Athletics and Education

Coming back to Wesleyan after years in California, one of the most surprising aspects of the campus culture for me has been the wealth of athletic activities available — both formal and informal. Not only is the Freeman Athletic Center the class act of NESCAC, but all over the campus one can find students engaged in sports ranging from ultimate Frisbee to field hockey, from soccer to softball. In addition to the more than 700 varsity athletes, there are countless pick-up games or casual leagues. During the most recent glorious fall weekend, I was struck by the range of playful yet intense activities.

Football, men’s and women’s soccer, and field hockey were all involved in overtime matches on Saturday. We came out on the winning end in field hockey, and tied in men’s soccer, but in some ways the striving and focus the students exhibited were the most notable aspects of the contests. One sees the camaraderie and coordination of the players as they pull together (as I noted in the crew teams I saw at the Head of the Connecticut Regatta), and their shared jubilation or disappointment depending on the result. Whatever the outcome, the team regroups and begins work again, whether they had a big win (like women’s tennis) or a very frustrating loss (like football). The work — the practice and play — continues.

How is all this effort and competition, be it in intramural soccer or varsity cross-country, related to education? Recently I came upon a short piece on “The Active Life” by a beloved Wes faculty member and philosopher, Louis Mink. In a brochure on Liberal Education Louis wrote: “Sports provide the occasion for being intensely active at the height of one’s powers. The feeling of concentrated and coordinated exertion against opposing force is one of the primary ways in which we know what it is like to take charge of our own actions.”  Louis went on to say that “liberal education is education in the mode of action. It is something one does, and learns to do, not something one gets, acquires, possesses, or consumes.” That sounds just right to me: liberal education, in contradistinction to training, has everything to do with learning to take charge of one’s life.

Our students are busy, talented people. Why do they take on more challenges in athletics, or for that matter in their studies, or in the arts? Louis Mink wrote about the “overpowering reward” of feeling one’s own self-directed action having results against real difficulties. We learn about our limits, and about how we sometimes can overcome them when we take on the mental, physical and social challenges of sports. Of course, we also experience the great pleasure of the active life, often in the good company of teammates or campus supporters.

I often talk about the exuberance of our Wesleyan community, and how much I value the affection and achievement that it creates. Athletics are a big part of that, and that’s why I am so happy to cheer on the Red and Black!

[tags]athletics, NESCAC, Freeman Athletic Center, liberal education, Louis Mink[/tags]

Center for the Humanities at 50

Tonight I am reading over my lecture for tomorrow’s conference at the Center for Humanities to celebrate its 50th anniversary. This is especially exciting for me because as a student more than 30 years ago the Center was my intellectual home. I had made up my own major, and so I didn’t have one department that was my base. But every Monday night I went to the Center to listen to Wesleyan faculty and distinguished visitors explain their research as they benefited from an atmosphere of intense, interdisciplinary activity. It was heady stuff for me, even if I understood little. When I was a senior I joined the Junior Fellow ranks at the Center, and the faculty really did treat us as colleagues. I got a taste of academic research, and I was hooked.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about the evolution of CHUM a bit, and then about some major changes in the humanities over the last few decades. Nancy Armstrong, a distinguished critic from Duke, will be one of my respondents, as will my teacher Victor Gourevitch. I hope my paper meets his expectations! We start at 9:00 am.

The real fun for me starts at 10:30, when English professor Sean McCann will give a talk on liberal humanism. Historian Demetrius Eudell will talk about a humanism “made to the measure of the world” at 1:10 pm, and philosopher Lori Gruen will discuss Humanities’ Others at 2:50 pm. Respondents are former directors of the Center and current Wesleyan faculty. At 4:15 keynote Cary Nelson will discuss some of the political and economic pressures on the humanities. It should be an exciting day of vigorous intellectual stimulation.

The Center for the Humanities was one of Victor Butterfield’s great innovations, and now there are more than 150 such places all around the country. Wesleyan was a leader in bringing together teachers, scholars and students to examine problems from a multiplicity of perspectives, and the fact that so many others have followed our lead has much to do with why I refer to our school as “progressive.” We move ahead and others follow.

Join us at Russell House tomorrow anytime after 9 am to help celebrate The Center for the Humanities!

[tags]Russell House, Center for the Humanities, Victor Butterfield, Cary Nelson, Sean McCann, Demetrius Eudell, Lori Gruen, Victor Gourevitch, Nancy Armstrong[/tags]

Discovering Strategy

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

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

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

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

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

[tags]Board of Trustees, WSA, budget, Sukkah, Elijah Huge[/tags]

Trustee Discussions

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

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

[tags]Wesleyan Board of Trustees, Joshua Boger, WSA[/tags]

Weekend Performances and Contests

Tomorrow is a big home day for some of our athletic teams. The football team’s season gets underway against Tufts on Andrus Field at 12:30 pm. Did you know that Andrus Field has been used continuously for football for longer than any other field in the country? Come out and cheer for the Cardinals!!

Before the football game you might check out the Cross Country meet or the field hockey contest. Cross Country gets going at 11 am, and field hockey at Smith Field at Long Lane at noon. There will be plenty of soccer action on Jackson Field, with the women’s team aiming to continue its shutout streak at noon. The men’s team tries to extend its winning ways at 2:30. Women’s tennis is also at home, beginning at 2 pm. As you can see, there are plenty of ways to root for the Red and Black! Come on out and cheer!!

Of course, there are more than athletic contests happening on campus this weekend. The Breaking Ground Dance Series is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a performances by the Stephen Petronio Company Friday and Saturday night at the CFA. Junior Ross Shenker is staging his one-man musical, “Being Joel” in the Patricelli Theater Friday at 8 pm and Sat at 5 and 8 pm. You’ll may want to check out the Westco courtyard to hear three funk and reggae bands on Saturday night, beginning at 8 pm. If the weather holds, that should be a fine place to celebrate our great performances.

Today I met with the senior interviewers and tour guides. These students give much time and energy to introducing some of the key attributes of the university to high school students and their families. Their jobs are so important because they help give prospective students a perspective on the distinctive personality our our school. Their thoughtful enthusiasm is one of the best indicators of what kind of wonderful place this really is!

I look forward to seeing some of that enthusiasm at the various performances this weekend. Go Wes!!

[tags]Tufts, athletics, Ross Shenker, Stephen Petronio Company, concerts[/tags]

Writing with Grace and Ease

On Wednesday, September 23, some of Wesleyan’s fine creative writers will be reading from their work at the Russell House. The evening will combine prose and poetry, and it promises to be engaging and surprising. Lisa Cohen is a creative non-fiction author and has recently completed a group biography. Lisa charts the unconventional lives of talented women whose defiance of their contemporary norms has informed our own notions of identity and freedom, celebrity, sexual choice and the economy. Deb Olin Unferth recently joined the Wesleyan faculty and is teaching courses in fiction writing. Her post-realist, award-winning novel Vacation explores how even “thin efforts at intimacy” fail painfully, and how even the slightest coincidences generate powerful consequences.  Elizabeth Willis has taught literature and writing courses at Wesleyan for many years, and recently was named to the new Shapiro-Silverberg Chair in Creative Writing. Elizabeth has accumulated many honors, including a recent prize (selected from over 4,000 entries) from The Boston Review. Fellow critic and poet Susan Stewart said of Elizabeth’s poems: They take up the sound of music and the surfaces of painting, yet clearly do what only poems can do. The voice of a person thinking, discovering, revising, is ever-present without any loss in grace or ease.

I am meeting with a group of alumni away from campus Wednesday night, so I’ll have to settle for a tape of the proceedings. I can only hope the abundant grace and ease of the evening won’t be lost! The readings begin at 8 pm.

[tags]reading, Russell House, Lisa Cohen, Deb Olin Unferth, Elizabeth Willer, Susan Stewart[/tags]

Toward a Framework for Planning

I made this year’s first trip to an alumni reception at the end of last week, a great gathering of generations of Wes fans in Denver. We doubled the number of applications from the Mile High City this past year, and I can see that we have many fervent ambassadors in Colorado. Business leaders, teachers, entrepreneurs and communications specialists with Wes degrees have made Denver their home. Standing out even among our talented alumni group are two of the states most interesting political leaders: Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper ’74 and US Senator Michael Bennet ’87. And there are many other alumni engaged in public service: from art museums, to schools, to alternative energy — Wesleyan grads and their families are making a difference in the public arena in Denver as elsewhere.

This year instead of talking about “how it feels to come home to Wesleyan,” or “what’s changed in Middletown since the 1970s,” I thought I ought to talk about the future of the university I’ve now gotten to know again. Of course, everyone is rightly concerned with how we are weathering the economic crisis that has significantly reduced our endowment. We are having conversations about the budget with both the Budget Priorities Committee – a committee which represents  faculty, students and staff   –  and an ad hoc faculty committee to advise me on current budget matters. Our immediate task is to cut spending by an additional 2.5%. Although we are not out of the woods yet,  I am confident that we can make the necessary cuts to balance the budget this year while protecting financial aid and the academic core.

So in Denver I talked briefly with the group about my work this past summer on a framework for planning the next decade at Wesleyan. I’ve taken the input I’ve received over the last two years from trustees, faculty, students, alumni and staff, and combined that with my own sense of how we might build on what is most distinctive about the Wesleyan experience. For the last year or so I’ve talked about “seven initiative areas,” and I have woven those into a plan that charts a direction for our university over the next several years. I’ve also emphasized that we must develop the sustainability of our economic model — that means there won’t be any spending sprees in the coming decade. But there will be an ever greater effort to energize those elements most distinctive in the Wesleyan experience, create ongoing economic support for those elements, and develop effective ways of communicating to the world about them.

On Wednesday (9/16/09) this week I’ll post the framework for planning on a new Weblink: Wesleyan 2020. We will be having extensive conversations on campus about the ideas in the posted document, and  I invite you to send in your feedback either via email or directly to the site. We will continue to revise  our plans for the future until we have a framework we can use for developing our curriculum, recruiting students, allocating resources and raising endowment support for the future.

We are almost ready to move from crisis management to opportunity seeking. I look forward to engaging conversations on how we can build a Wesleyan for the future that will grow out of the finest accomplishments of our proud history.

[tags]alumni reception, John Hickenlooper, Michael Bennet, budget, resource allocation, endowment[/tags]

The Semester Begins! Celebrations and Classes

This week is the 100th anniversary of the  birth of one of America’s great film directors, Elia Kazan, and Wesleyan will mark the occasion with a series of films. We begin on Saturday, September 12th at 8:00 pm with Boomerang! (1947). Kazan, whose work with theater was also of decisive importance, presented his papers to Wesleyan in 1968, and for some time he had an office in Olin Library. For decades scholars have been using the papers in their research, one of the many extraordinary collections in the Wesleyan Cinema Archive. You can hear more about Kazan and the Archive on Saturday when Jeanine Basinger, Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies, introduces Boomerang! at 8 pm. For more information on the Kazan festival, see

In conjunction with the Kazan celebrations Mark Longenecker is teaching a film studies class based in the archival holdings. This is one of the dozens of classes added to the curriculum this year, most of them with enrollments under 20. I remember as a student feeling frustrated when I didn’t get the class I most wanted, but then I wound up in another course and it turned out to be the best thing that happened to me that semester. Perusing the course catalogue, I’ve seen offerings that combine science and service learning, politics and history, literature and music. Barry Chernoff, who is leading our efforts for planning the College of the Environment, is teaching “Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystems.” This a science class that requires students to devote a few Saturday mornings to fieldwork to complement lectures and labs. Fieldwork in a boat sounds like a great way to spend a Saturday.

Leah Wright, who has just joined the history department, is teaching a class on Black Conservatism. The class examines how black conservatism shifted, transformed, and evolved over the course of American social and political development. Lynn Westling teaches an introductory Physics course for non-majors called “Physics for Presidents.” It examines “mathematical and physical models that explain quantitatively how our world works.” The course discusses issues in the political sphere that depend on an understanding of physics, from nuclear weapons to alternative energy.

I’m teaching a new class this term: Topics in the Philosophy of History. It’s a small seminar to complement my large film class in the spring. We’ll be working on issues connecting memory and history, psychoanalysis and trauma, and photography and representation.

I had lunch today with Howard Needler, who has been teaching in the College of Letters since the late 1960s. We talked about Wesleyan old and new, sometimes emphasizing the great changes and at other moments marveling at the continuities. The College of Letters (like CSS and CHUM which all celebrate their 50th anniversaries this year) has always attracted talented, creative students interested in ideas and how they take shape over time. Professor Needler is teaching Dante’s Divine Comedy this year: a full year on this landmark text. The class is fully subscribed. Lucky students, I thought!

[tags]Elia Kazan, film series, classes, Jeanine Basinger, Mark Longenecker, Barry Chernoff, Leah Wright, Lynn Westling, Howard Needler, College of Letters[/tags]

Arrival Day (Part Three)

Well, this isn’t really about arrival day, but about the “common moment” evening of orientation. The theme for the first year students followed our “Feet to the Fire” program concerning climate change, and this year students focused on issues about water. Readings, lectures and discussion groups examined the cultural, economic, and spiritual dimensions of water, with some important focus points on purification and distribution.

Friday night at least 500 of the frosh gathered at the base of Foss Hill to learn dances with a water theme from different cultures around the globe. The great Wes drummers and dancers led the event, and the rhythms were stirring. Prof. Barry Chernoff, who has been inspiring our efforts in environmental studies and our planning for the College of the Environment, helped stir up enthusiasm for the event with Pam Tatge, Director of the Center for the Arts. Dance professor Nicole Stanton was joined by grad students, faculty and staff in keeping the crowd moving. There was joyful participation (and great ice cream!). The program concluded with the fire dancing students of Prometheus. My camera phone isn’t adequate to capture the powerful scene, but here are a few snaps:

Fire Dance at Foss Hill
Fire Dance at Foss Hill
Fire Dance at Foss Hill (2)
Fire Dance at Foss Hill (2)

The frosh are now being joined by the rest of the students, with classes beginning Tuesday. This fall we will see the results of our small class initiative, which has added dozens of new classes to the curriculum. My own small seminar meets on Mondays, so I’ll have a bit more time to prepare, inspired by how Andrus Field and Foss Hill came alive Friday night.

[tags]arrival day, Feet to the Fire, Barry Chernoff, Pam Tatge, Nicole Stanton, class initiative, Prometheus[/tags]

Arrival Day (Part Two)

I’ve been strolling around, carrying the odd (and light) box, meeting new frosh and their families. Lots of fun to run into alumni parents bringing their sons and daughters to Wesleyan, as well as those who are totally new to the Wes experience. I’ll post a few more photos later in the day.

Cars filling up the field
Cars filling up the field

New Home
New Home
Unloading #2
Unloading #2
Prof. Weil moving the students
Prof. Weil moving the students

All but the first photograph courtesy of Olivia Bartlett

[tags]Arrival Day, Olivia Bartlett, Kari Weil[/tags]