From ‘Unruly Hearts’ to Open Minds

Inside Higher Ed asked me for a response to the new Pew survey results regarding colleges, and I wrote the following op-ed, which was published this morning. 

 

Commencement was over, and we had awarded diplomas to the more than 800 graduates in a timely way. I had made remarks, as I always do, connecting the education they had received with events in the world at large, especially the combination of corruption and inertia in Washington. While marching across the stage, a few dozen graduates managed to express their disappointment that the administration in general and the president (me) in particular weren’t as progressive as they would like on issues such as sexual assault, divestment from fossil fuels and support for underrepresented groups.

The commencement address at Wesleyan University this year was given by the MacArthur grant-winning poet Claudia Rankine. As president and master of ceremonies, I admit I was focused on the way she engaged the students — no easy task. The address was political, as antiracism speeches must be, and it was smart, funny and moving by turns. She concluded by expressing, “Love to each of you and love to your bad behavior in the boardroom, on juries, in the office, on the street, at your dinner tables in all and every space that believes it can hold racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Muslim rhetoric and on and on. Love to you and your wild and unruly hearts imagining our world again.”

As families milled about after the ceremonies, taking pictures, sharing hugs and high fives, I was suddenly called out by an angry voice: “You annihilated my existence,” yelled a middle-aged man. Taken aback, I wasn’t sure I heard him right. “You annihilated my existence,” he repeated and went on to say that the ceremony had left him out and was an example of why people hate closed-minded universities today. Evidently, he did not feel included in the poet’s reference to unruly hearts.

I was surprised by this outburst, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been. I had recently encountered pushback from some on the other end of the political spectrum when I published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling for an affirmative action program for conservative ideas on campuses. Noting the tilt to the left in many humanities and social-science divisions at selective colleges, I argued that it was not enough to take a free-market approach to intellectual diversity. Being unruly at a Northeastern university these days should include making a special effort to enhance the study of conservative (religious and libertarian) traditions, broadly conceived. We should avoid the hate-filled provocateurs of the alt-right and instead encourage the serious study of ideas outside the progressive consensus.

Many students and colleagues who think of themselves as being on the left, as I do, worked themselves into a position of outrage, even victimization, after hearing about my short essay. A young alumna returning to campus for her reunion told me that I had made it more difficult for people like her to get an education because I was claiming that this education should contain ideas contrary to her own. She didn’t say I had “annihilated her existence” but seemed to feel that way.

What’s going on?

Survey data released this week by the Pew Charitable Trusts have given me a better feel for the intensity of such reactions. It is clear that many national institutions with hitherto broad public support are now viewed very differently depending on one’s ideological position. Perhaps it is unsurprising that Republicans and right-leaning independents have a far more positive view of churches and a more negative view of labor unions than do Democrats and left-leaning independents. Although the media’s popularity among those tilting left has grown over the last year, that doesn’t offset the steep decline among Americans on the right who think the national media is having a positive impact on the country. Interestingly, one can’t find a majority who think favorably about banks and financial institutions, though Republicans are more positive (46 percent) than Democrats (only 33 percent positive).

The sharpest partisan divisions appear when people are asked whether colleges are “having a positive or negative impact on the way things are going in the country.” Fifty-eight percent of Republicans and their ideological friends now say that colleges are having a negative impact, while 72 percent of Democrats and their comrades see colleges as positive. This gap has widened significantly in recent years. In 2015, a majority of GOPers thought positively about higher education; in fact, the decline among those who lean to the right is close to 20 percent! The views of colleges of those who fall toward the left have been pretty stable.

Colleges and universities have long been the screens upon which groups project their own fears and anxieties. Older people wonder what the next generation is coming to, or worry that their children are having their lives distorted by a professoriate not part of their “real world.” In the past two years, the fantasy of political correctness on college campuses has been a catch-all for a range of people angry about the world, especially those concerned about their status in our age of rapidly growing inequality. The PC campus bogeyman has an important function — it pumps up the myth that our biggest problems stem from a lack of tolerance for ideas friendly to the status quo. When fraternity brothers are disturbed by university restrictions on how they organize parties, they find a new rallying cry in bemoaning “political correctness.” When middle-aged veterans of college protests of yesteryear no longer see their own battles and slogans repeated by today’s students, they complain about PC culture undermining free speech. When men, even elected officials, are caught bragging about sexual assault, they punch back at political correctness.

As I noted in the run-up to the presidential election, there just isn’t any downside to attacking this imaginary monster of groupthink, and so people friendly to the status quo will continue to trumpet their own courage in “not being PC” as they attack society’s most vulnerable groups. Racism and xenophobia get a free pass when folded into an attack on PC elitism.

At the same time, those attacked as PC shouldn’t take the bait and content themselves with labeling anyone who attacks them as racist. Those who point out the dangers of big government, emphasize the needs of national security in an age of terrorism, extol the virtues of family and religion, or defend free speech deserve intellectual engagement — not insult and irony. Those who support a progressive campus culture make a big mistake if they think they are protecting that culture by insulating it from ideas that come from conservative, libertarian and religious traditions.

Demonizing people because they have ideas different from your own has always been a temptation, and lately it has become a national contagion. College campuses are not at all immune from it, but this malady is fatal for liberal education. Many people are so accustomed to curated information — be it from social media feeds or just from one’s choice of cable news — that they have lost the ability to respond thoughtfully to points of view different from their own. When they are confronted with disagreement, they may feel their “existence is annihilated” or that the person with whom they disagree wants “to make it harder for people like themselves to get on in the world.”

So those on the left and on the right surveyed by the Pew Foundation may actually share the same picture of colleges but just evaluate it differently. Democratish survey respondents may be imagining campuses as places where they would find people who hold views like their own, and Republicanish respondents may be thinking that people like them would simply be called nasty names were they to speak out there. Both groups may be imagining colleges in blue states and red states as places where like-minded people go to become more alike.

This is a disastrous view of colleges and universities, one that we who work on campuses must do our best to dispel. We must highlight and enhance the ways that students and faculty members consider alternative perspectives on culture and society; we must promote vigorous debate that doesn’t degenerate into personal attack. This kind of consideration and debate is increasingly rare in the public sphere, and that’s why it is more important than ever to cultivate the terrain for it on our campuses. By this I don’t mean inviting provocative entertainers to the campus so as to get free speech points at the cost of providing a platform for idiocy and abuse. I mean enhancing conditions for the serious study of alternative visions of justice, freedom, individual rights and communal responsibilities. I mean not just sharing biases with students in acts of solidarity, but testing one’s biases by engaging with ideas that also challenge the campus consensus.

Even when colleges and universities are seen as places to engage with ideas and inquiry that break a consensus rather than support it, when students and faculty are seen as capable of trying out ideas without fear of reprisal, not everyone will say that colleges are having “a positive effect on the way things are going in the country.” If we are doing our jobs, some should always object to what happens on campus. But when we are getting objections (and support) from people who hold a variety of perspectives, then we can be more confident that we are fostering the intellectual diversity essential for higher education’s role in this country.

On Intellectual Diversity

Some weeks ago, I wrote an op-ed arguing that the free-market approach to freedom of speech (often identified with the University of Chicago) is inadequate for bringing more intellectual diversity to college campuses. The recent string of right wing provocateurs successfully baiting left leaning students on college campuses is, I think, a symptom of a deeper problem. We need to find productive ways of dealing with intellectual/ideological difference. The Wall Street Journal published the piece this past weekend under the title “The Opening of the Liberal Mind.”

I have received plenty of responses from readers—some applauding my call for greater intellectual diversity, some angered by my use of “affirmative action” as a label for the kind of proactive work that universities should be doing in the humanities and social sciences to explore different viewpoints with students. I thought the irony was obvious; legacy preference in admissions, after all, is often described as “affirmative action for the wealthy.” My point is that we can’t rely on the market of ideas to create intellectual diversity; we must be intentional in seeking out serious ideas from traditions under-represented on campus. This is critical for our students’ intellectual development, giving them the opportunity to test their own thinking against different approaches to enduring questions.

Since I took an early stance against what I called “the Trumpian Calamity” and have urged resistance to attempts by the current administration to curtail civil rights, others have asked how I could now call for more scholarly attention to conservative ideas and intellectual traditions.  It should be clear that I do not regard the president’s incoherent leadership—which is so often driven by impulse, resentment and prejudice—as belonging to significant streams of conservative thought, even broadly conceived. And we already study the dynamics of authoritarianism.

My example of the Posse Program for Veterans as contributing to intellectual diversity does not, of course, imply that all our Posse Scholars (or all veterans) are conservative. The point is that these older students have different life experiences than most undergraduates, and that this likely leads to a different mix of political views.

I should emphasize that the courses supported by the endowment gift mentioned in the op-ed will be created and taught by faculty—not donors—as is always the case.  The goal here is to expose students to a wider range of thought—with especial attention to the classical liberal tradition—and develop their capacities to engage with those who may hold positions different from their own. We are regularly developing our curriculum to fill gaps in instruction and provide students with a broad education. We have engaged in similar fundraising to develop: the Quantitative Analysis Center; The College of Film and the Moving Image; The College of the Environment; and the Creative Writing Program—just to name a few.

Our present political circumstances should not prevent us from engaging with a variety of conservative, religious and libertarian modes of thinking, just as they shouldn’t prevent us from engaging with modes of thinking organized under the banner of progressivism or critical theory.  Such engagement might actually lead to greater understanding among those who disagree politically, and it might also allow for more robust critical and creative thinking about our histories, our present and the possibilities for the future.

Naturally, I didn’t expect my op-ed would generate agreement among all readers, least of all among all Wesleyan readers. I am pleased it has generated conversation. That’s the idea!  

 

There is no denying the left-leaning political bias on American college campuses. As data from UCLA’s Higher Education Institute show, the professoriate has moved considerably leftward since the late 1980s, especially in the arts and humanities. In New England, where my own university is located, liberal professors outnumber their conservative colleagues by a ratio of 28:1.

How does this bias affect the education we offer? I’d like to think that we left-leaning professors are able to teach the works of conservative thinkers with the same seriousness and attention that we devote to works on our own side of the political spectrum—but do we?

It is hard to be optimistic about this challenge in the wake of recent episodes of campus intolerance for views on the right. Would-be social-justice warriors at Middlebury College transformed the mild-mannered political scientist Charles Murray into a free-speech hero, and campus appearances by the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald and the right-wing provocateur Ann Coulter have been handled badly, turning both women into media martyrs.

Most colleges, of course, host controversial speakers without incident and without much media coverage. In March, for instance, Franklin & Marshall College gave a platform to the Danish editor who published cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad. There were protests and arguments but no attempt to silence the speaker.

Academics worried about attacks on free speech have felt the need to respond, and they have articulated sound principles. Princeton professors Robert P. George and Cornel West recently attracted lots of supporters for a statement underscoring that “all of us should seek respectfully to engage with people who challenge our views” and that “we should oppose efforts to silence those with whom we disagree—especially on college and university campuses.”

The issue, however, isn’t whether the occasional conservative, libertarian or religious speaker gets a chance to speak. That is tolerance, an appeal to civility and fairness, but it doesn’t take us far enough. To create deeper intellectual and political diversity, we need an affirmative-action program for the full range of conservative ideas and traditions, because on too many of our campuses they seldom get the sustained, scholarly attention that they deserve.

Such an effort can take many different forms. In 2013, Wesleyan decided to join Vassar College in working with the Posse Foundation to bring cohorts of military veterans to campus on full scholarships. These students with military backgrounds are older than our other undergraduates and have very different life experiences; more of them also hold conservative political views.

One notable episode illustrates how this program has contributed to broadening discussion on campus. A student named Bryan Stascavage, who had served almost six years as a U.S. Army military intelligence analyst in Iraq and Haiti, came to Wesleyan to study social sciences. In the fall of 2015, he published an op-ed in the student newspaper questioning the Black Lives Matter movement, which enjoys widespread support here. He asked whether the protests were “actually achieving anything positive” because of the damage done by the extremists in their ranks.

The essay caused an uproar, including demands by activists to cut funding to the school newspaper. Most students, faculty and administrators recognized that free speech needed to be defended, especially for unpopular views. They rose to the challenge of responding substantively (if sometimes heatedly) to Bryan’s argument. As for Bryan himself, he felt that he had “field-tested” his ideas. As he told the PBS NewsHour in an interview about his experience at Wesleyan, “I don’t want to be in an environment where everybody thinks the same as me, because you just don’t learn that way.”

At Wesleyan, we now plan to deepen our engagement with the military. We have been working with the U.S. Army to bring senior military officers to campus, and starting next year, the first of them will arrive to teach classes on the relationship between military institutions and civil society.

Another new initiative for intellectual diversity, launched with the support of one our trustees, has created an endowment of more than $3 million for exposing students at Wesleyan to ideas outside the liberal consensus. This fall, our own academic departments and centers will begin offering courses and programs to cover topics such as “the philosophical and economic foundations of private property, free enterprise and market economies” and “the relationship of tolerance to individual rights, freedom and voluntary association.”

We are not interested in bringing in ideologues or shallow provocateurs intent on outraging students and winning the spotlight. We want to welcome scholars with a deep understanding of traditions currently underrepresented on our campus (and on many others) and look forward to the vigorous conversations they will inspire.

Many of our undergraduates already have a strong desire to break out of their ideological bubbles. Recently, the student Republican and Democratic clubs began jointly hosting lunchtime lectures and discussions. Catherine Cervone, a member of the Wesleyan Republicans and an organizer of the series, put it this way: “We recognized the necessity on this campus for dialogue and communication. We decided to reach across the divide to team up with WesDems in hosting this speaker series, a discussion forum with the purpose of really understanding what the other side thinks.”

Trying to understand the logic of someone else’s arguments is a core skill that schools should be paying more attention to, and it doesn’t always require elaborate new programs. The group Heterodox Academy, which includes faculty from many universities and from across the political spectrum, has recently launched the “Viewpoint Diversity Experience,” an online effort to combat “the destructive power of ideological tribalism.” The aim is “to prepare students for democratic citizenship and success in the political diverse workplaces they will soon inhabit.”

Such efforts are sorely needed, but they can succeed only if we do a better job of bringing underrepresented points of view into the mix. Simply relying on the marketplace of ideas isn’t enough. We need an affirmative-action program for conservative, libertarian and religious modes of thinking.

As someone who identifies with the political left, I welcome this intellectual diversity—and as a teacher, I know that education requires it. If you are on the right, you might call this a remedy for political correctness; if you are on the left, you might prefer to call it the “new intersectionality.” Whatever the label, the result will be a fuller, more meaningful educational experience for everyone.

Save the NEH and the NEA!

This morning President Trump released his blueprint for the budget for the coming fiscal year. Given the rhetoric of the campaign, and the selective leaks over the last several weeks, no one should be surprised by this intense militarization of federal spending, nor by its attempt to dramatically downsize aspects of government that protect the environment and care for the most vulnerable. These are subjects that one can read about elsewhere.

As the president of an educational institution, I want only to underscore how these plans undermine some of the most important resources for cultural preservation, for research and inquiry, and for the dissemination of ideas. In other words, these plans are counter-educational. The budget blueprint represents a radical abdication of governmental responsibility for our nation’s culture. It calls for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Non-military scientific research will also see significant cuts to funding. The combination of cuts would be a disaster for education.

Like many colleges and universities across the country, Wesleyan has benefitted greatly from federal support for innovative programing in the arts and humanities. But it’s also the broader American public that benefits from advances in arts and humanities work. Recently, the NEA “Art Works” program has helped Wesleyan University Press publish some of the best American poetry in print, and the NEH has helped fund seminars fostering interdisciplinary inquiry and research like Sumarsam‘s on Indonesian performing arts, and Andrew Curran’s and Jennifer Tucker’s separate projects connecting historical inquiry with broad public purpose. The NEH also has helped us make out-of-print publications available in free e-editions through the Humanities Open Book Program. From a government agencies point of view, these are all small grants. But from the recipients’ point of view, this support can be essential for facilitating progress on scholarly research, providing a platform for sharing ideas, or both.

The current administration calls for putting “America first,” but it seems to believe that only our military matters in this regard. We must resist government plans that make support for American culture last. Please let your representatives know that higher education depends on adventurous research and expression, and that eliminating federal support for scholarship and the arts will undermine one of the most important dimensions of our cultural ecology.

Rejecting Bigotry is Core to Our Mission

This morning I published this essay at Inside Higher Education

 

I was horrified reading the latest diktat on immigration from an administration blown into power by the winds of intolerance and resentment. President Trump’s executive order barring immigrants and nonimmigrant visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States is an exercise in cynical obfuscation, bigotry and hard-heartedness.

The obfuscation begins early on with the linking of this crackdown to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 when, as has been pointed out by many commentators, those responsible for those attacks had no connections to the countries targeted by this order. The bigotry of the decree closing our borders to refugees from these seven countries is most evident in the exception it makes for religious minorities in predominantly Muslim countries.

The hard-heartedness of the executive order is unmistakable. Desperate families who have been thoroughly vetted for months have had their dreams of a safe haven in America shattered. Students, scientists, artists and businesspeople who have played by the immigration rules to ensure that they have secure passage to and from the United States now find themselves in limbo. Colleges and universities that attract and depend on international talent will be weakened. So much for the so-called respect for law of an administration that has made a point of promising to crack down on undocumented children brought over the Mexican border by their parents.

Eighteen months ago I solicited ideas from Wesleyan alumni, faculty members, students and staff members as to what a small liberal arts institution like ours could do in the face of the momentous human tragedy unfolding around the world. We discussed the many ideas we received on our campus and with leaders of other institutions. The steps we took were small ones, appropriate to the scale of our institution. Working with the Scholars at Risk program, we welcomed a refugee scholar from Syria to participate in one of our interdisciplinary centers. We created internships for students who wanted to work at refugee sites in the Middle East or assist local effort at resettlement. We began working with the Institute of International Education to bring a Syrian student to Wesleyan. And, perhaps most important, we redoubled our efforts to educate the campus about the genesis and development of the crisis.

In the last few months, I have traveled to China and India to talk about the benefits of pragmatic liberal education, and in both countries I saw extraordinary enthusiasm for coming to America to pursue a broad, contextual education that will develop the student’s capacity to learn from diverse sets of sources. Since returning, I’ve already received questions from anxious international students and their parents about whether we will continue to welcome people from abroad who seek a first-rate education. Students outside the United States are often fleeing educational systems with constraints on inquiry and communication; they are rejecting censorship and premature specialization, and they are looking to us. Will they continue to do so?

Here at home we must resist orchestrated parochialism of all kinds. A liberal education includes deepening one’s ability to learn from people with whom one doesn’t agree, but the politics of resentment sweeping across our country is substituting demonization for curiosity. Without tolerance and open-mindedness, inquiry is just a path to self-congratulation at best, violent scapegoating at worst.

With this latest executive order, the White House has provided colleges and universities the occasion to teach our students more thoroughly about the vagaries of refugee aid from wealthy, developed countries that are themselves in political turmoil. The new administration has also unwittingly provided lessons in the tactics of scapegoating and distraction traditionally used by strongmen eager to cement their own power. There are plenty of historical examples of how in times of crisis leaders make sweeping edicts without regard to human rights or even their own legal traditions.

Our current security crisis has been manufactured by a leadership team eager to increase a state of fear and discrimination in order to bolster its own legitimacy. The fantasy of the need for “extreme vetting” is a noxious mystification created by a weak administration seeking to distract citizens from attending to important economic, political and social issues. Such issues require close examination with a patient independence of mind and a respect for inquiry that demands rejection of falsification and obfuscation.

As the press is attacked with increasing vehemence for confronting the administration with facts, universities have a vital role to play in helping students understand the importance of actual knowledge about the world — including the operations of politics. To play that role well, universities must be open to concerns and points of view from across the ideological spectrum — not just from those who share conventional professorial political perspectives. At Wesleyan, we have raised funds to bring more conservative faculty to campus so that our students benefit from a greater diversity of perspectives on matters such as international relations, economic development, the public sphere and personal freedom. Refusing bigotry should be the opposite of creating a bubble of ideological homogeneity.

As I write this op-ed, demonstrators across the country are standing up for the rights of immigrants and refugees. They recognize that being horrified is not enough, and they are standing up for the rule of law and for traditions of decency and hospitality that can be perfectly compatible with national security.

America’s new administration is clearly eager to set a new direction. As teachers and students, we must reject intimidation and cynicism and learn from these early proclamations and the frightening direction in which they point. Let us take what we learn and use it to resist becoming another historical example of a republic undermined by the corrosive forces of obfuscation, bigotry and hard-heartedness.

Veterans Day

For many years now, veterans have enrolled at Wesleyan or worked here as faculty and staff. Since the fall of 2014, we have cooperated with the Posse Foundation to bring cohorts of 10 undergraduate veterans to Wes each year. Here is the latest group:

Posse Class of 2020
Posse Class of 2020

You can learn more about the program here and here. Some of our Wesleyan undergraduate veterans are featured in this video:


Tomorrow we will have a “salute to service” just before our final football game of the year. Today is Veterans Day, and I ask that we pause and remember the men and women who have served our nation in uniform. They are family members, neighbors, friends, faculty, staff, alumni, and students. They deserve our acknowledgment and our gratitude.

Pain and Anger, Solidarity and Engagement

Like many citizens around the country, I have been deeply disturbed by the reports of  African-American men being shot by police officers. Of course, the words “deeply disturbed” fail to convey the pain and anger generated by the latest violence. At lunch time today students and others stood in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. There is so much eloquence in their shared, communal silence.

From AJ Wilson Twitter Post
From AJ Wilson Twitter Post

This afternoon a group of Cabinet members and I sent the following to the campus:

As we continue to witness acts of violence around our country – especially toward black and brown and other marginalized persons – we are filled with many strong emotions based upon our own identities and experiences.  But, we all worry about those of us and those in our communities who are impacted by these events in myriad ways. 

As a sign of our solidarity and our commitment to do whatever we can to address bias and inequity in our hearts, on our campus, and in our communities, we ask you to gather in the Huss Courtyard outside of Usdan on Tuesday 9/27 at noon.  Immediately after this moment of silence and reflection, members of the CAPS team will be available in Boger 111 and staff from the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life will be available in Usdan 104D for faculty, staff and students who may want to (or need to) talk about recent events.

Beyond this visible sign of solidarity, we commit to continue our personal and institutional work toward peace, justice, equity and inclusion.  We hope that you will too.

I will be traveling for Wesleyan on Tuesday, but I will be with the group in spirit in the Huss Courtyard at noon. Solidarity is crucial to building our community and to making a difference.

Solidarity is crucial and so is engagement. This is a season of change, an election season. I urge all our students, as well as faculty and staff, to play active roles as citizens. The stakes are so high.

On Rankings and Recognition

I was standing at a bus station in Great Barrington, Massachusetts a few days ago when an email arrived with the subject “congratulations!” Trustee Leo Au ’71 was sending me a link to Forbes magazine, which had just published its list of America’s Top Colleges. Wesleyan was featured in the top ten, along with research universities like Stanford, Princeton and Harvard, and liberal arts colleges like Williams, Pomona and Swarthmore.

Despite knowing that ranking schools is more magazine public relations than science, and despite the tendency to reward the wealthiest schools with the highest rankings (all the schools in the Forbes’ top 10 except Wesleyan have endowments way over a billion dollars), I have to admit I was tickled to see alma mater get this recognition. This magazine (unlike U.S. News) paid more attention to outputs (how our alumni and faculty are doing) than inputs (how much do we spend per student, how many applicants do we reject), and I couldn’t help but think that we did well here because of the impact our grads are having beyond the university.

Speaking of impact, earlier this summer the World Economic Forum reported that the Princeton Review again named Wesleyan one of the best colleges for “making an impact.” Once again, on this scale Wes ranked in the top 10. We have long known that our school is energized by many who want to use their education to make a positive difference in the world, and it was good to see this recognized. On this subject, folks might want to check out my online class How to Change the World, currently running on Coursera.

I still think that all college rankings are pretty artificial, and that prospective students should find the right fit with a school rather than choose a place on which a magazine has conferred prestige. There are hundreds of great schools out there for students who want to work and learn. As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni puts it “where you go is not who you’ll be.”

But it’s gratifying to see Wesleyan faculty and alumni recognized for the great work they do every year—whatever the rankings.

 

Wesleyan in London

Kari and I are in London for a few days. She gave a paper at a conference on the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, and I hosted an event with about 50 Wesleyans who live on this side of the Atlantic. There was a great mix of folks at the event. Alumni from each decade since the 1960s, and current students studying abroad—and even a few pre-frosh from the Class of 2020.

I had the great pleasure of meeting up with a few of my old students who have settled in London. I love hearing about the variety of ways their education continues to resonate in their lives and work.

We’ve seen some great art and have marveled at the new buildings that seem to be sprouting is this incredibly busy city. Think I’ll head over to the Freud Museum to get my bearings…

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Tomorrow, back to Middletown!

How to Choose a (Our) University

The happy emails and web links have gone out (replacing those thick envelopes of yesteryear), and all those fortunate enough to have choices about what college to attend will make a big decision: picking 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? As I do each spring, I thought it might be useful to re-post my thoughts on choosing a college, 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 maintain only moderate (very close to inflation) tuition increases. We also offer a three-year program that allows families to save about 20% of their total expenses, while still earning the same number of credits.

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 Pomona?

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 come to Wesleyan each week and why there will be the great surge starting today for WesFest. They go to classes and athletic contests, musical performances and parties. And they 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.

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 to admitted students a few years ago:

We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into, especially this year with a record number of applications. 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 commitment of our faculty says a lot about who we are, as does the camaraderie around the completion of senior projects that we are seeing right now on campus.  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.