Winter Board Meeting and Ethical Investing

Last weekend the Board of Trustees was on campus for the winter meeting. In various configurations members addressed issues relevant to the academic program and the campus, facilities and finances, and communications and alumni relations. There are just over 30 trustees, and they are dedicated to helping to steer the university through these sometimes daunting times of change.

One of the most important sessions was focused on a presentation led by students from the Committee for Investor Responsibility. They delivered an excellent analysis of why the university should divest itself of any direct holdings in coal companies, examining social, economic and ethical perspectives. My fellow trustees were very impressed with the thoughtfulness of the report and subsequent discussion. As it turns out, Wesleyan does not have direct holdings in coal companies, but the committee wanted to engage with the CIR, going beyond this specific issue to create an explicit framework for future decisions regarding investments.

The board passed a resolution to integrate a statement on ethical investment into its guidelines, recognizing the university’s “obligation to consider environmental, social and governance issues as part of its investment process.”  Quoting from The Ethical Investor, the resolution instructs the Investment Committee to take into account social harm, “the injurious impact which the activities of a company are found to have on consumers, employees, or other persons, particularly including activities which violate, or frustrate the enforcement of rules of domestic or international law intended to protect individuals against deprivation of health, safety, or basic freedoms.” The resolution concludes that “in selecting external managers or considering direct investments, the Committee and staff will consider environmental, social and governance factors as part of their investment process.” I am so grateful for the CIR’s input into this process.

The Board also discussed (among other things) campus planning, support for research,  possibilities for refinancing outstanding debt, the Wesleyan Student Assembly report on campus issues, fundraising for internships during the final year of the ‘This is Why’ campaign, and building a solar “farm” on a section of the Long Lane property.

Overall it proved to be a productive and energizing meeting that focused attention on challenges and opportunities and rallied support for Alma Mater.

 

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.

Discovering Strategy

This past weekend the Board of Trustees, including its faculty, student and staff representatives, spent hours discussing some of the key themes that will form the strategy for Wesleyan going forward. We discussed together elements of our core purpose, and some of the crucial values that have guided the institution for years. Many of the key words will be familiar to Wesleyan folks: transformative liberal arts experience, service, creative and critical thinking, inspired teaching. We quickly developed a consensus around the central elements of our core purpose.

We then settled on four main elements of strategy: Energizing Wesleyan’s Distinctive Educational Experience; Achieving Recognition as an Extraordinary Institution; Delivering Excellent Stakeholder Experiences (for students, alumni, faculty, and staff); Working Within a Sustainable Economic Model. Within each of these areas we developed some key aspects on which we will be working over the next few months to focus our use of intellectual energy and financial resources.

The work we did this past weekend helps refine the framework for planning that I’ve distributed as Wesleyan 2020. On Sunday night I met with the Wesleyan Student Assembly to discuss the retreat and any concerns students might have. As usual, there were great questions concerning the curriculum, budget and other campus issues. I always learn a lot from meeting with the student leadership.

We are refining our ideas for the future and working together to coordinate all our efforts to help Wesleyan live up to its potential. This afternoon I met with the faculty ad hoc committee to discuss more short term budget priority issues. There was much common ground, but still some difficult choices ahead. With our shared sense of purpose, I am confident that we will be successful in steering our school through these uncertain economic times.

Over the weekend we took a break to dedicate the new Sukkah designed by Prof. Elijah Huge and his students in an architecture studio class. It was a joyous occasion, and the sight of the beautiful temporary bamboo structure on Foss Hill makes me smile each time I see it. You can wander into the Sukkah to study, or to play music, or just to lie on the grass to see the light shine through the bamboo. It’s a shelter and an inspiration. In this way, it reminds me of Wesleyan.

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Trustee Discussions

This weekend the Wesleyan Board of Trustees will be on campus for their annual retreat. This is an especially interesting time for the Board, given the economic crisis from which we are emerging, the planning framework for the next decade we have started to discuss, and the fact that Joshua Boger is beginning his tenure as Chair of the Board. Joshua (Wesleyan class of 1973) was a philosophy and chemistry major here, and after taking his Ph.D. at Harvard he pursued a career in science. After rising to the top of research at Merck Pharmaceuticals, he used his entrepreneurial skill to start his own company. He founded Vertex, which has been dedicated to building medicines ‘from the molecule up’ for serious diseases. Having stepped down as CEO last year, Joshua sits on the board at Vertex and at least another dozen other boards (mostly not-for profits). He has had two children graduate from Wesleyan and has been a tireless advocate for the university.

Joshua will lead the Board, including faculty and student representatives, in discussions that should help us discover a strategy for Wesleyan that will be relevant for the next decade. The word “discover” is important, and Joshua makes the point that it is a mistake to decide on a strategy. This weekend, we will instead talk through our core purpose and our values, and how we might realize them through integrated planning and effective action. There will be many sources for this discussion, including the Wesleyan 2020 document I posted on our website. On Sunday night (10/4) I will meet with the WSA at 8:00 pm to debrief on the board discussions, and I will continue to talk with faculty, staff, alumni and parent groups in the coming months about what we we have discovered about Wesleyan, and how we intend to build on that discovery. It should be an exciting process!

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Consultations, Finals Prep, Early Decision

Over the last week of semester I’ve been meeting with different groups about our plans to deal with the impact of the economic crisis. (see: http://www.wesleyan.edu/administration/securingthefuture/ )

When I returned from California I had a long discussion with the Wesleyan Student Assembly. They had many good questions concerning the proposal I brought to the Board on how we would balance the budget over the next several years while continuing to protect and cultivate the core educational experience we offer. Although we talked about a variety of issues, the students returned frequently to whether we could successfully integrate an additional 30 students a year for four years. How much pressure would this put on our housing and dining facilities? How would it affect class access and the admissions process? These are all important questions, and we are drawing up plans in each of these areas to determine how we can temporarily accommodate an increase of about 4% to our student body.

Some commentators among trustees, students and faculty are reminded of the very rapid enrollment growth at Wesleyan in the 1970s, when the school more than doubled in size. I should make clear that we are studying a measured increase of only 4%, and we have no plans to go beyond that.

In the beginning of the week I met with faculty representatives and then with the faculty as whole. While I was traveling, there was considerable discussion online about the proposed salary freeze, the enrollment increase, and on whether there has been adequate consultation. Our face-to-face meetings turned out to be very productive. I underscored that the scenario I outlined to the board was a draft that we are open to revising – as long as we meet our budget obligations. There has been and will continue to be detailed consultation. The faculty members are clearly invested in working together to find a solution that will provide for the long-term health of the institution. Our professors take their responsibility to guide the university very seriously, and they are willing to join in making sacrifices as long as these will contribute to setting Wesleyan on a path to greater academic and economic strength. There are difficult trade-offs ahead of us, but I was reminded of how fortunate we are to have a faculty so devoted to our community.

At the end of the week I met with the senior administrative staff, to present these institutional leaders a sense of the economic challenges ahead. They, too, asked questions about potential enrollment increases, and about the possibility of a salary freeze. We are agreed on the importance of protecting jobs even as we become more efficient across the variety of departments. I made it clear that a potential salary freeze would start at the top – with me and with my Cabinet. But it is also important to recognize that those with the most modest pay are those likely to feel these changes most acutely. It’s for that reason we are exploring ways to mitigate the effects of any salary freeze on our most vulnerable employees.

While I meet with various stakeholders about the budget, most of the people around me are preparing for finals or grading them. Many students are putting the finishing touches on papers, performances and experiments, while others are up late cramming for those big exams. There is plenty of pressure, but we all know the holiday break is fast approaching.

While our students and teachers are finishing their work for this semester, lots of high school seniors are opening envelopes telling them that they will be starting their undergraduate education in Middletown next fall. The first round of Early Decision is complete, and our Admissions Office reports that the great surge in applications (over 35%) also resulted in an extremely talented pool.  I very much look forward to welcoming these first members of the class of ‘13 into the Wesleyan family!

Good luck with the final push, and HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!

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Wes Coast-to-Coast

I am writing this from the airport in San Francisco, at the end of a West Coast trip to see alumni and parents. Although I am eager to get home, it is always informative to visit with our far-flung Wes community. In the Pacific Northwest, I met with grads who have been out for more than 50 years, and others who just finished up in the spring. There were lots of questions about how the international economic downturn is affecting alma mater, and plenty of generous support—despite the fact that many of these same people are feeling the crisis in their own budgets. In Seattle I was particularly impressed with the growing network of professionals in a wide variety of fields who reach out to help new Wesleyan alumni arriving in Washington or Oregon.

The San Francisco reception took place at the spectacular new Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, a great accomplishment of architect Renzo Piano. Some Wesleyan friends were kind enough to host the reception there, and we had more than 300 attendees. Here, too, people wanted to know about economic issues, and again there was great support for building a robust financial aid program for the future. We talked about the seven planning areas that I’ve written about before on this blog, and there was a great deal of excitement about the College of the Environment and the other initiatives.

It felt strange to be back in the Bay Area with a rented car, scurrying around like a tourist in the place that had been my home for 7 years. I did have a moment at the end to visit California College of the Arts and my old friend Steve Beal, now the school’s president. CCA is thriving, and it was delightful to see some of the projects we began a few years ago now working so well.

I’ll be glad to return to Connecticut for this weekend before Election Day. Many faculty, staff and students are engaged in getting out the vote. The Wesleyan Student Assembly canceled its Sunday meeting, and each member instead is spending three hours this week in community service or civic activism. WSA VP Saul Carlin ’09 reports the following:

“Here are a few examples of the types of activities WSA members may be engaged in:

My flight is about ready to board. Can’t wait to be back on campus!

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Multi-Sensory Wes Weekend

 

At the end of the week I was privileged to hear an established scholar and an undergraduate full of enormous promise. The distinguished sociologist Richard Madsen was on campus to help the Freeman Center for East Asian Studies celebrate its 33rd anniversary. He gave an interesting lecture on contemporary religious movements in China, with special consideration given to their connection to economic growth and social mobility. The Freeman Center was packed with students and faculty. The next day I went to Hartford to hear Wesleyan senior Noah Hutton talk about a contemporary art exhibition he and some other students of John Paoletti’s had curated at the Wadsworth Atheneum. Noah gave a lucid and thoughtful description of some very challenging works. We’d met before because he is also a gifted jazz musician who plays at different Wes events.

Busted RosesThis has been an exceptionally busy weekend on the Wesleyan campus. Friday night started off with a graduate students’ retreat, at which I just stopped by to escort one of the main speakers, Joshua Boger ’73 (a Wesleyan trustee, scientist and CEO of Vertex Pharmaceuticals). Later that night Kari and I went to hear the Wesleyan-based geezer rock band, BUSTED ROSES, which was playing down at La Boca on Main Street. Dean Louise Brown was in great voice, and the rest of the band was cookin’!!

After a week sitting behind desks, I decided to spend as much of Saturday as possible out of doors. This meant that I would miss Social Justice Day, which the WSA had organized for Saturday. The program looked strong, and I hope those who chose to attend found it worthwhile. Out on the fields there were plenty of athletic contests at which one could cheer on the red and black. The men’s baseball team split an exciting double-header against Amherst. After watching Wes mount a great comeback rally in game one, I saw the mighty men’s lacrosse team have a wild second half against a tough Bowdoin squad. It became a rout. Sophie and I headed up to watch the Cardinal women overwhelm the softball team from Hamilton. It was cold out there on Long Lane, but watching softball made me feel that spring must be on the way.

While I was enjoying the sunshine and cheering on the home teams, a group of scholars were gathered together to consider multi-sensory art experiences and their history. Smith College and Wesleyan organized this art history conference with some leading scholars from around the country. I was lucky enough at the end of the day to hear Professor Katherine Kuenzli discuss her exhibition on Wagner and the visual arts, currently on display at the Davison Art Center. It’s a fine example of how our print collection can support and enhance innovative scholarship.

Last night Kari and I had a delightful dinner with some colleagues and Hayden White, who had been a teacher of mine some thirty years ago here at Wesleyan. Hayden is the most important philosopher of history in the United States, and one of the most original thinkers in the humanities that I have ever encountered. I was so pleased to be able to tell my former teacher that the university he remembered as a hotbed of new ideas and deep community was still inspiring great work in a context that is challenging yet deeply humane.

This week I have office hours Monday at 4 p.m. Students who don’t want to wait should call extension 3500 to sign up for a time.

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Social Justice Day

Matt Ball, the president of the Wesleyan Student Assembly, sent me a message about plans for Social Justice Day. Here is some of what he said:

Social Justice Day will be a collaboration of students, student groups, faculty and staff. Students can discuss issues that they are particularly passionate about, faculty members can hold a discussion on an issue outside their specialization, and staff members can present on an area of expertise that they don’t work with every day.

Social Justice Day should help build community at Wesleyan. To be sure, Wesleyan has a sense of community, but the unfortunate truth is that serious issues can become isolated within self-selecting groups. It’s very hard to expand the reach of your message, and it’s equally difficult to be introduced to concerns and debates in which you hadn’t an initial interest. Social Justice Day should also address the gap that can exist between students and faculty; collaboration outside the classroom is more rare than it should be, and faculty members should have a chance to discuss issues that might not immediately relate to their academic research.

Anyone can apply to put on an hour session in which they have a discussion, give a lecture, or do something else creative. Because they’ll all be organized together, there will be spillover from event to event, bringing in different people into different sessions in order to foster the kind of “message outreach” that we’d like to achieve. There will also be a lunch with a directed discussion, perhaps splitting into smaller groups to discuss different issues. The WSA has some funds to bring speakers to the event.

The website to apply is (http://www.wesleyan.edu/wsa/sjd/), and the deadline is this Friday, March 7th. The event will be held on Saturday, March 29th. Please apply!

This sounds like a great occasion to bring faculty, students and staff together around important issues. Check out the website for more information, and have a great spring break!

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Big Day

BIG DAY

Today was my first day of having open office hours, and I learned a lot. I talked with a reporter from the Argus, some representatives from the WSA, and three students who wanted me to understand why they thought chalking was an important part of Wesleyan’s political culture. All the conversations were helpful to me, and the students gave me plenty to think about.

The main reason I am posting tonight is just to remind the Wesleyan community to make your voices heard in the primaries tomorrow. Also, please note that you can follow the returns Tuesday night in good company at the Usdan University Center.

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