Who Would Ever Want to be a College President?

Who would ever want to be a college president? That was the question that Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics asked me when we scheduled our interview early in 2024. Since I love my job, I was eager to talk with him about this. The result is this interview

I also had fun talking about related topics connected to campuses and free speech with Khalilah Brown-Dean on WNPR’s Disrupted. We discuss safe enough spaces in the second half of the show. 

Access, Education, and Practicing Freedom

In the last week, I’ve talked about being a student with audiences at Brown University, here at Wesleyan’s RJ Julia, and at John Hopkins University’s new public humanities program in Washington, DC. At Brown, our subject was affirmative action, and I was joined by an economist, the Dean of Admissions, and a political theorist. All of us were concerned about the ways in which highly selective schools in the US are much more likely to reproduce inequality than they are to open doors of social mobility. We discussed how we can address our country’s history of racial injustice in the new legal context established last summer by the Supreme Court. It was a good discussion, but there was too much agreement, for my taste, among the panelists about the error of the court. I missed the opportunity to engage with voices critical of affirmative action.

At RJ Julia in Middletown, I was talking about my book, The Student: A Short History. It was fun to summarize the main themes of the book and then to focus on how, in the modern period, the idea of the student gets wed to the desire to “practice freedom.” That’s a phrase I use a lot in the book, whether I’m talking about Kant on thinking for oneself, about Du Bois on education as empowerment, or about Jane Addams on the crucial links of learning and social sympathy. There were thoughtful questions from the audience about some of my key concepts and also how they are playing out these days in academia.

I write this returning from Washington, DC, where I had a wonderful public conversation with some humanities professors from Johns Hopkins about liberal education, free speech, difficult conversations and how to be a student today. There was an impressive turnout from Wesleyan folks in the area—and some pointed questions.

Are we really living up to our promises of open inquiry and intellectual humility? Not everyone thinks so, and that’s one of the reasons why being a student, like being a teacher, means always attempting to do better. And that’s only possible through attentive listening, trust building, and openness.


Remembering Ron Daniel

It is with sadness that I note the death of D. Ronald Daniel ’52, Hon. ’88, P’77, ’82, ’91, GP’22, and Wesleyan Board of Trustees Chair Emeritus. Ron passed away on December 16th surrounded by his family.  

After graduating from Wesleyan in 1952 with honors and distinction in Mathematics, Ron earned his MBA from Harvard Business School. He was awarded the Baldwin Medal, Wesleyan’s highest alumni award, in 1981, and received an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in 1988. 

Ron spent his career at McKinsey & Co, retiring as Managing Partner Emeritus. At Wesleyan, Ron served on the Board from 1969-1987, was elected Chair, and was subsequently elected Trustee Chair Emeritus. Along with his very close friends Ezra Zilkha and John Jacobson, and supporting President Colin Campbell, Ron provided decisive leadership to alma mater.

Ron was proud of the fact that his children David ’77, Stephen ’82, and granddaughter, India ’22 attended Wesleyan. Countless Wesleyan alumni received his career guidance and support over many decades. The Daniel Family Commons, the space in the Usdan Center where Wesleyan Board meetings are held, is named after Ron’s family.  

Ron is survived by his wife Lise Scott P’91, children Peter, David ’77, Stephen ’82, stepdaughter Amanda Hampton ’91, and numerous grandchildren.

After Giving Thanks, Say No to Hate

The Thanksgiving break couldn’t have come fast enough this year, or so it seemed to me. The humanitarian crisis in Gaza had been growing worse by the day, with thousands of Palestinians falling victim to bombings and many more living in increasingly desperate conditions because of Israel’s war against Hamas. So many children have been killed, it is heartbreaking. These last few days bring some measure of hope, as some of the hundreds of civilians kidnapped in the terrorist raids in Southern Israel have been exchanged for Palestinians imprisoned by Israel’s occupying forces. A fragile cease fire has provided some modest respite for Gaza’s desperate conditions. We permit ourselves a little hope that this will be the base of a more lasting effort at peace.

But for many people the Thanksgiving break was punctuated by fear and grief. On Saturday evening three Palestinian students were shot in Vermont while on their Thanksgiving break. As I write this on Sunday, the shooter remains at large [update: an arrest has been made], and the men are still recuperating from their injuries. The investigation is ongoing as to the motive of the attacker. All of us should join in solidarity with these Palestinian students and their families by rejecting violence in our own environment as we hope for their recovery and for justice.

And yet in so many places in the United States and around the world, we see expressions of hate and of violence. As tempers flare, old anti-Semitic slurs are hurled by self-righteous protestors, and people who otherwise consider themselves good citizens indulge in base Islamophobia. We can prevent these things from happening on our own campus by remembering that we are here to learn together. We can study together the history of this conflict, together remain open to people with different points of view, contribute together, in whatever ways we can, to possibilities for peace.

There are two weeks left of classes this semester. During this time, we don’t have to agree about the war or about other political issues that face us. But we can work for peace, for mutual understanding, and for the ability to continue to learn together. 

Thanksgiving Wishes

Yesterday I sent the following message to the campus community:

Dear friends,

As we prepare for Thanksgiving, we remind ourselves of all the things for which we are grateful. This is a time of year for connection, gratitude, and compassion—all much needed in these days of brutal conflict.

I believe more than ever that it is through openness to learning that we can find common ground. On many campuses, instead of searching for connection, people seem to be honing hate and gleeful intimidation. This will not happen at Wesleyan. Instead, we will learn together, acknowledging our differences. Whether this be through the study of a classic text, current events, or historical context, we will expand, not narrow, our understanding and our sympathies. Our faculty and staff are stepping up to offer guidance. We strive to find ways to comfort one another, to learn with one another, to generate hope for peace in a time of brutal war. I can’t think of a better place to be right now than here at Wesleyan.

I wish you all a peaceful holiday with family or friends. And I look forward to seeing you back on campus as we prepare to end the semester with boldness, rigor, and practical idealism.

Warm regards,

Michael Roth

NESCAC Volleyball Champs!!

Three cheers for the Wesleyan Volleyball team’s heroic capturing of the NESCAC Championship yesterday. The Cardinals have had a magical season, staying undefeated in the very competitive conference. But we lost two key players to injuries in the semi-finals, and so the pressure was intense. Undoubtedly helped by the home crowd’s boisterous support, including the return of several members of the 2017 Wesleyan Volleyball team’s NESCAC champs, Coach Ben Somera’s athletes beat a strong Williams team in straight sets. 

Now it’s on to the NCAA’s, but for now let’s savor this great victory and sweet season.


Repeat Little Three and More

As the fall sports season comes to an end, let’s hear it for some stand out performances. On Saturday, our football team deflated the Williams Homecoming crowd with an inspiring comeback victory, 30-22. The guys were down 22-8 and came roaring back behind great defensive play and a powerful passing attack. I was watching the game from an airport on the west coast, cheering cross-country.

We won the Little Three in Williamstown, marking the first back-to-back Little Three crowns in football for Wesleyan since 1969-1970. Quarterback Niko Candido ’25 was NESCAC Player-of-the-Week and also won the Golden Helmet from the New England Football Foundation.

Steve McLaughlin Photography

The women’s soccer team was in the NESCAC tournament again this year, and they played the top-ranked Amherst team in Massachusetts on Saturday. It was an incredibly tight match, with the Mammoths coming out on top 1-0. Our team was valiant to the end, finishing their strong season.

Yesterday I was back in Middletown to see the super impressive Volleyball team in the NESCAC quarterfinals. It’s always a rivalry game when we play Amherst, and yesterday was no exception. After a close first set, the Cards dominated their opponent with amazing defensive play and positively scary kills from all sides of the court. Next weekend we host the tournament finals, and I know we can give our team a home court boost!

Photo by Max Forstein ’27

I don’t give enough of a boost to our CREW TEAMS. They have had a wonderful fall, with especially strong finishes at the Head-of-the-Charles and the Head-of-the-Fish. 

Congrats to all our amazing athletes who manage to excel as students while working hard to hone their considerable sports skills. 

Ady Barkan, May his memory be a blessing

Kari and I learned with great sadness this week that Ady Barkan died at 39 of complications of ALS, a disease he had lived with for many years. We’d known Ady since he was in Middle School in Claremont, California, and our hearts go out to his family. 

Ady’s extended family, friends and allies stretches across the globe. An activist for progressive causes throughout his adult life, his influence dramatically increased after he advocated for equitable health care in an encounter with a Senator that went viral. Ady used his platform to promote democracy and to argue with force, humor and intelligence for health care as a basic human right. 

At Wesleyan, we are working with schools across the country to protect democracy….May we be inspired by Ady’s words: “Struggling for democracy is a fruitful endeavor.”