Football Wins Little Three and Caps Off Great Season

Just a quick shout out to Coach Dan DiCenzo and the Wesleyan football team, who this weekend beat Trinity in Hartford for the first time since 1997. The win capped off an extraordinary season for the Cardinals, who went 8-1 and won the Little Three Championship. The overtime victories against Amherst and Williams were especially exciting.

So much hard work went into making this season such a great success. Go Wes!

 

Come Home to Wesleyan!

Homecoming/Family Weekend is just around the corner, and there are plenty of programs planned for those returning to campus. The football team comes off an ultra-exciting victory vs. Amherst College last week, to take on Williams on Andrus Field at 1 p.m. After that game, Matt Simco ’22 was named offensive player-of-the-week, to join Daniel Banks ’22, named defensive player-of-the-week. There will be plenty of tailgating, and, depending on the NESCAC playoff schedule, potentially more games to watch.

Speaking of watching games, last weekend I caught a couple of sets in the volleyball team’s victory over Hamilton. The evening before, the Cardinals secured their third consecutive Little Three Championship with a victory over Williams. The team has SO many strong players (several of whom I’ve had in class), and is led by the multiple player-of-the-week winner Nicole Hilton ’20. They take on volleyball powerhouse Ithaca College this weekend. Stay tuned for the playoffs!

Homecoming/Family weekend sponsors several WESeminars and other programs. There are exciting presentations on subjects as varied as environmental science, dance, politics and creative writing. You can find a complete listing here.

Go Wes!

Fall Break in Asia

Each fall for the last several years, I’ve visited with Wesleyan alumni, parents and prospective students in Asia. I’m just back from Korea, China and Taiwan, where we held receptions and, in Beijing, a forum on liberal arts education and sustainable economic development. In a time of rising nationalism and chauvinism disguised with ethical posturing, it was good to have conversations with folks with a wide variety of perspectives and backgrounds. Although my Fall Break trips go by very quickly, I always learn a lot from listening to our extraordinarily diverse Wesleyan family in Asia.

During my visit to China, I also met with those involved in a potential joint venture to open a film-centered school in the country. Following those meetings, Wesleyan has come to a decision not to proceed with such a project. As I explained in an email to campus today:

..in considering this possible campus in China, we needed to be sure that the academic work would be in line with the distinctive pragmatic liberal education at the core of Wesleyan’s mission. Further conversations with those who proposed the partnership have made it clear that our respective goals could not be sufficiently aligned—not to mention the questions we had around issues of academic freedom and the implications for our home campus.

While we will not move forward with this particular project, we remain interested in exploring collaborations in accordance with our Beyond 2020 strategic plan.

We have learned much from this process, and we will continue to seek ways to enhance the value of a Wesleyan diploma by expanding the reach of our academic programs, and by empowering our students, faculty, staff and alumni to do meaningful work on our campus and beyond.

Photos from the visit follow:

Reception in Seoul
Admissions Forum

Talking with students in Taipei

 

 

Wesleyan Beyond Middletown?

Recently, many Wesleyans have been discussing the news that the University has been invited to explore the possibility of opening a college in China. Our conversations have been very preliminary — should it be a film academy, a liberal arts college, some form of hybrid? Wesleyan has been running programs in China for many years, mostly in the form of lectures for prospective students or for our many alumni who live and work there. Should we explore doing something more substantial?

The University has looked into a variety of locations for Wesleyanish programing. Most of these are of the study-abroad variety with which many are familiar. We have also experimented with programs in Los Angeles for people entering the film industry, and investigated coordinated internship opportunities in public service in Washington. Giving students options for programs beyond our core campus can expand educational opportunities and increase the value of a Wesleyan diploma. In considering these possibilities, we want to be sure that the academic work is in line with the distinctive pragmatic liberal education at the core of Wesleyan’s mission. We also want the programs to be economically sustainable and contribute to positive recognition of the University.

I should say that most of these conversations don’t lead to actual programs. We set the bar very high for new initiatives, and most of the ideas we consider don’t meet our high expectations. Our conversations about a possible campus in China are still in the very early stages. Obviously, there are serious concerns about academic freedom and a host of related issues. At the same time, Wesleyan has had a very positive history of working with students and faculty from China, and so we are considering this possibility very carefully. The only decision that is imminent is whether we should do more research on this possibility.

Since many have questions about these topics, we will hold a  faculty and staff discussion on Wednesday, October 30, 4:30–5:30pm, and one with students from 6–7 pm. These conversations will surely help inform our considerations about a variety of possible Wesleyan initiatives that build on the great things that happen on our Middletown campus.

Women’s Soccer Little Three Champs!

Yesterday, the Wesleyan women’s soccer team battled rival Amherst to a 0-0 tie. Given our earlier victory against Williams, the result is this team’s first Little Three Championship in more than 30 years!

Congratulations to this great team.”Winning on the road in our conference is never easy,” stated head coach Eva Meredith. “We played hard and smart against a quality Amherst team. With a tie, we got to celebrate the program’s first Little Three victory since 1982. I could not be more proud of our team’s work ethic and mental toughness today.”

You can cheer them on this afternoon on Jackson field as we take on the Tufts squad.

Congratulations to this great team! Go Wes!!

There’s Plenty to Worry about — but not Political Correctness

The following is cross-posted with the Yale University Press blog. Some it is drawn from “Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech and Political Correctness”

 

Over the last month, I’ve been talking with reporters, podcasters, and pundits about the quality of campus culture in the US today. I was surprised when one reporter asked, almost plaintively, “President Roth, are the kids alright?” He had been reading various reports of free speech crises, illiberal liberals, coddled minds, and assaults on excellence.

Where does all the worry come from? No doubt, disturbing things happen on campuses, and older folks can react with eye rolls or, when commentators fear a trend, alarmed criticism. A template of sorts was created by Allan Bloom in the 1980s and Richard Bernstein in the following decade. Bloom and Bernstein had different political positions on many topics, but they shared the notion that multiculturalism on American university campuses had become a sterile orthodoxy. The Closing of the American Mind (1987) didn’t use the term “politically correct,” but Bloom’s diagnosis of what was ailing American higher education echoed (and echoes to this day) in complaints about PC culture. With his surprise bestseller, Bloom transformed himself from isolated, mandarin professor to bestselling conservative scold by excoriating students for their addiction to rock music and deafness to the higher pleasures of Straussian contemplation. Bloom was interested not in the average college student but in students who wound up at America’s very best colleges and universities. As he saw it, the 1960s and 1970s had turned college campuses into bastions of prejudice that made serious learning all but impossible. The prejudice with which these students had been inculcated since they were schoolchildren, he asserted, is that tolerance is the greatest virtue and that everyone should have their own truth (or later, their own passion). We don’t argue that only some beliefs are respectable; we assume that since we don’t know which beliefs are true, we must respect them all. Nobody can be wrong, because nobody can be right.

Well before Bloom’s book, among activists on the left, the use of the term “politically incorrect” was meant to signal that their radicalism was more outlaw than doctrinaire. Claiming oneself to be “politically incorrect” or accusing a sanctimonious comrade of political correctness was not atypical banter. The Closing of the American Mind seemed to open the floodgates, and by the 1990s, accusations of “political correctness” would become a theatricalized staple of conservative discourse. It was especially popular among critics who regarded the diversity and multiculturalism on American university campuses as sterile orthodoxy. In the last twenty-five years, it has become common knowledge that you could attract a crowd of supporters by attacking political correctness, and recently we have seen that anyone with access to a keyboard or a microphone can find an audience by complaining about it.

Bernstein’s Dictatorship of Virtue appeared at the height of the 1990s PC frenzy, when the multiculturalism Bloom derided seemed to have become an enforceable dogma. Bernstein saw a commitment to inclusivity and equality as having become a demand for moral purity. He was dismayed that the doctrine of assimilation, in which his own forebears had trusted when they came to this country, had been replaced by a celebration of difference. Almost thirty years ago, Bernstein argued that we no longer needed strong programs to remove barriers to integration for those who had been discriminated against or marginalized in earlier times. He seemed to believe that his own family’s assimilationist success story meant that “strident anti-immigration sentiments” and “organized nativism” were things of the past. Today, the rise of neo-fascist policies and rhetoric at the highest levels of government makes Bernstein’s claims seem naïve, but his prediction that excessive efforts to expose the negative dimensions of American history would produce a backlash to “make America great again” turned out to be uncannily accurate.

Today the label “politically correct” is used to mock those with whom one disagrees, or merely to deflect criticism about one’s own position. If you are doing something other people find objectionable, especially if it’s on moral grounds, labeling your critics “politically correct” is meant to return one to the side of the angels (or at least the victims).

Many who complain bitterly about a monolithic PC culture on college campuses are themselves, paradoxically, working within universities and their adjacent institutions. Some of these well-meaning folks believed they were themselves liberal, and now they claim (loudly, as it so happens) that they are afraid to speak at all. Accusing those with whom you disagree of being PC has become a rhetorical reflex. Just moan to your friends and colleagues (your in-group) about somebody else being censorious or oversensitive, all the while censoring that person and complaining about being hurt yourself.

But how do you tell which complaints are to be taken seriously? Are some African Americans oversensitive about stop and frisk, or only about cultural appropriation? Are transgender people thin-skinned if they are concerned with bans against their participation in public life, or only if they call out misgendering? Where does one draw the line, or rather, who gets to draw the line? As conversations and actions can be observed by broader groups of people, how does one know to whom one is speaking (and who is listening)? In the absence of an in-group constituted by affection or tradition, even liberals may discover that, despite their good intentions, they are being criticized from the left, or at least from the young or other people new to the debate. As one encounters differently diverse groups of people, it doesn’t feel good to be outflanked, and so we see a tendency to respond by calling the newcomers politically correct.

Name-calling or assuming the status of the victimized is among the least productive forms of disagreement. Outrage may lead to feelings of solidarity, but it insulates us from the possibility of changing our minds, from opening our thinking. And that’s why I argue that students, faculty, and citizens must avoid falling into the tired tropes of both callout culture and accusations of political correctness. This requires staying engaged with those with whom one disagrees, and not just about abstract issues like whether we have become unconscious relativists. Conversations about race and about the economy, about bias and about sexual assault, about jobs and about the shrinking middle class . . . all tend to involve strong emotions, intense language, and, sometimes, bruised feelings. People do get “called out” for their supposed racism or general privilege, and this can seem to them unfair or just painful. As a result, some people will complain that they don’t want to speak up because they fear being “criticized” or “stigmatized.” These people should recognize that their fear isn’t a sign of the environment’s political correctness or hostility toward free expression; it’s just a sign that they need more courage—for it requires courage to stay engaged with difference. Staying engaged with difference, including intellectual diversity, is the best “on the ground” refutation of the “PC” charge.

Are the kids on campus alright? Well, some of them are just fine, and others are struggling with a combination of their own personal issues along with those presented by a world riven by inequality and faced by dangers (from climate change to resurgent ethno-nationalism) that should concern us all. The folks on campuses across the land are wonderfully diverse, and it will be through acknowledging their differences that we can provide them all with a more empowering education. I ask that we stay engaged with difference, and I do hope it reminds those who care about higher education to find the courage to build intellectual communities with different forms of diversity that lead to learning that is bold and rigorous, practical and aspirational.

From Climate Strike to Climate Actions

At the Climate Strike rallies last week, many Wesleyan students signed petitions with proposals very much on point. At the Board of Trustees retreat, we were briefed on some of the work that has recently been accomplished on campus to reduce our carbon footprint. Our comprehensive energy systems upgrades, for example, will offset 747 tons of carbon emissions.

Our energy improvements are a step in the right direction, but we are facing a climate emergency and need to do more. Many at the rally urged that Wesleyan reach carbon neutrality by the date of its bicentennial, 2031. This is an excellent idea but also an ambitious one. (Until now our goal has been to accomplish this by 2050.) I am asking our Sustainability Office and Physical Plant to propose practical steps that would enable the University to reach carbon neutrality by its bicentennial while preserving its educational mission. We will need input from across the University to reach this ambitious goal.

Students have also asked that the university divest from fossil fuel investments by 2031 and that we use environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations in determining any new investments. I am confident that we are well on our way to doing this.

There are other things students, staff and faculty have asked that we do, such as changing how we care for campus grounds, encouraging our community to eat a more plant-based diet, reducing the number of vehicles on campus, and increasing the produce we grow here at Wes. I look forward to working together on all of these issues.

I also look forward to supporting the efforts of the College of the Environment and other groups to promote national and international policies that would reduce the release of carbon and increase the use of renewables. This includes pricing carbon generating products more appropriately and supporting the development of technologies that would reduce the price of renewables. We are a small university, but we can and will join with others to create policies to mitigate the damaging effects of this climate emergency while forcefully addressing its causes.

The climate emergency requires local action, to be sure, and it also requires national and international coalition building. Wesleyan will do its part.

Climate Concerns and Climate Action

This week young people around the world are making their voices heard in leading a chorus of concern about the catastrophic dangers of climate change. On Friday, Sept. 20 many will be engaged in a climate strike – breaking from their regular routines to call attention to the importance of changing the way we use the earth’s resources. Here on campus, faculty are organizing events to raise awareness about the threat posed by climate change. Others, including students, will travel to New York to participate in workshops and lectures on these issues in relation to social justice organized by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, of which Wesleyan’s College of the Environment is a founding member.

Over the years, students have urged the University to change its investment policies in response to the climate crisis. I am pleased to report that the Investment Committee of Wesleyan’s Board of Trustees has voted to eliminate any permanent allocation to “oil and gas” from its asset allocation model. What does this mean? It means that Wesleyan will no longer seek out managers specifically to invest in oil and gas in order to balance its portfolio as a whole. This is a significant step, as the University had previously sought to invest around 7 percent of its endowment in this sector. Furthermore, any new investment managers hired must meet our ethics, governance and social responsibility expectations. As stated now in our guidelines: “in selecting external managers or considering direct investments,” the Investment Committee will “consider environmental, social and governance factors as part of their investment process.” Just as we aim to reduce our dependence on non-renewable energy on campus, I expect we will steadily reduce our dependence on fossil fuels investments in the endowment.

Plans at Wesleyan for the day of climate action on Friday, Sept. 20 are still taking shape, but here are some of the scheduled events:

  • 12–2 p.m. Global Climate Rally (Usdan courtyard): Speeches by student groups and other members of the Wesleyan community, followed by an on-campus march.
  • 4:30 p.m. (Exley 150): Climate Rant by Professor of Physics Brian Stewart (who will also convert his 1:20 p.m. class into a climate teach-in at Exley 150)
  • 6 p.m. (Church St. or Washington Ave.) Candle Light Vigil

During the following week, Sept. 23­–27, the COE will organize more teach-ins. On Sept. 25, the COE will host a discussion among students at Wesleyan, Taras Shevchenko University in Kiev, and Universidade do Sao Paulo about climate change and coordinated action among young people.

More program information can be found at https://www.facebook.com/pg/wesleyancoe/events/.

Teaching and Religion

This essay on teaching intellectual history courses that take religion seriously builds on some pages in Safe Enough Spaces. It recently appeared in The Atlantic

 

I had hardly finished my lecture when the student came bounding down the auditorium’s stairs.

“You’re just like all the others,” he said, fuming. “You don’t really take religion seriously.”

This happened a few years ago, when I was teaching a college course on virtue and vice. I had just finished talking about the Catholic thinker Thomas Aquinas. My sin? According to my student, I had “intellectualized” Saint Thomas. I had described his philosophical sources and his historical context, but had said little about the philosopher’s fundamental project—one that had everything to do with the salvation of our souls.

My student’s name, fittingly, was Tom. He was a believer at a secular liberal-arts school, and he was sick of being condescended to either by a campus lousy with self-congratulatory progressives or by teachers (like me, he assumed) who treated religious faith as an inert museum piece. “Wait,” I told him. “Today we talked historical context, and next time we’ll illuminate religious practice.”Tom was a rare exception. As a teacher, I find remarkable resistance to bringing religious ideas and experiences into class discussions. When I ask what a philosopher had in mind in writing about salvation, or the immortality of the soul, my normally talkative undergraduates suddenly stare down at their notes. If I ask them a factual theological question about the Protestant Reformation, they are ready with answers: predestination; “faith, not works”; and so on. But if I go on to ask students how one knows in one’s heart that one is saved, they turn back to their laptops. They look anywhere but at me—for fear that I might ask them about feeling the love of God or about having a heart filled with faith. In my cultural-history classes, we talk about sexuality and identity, violence and revolution, art and obscenity, and the students are generally eager to weigh in. But when I bring up the topic of religious feeling or practice, an awkward silence always ensues.

Wesleyan Music Festival (The Mash) Sept 6th

For the past several years, we’ve inaugurated the first week of the semester with The Mash — Wesleyan’s fall version of the festival of music. Students, staff and faculty join in with song, dance, general merriment on the first Friday of the semester. This year’s MASH will kick off on Friday, September 6th at 3:00 pm on Andrus Field, and we expect 3 hours of great music.

This year we look forward to at least a dozen new acts to be opening our ears on stages between the back of Olin Library and the front of the Usdan Center. Come on out and join friends and classmates in a good boogie, or just engaged listening. It’s fall, it’s music, it’s Wesleyan, and IT’S THE MASH!