affordable while still ensuring the quality of an education that comes from face-to-face learning with accomplished scholar-teachers. Wesleyan, like many universities, has gotten ever more expensive, and even though we have a robust financial aid program, we know that many families who don’t qualify for large scholarships have great difficulty paying the high tuition we charge. We use these high fees to maintain the quality of our campus and our instruction – and to provide more funds for financial aid.

But in the last year or so, I’ve come to believe that this model is unsustainable. In a new model we are developing we will be committed to spending almost a third of our revenue on scholarships while meeting the financial need of our students without requiring excessive loans. We will also commit to linking tuition increases with inflation, rather than depending on the much higher rates of increase to which Wesleyan (like most colleges and universities) has been accustomed for decades.

We will also make more visible — and provide more support for — the “three year” route that I chose in the mid 1970s. That is, we will help those students who choose to graduate in six semesters (along with some summer work) get the most out of their time on campus. The three-year option isn’t for everyone, but for those students who are prepared to develop their majors a little sooner, shorten their vacations by participating in summer sessions, and take advantage of the wealth of opportunities on campus, this more economical BA might be of genuine interest. In our case, allowing for some summer expenses, families would still save about 20 percent from the total bill for an undergraduate degree. At many private schools that would be around $50,000!

Some have said to me that students think of their undergraduate experience as among the four best years of their lives – so why would they only want three? That’s the question I faced in 1975, and my decision then was that the economic trade-off was worth it. My appreciation for the remarkable experience had at residential liberal arts colleges has only grown since then, but that does not mean that I came to regret my decision. Three marvelous years here were enough to set me squarely on the path of a lifetime of learning.

Again, by no means is the three-year option for everyone. But if we can offer families the same quality undergraduate degree at a significantly reduced total price – and I think we can – why not do it? Our professors will continue to advance their own fields as they mentor young people whose curiosity, idealism and ambition are unleashed. By making this experience a little more accessible, I am betting we will only add to the diversity and quality of the experience for all our undergraduates.

Cross posted from the Washington Post

How to Choose Your (Our) University

It’s that time of year again: the time when high school seniors previously anxious about whether they would get into the college of their dreams, now get to worry about choosing the college that is just right for them. In the last few weeks applicants have found out where they’ve been accepted, and now they are trying to envision where they will be most likely to thrive. Where will I learn the most, be happiest, find friends 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.

For many high school seniors, the month of April is decision time. 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.

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. Hundreds of visitors will be coming to Wesleyan next week for WesFest (our annual program for admitted students). They will go to classes and athletic contests, musical performances and parties. And they will ask themselves: Would I be happy at Wesleyan?

I hope our visitors get 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.

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. Earlier this week, Henry Abelove gave a stirring lecture at the Center for Humanities call “What I Taught and How I Taught It.” I was Henry’s student in the mid 1970s, and members of his first-year seminar from a few years ago were also in the audience. His care for students and his dedication to the material being taught were everywhere in evidence. How proud and grateful I am to have been his student and colleague!

The commitment of our faculty says a lot about who we are, as does the camaraderie around the completion of senior theses this week. 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.

MLK Day: Now is the Time

The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”

Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, 1967.

I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for the law.
Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963

If the cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. . . . Because the goal of America is freedom, abused and scorned tho’ we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny.
Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. –Strength to Love, 1963

We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy, and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.” Letter From Birmingham Jail, 1963

 

New Year’s Resolution: Make Stuff that Matters

The Huffingtonpost asked me to write something for their New Year’s Eve front page. Thinking back over the year can feel depressing, but one can also find a positive trajectory. And why not focus as we start 2012 on a simple commitment: make stuff that matters.

In the first half of 2011, we heard the word”deficit” in wave after wave of political discourse. The Republicans used it as a signifier of Washington’s lack of fiscal self-control — of an intellectually and morally bankrupt government that spent our money without concern for the views of those who had earned it in the first place. The “deficit” was real, and it was also symbolic of a failure to maintain an economy that promised a reasonable opportunity for creating a better future. Government spending was seen to be the problem because those who spent (and perhaps those who benefited directly from the spending) had no connection to how Americans made a living. Real work seemed completely divorced from massive expenditure because it was borrowing that enabled the spending. The collapse of the credit markets in 2008 and the bailout of the wealthiest institutions (and individuals) that followed underscored for many Americans that spending through borrowing created deficits, and that deficits robbed us of the promise of a better future. Raising the “debt ceiling” no longer seemed like a mere formality.

Sometime in the late summer the tide turned, and the wave of words concerning the evil of deficits receded before a wave of rhetoric on the production of inequality. Despite all the negative press about the “leaderless” and “agenda-less” Occupiers, the movement successfully repositioned the political conversation around how the richest 1% had been accumulating an ever-greater share of the nation’s wealth and political influence. This massive shift of wealth to a small percentage of the population was seen not as the result of hard work or great feats of productive imagination but as the result of policies (tax breaks, subsidies, bailouts)geared to bringing more advantages to the most advantaged. The system is rigged, and this denies most Americans any chance at a better future.

Throughout 2011, another current of conversation, less powerful perhaps than the cries of “deficits” or “inequality” but important nonetheless, had to do with “creativity and innovation.” Book after book explored the roots of individual genius, and pundits from all over the political spectrum opined on the ingredients of organizational innovation and the cultural components that make productive invention more likely. There was general recognition that we need not just products that were artfully put together, but platforms that would give rise to renewable cycles of innovation.

Platforms create new value rather than just borrow on the basis of past credit. A culture that simply borrows to maintain the status quo is doomed to fall apart. Spending without creativity is just depletion. Some of the rhetoric on deficits of the first half of 2011 recognized that. Innovation demands a culture of equal access so that “the best idea can win.” A society that is geared to protecting the powers of its most advantaged is also doomed — doomed to corruption and stagnation. Some of the rhetoric on inequality in recent months has rightly pointed this out.

Although talk of creativity can be vague, it can offer us a way of navigating the future with hope and purpose. Charting a course that includes innovation turns us toward practices of “making stuff that matters” rather than berating ourselves for failures to defend traditions, products or advantages that we have held in the past.

As we begin 2012, I trust we will remain wary of those who promise us that the future will be more secure if we borrow against the credit accumulated from the past, and that we will remain suspicious of those who tell us that freedom for the rich is freedom for us all. As we begin the new year, I trust that our interest in creativity will remain strong. Our fascination with innovation stems from our determination to keep our hopes for a better future alive, despite the well-justified fears of depletion and corruption. Innovation doesn’t just mean better gadgets – phones that are ever faster or music players that can hold more tunes. Innovation should mean creating stuff that matters: renewable energy that will power our industries without destroying the planet; medicines that will cure seemingly intractable illnesses; educational structures that will enable more of our citizens to engage in productive and meaningful work — and to become innovators themselves.

If we can learn from the critics of borrowing and of inequality, and if we can foster a culture of innovation, perhaps we can make the new year one of promise and fairness, of learning and creativity. It’s almost New Year’s Eve, a time to be hopeful. And then it will be the time to work on realizing those hopes.

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.


Starting on Labor Day

Many people ask me why Wesleyan begins classes again this year on Labor Day, a holiday that celebrates the American worker and marks the unofficial end of summer. When the faculty approved the calendar a few years ago, we discussed the tradeoffs of either starting earlier (most were against that), or backing up too close to Christmas and winter holidays (a big problem for our students wanting to return home for break). We were also juggling the length of orientation and reading week. In the end, we decided that Labor Day would remain a holiday for most of the staff, but that faculty and students would begin their classes on the first Monday of September.

Labor is much on the mind for our students as they begin the term. Some of that is in the nature of choosing classes. A few students want to know “how hard is this class?” “How much work will I have to do?” This is almost always an impossible question to answer just by looking at the syllabus. Some professors assign ten books or more to read during the term, while others focus on one or two. That doesn’t mean that the class with the shorter reading list requires any less work. Just check out Brian Fay’s course reading Spinoza’s Ethics — no walk in the park, but a deep dive into a major philosophical work. The truth is that every class offers increased intellectual rewards the more work you give to it.

But labor is on the mind of our students and their families in a more general sense this year.The job situation in the United States is just awful, and it has been depressingly bad for far too long. At the end of last week we learned that the US economy created no new jobs in August, and in a few days President Obama is scheduled to give what is billed as a major address on jobs. The real wages of working men and women in America have been declining for several years now, as the gap between the rich and the rest grows impossibly wide. The most pressing question facing the American economy for the next decade is how we will create and sustain decent jobs. Everything else is a distraction.

It’s no wonder that already parents have begun asking me how I think our Wesleyan education is going to equip our students as they head off into the job market in the spring. One can certainly understand their anxiety. Although a college degree is clearly an advantage, the job market is just awful even for grads with an impressive diploma. After four years of a liberal arts education, what kind of labor will open to our new alumni?

The answer isn’t simple, but it is clear that employers are often looking for workers who can think creatively, solve problems, seek opportunities and be self-motivating. Employers, when they are able to hire for good jobs, are looking for people who can learn while they are working — folks who aren’t just wed to some single skill they learned in the classroom to deal with a challenge that may no longer be relevant. At Wesleyan we believe deeply in the translational liberal arts — a broad, pragmatic education through which one learns how to apply modes of thinking and innovation in a variety of contexts. Even as the contexts change (whether that be through technology, politics or the economy), we believe our students will be well equipped to make their way in the world. We believe our alumni will be at the forefront of those creating and sustaining the jobs of the future.

But this isn’t just an article of faith. Wesleyan also offers practical advice, internship information and personal connections through our Career Resource Center. The CRC is currently located in the Butterfield residence hall complex, and in January it will be moving into the center of campus (in the old Squash Building currently be renovated). Even as students start their classroom labors today, they should remember to pay a visit to the CRC sometime this semester.

Happy First Day of Classes! Happy Labor Day!!