Supporting Student Research

Faculty have been holding open meetings, organized on a divisional basis – Humanities and the Arts, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences and Mathematics — to discuss the framework for planning, Wesleyan 2020. Over the next month I will blog from time to time on some of the themes that emerge in these conversations. Today it’s support of student research.

In each of the meetings so far, faculty have called for more funding for student research. Wes professors (in all Divisions) feel that an emphasis on independent research projects is one of the important characteristics of the academic experience here, and they want to give ambitious undergraduates the opportunity to bring serious projects to a successful conclusion. Our graduate students receive support while they are here, but they, too, do their best work when given the freedom to focus on their dissertations and journal articles.

I’ve talked with a group of seniors this year about their senior theses, and I look forward to reading them.  Chan-young Yang is writing for CSS on the idea of the end of history; Emily Rasenick is exploring the relation of history and memory in films that deal with WWII for Film Studies and History; and Katie Boyce-Jacino in intellectual history has been investigating a group of theory driven French intellectuals who tried to situate themselves in relation to but outside of Communism. Other students are writing stories, conducting experiments or planning recitals as their capstone experiences. At this time of year students are  feeling both the pressure and the pleasure of pulling together complex, substantial projects.

The faculty have let us know that they would like to see students be able to draw on funds that would support their need for research trips, equipment or collaboration to bring their projects to fruition. In addition to our efforts to raise endowment for financial aid, we will be seeking donors who will make it possible for our students to conduct their scholarly and creative practice at the highest level.

This is one part of the framework for planning on which there is an enthusiastic consensus.

[tags]student research, Wesleyan 2020, Chan-young Yang, Emily Rasenick, Katie Boyce-Jacino[/tags]

Wesleyan’s Green Street Art Center Needs Your Help!

Wesleyan’s Green Street Art Center is holding a benefit auction this week. On Thursday night from 6-9 pm you can enjoy good company and great food while supporting the after school programs in art and science at Green Street. That’s right, art and science. This year GSAC has developed a curriculum with some partner institutions that helps young boys and girls to improve their homework skills and find joy in learning. Wes students also discover this joy through our many volunteers. You can still buy a ticket for Thursday night, and funds go to support this work with youngsters that is so importantly educational for our tutors as well.

I was just looking at the auction list for the Green Street Art Center. You can still make bids through 2/15 on everything from tickets to Broadway shows to a dinner that Kari and I will prepare for you at the President’s House on campus. Check out all the items at the special website, and then bid.

Wesleyan’s programs at Green Street are having a powerful impact on the community and offering great learning opportunities to our students. I’m getting to know this not only from our undergraduates, but from my daughter Sophie who volunteers after school each week. I’ll let her close out this message:

sophie green st

[tags]Green Street Art Center, benefit auction, [/tags]

Education: From Condescension to Respect

Today I put this up on the Huffington Post and thought it might also be of interest for readers of this blog:

This week political science professor Gerard Alexander hit a chord (or was it a nerve?) with his Washington Post essay on “why liberals are so condescending.” Despite the recent successes of the Tea Party movement, Scott Brown, and a filibuster-happy Senate, Alexander repeats the old refrain: We conservatives get no respect. Rather than enjoy the intellectual disarray of the Left, Alexander seems to long for recognition from his liberal colleagues: You liberals think you have all the answers, and you never listen to us conservative voices, no matter how much education we have! Although many have recognized that the conservative movement did become “the party of ideas,” Alexander complains, liberals still see the Right as mired in false consciousness, hypocrisy, or both. What’s a faculty member got to do to earn some credibility? Publishing a provocative lecture for the American Enterprise Institute in the Washington Post isn’t a bad start.

But is the Left really more condescending than the Right? When Sarah Palin mocks Obama’s supporters with “How’s that hope, change thing working out for yaw?” is that not a form of condescension? Palin’s populist condescension toward those who don’t live in “the real America” pales before the patrician variety famously mastered by William F. Buckley. Woe to the liberals who carelessly strayed into his firing line. Two examples can stand for dozens of great zingers: “I won’t insult your intelligence by suggesting that you really believe what you just said,” Buckley sneered. “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views,” he observed, “but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.” Alexander cites Paul Krugman as a prime offender of looking down his nose at conservatives, but why is this any different than Chicago-school economist Eugene Fama saying “My attitude is this, if you are getting attacked by Paul Krugman, you must be doing something right”?

No, liberals have no monopoly on condescension or intellectual and social smugness. Mocking people who drive Priuses (it used to be Volvos) is just as common as sneering at people in supersized pickups. But there does seem to be an easy association between elitism and progressivism that conservatives are able to reactivate at the drop of a hat. Why do we jump at the accusation? Is it because condescension is indeed a temptation for a politics that depends so much on education and on faith in the powers of knowledge? Liberals prize education – valuing it as a vehicle toward a more just and hospitable world. Education means enlightenment, which Kant famously defined as “freedom from self-imposed immaturity.” Confidence in the power of education can lead to arrogance because people in the know feel that they ought to be able to fix things. As people pursue education, they often feel that they are leaving false beliefs behind, that they are becoming freer as their illusions and dependence are dissolved. As this happens, many look around and see others who haven’t yet shed their old ways of thinking and are still mired in falsehood or reliance on authority. “I used to think like that, too,” says the advanced student to the frosh, “but now I know better.” This is what Eric Voegeli [it’s actually William, see comments below] was getting at when he wrote last year’s version of the condescension essay, “The Roots of Liberal Condescension,” published in the Claremont Review of Books (and found on the Wall Street Journal online). “Thus, if patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” he wrote,  “snobbery is the last refuge of the liberal-arts major.”

Does education necessarily breed elitism and condescension, and does it necessarily give rise to political liberalism? A little education very well might promote the intellectual arrogance many conservatives see in their caricature of a professor on the Left, but liberal learning is, after all, supposed to make us aware of how little we know. That’s what Socratic insight is all about: we need to learn because we understand so little. Education should lead to intellectual humility as we become more aware of our own ignorance. Conservatives also prize education, after all, but they do so because it should deliver the lesson of intellectual humility. Education should prevent us from thinking we can solve our deepest problems with science, technology or political structures.

There is a parallel here with faith. Some believers, infused with confidence in their own righteousness, display a spiritual arrogance that is offensive to those who don’t share their beliefs. But many people of faith discover a deep humility through their spiritual life — a humility that leads to openness to others rather than a proud sectarianism.

So maybe condescension depends less on questions of ideology, learning and faith than it does on differences in character. Some people just find it easier to sneer at others rather than to try to understand people with different points of view. The satisfactions of condescension are a temptation for people who feel they already know so much, just as the pleasures of elitism are seductive for people who are certain that God is on their side.

It’s always easier to be condescending when you don’t spend time with people who think or live differently than you do. That’s why it’s so important to find possibilities for dialogue that cut across ways of thinking or modes of belief. Political diversity is crucial for universities, for example, because if we live in an echo chamber of the Left, then we will forget how much we can learn from conservative thinkers who have rightly questioned our ability to master public and private life through systems of knowledge or government. Diversity of belief is good for all of us because if we think that we live in a community of the righteous, we might forget our responsibilities to those whose different beliefs and practices give meaning and value to their lives.

As a teacher and president of a university, I remain committed to education as an antidote to elitism rather than as a progressive cultivation of snobbery. As we learn, as we become more aware of our own ignorance, we should also become more open toward others, toward what they have to teach us. Looking down on others is surely a sign of intellectual fear rather than of a willingness to learn. An education in the liberal arts, which can lead to a political position on the Left or the Right, should result not in condescension but in its opposite: respect.

[tags]Huffington Post, journal article, Gerard Alexander, politics, Eric Voegeli[/tags]

Our Hearts Go Out

Kari and I were returning from New York Sunday morning when we heard the news of the explosion at the Kleen Energy plant in Middletown. The blast was felt on campus and for miles around. The city contacted Wesleyan’s Community Emergency Response team to help with disaster relief at the explosion site, and I am grateful for the efforts of our staff. Don Albert and Stacy Baldwin helped tow a portable hospital to the site, and Bill Nelligan has, as usual, been indefatigable in lending a hand wherever needed. Cliff Ashton and Ricky Howard have also been providing support for the search and rescue efforts.

Our hearts go out to the victims of yesterday’s explosion and their families.

[tags]Kleen Energy Plant, explosion, Middletown[/tags]

Admissions and Recognition

As January is coming to an end, I am writing this on a plane back to Connecticut from Texas. I’ve been in Houston and Dallas the last couple of days, meeting with alumni, parents and even a few pre-frosh. When I began my presidency in 2007, we  increased our communications efforts in areas of the country where Wesleyan wasn’t as well known as it is on the Coasts, and we placed a special emphasis on Texas. We have many alumni there who work in the technology, education, medicine and energy fields, to name just a few. We’ve held well-attended events in Houston and Dallas the last two years, and this week’s gatherings were energetic and popular. The Roff family, our host in Houston, has had six family members at Wes, and the Barth clan there can count seven! We discussed the planning framework, Wesleyan 2020, in both cities, and even the torrential rains in Dallas didn’t dampen the high spirits at the reception hosted by the Wolins (P ’12).

I was pleased to report that in the last three years we have tripled the number of applicants from Texas. This is one chapter in a very impressive admissions story. Last year applications were way up, and so a reasonable person might have expected some pull back from these numbers in 2010. But the application pool has increased again, this year by about 6%. That means that our pool has grown about 30% in two years! Most important, the quality of the pool is very strong, and we are meeting our goal of increasing geographical diversity. Early decision applications are at an all time high. It’s a tribute to our community that so many talented people want to be part of it!

Why are so many more people applying to Wesleyan? It isn’t easy to point to any specific factors with confidence. Clearly, we have benefitted from positive press thanks to the great work of our faculty, students, staff and alumni.  Our admissions and communications departments have been in high gear making sure that we get the word out about what makes Wesleyan an extraordinary institution. The campus looks great, and investments in our physical plant have had compelling results. We have been emphasizing some of the distinctive aspects of a Wes education, and above all, students and their families have been talking to others about their own experiences. Enhanced recognition  is important not only because it allows us to put together ever more diverse and talented classes, but also because it increases the value of  Wesleyan diplomas for all our alumni.

We don’t need to “sell Wesleyan,” or develop some slick marketing messages. After all, by emphasizing our distinctiveness we are also saying that Wes isn’t for everybody. The culture of openness and experimentation, exuberance and achievement, creativity and focus…this culture is different from  the ones that have developed at other fine schools. We want to get the word out, but we don’t need to present ourselves as just another highly selective school for successful high school seniors.

Now that we have well over 10,000 applications for next year’s class, the admissions staff has to read each one of them with the time consuming care that comes with a holistic application process. I thank them in advance for all the hard work that will go into putting together the class of 2014!

[tags]applications, Wesleyan 2020[/tags]

A Wealth of Opportunities

I spent much of Saturday at the Freeman Athletic Center watching our athletes compete. The women’s basketball team carried the day against Middlebury, and the men’s team along with swimming, women’s hockey and track put up strong efforts. The focus and discipline of the athletes is always impressive to me, especially when I recall that they have books to crack and problem sets to complete.

With the new semester just underway, we are now in the period when students check out different classes as they put together their final schedules. It’s a time of excitement and sometimes of frustration. Some of the required classes in the most popular majors fill up quickly. Academic Affairs can add sections when appropriate. Some popular classes work well because they are small, and happily almost all students report that they are pleased with their final schedules. Advisors and Deans are on hand to help students navigate this process.

Those of you far away from campus don’t have to feel left out of the wealth of academic opportunities. Go to the iTunes store and look up Wesleyan University. There you will find video recordings of great Wes faculty, visiting writers and scholars, and even some strength and conditioning tips. Check out the Wes YouTube channel for an even greater variety of uploaded video from campus.

Of course there’s nothing like being on campus to experience the diversity of offerings here. If you are looking at lectures online and want to remember the feel of the place, you can always check out a great book of campus photos, Welcome to Wesleyan: Campus Buildings.

[tags]Freeman Athletic Center, athletes, opportunities[/tags]

A New Semester!

I’ve been on the road for Wesleyan most of the time since New Year’s, and I am delighted to return to campus for the start of the new semester. My first class in “The Past on Film” (a course on philosophy, history and the movies) is today.

While I’ve been traveling, people have been busy here on campus preparing for the new semester. Many of our athletes have been involved in regular competition since the beginning of 2010. The men’s hockey team recently recorded its first win over Williams at home in many years. It was a convincing victory! Our men’s water polo team was recently named “Team of the Decade” by the Collegiate Water Polo Association. Congratulations to Coach of the Year Mac Clonan ’05.

Our faculty have been busy preparing new courses for the spring, many of which are part of the Small Class Initiative that has added dozens of seminars to our offerings. Manju Hingorani and Katja Kolcio are offering a class called “Body Language: Choreographing Biology,” while inaugural Koeppel Fellow, alumna and editor of the Forward Jane Eisner ’77 is teaching one of our first journalism classes “The Journalist as Citizen.” Sonali Chakravarti is teaching a government class on political theory and transitional justice, while the great vibraphonist Jay Hoggard offers “Language of the Jazz Orchestra.” As I look through the catalogue, I wonder if I can find the time to audit even as I work on my own class.

I was in in Washington the last few days visiting with alumni there and in Baltimore. Kari and Sophie joined me for the weekend, and now we are all trying to catch up on our homework! A highlight of the trip was a tour of the White House on Saturday. It brought us back to the hopeful energy of a year ago, and it also reminded us of the challenges now facing the whole country. This morning, as I post this blog, I confess to a few doubts as to whether we will be able to pull together to meet those challenges, but then as I see the picture of Kari, Sophie and myself, optimism revives.  How happy we were to be there at the White House!


[tags]men’s water polo, Manju, Hingorani, Katja Kolcio, Jane Eisner, Sonali Chakravarti, Jay Hoggard[/tags]

Ongoing Need for Help

Many of our friends and colleagues have been profoundly impacted by the ongoing tragedy in Haiti in the wake of the earthquake. Just this morning, a large aftershock sent people fleeing from the damaged places in which they’ve sought shelter. I know that Wesleyan students, faculty and staff have responded generously to calls for help. Some of the organizations that have been recommended to me are:

  • Texting “HAITI” to “90999” to donate $10 to the Red Cross.  The US State Department very quickly put together this number to channel relief contributions directly to first responders who will be on the ground there.
  • Partners in Health.  PIH ( is already on the ground in Haiti and mobilizing their relief efforts. PIH has worked in Haiti to provide health care and education to the poorest of Haiti.
  • Save the Children (

There are many more fine organizations on the ground in Haiti providing assistance. Please help!

[tags]Haiti, earthquake, Red Cross, Partners in Health, Save the Children[/tags]

Investment Office Update

This morning we had the all staff meeting kicking off the new semester. I thanked everyone for their hard work over the course of the year, and acknowledged the difficulties we’ve faced in this challenging economic environment. Faculty and staff are working harder than ever to keep Wesleyan at the forefront of higher education.

The  unpleasant task I had this morning was to provide a brief update on the university’s lawsuit against former Vice President and Chief Investment Officer Thomas Kannam. This afternoon I have emailed the following update to the campus community, and I thought it best to share it with this blog’s readership:

Many of you are aware that Wesleyan has commenced litigation against former Vice President and Chief Investment Officer Thomas Kannam. For those of you hearing about this for the first time, here are the basic facts: On September 30, 2009, Wesleyan received a report through its Whistleblower Policy concerning Mr. Kannam’s potential violation of Wesleyan’s Conflict of Interest Policy. This report was fully and promptly investigated. We believe that Mr. Kannam was a principal in one or more other substantial business ventures and that his work was potentially in conflict with his responsibilities at the University. As a result of this activity, Wesleyan believes that Mr. Kannam had, at a minimum, violated the Conflict of Interest Policy and his employment agreement with the University. Mr. Kannam was terminated on October 13, and on November 24 Wesleyan brought suit in Connecticut Superior Court against him and related parties.

An unpleasant matter like this one, touching a community like ours, stimulates questions and speculation as a matter of course. In this case our strong desire for transparency must be weighed against both legal interests and institutional policy regarding personnel issues. Given the pending litigation, it would be inappropriate for me to comment at length. What I can say is that the situation, while disappointing, is no cause for alarm. However, the University has an obligation to all those who have supported it over the years to hold members of the campus community to the high standards expected of them, and this litigation reflects just how seriously the University takes its fiduciary responsibilities and adherence to its policies. Once the nature and scope of Mr. Kannam’s activities were revealed, we acted quickly and judiciously.

Wesleyan’s endowment is being overseen by the Treasurer’s Office in close consultation with the Portfolio Subcommittee of the Board of Trustees. A search process is underway that will result in new leadership for endowment management, and I will be able to report on this in the spring. In the meantime, I am gratified by the continuing support the University has been receiving from its alumni and others.

[tags]Vice President and Chief Investment Officer Thomas Kannam, Conflict of Interest Policy, lawsuit[/tags]