Meetings and Dialogues

Presidents have lots of meetings. At Wesleyan my days are full of scheduled conversations with vice-presidents and deans informing me of ongoing plans, current crises, and budget issues. Students and parents request time to talk over some of the things the university is doing particularly well, or (more often) to discuss areas where we are falling short of expectations. This past week I had three (again three!) very different sorts of meetings that tell me a lot about Wesleyan.

Early in the week some senior administrators and I drove up to Amherst for Little Three meetings. Amherst, Williams and Wesleyan get together once each semester to compare notes on a handful of issues so that we can discover best practices and avoid the worst. There were some interesting exchanges about diversity work on each campus, and I took away the lesson that Wesleyan needs to engage in more serious planning about our goals in this area. How should diversity be part of our recruiting of students, faculty and staff? What is the status of the diversity dialogue on campus? Are we doing enough to ensure that our curriculum and our residential programs are teaching critical thinking about difference as well respect and affection for it? I know that we can do more to create a framework for planning in this area, and we will.

Other topics at the Little Three meeting ranged from library renovation to international students, from co-curricular programs to fund raising. My Wes colleagues and I left feeling especially good about our curriculum and residential learning. Although Williams and Amherst have a great advantage in financial resources, we felt we were using our faculty and student strength for interesting innovations.

Later in the week I had a very different “meeting” with the Wesleyan faculty of Division II – social sciences. The professors from this area gather every few weeks to hear a lecture over lunch, and I accepted the invitation some time ago. I decided to talk about the philosophy of Richard Rorty, who was my teacher at Princeton and a major influence on my work. It was exciting for me to give an academic talk to colleagues about the intersection of philosophy and politics, and I had fun discussing Rorty’s view that there was no longer any need for a “meta-discipline” (or an academic referee) to tell other intellectuals what counted as “real research” or “science” or “Truth.” Although there wasn’t much time, there was a spirited discussion about the future of philosophy after the demise of epistemology. It felt great to be among colleagues in dialogue about ideas.

Speaking of philosophy, the magazine Bookforum recently published my review of a new collection Sarah Kofman’s essays. Kofman was a key French feminist philosopher who wrote in especially powerful ways about Freud and Nietzsche.

Last night was my final meeting of the week, an hour with the Wesleyan Student Assembly. There were great questions about what kinds of students we should be recruiting, about how the campus community can be part of the planning process, about the juvenile Argus headlines, and about weirdness vs. political engagement. We didn’t reach consensus, but we did have a candid conversation that was lively, fun, and, I trust, informative. On this cold, icy night, students turned out who wanted to continue to improve the Wesleyan experience. That’s the best kind of meeting!

[tags] Little Three, Amherst College, Williams College, Division II – social sciences, Richard Rorty, Bookforum, Sarah Kofman [/tags]

4 thoughts on “Meetings and Dialogues”

  1. Michael….As a Wesleyan parent, I always enjoy your blogs. It is gratifying to know that Wesleyan’s leader is passionate about learning and the life of the mind.

  2. Hello — I’m a Wes Class of ’88 person — a Wes friend mentioned your blog to me, so here I am. Folloing is a long rambling set of thoughts about “addressing diversity,” stimulated by your brief mention of it.

    I’m interested in the “diversity issues” stuff — in large part because of my Wesleyan education, I have been actively involved in diversity-focused discussions and processes (personally and professionally) throughout my post-Wes educational experience — two graduate programs, a doctoral internship, and, currently, as a newish assistant professor at San Francisco State University. I’m actually trying to make it part of my “pedagogical expertise” as I continue my career.

    So, I think about it a lot, and I’m working on it with my colleagues in clinical psych at SFSU. One of the things I keep seeing is that we (programs/schools) focus a great deal on the recruitment end of things… “we need a more diverse student body,” and then “oh, oops, we need a more diverse faculty/administration/staff.” So “we” go about encouraging applications from all kinds people who have been shut out in the past, and eagerly counting them among our number, and being excited about how their presence will change what we are doing. But in the end, the systems often roll on in exactly the same way, with maybe some more “diversity words” or “diversity days” or “flavors of the week” thrown in (in psychology, week by week, “therapy with clients of X ethnicity,” where X = African American, Native American, etc.). In the meantime, we hope that discussions about the elephant(s) in the living room — race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, identity, class, power — will just emerge on their own. We don’t change the process, we don’t REALLY transform our pedagogy, we don’t make the efforts explicit and central. If someone raises the issue, it often comes down to “we’ll add some readings (or a course).” From what I’ve seen, this results in discomfort for everyone involved, because it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. Even if it doesn’t affect retention of students/faculty/staff in the usual sense, it reduces engagement; we retain the bodies but not the minds and hearts.

    All of this to say — I’m glad Wesleyan is still “fighting the good fight” in some way. I hope the university will be open to dismantling and/or transformation of its 175+ years of “business as usual.” (Granted, “business as usual” at Wesleyan is far less traditional than at many other institutions.) I’ve begun to believe that it will never be sufficient to change the curriculum (i.e. content) without first uprooting it, re-examining its goals in the light of new values and paradigms, looking at the pedagogical means that were built around those goals, and then consciously, collaboratively deciding, “What are we about?”

    Reminds me of the Talking Heads… “Well? How did I get here? … Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.”

    Thanks for listening. I’ll try to pay attention to, and learn from, your and Wes’s efforts on this front. Good luck!

    –Kate Hellenga, Class of 1988

  3. I have appreciated your candor in this blog, Michael. But negatively singling out a student group, like the Argus, in your blog seems innappropriate and–dare I say–juvenile.

  4. Dear President Roth,
    I am writing to you as a person of color who had an immigrant father and is indebted to Wesleyan’s financial aid policy for allowing me to get an excellent education and prepare me for graduate school, althgough an MBA is not a typical graduate degree for a Wes graduate, but my liberal arts education at Wesleyan taught me how to be a better manager in the business word;
    I am writing you now becausei am now disabled as i suffered a stroke in 2006 although i am only 48;
    As you plan ahead and look at Diversity issues for Wesleyan,i think the Wesleyan community could benefiyt from this dimension of diversity;
    I have learned that being disabled is not about bconvenience, it is about independence;
    Anything that i can do that allows me to care for myself is critically important to my self-esteem and empowers me;
    Thank you,
    George Yuen

Comments are closed.