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.

 

Wes Conversations Making a Difference

This morning I sent the email below to all Wesleyan students. I want to remind students that many of the issues they have raised have resulted in positive changes at Wesleyan. Of course, we haven’t pleased everybody, but we have listened carefully to how we can make alma mater an educational institution that aims at continuous improvement.

Dear friends,

A little over a week ago, after taking in some wonderful thesis projects at the Zilkha Gallery, I went over to Davison to view the exhibition of renowned photographer Philip Trager ’56 and listen in on his conversation with his long-time friend Professor Andrew Szegedy-Maszak. Andy has written an essay for Phil’s latest book, based on the pictures on display. The exhibit itself reflected a half-century’s visual conversation between Philip and his wife Ina and stimulates deep contemplation about long-term relationships. Certainly Philip and Ina have had a long-term relationship to Wesleyan, and they announced at the Davison that they have made yet another generous gift of prized images to the university collection.

When Philip was a student here in the ’50s, he surely never thought he’d be back in 2016. I doubt few of you have thought about being back here decades hence, but I have no doubt that many of you will be back. For Wesleyan has made contributions to your life and you have contributed to the life of Wesleyan. Indeed, the two are intertwined – in the projects that you’ve shared with others, in your athletic efforts on behalf of your teammates, in your theatrical collaborations, in the friendships you’ve made. And, of course, in your ideas on how to improve our university.

You’ve made your ideas known through gentle suggestions, vigorous public demonstrations, written arguments, and informal conversations passed along over a meal. And we have heard you. Your concern about social life with the closure this year of Greek Houses prompted us to make more funds available to sponsor large gatherings. Many students were experiencing long wait times for certain counseling services, and so we hired a new staff member in CAPS and have focused on more responsive protocols. When young alumni pointed out that even small loans could be a burden for folks from low-income families, we increased the no-loan threshold of family income. This, combined with changes to expected family (often student) payments, should ease some of the burdens we’ve heard about, as should our new emergency fund to support those in need who encounter unexpected expenses during the school year. When students expressed worries about running out of meal points before the end of term, we set up a fund to help; we also plan to provide more flexibility for students to use meals during the semester. And when students pointed out problems with our summer housing, we reduced housing costs for students with high financial need. Don’t get me wrong: I know that these steps haven’t eliminated all the issues, but I do think they are signs of progress.

We also launched a mentoring program and skill-building workshops for those students who might benefit from additional support as they transition to Wes. We have responded to your concerns about course access by adding additional sections in high-demand areas, such as computer science, economics, and psychology. Our shared concerns about faculty departures in African American Studies has led to hiring two new full-time members of the program and others who work in this field. The new Workshop at Hewitt 8 is the result of a student proposal last year. And we will soon see the report of the Equity Task Force, which should help us improve the campus experience more generally. Again, these steps are not meant to be definitive. We must continue to address issues raised by students, faculty and staff.

At Wesleyan we respond to students not as consumers in a transaction, but as members of a community, as participants in an extended conversation. Our goal is always to improve the distinctive quality of the educational experience of our students, whether we’re hiring a new staff member, renovating a building, or deciding a tenure case.

I look forward to hearing more from you—be it at a scheduled appointment (my Drop-In hours are most Mondays 4:30 – 5:30 p.m.), at an impromptu meeting over lunch, or if our paths cross at some event. When we talk about improving our university, we may not always agree, but I trust we are all listening closely. It’s a conversation helpful to Wesleyans now and those who follow. And who knows? It’s a conversation that may last a lifetime.

Campus Planning Framework

Last spring Sasaki Associates & Eastley+Partners worked with student, faculty, staff and alumni groups to develop guidelines for campus planning. After much brainstorming, conversation and analysis, they presented a report detailing five main principles:

1. Synergy of Residential and Academic Experience

How can we create spaces that tie academic work to campus learning more broadly?

 

2. Network of Informal Learning Spaces

How can we enhance the idiosyncratic spaces in which serendipitous encounters lead to deep learning?

 

3. Spectrum of Formal Learning Spaces

How can faculty and students collaborate in creating places on campus appropriate to the new ways we teach and learn most effectively?

 

4. Transparency of Indoor/Outdoor Spaces

How can we plan for spaces that weave a more seamless connection between the interior and exterior landscapes?

 

5. Engagement Local and Global

 How can the principles of sustainability and stewardship lead to more productive engagement for the Wesleyan community in Middletown and beyond?

You can find a link to the executive summary of the report here. Thanks to the Facilities Committee and all the other Wesleyans who contributed to this effort. Over the course of this year we will begin to plan for campus improvements guided by this work.