If Foss Hill Could Talk…

This week we are holding a special event to raise money to support students. Foss Hill Day reminds alumni, current students, faculty and staff of a place that is central to all of us. For some, Foss is where they heard one of the greatest concerts of their lives, for others, it’s the place where they walked in solitary circles trying to figure out what to do with their lives, while for several it’s the place where they fell in love, proposed marriage, made a leap.

When I was sick last week, I kept asking Kari, “is there still snow on Foss?” It’s my touchstone for the campus climate — and I don’t just mean the weather.

Foss at Spring Break
Foss at Spring Break
From my office window March 30
From my office window March 30

On Thursday, April 2, we will ask for gifts of whatever size in honor of our common ground, Foss Hill. Tom Kelly ’73  (who heard the Dead on the hill and hears them still) has generously offered a challenge gift. The grand total goes to support students through the Wesleyan Fund!

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Go to the hill! Make a gift!! THIS IS WHY.

Wild Wesleyan, Peaceful Wesleyan

There’s a momentary break in the meeting, and I sneak a look out the office window at the  students heading for Foss Hill to take in (finally) the spring sunshine. Can’t we have class outside, I want to ask.  But I don’t ask (and I never take my own classes outside) because I know I’d never be able to concentrate; I’d just  lie down in the grass and enjoy the day. And so I wait for the last meeting to end before heading outside for a walk.

One of the joys of the season for me is just wandering around our beautiful campus as students emerge from their winter hibernation and  greet springtime.  Much credit is due to Dave Hall’s crew, who are marvelously attentive to keeping Wesleyan a home of which we can be proud. And students are joining this endeavor, too. Some months ago I was approached by Miles Bukiet and a group of Wesleyan students dedicated to sustainable landscape design. As they put it in their mission statement: “Pressing environmental problems compel us to question carbon intensive lawn care, inspiring us to instead imagine innovative landscape designs that use wildflowers, native plants, and edible fruit trees to knit our community together around a practical expression of our commitment to sustainability while simultaneously beautifying our campus.” At a  design charrette sponsored by the group, I was very impressed by the thoughtfulness and teamwork displayed by the projects I saw. Last week I met again with the group and was delighted to learn that they are working on a plan for the West College courtyard. I can’t wait to see the result!

As I meander about with Mathilde, thinking about intelligent landscape design, I come across professors starting their evening commute, or catching up with students, and then a wonderful African drumming and dance performance in the CFA courtyard.  I marvel at the skill and stamina of the performers.  Strolling back toward the President’s House, I see a group setting up for a Gamelan Concert on the labyrinth installed a few years back to honor Joe Reed and Kit Reed. No hurry. Why not take in some of this wondrous music and dance as the evening light fades?

 

Gamelan Concert on Reed Labyrinth

 

From beaches to snow drifts

Over the last week I’d been traveling out West, and many Wes parents (and some of their sons and daughters) wondered how they would cope with the return to colder climes. Walking on the beach on Santa Monica, Sophie asked me more than a few times “Why did we ever leave this place?!” (Sophie was born in Santa Monica when I was at the Getty Center and Kari at UCLA.) Watching the sun come up was a treat:

Sunrise in Santa Monica

I met with more than 200 alumni, students and parents who attended a great event at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and I then went on to Arizona to meet with a smaller but no less energetic group. The beauty of the beaches and then the desert was striking, but returning to Middletown’s snowy landscape has been invigorating.

As I make some final edits to my syllabus for the Past on Film, I wonder how our returning students will react when they see their campus filled with snow drifts from what journalists here are calling one of the “storms of the century.” Wes looks like a winter wonderland, and Foss Hill has been filled with young folks racing down into the snowpack of Andrus Field. And some of the sledders aren’t so young! Kari got me out there yesterday (even though I told her I’d grown allergic to velocity), and it was fun careening down the hill. Here’s the proof:

Roth on Foss Hill
Kari Weil on Foss Hill

I remember well the last “storm of the century” when I was a student at Wesleyan struggling with my senior thesis in 1978. Having the snow to fall into, Foss Hill for sledding, and plenty of camaraderie from professors and friends made the winter warm and welcoming, as well as quite spectacular. It still does!

Campus Renovations

After an extended time away from Middletown, I always enjoy coming back to see the changes to various parts of campus. This summer there are many, from the sad dismantling and recycling of MoCon to the freshly painted dome of the historic Van Vleck observatory that shines anew atop Foss Hill.

We continue to make steady progress on renovating our science facilities. New fire alarms and sprinklers were put into Hall-Atwater and Shanklin; new ceilings and energy efficient lighting are being installed in the Hall-Atwater corridors; three Chemistry teaching labs are almost unrecognizable after being newly outfitted; and various improvements to other labs will support their high levels of research.

We are finishing a major project at the CFA Crowell Concert Hall. A handicap ramp has been added to the main entrance, and a new elevator being installed inside a former stairwell is going to provide easy accessibility to all levels of the Concert Hall.

Housing renovations accommodate more than 40 new beds for undergraduates.  Most notably, 156 High Street has a brand new suite of 10 beds on the main floor including handicap accessible restrooms and card access for everyone at the main entrance. 109 Cross Street and the former Community Service Office at 162 Church Street have been transformed into senior housing. The Womanist House is relocating to 44 Brainard Avenue, the German Haus is moving to a newly renovated 65 Lawn Avenue, and 260 Pine Street has been converted into a 6-bedroom house for seniors.

Energy conservation projects continue to be implemented across campus.  Residence halls have been furnished with a new energy metering and monitoring system. The new system will allow the expansion of the student run Do-It-In-the-Dark program which has been so successful in reducing energy consumption in student houses. Monitors located in residence halls will display real time data on energy consumption.

Several programs moved this summer to spaces better suited to their needs. The College of the Environment has moved to 284 High Street (formerly GLSP). The Graduate Liberal Studies Program is now at 74 Wyllys Avenue (formerly the Investment Office), right next door to the Admission Office. The Investment Office has relocated to the 4th floor of North College alongside the Treasurer and Finance and Administration offices, and some staff from Finance and Administration are moving to 287 High Street (formerly the Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies building).

The Physical Plant staff has been working hard and productively all summer long. You’ll see the happy results when you come back to campus.

 

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MoCon Decision

When I began my tenure as President of Wesleyan in the summer of 2007, I strolled over to my old Foss Hill room just across from the entrance to McConaughy Dining Hall. Standing in the circular driveway between my frosh dorm and the dining hall, I could almost hear the music that my roommate Richie and I blasted through the speakers we’d set in the window. On that Arrival Day in August 1975, we decided to announce our start as Wesleyan students by turning up the volume on Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone: How does it FEEEEL?

But in the summer of 2007 MoCon stood empty, and I wondered what the previous administration had envisioned for it. I soon learned that in planning the Usdan University Center, various uses for MoCon were studied but that none seemed feasible.  I began making my own inquiries: MoCon as small theater? art gallery? studios? residence?  Nothing seemed to work either economically or architecturally. The building just didn’t accommodate the needs we had, or, if we tried to make the structure fit those needs, it became just too expensive.

Still, I really hoped to solve this riddle. I thought back to the great Pete Seeger concert I saw in MoCon, or to the night that Keith Jarrett walked off stage because a bottle rolled down the stairs. (He came back. We listened.) I don’t remember any particular meals, but I have plenty of memories of the great people I met in the building. And I know that thousands of other Wesleyan alumni have their own memories anchored to the same spot.

So this winter I went back to the numbers and to the architects (and I walked through the building). We are presently undertaking an exciting renovation of the Squash Courts, and we just finished a revitalization of Davenport-Allbritton that is a great success. I’d hoped to find something parallel with MoCon. I talked with a friend who is a campus architect and my architectural collaborator at California College of the Arts. We had done wonderful re-use projects in San Francisco, and I thought we might come up with something for Wesleyan. But our brainstorming about MoCon didn’t prove fruitful as we drilled down on a variety of ideas. I again consulted with alumni in the field as well as with knowledgeable people on our own faculty. The conclusions, alas, were the same.

In order to keep McConaughy as an active part of campus we either have to invent a need that the current structure could meet, or we have to re-build the dining hall as something else in order to “preserve it.” Dividing up its great open space for some specific purpose that is antithetical to its design doesn’t really keep MoCon, nor does replacing all its essential components for use as an outdoor pavillion. And the expense would be staggering….millions over the next few years.

Ideas for reusing MoCon have been solicited for years, and delaying a decision any further seems to me irresponsible. So, with great reluctance I have reached the conclusion that we will not be able to maintain McConaughy. Instead, we’ll disassemble the building and recycle almost all its materials. Sometimes buildings reach the end of their lives, and this is what has happened with MoCon.

I know some students and alumni will be disappointed, and, like me, they will miss the cool circular structure that was part stage, part ballroom, part spaceship. We will find another space to dedicate to the memory of President McConaughy. In a week or so, we will post on the homepage a link to a site that highlights the events that took place at MoCon while encouraging readers to post their own memories of the dining hall.

I remember Dylan’s question: “How does it feel?” The answer is, “It stinks.” But the alternatives feel even worse.  So, this summer we will say goodbye to McConaughy Dining Hall. As for that spot in front of my old Foss Hill room, we will restore the hillside.  As Construction Services Consultant Alan Rubacha noted in The Argus:  “We will allow water that used to run into storm drains to percolate into the earth. We will provide a much needed open space for birds.  This open space will provide spectacular views into and out of Foss Hill.”

I will surely miss McConaughy. But I try to look forward to those new perspectives.

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Teaching, Research and a Busy Weekend

Yesterday felt like the first warm spring day since students returned from Spring Break, and it was great to see Andrus Field and Foss Hill fill up in the late afternoon. I’d begun the day with a visit to our pilot program at the Cheshire State Correctional Institution. VP Sonia Manjon and I visited Melanye Price’s class in political science, and I was struck by the seriousness with which the men were approaching complex issues in American political culture.  Russell Perkins ’09, who helped get this program underway and continues to coordinate it, met us at the prison. It was important to see first-hand some of the issues that arise in a program that teaches liberal arts classes in correctional institutions.

For the last year or so Provost Joe Bruno and I have sponsored talks by faculty for their colleagues across the campus. The faculty lunch lecture yesterday was delivered with panache by Stewart Novick, one of our star professors of chemistry. Stew’s subject was astrochemistry, and he did a masterful job of explaining the “rich chemistry” of dense interspatial dust clouds — even to someone as chemistry-challenged as I! I was especially impressed by the interdisciplinary importance of the work for astronomy, physics and cosmology. The collaboration on this sophisticated research by undergraduate and graduate students was yet another sign of how our science programs are dedicated to the scholar-teacher model at the highest level.

Busy weekend on the horizon at Wesleyan. The senior theses art exhibitions at Zilkha gallery are always worth checking out. This week Sarah Abbott, Julian Wellisz, Rachel Schwerin, Megumu Tagami and Yang Li have their recent work on display.

Baseball hosts Middlebury today and Saturday afternoon, and the softball team is at home against Hamilton. Men’s lacrosse is at home against the always strong Tufts team. Come out and support the Cardinals!

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Quiet Campus….People Working

I have been traveling for Wesleyan a lot recently, and it’s always good to return home to campus. During mid March, though, the place is startlingly  quiet. Many of the administrators take some vacation time before the final big push to Commencement, and faculty are busy grading papers or exams and trying to make progress on research projects. Looking out my office window toward Foss Hill, I see the physical plant staff (led by Dave Hall) getting the field ready for the baseball team, but otherwise there is  little visible activity.

But many students have been extremely busy during the March break. Let’s start with the athletes. Baseball is off to a great start, winning its first eight games against an impressive variety of opponents. Julian Sonnenfeld ’11 has been hitting up a storm, as has Talia Bernstein ’11 on the softball team. Softball also won its first eight games! The tennis teams are also starting off strong, with Genevieve Aniello ’13 for the women and Michael Piderit ’12 for the men having fine early seasons. The lacrosse teams have been hard at work, with Teddy Citrin ’12 for the men and Jess Chukwu ’11 and Erin McCarthy ’10 for the women playing like scoring machines. Crew is rowing back in CT after a very successful southern swing.

My athletic activities are just to keep the pounds off, and in the gym yesterday I ran into Greg Hurd ’10, who just finished a great wrestling career at Wesleyan. But no rest for the weary, as he’s now hard at work on his senior thesis in Earth and Environmental Science. Greg has spent a considerable amount of time doing fieldwork in the Southwest and is now writing up the results. There are many thesis writers on campus making the final push. Art projects will be going up soon, and I especially look forward to seeing Gregory James’s ’10 installation. Rebecca Krisel ’10 is writing on counter-insurgency, while Emma Van Susteren ’10 is focusing on the slow food movement. Kalen Flynn ’10 is writing about holocaust historiography and its effect on how we think about the representation of the past more generally. These are just a few of the theses that young scholars, artists, writers and scientists are busy bringing to completion. No spring break for them!

Not all senior projects take the form of theses. Some are writing stories, essays, or engaged in community service projects. Sam Hart is majoring in Chemistry and Molecular Biology, but he decided to do an art project that brings together his scientific and aesthetic interests. In addition to building the piece, he has written a computer program that will bring his sculpture to life through moving color field patterns. Check it out in the Zilkha Gallery in mid April.

Good work is its own reward, but sometimes there’s more.   Wes senior Liana Woskie has just won a Watson Fellowship ($25,000!) in support of her project entitled “Bringing Primary Healthcare Home: The Community Health Worker, Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Tanzania, Lesotho. In the words of  Cleveland Johnson, Director of the Watson Fellowship Program, “Watson Fellows are passionate learners, creative thinkers, and motivated self-starters who are encouraged to dream big but demonstrate feasible strategies for achieving their fellowship goals.”  No surprise to me that a Wes student is one of this year’s winners!

Congratulations to Liana and to all Wes students who are giving their all!

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Holiday Break, Holiday Anticipation

When I went out to get the paper this morning just before six, I saw the big bus out behind Usdan loading up passengers. Finals were over just yesterday, and the residence halls would soon be empty. Many staff members took some vacation days this week, and faculty are at home or in their offices grading. The Winter Break is here.

Yesterday I wrote briefly to our campus community reflecting back on 2009. It was a year of great extremes: from intense sadness and mourning, to great joy and celebration. Through it all, I have felt so fortunate to be surrounded by friends and colleagues at Wes. And now, as I see just a few young sledders coming down Foss Hill, the campus seems to be catching its breath.

College Row

foss sleds 09

I just came back from the libraries, where I was looking for materials for my spring semester class. But I know it’s time for a break. There are presents to open, and Mathilde is eager to have more time to run in the snow.

I’ve already thanked faculty, students and staff for their remarkable contributions this year. I’d also like to thank those alumni and parent readers for their input and their support. This ongoing participation shapes the future of our university while connecting us to our vital traditions. Thank you for helping to make Wesleyan such an extraordinary place!

I wish you all a peaceful and joyful holiday season. I’m already looking forward to a great 2010!

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