Welcoming Families!

Family Weekend comes early this year, and we anticipate a large crowd of visitors to campus. There will be lots of wonderful events, from art exhibitions featuring photographs and paintings to South Indian music, lectures and athletic contests. You can find plenty more information here.

Parents of new students are often surprised at how quickly their sons and daughters have formed intense friendships — they can sometimes feel like extended families. Whether it’s a cohort formed in sports, science labs, art studios or in a rock band… these new relationships can be profound. Some alumni remember their “Greek” experience as most important in this regard, and recently, we’ve again had searching discussions about the relationships created in these societies. We announced this week that the residential fraternities will have to work over the next three years to become fully co-educational, and we’ve already had lots of positive feedback concerning that decision. Of course, we’ve also had some strong pushback from folks who feel that fraternities represent important traditions that should be maintained. Along with the Board, I am hopeful that these traditions can find new forms as the societies welcome women members and women leaders. Sure, it will be different, as these societies are different in many ways from their incarnations in the 50s and 60s. Working together, I am confident that we can retain some of their best features while building new traditions for the future.

I think we may be creating a new tradition of launching Tony Award winning musicals. OK, we are trying. In the Heights author Quiara Alegria Hudes is now a distinguished professor of playwriting at Wes, and the creator and star of the show, Lin-Manuel Miranda ’02, was back on campus this week to meet the cast of the production that will be staged this fall. By all accounts, he gave a great talk/performance Tuesday evening. Provost Ruth Weissman, Lin and I documented the evening with a selfie:

Lin, Ruth and me copy

 

The vibrancy of the art scene at Wesleyan is legendary. In recent years, we’ve added another tradition to it with The Mash, our music festival on the first Friday of the semester. This year I played a little with some friends, and I was introduced to many Wes bands and individual performers. Here’s a twelve minute sampler:

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There will be plenty of music, friendships and even a little theater this weekend. It should be a great one!

Trustees and the Future of Wesleyan

This past weekend the Board of Trustees gathered for its annual fall retreat. At this meeting, Trustees and Representatives to the Board discuss a range of issues important for the future of the University. We began on Friday night with conversations about equity and inclusion. Over the last year a task force of Trustees has been discussing how we can better ensure that all people on campus feel they are full members of our community and engaged in our educational project. Everyone at the retreat had taken implicit bias tests in advance of the meeting to better understand how even when we have the best of intentions, prejudice can affect our thinking.

We resumed our meetings Saturday morning with a discussion of the role of residential fraternities on campus, based on recommendations that I had made to the Board after a summer of collecting input. During the course of the weekend, the Board and I agreed on some changes described in a message that went out from Joshua Boger and me this morning. The message reads, in part: “With equity and inclusion in mind, we have decided that residential fraternities must become fully co-educational over the next three years. If the organizations are to continue to be recognized as offering housing and social spaces for Wesleyan students, women as well as men must be full members and well-represented in the body and leadership of the organization….Our residential Greek organizations inspire loyalty, community and independence. That’s why all our students should be eligible to join them.”

Saturday’s discussion moved on to campus life generally and how we might make it as educationally potent as possible. As a residential liberal arts school, it is crucial that outside the classroom our students are being prepared for life after graduation. Trustees shared the ways in which their own experiences on campus have affected their lives beyond the university.

The retreat continued with discussions of how Wesleyan is perceived by prospective students, the campus community, alumni, parents and the academic marketplace. We had vigorous conversations about what Wes stands for today, and how we want our school to be perceived 25 years from now. What should we be doing now to ensure the brightest future for alma mater?

Over the weekend, I witnessed many ways in which loyal and hardworking trustees, students, faculty, staff and alumni are devoted to Wesleyan. It’s a devotion stemming from powerful experiences and strong memories joined with the aspiration to make our university even stronger and the experiences of students going forward even more powerful.

Fraternal Discussions

Near the end of my first year as Wesleyan’s president, I wrote the following:

Fraternities have historic roots with alumni that are important to maintain, and I believe that the frats (including Eclectic) at Wes can continue to play a very positive role at the university. We will not be adding any new Greek societies because there are now many other ways for students to join together in residentially based groups. Wesleyan’s students have a rich choice of social organizations in which to participate, from the very traditional to the most avant-garde. I’m committed to keeping it that way.

In my April 2014 blog post, “Campus Conversations on Fraternities,” I described how my thinking had changed. Six years of hearing about high-risk drinking at fraternities and dealing with fallout from highly publicized incidents of sexual violence have had an effect.  Of course, the larger world has changed too. Today there’s more emphasis upon Title IX and a much greater awareness of sexual assault. The U.S. Department of Education says that under Title IX, schools must “take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the sexual violence, eliminate the hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, and, as appropriate, remedy its effects.”

Are fraternities at Wesleyan hostile environments? It was striking to everyone here when so many students said yes. The students just conducted a survey on their own which indicated that 47 percent feel less safe in fraternity spaces than in other party spaces; the great majority of those thought that making the fraternities co-educational would be helpful in making those spaces safer. But is that true?

Last week at the Annual Meeting of the Board of Trustees we discussed this issue in executive session. Some found the experiences of peer institutions instructive. Connecticut College and Vassar have no Greek life and Bates has never had it. Amherst, Williams, Bowdoin, Middlebury and Colby all eliminated Greek. Amherst abolished fraternities on campus in 1984 (after a brief failed experiment with co-education) and earlier this month eliminated even unsanctioned Greek life. Williams did it in 1962 and students still sign a pledge not to participate in Greek life. By 2000, the Greek system was officially dismantled at Bowdoin, in part because it was losing high-quality students who didn’t want to go to a school with fraternities. At Colby fraternities and sororities were abolished in 1984 because they were inconsistent with the fundamental values of the community, and in 1992 Middlebury did likewise because it found fraternities to be “antithetical to the mission of the college.”

Swarthmore still has two fraternities, and now a new sorority to provide access to Greek life for women. And then there’s Trinity, still in the anguished throes of dealing with angry alumni and students after it mandated co-education of fraternities, raised GPA requirements for frat membership, and did away with the pledging process. There are some who believe that the most draconian approach, eliminating Greek life entirely, is no more painful.

As you might imagine, many Wesleyans don’t care much about the experience of our peer institutions. Others point out that many fine institutions still have active Greek life, or that Wesleyan shouldn’t imitate any institution. Still others emphasize that the rates of sexual assault at schools that have eliminated fraternities don’t give any indication that those institutions are safer environments. For many, the issue is about equity and inclusion more than about direct correlations with rates of reported sexual assault. How can a co-educational institution approve of having a significant percentage of its social spaces controlled by all-male organizations?

Following our discussions, the trustees have asked me to prepare a plan to address the future of Greek life. Ideally, this would be ready before the school year begins, but certainly no later than the November board meeting. Here are the options before us:

(1) We can require fraternities to become safer places through training and education.

(2) We can eliminate single-sex residential organizations or require co-education (with full membership).

(3) We can eliminate Greek residential life entirely.

(4) We can eliminate all Greek life (on campus or off).

(5) We can dramatically expand Greek life so that there are social spaces controlled by women.

None of these options will eliminate the problems of binge drinking and sexual assault. That’s not the point. Which changes in our residential and co-curricular program will make us a more inclusive, educational and equitable place? For now, our question is simple, but it may not be easy to arrive at a consensus on the answer to it: Will Wesleyan be a stronger university (“dedicated to providing an education in the liberal arts that is characterized by boldness, rigor, and practical idealism”) with or without Greek life?

Many people have written to the president’s office to weigh in on this issue. If you would like to do so over the next month or so, we have set up a special mailbox: comments@wesleyan.edu.

We will report back to the trustees and the Wesleyan community at the end of the summer on our plans concerning co-curricular life at the university in general and residential programs in particular. Stay tuned.

Campus Conversations on Fraternities

For the last few years, the issue of sexual assault on college campuses has received intense national and local attention. As the scale of the problem has become more widely recognized, many institutions have taken steps to improve their preventative and disciplinary procedures. At Wesleyan, we significantly revised our sexual assault policies and have focused on three kinds of activity: supporting survivors; punishing assailants; and changing the culture so as to eliminate elements that lead to assault. Bystander intervention is an important facet of most of our efforts in this area. The role of student activists has been crucial to the changes we have made, as has input from faculty, staff, parents and alumni.

As I wrote in the summer of 2013, sexual assault is, among other things, a problem of equity and inclusion. Fear of assault reduces educational opportunity. Sexual assault, I said then, “has rightly become a major issue for educators who want their campuses to be safe places at which all students can experience the freedom of a transformative education.”

Over the past few months the place of single-sex, residential fraternities at Wesleyan has been at the forefront of our discussions, in large part because of the large campus social spaces controlled by all-male organizations. On April 18 an impressive list of students and faculty published a call to action in the Argus demanding that our three all-male residential fraternities “choose to co-educate and drastically reform their societies to be welcoming and safe organizations and spaces for students of all genders.” Two days later the Wesleyan Student Assembly passed a resolution that put a time-frame to this demand: that our fraternities demonstrate “a clear and swift plan of action… beginning with an initial co-educated pledge class in spring 2015.”

The issue of fraternities attracts strong emotions “for and against,” but I’ve been pleased to see that most discussions of the issue here – be it in public forums, letters published in the Argus, or emails to the president – have been conducted in ways that aim at shared understanding. On our campus these issues are complex, and we have a variety of organizations. For example, at Wesleyan we have co-educational societies that have a fair amount of autonomy and, in some cases, residential space. These societies claim the same feelings of community and solidarity that the all-male fraternities prize.

On a campus that so fully embraces coeducation across all aspects of our lives, the presence of single-sex fraternities raises questions about our commitment to gender equity.  And although it is obvious that not all sexual assaults happen in fraternities, there are strong questions raised about fraternity culture and what researchers call “proclivity” to discrimination and violence. While the fraternities have made it clear that they wish to be part of the solution, it’s also clear that many students see fraternity houses as spaces where women enter with a different status than in any other building on campus, sometimes with terrible consequences.

Many of our peer institutions have entirely eliminated “exclusive societies” like fraternities, while a few others have charted different paths. I’ve already made clear to the residential fraternities that we will not accept the status quo. We have informed them that they must allow Public Safety the same level of access required of any other student residence. Failure to agree to Public Safety access will put an end to that fraternity’s existence as a student residence, and given the fact that the owners of the buildings have not yet agreed to this expectation, students now slated to live in fraternities (including Alpha Delta Phi) should make contingency plans with Student Life.

It’s up to all of us to create the kind of campus climate we value, and it’s become very clear that fraternities, as presently constituted, pose challenges to that ongoing effort.  I expect to make a further announcement with respect to the role of fraternities on campus after consulting with trustees at the Board meeting in May. Meanwhile, I‘ll continue to listen to and learn from a variety of perspectives on how to create the best residential learning environment we can.

 

Stamping Out Sexual Violence

This week we learned that a survivor of a sexual assault had filed a lawsuit against the Psi Upsilon fraternity at Wesleyan, some of its individual members and its national organization. We had not spoken publicly about this matter out of concern for the survivor’s privacy. Now that civil proceedings have commenced, on behalf of the university community, I want to express our horror at this shameful assault. Our internal investigation of the incident, which took place last spring at an event held in violation of university regulations, led to the perpetrator’s dismissal from the university and sanctions against the fraternity and individual members of it.

At Wesleyan there are three residential fraternities. Their buildings, housing a total of 67 students, are owned by their respective organizations. While these fraternities have had some autonomy, all have seen increased scrutiny over the past few years.  In the short term, we have focused our attention on improving the safety of these spaces for all students who use them. On a more general level, we created a Title IX Task Force led by the Board of Trustees in coordination with our Vice-President for Equity and Inclusion, which is working to ensure gender equity throughout the Wesleyan educational experience. In addition, over the next several months we will be gathering information to present to the Board as it considers what role, if any, residential fraternities will have on our campus in the future.

Sexual assaults on college campuses are not, of course, only a fraternity issue. Over several years, Wesleyan has worked to reduce the incidence of assaults on campus, support those who have been assaulted, dismiss those who have been found guilty, and to generally raise awareness about these issues. As I have noted, although at Wesleyan there are usually only a handful of reports of sexual violence each year, each one is extremely painful and leaves a scar on the individual and on the community. Furthermore, we know how under-reported these crimes are across the country in general and on college campuses in particular. Michael Whaley, the vice president for student affairs, issues an annual report on “Wesleyan’s Response to Sexual Violence,” and additional information is available on the university’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response website. Resources and programs dedicated to this problem include:

  • Wesleyan’s Sexual Assault Resource Coordinator is a full-time member of the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services staff and serves as the point person for coordinating support for survivors of sexual assault. She works closely with the Sexual Assault Response Team – a group of trained staff and faculty who provide support for survivors.
  • We Speak, We Stand, Wesleyan’s Community of Care program, provides bystander intervention training to empower bystanders to intervene in situations involving such issues as high-risk alcohol use and sexual violence. Sexual violence is a complex and multi-faceted societal issue, and therefore requires the attention of all campus constituents.
  • “We Speak, We Stand” also leads mandatory sessions on sexual violence at new student orientation. Subsequently, new students convene for small residentially based discussions about sexual assault and alcohol use.
  • Wesleyan annually makes its policies regarding sexual violence clear to all students, faculty, and staff through communications from the Dean of Students and the Vice President for Student Affairs.
  • The Sexual Assault Resource Coordinator and Director of WesWELL have worked with student groups on a healthy relationship workshop series, a consent campaign, a “Red Flag” campaign to address dating violence, and several support group for survivors of sexual assault.
  • Wesleyan continues to work with student organizations, including fraternities, on the safety of their programs for all students.
  • The university annually evaluates its own efforts to assess efficacy and ensure that everything possible is being done to provide a safe environment for everyone on campus. We want all members of our community to be confident in the care we take in dealing with any reports and in the fairness of our procedures.

Sexual assault at colleges and universities is a national problem, and it is important to raise awareness about these heinous crimes. On our campus, we have had our consciousness raised concerning this issue, but each incident is still agonizing – traumatic for survivors and painful for the whole community. As president of alma mater and as a parent, nothing disturbs me more than these attacks. My heart aches for those who have been victimized, and I work to ensure that we do everything we can to support them.

The great majority of Wesleyans are united in wanting to create a campus unencumbered by sexual violence. In concert with our community, I am determined to explore all avenues for changing our culture to stamp out sexual assault. I will work together with all university constituencies to continue to improve our ability to care for survivors, vigorously pursue perpetrators, and create a positive campus climate in which sexual violence has no place.

Housing Policy and Threats to Student Freedom

At the beginning of this month, we announced a revision to Wesleyan’s housing policy to clarify off-campus options for undergraduates. Our goal was to remove a dangerous ambiguity that has existed for more than five years: the Beta Fraternity seems to be a Wesleyan organization, but the university has no oversight over the house. We wanted to accomplish two things with this change: 1. to encourage Beta to join the other fraternities and societies in working together with the school; 2. to prevent similar situations from arising in the future with private homes adjacent to campus. Since this was not only about Beta, we used broad language, and we also wanted to announce this change before the housing process got underway so that students could plan accordingly.

I made two mistakes in this. First, the language (as many students have pointed out) is just too broad. Many students appear to see this as a threat to their freedom, and I want to be sensitive to that. The university has no interest in regulating the social lives of our students when they are away from campus, and the language we used suggests otherwise. We will change the language. My second mistake was not consulting enough with students. I did meet with some of the Beta undergrad leaders (and we have been talking about this with their alumni representatives for four years!), and I was hopeful they would join Psi U, DKE and ADP. Alas, they decided otherwise.

I told the WSA leadership yesterday that I would ask Dean Mike’s team to meet with the relevant committees to craft language that conveys that residential Greek societies adjacent to campus must be recognized by the university in order to remain open to Wesleyan students. This is the only way we can continue to have a safe system that includes our historic residential fraternities. That’s all we want to achieve with this revision.

I want to be as clear as possible: if the Beta Fraternity does not join with the other Greek fraternities and societies, it will be off-limits to undergraduates next semester. Students who violate this rule will face significant disciplinary action, including suspension. This is not an attempt to regulate the expressive activities of our students. It is an attempt to minimize unsafe conditions adjacent to campus.

I want to thank the vocal Wesleyan undergraduates for reminding their president to be more careful in his use of language, and to be more attentive to student culture. Of course, I should have known this already, but hey, I try to keep learning.

At Friday night’s trustee dinner we will be celebrating recent campus activism, such as efforts to combat sexual violence on campus, to confront housing and poverty issues in Middletown, to promote flood relief in Pakistan, and to create educational opportunities and free health care in Kenya. I know that there is a protest planned Friday about the fraternity housing policy, and there are other opportunities for making student voices heard. The state of Connecticut and the federal government both have proposed dramatic cuts to financial aid. Hundreds of current Wesleyan students depend on the programs that are threatened. This seems to me a dramatic threat to student freedom, and we are joining with other colleges to make our voices heard in Hartford. Planned Parenthood supporters plan to hold a rally here on campus Saturday afternoon to combat recent attacks on reproductive rights, another important threat to our freedom. Of course, students don’t take activism instructions from the president, and they may still want to protest for the right to have Beta remain outside the fraternity program at Wesleyan. That’s up to them.

Near the end of my first year as president of Wesleyan, I wrote a blog post about the role of fraternities and societies at Wesleyan: I have found them to be energetic, vital student organizations capable of making contributions to the campus as a whole. I know many Beta brothers; I cheer for them at games, and I enjoy having them in my classes. I hope their fraternity decides to join with the other residential student organizations. That’s up to them.

Fraternal Wesleyan

Thursday night the brothers of the DKE fraternity invited my family and me to a barbeque, just across the street from the President’s House. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening, and the brothers (many of whom are athletes from football, hockey and baseball squads) made us feel very welcome. Kari saw some of her students, and Sophie was impressed at the prodigious amount of meat and BBQ sauce that seemed to disappear in moments. I hadn’t been in DKE since my student days, when frats held many all-campus parties (they still do). In the intervening years, some of our peer institutions have discontinued fraternities, and I have heard many stories from our own alumni about their perception of unfair treatment of frats at Wesleyan. Yet in the last week or so these organizations have welcomed over 100 new members. What is the role of fraternities at Wesleyan?

As I’ve met with students around campus this year, I have visited with all the fraternities, including the Eclectic Society (which usually doesn’t see itself in this context). I have found them to be energetic, vital student organizations capable of making contributions to the campus as a whole. Of course, there are times when fraternities are part of situations that call for disciplinary measures, and the members have to obey school regulations, like everyone else. Any organization that becomes a locus for serious infractions will lose its standing as a part of the Wesleyan community. Fraternities know this at least as well as everybody else.

During the course of this year I’ve heard lectures at Beta and Psi U, had social dinners at DKE and Alpha Delt, listened to a great band at Eclectic, and in each instance I’ve been impressed with how the membership is adding value to the educational and co-curricular experience on campus. Each organization has a different personality, and they add significantly to Wesleyan’s overall diversity. My own Alpha Delta Phi was already co-educational when I was an undergrad, and the house was the center of my Wes world. We published the literary magazine, and AD still is filled with musicians, writers and theater people (among others). Other frats are homes for athletes, while some are more cultural in their focus. Most combine these elements in different ways, depending on the membership in a given year.

Fraternities have historic roots with alumni that are important to maintain, and I believe that the frats (including Eclectic) at Wes can continue to play a very positive role at the university. We will not be adding any new Greek societies because there are now many other ways for students to join together in residentially based groups. Wesleyan’s students have a rich choice of social organizations in which to participate, from the very traditional to the most avant-garde. I’m committed to keeping it that way.

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