Athletic Honors

This time of year there are just too many prizes and honors to count, but I wanted to signal some really stand-out performers. Let’s start with Grace Devanny ’23, who won the Sabasteanski Award, given to the NESCAC’s Most Outstanding Performer from the track & field championship meet. Devanny is the first Cardinal to win the NESCAC’s highest individual honor. She’s set records in so many races this year, I’ve lost count. And the thrills she’s provided in soccer will long be remembered. Wesleyan’s only first team All-American Women’s Soccer player, a National Champion in the 400M in Indoor Track and a SEVEN Time All-American in Track and Field. No slouch in the classroom, Grace will be inducted into Phi Beta Kappa this month!

Speaking of stand-out individual performers, Nika Vesely ’25 was named NESCAC’s Player-of-the-Year just before the women’s tennis team hosted the NCAA’s regional tournament here in Middletown. Nika and her teammates won both their matches and head to the final four! Coach Mike Fried will be guiding the team having earned Coach-of-the-Year honors this year. His leadership of this program is nothing short of remarkable.

I don’t spend enough time talking about our crew teams, but they have had a fine season this year. The men are ranked #2 in the country, and they are heading to the National Invitational on Friday. The women’s team is ranked #7 and will also be racing at the National Invitational on Friday. These scholar athletes have become formidable teams that make the most of coordinated hard work, strength and endurance. 

There are many other athletes to celebrate, and we’ll have a chance to do so at a banquet this week. Go Wes!

Little Threes

Sending out a big cheer for our Little Three Champs in Women’s Tennis and Women’s Lacrosse. These teams have been excellent for several years now, but there is still a great thrill in coming out on top against Amherst and Williams. Congratulations to coaches Mike Fried and Kim Williams and all their players!

How to Choose A (Our) University

Throughout the spring, high school seniors with the acceptance letters in hand are once again visiting campuses as they try to decide where to attend college. They are trying to envision the school at which they will be most likely to thrive. Where will I learn the most, be happiest, and form friendships that will last a lifetime? How to choose? As I do each spring, I thought it might be useful to re-post my thoughts on choosing a college. We have been hosting many campus visitors, and today we begin  WesFestI invite you to visit our Admitted Students website to learn more about Wesleyan.

In the wake of the pandemic, many students today are wondering what campus life will be like in the fall. At Wesleyan we are planning for a normal university year. Sure, we expect to continue to take health precautions, including ensuring that all students are vaccinated and boosted before they begin the semester. Of course, we will monitor the pandemic’s course should things take a turn for the worse.

For many, the decision about where to attend college will be made on an economic basis. Which school has given the most generous financial aid package? Wesleyan is one of a small number of schools that meets the full financial need of all admitted students according to a formula developed over several years. Wesleyan has made a commitment to keep loan levels low, and we have replaced them with grants for high need families. We also offer a three-year program that allows families to save about 20 percent of their total expenses, while still earning the same number of credits.

After answering the question of which schools one can afford, how else does one decide where best to spend one’s college years? Of course, size matters.  Some students are looking for a large university in an urban setting where the city itself plays an important role in one’s education. New York and Boston, for example, are popular college destinations, but not, I suspect, for the classroom experience. If one seeks small classes and strong, personal relationships with faculty, then liberal arts schools, which pride themselves on providing rich cultural and social experiences on a residential campus, are especially compelling. You can be on a campus with a human scale and still have plenty of things to do. Wesleyan is somewhat larger than most liberal arts colleges but much smaller than the urban or land grant universities. We feel that this gives our students the opportunity to choose a broad curriculum and a variety of cultural activities on campus, while still being small enough to encourage regular, sustained relationships among faculty and students.

All the selective small liberal arts schools boast of having a faculty of scholar-teachers, of a commitment to research and interdisciplinarity, and of encouraging community and service. So what sets us apart from one another after taking into account size, location, and financial aid packages? What are students trying to see when they visit Amherst and Wesleyan, or Tufts and Pomona?

As students scan the Wesleyan website, go to chatrooms and listen to current students talk about their experiences, I hope they feel the brave exuberance and ambition of our students, the intelligence and care of our faculty, the playful yet demanding qualities of our community. I would like prospective students to get a sense of our commitment to creating a diversity in which difference is embraced and not just tolerated, and to public service that is part of one’s education and approach to life. Our students have the courage to find new combinations of subjects to study, of people to meet, of challenges to face.

Whatever college or university students choose, I hope they get three things out of their education: discovering what they love to do; getting better at it; learning to share it with others. I explain a little bit more about that in this talk to admitted students a few years ago:

We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into, but even in the group of highly selective schools, Wes is not for everybody. We aspire to be a community committed to boldness as well as to rigor, to idealism as well as to effectiveness. Whether in the sciences, arts, humanities or social sciences, our faculty and students are dedicated to explorations that invite originality as well as collaboration. The scholar-teacher model is at the heart of our curriculum. Our faculty are committed to teaching and to shaping their disciplines. At Wesleyan, we know how to work hard, but we also know how to enjoy the work we choose to do. That’s been magically appealing to me for almost 50 years. I’ll bet the magic will appeal to many of those who are still in the process of getting to know our extraordinary university.

Spring Senior Harvest Underway

Spring of senior year … a time of celebration, some anxiety, and often great achievement. You can see our seniors performing in all sorts of things across campus over the next month.

I am fortunate to have several tennis players in my classes this year, and this weekend I got to watch some of them play in tough matches against NESCAC rivals. Sunday afternoon was Senior Day and the women were awesome! There was baseball and lacrosse to watch outside as well, and many Wesleyans were already taking advantage of the sun to watch their classmates on Andrus Field from those great seats on Foss Hill. 

Kari and I also had the pleasure of seeing the spring senior dance recital this weekend. The choreography was smart, creative and graceful — the dancers gave their all to an appreciative audience in the 92 Theater. Congratulations to Amaal Ladha, Keren Lebrón Ramos, Charissa Lee, and Halle Newman for their fine work. Today I strolled over to the Zilkha Gallery to catch the end of the first week of senior theses exhibitions. Riya Devi-Ashby, Alec Black, Peter Ketels Fulweiler, Skye Gao, Eden Lanois, and Bell Rush had impressive works displayed in a wide variety of genres.

Week two of the art thesis shows begins Tuesday. Music recitals are also underway, and I hope to be able to listen to some of them this month. You can find out more about all the arts events here

Happy Spring!

PAC Will Now be the People’s Art Collective!

Today I take the opportunity to announce that the construction on the Public Affairs Center is going so well that we want to radically change the use of the building. We have discovered through an iterative process making use of design thinking that the faculty are very happy (ok, somewhat less unhappy) with the temporary offices they have been in during the renovation of the PAC. And we have also discovered that we have plenty of classrooms for the courses on the books. So, we are announcing that for the next several years (at least) the PAC will be a showcase for architecture and art! We won’t move into the building next year – we will use it as a place to look at art, admire architecture, and be inspired to build community without having to occupy the building. Indeed, we will reject the certificate of occupancy process imposed on us by the state. We will BE the People’s Art Collective!

For some, it will seem very wasteful that a construction project of this size results only in a place for contemplation, absorption and community building. But ask yourselves whether your notions of utility and waste are linked to normative notions of occupation that haven’t exactly served people well over the course of history. Ask yourselves.

Together, we will liberate the PAC by making it the People’s Art Collective!

And Now, Towards the Finish Line!

As we gather in the wake of spring break, it’s good to remember that many Wesleyans have been busy these past two weeks preparing for the last half of the semester. I know that many seniors working on theses, performances and art projects didn’t get away and have been making progress on substantial pieces of work. Whether they are studying federal regulations in the government department or working to understand personal dis-regulation in psychology, they are combing through data and honing their arguments. Biologists at Wes are closer to their fruit flies than one might think possible, while physicists work with computer scientists and mathematicians on the properties of sensors. These are quite different, thank goodness, from the properties of censors, which very few of our artists have to worry about (I trust). They are making films and dance performances, writing novels and analyzing philosophical texts for ideas that might change the way we look at the world.

All of this is to say that many of us have not been on much of a break at all. Spring sports teams have been busy competing, staff here in Middletown have been preparing the campus for the new season of activities. Writers are writing, readers are reading … You get the picture. 

Speaking of pictures, here’s one of Lola on the first day of spring:

Good luck with the rest of the semester!

National Champ: Grace Devanny!

As spring break begins, several of our students have been competing in championships for their winter sports seasons. Marco Gaita ’23 won his first match in the NCAA Wrestling Championships, and Izzy Paez ’26 will be competing in the 200 meter butterfly. A senior and a first year student competing at the highest levels!

Speaking of the “highest levels,” the Women’s Track and Field team has been passing folks all year. Jordan Walter ’25, Kenzie Kelly ’25, Maeve Hoffman ’23, and Jane Hollander ’23 finished in 8th place in the distance medley race, set a school record and received All-American honors! And the Wes team also has the National Champion in the 400 meters race. All-American Grace Devanny ’23 capped off her stellar career with a school record and one of the fastest times in Division III history. 

Congratulations to Grace and all the Wesleyan athletes finishing up winter sports or starting their spring seasons.

Hockey Stars

As we get ready for spring sports, let’s take a moment for a long round of applause for our men’s hockey team. They finished atop the NESCAC standings, and had a stellar season in almost all respects. Yesterday, the conference released its awards, and several of our players, and our coach, were recognized.

Chris Potter was named coach-of-the-year in NESCAC in this his 20th season leading the Cardinals. It was our best regular season campaign ever, and Chris consistently found ways to inspire great play from his team. This is the fourth time he has been recognized with this honor. 

Jake LaChance ’23 was named the conference’s player of the year. A defenseman with an uncanny ability to keep the other team from scoring, he also was highly ranked in key offensive statistics. A team captain, Jake’s strong play throughout the season was recognized by the entire conference.

Erik Voloshin ’24, and Wiggle Kerbrat ’23 were named to the all-conference first team, with Emmet Powell ’23 named to the all-NESCAC second team.

You can read more about these honors here. Go Wes!

On Pragmatic Liberal Education

I posted this piece a few weeks ago in the Washington Post under the title “Some see liberal arts education as elitist. Why it’s really pragmatic” (Washington Post, 2/5/2023).

At a time when misinformation grows more sophisticated and demagoguery runs rampant, the public should be able to turn to higher education for guidance. But there is declining trust in the sector, which has been embroiled in controversies ranging from its high cost, to tensions between academic freedom and religion, to questions about the role of social justice on campus. From Texas to Florida, government leaders have felt empowered to ramp up their war on universities. Critics on the left accuse universities of being the servants of neoliberal corporatism, while critics on the right view them as engines of indoctrination into world views that dismiss the lives of ordinary people. At a time when higher education should be contributing to our public lives, many of its leaders are busy playing defense, or worse, just laying low.

Colleges and universities in the United States come in a wide variety of forms, but one of their most distinctive elements is pragmatic liberal education. This form of learning — no matter what you are studying — combines the acquisition of specific skills (such as literacy and numeracy) with understanding of how those skills fit into broad contexts. Rather than being just trained how to be a cog in a machine, you are taught to understand how machines work within the systems in which they (and you) are embedded. Pragmatic liberal education in the United States has emphasized that in a diverse democracy, it is crucial that people develop the capacity to listen to those with views different from their own.

Today the relevance of that vision is being challenged on many fronts. There are those who claim that colleges are creating insular tribes adept mostly at canceling one another rather than promoting a diversity of viewpoints. Liberal learning, others argue, contributes to the divisiveness afflicting American society by reinforcing a sense of superiority — in turn, inciting righteous indignation among those who feel elites with fancy diplomas are looking down on them.

Critics are not wrong to point out that biases exist in the American academy that can lead to contempt for those who don’t play its idiosyncratic language games. They are not wrong to question whether professors are providing the tools of facile rejection under the guise of empowering critical thinking, paying lip service to academic freedom while expecting ideological or intellectual conformity. These are legitimate concerns for anyone who believes that education should liberate one from dependence on someone else’s thinking (even the teacher’s) and that learning should foster open-ended inquiry and self-reliance.

Because liberal education is a path well-trod by elites, it can also seem to be the pathway to elitism, cementing economic inequality and enabling a fortunate few to assume an attitude of haughty privilege. Selective institutions like my own take too much pride in the number of people they reject in admissions. Throughout U.S. history, writers have argued that while education was essential for a healthy democracy, it could also lead to a class of pretentious elites condescending to their fellow citizens (if they recognized them at all).

Champions of pragmatic liberal education have long recognized this issue. In the early part of the 20th century, Jane Addams, for example, saw that so-called sophisticated modes of education often stifled the ability to see things from another’s point of view. She recognized that strong thinking often became self-protective and detached from the concerns of others. She insisted on the development of empathy and the sympathetic imagination, underscoring participation in civic life as a vehicle for liberal learning that wouldn’t become parochial and elitist.

The U.S. tradition of pragmatic liberal education of which Jane Addams is a part doesn’t just want students to have read a set of sanctified Great Books. They realize that real inquiry must be tested beyond the university, and that real learning, including the study of classic works, must be relevant beyond the classroom. This American educational tradition took a bet on what pragmatist philosopher John Dewey called “practical idealism,” a bet on the value of situating learning in relation to society and the aim of contributing to its well-being.

That wager inspires students from all walks of life who choose educational paths that allow them to make unexpected connections to discover fields of inquiry of which they were unaware in high school. Students may enter higher education with very specific goals, but in large public universities and small liberal arts colleges, in historically Black colleges and universities, and in faith-based institutions, they encounter teachers who show them how to build skills while also broadening their awareness of the world around them.

I’m thinking of Kennedy Odede, who came to the United States from Kenya, and while studying social science at Wesleyan University started schools for girls in slums around Nairobi. Some of those girls are now applying to colleges in the United States. I’m thinking of Livia Cox, who studied neuroscience and trained as an emergency medical technician while an undergraduate, and who now has been awarded grant support to put her medical training into a broad public health context.

We should recognize how our campuses thrive with productive nonconformists and practical idealists who are building companies and purpose-driven organizations. On campuses today you can certainly find examples of cancel culture, but you also find faith-based groups supporting health care workers, liberal arts students working with the incarcerated, and an impressive array of young people defending the right to vote.

Higher education in the United States can be pragmatic without being conformist, and liberal education can inspire students to think for themselves in ways that include learning from people with views different from their own. A pragmatic liberal education promises to engage with issues that students will have to deal with beyond their university years; it’s more ambitious than a short-term training program. The jobs of the future and the problems confronting our world today cannot be tackled by technical specialization alone. Environmental degradation, artificial intelligence, public health, increasing inequality, international political tensions — these are complex areas that demand the kind of holistic thinking characteristic of liberal education.

Our pragmatic approach to liberal education is one of the reasons more than a million students from outside our borders flock to U.S. colleges and universities each year. Their confidence in our institutions is no replacement, though, for the trust of our fellow citizens. To strengthen that trust, we must demonstrate that our educational institutions foster open inquiry, deep research, and pragmatic approaches to the pressing problems and opportunities before us. If our colleges and universities graduate practical idealists rather than narrow-minded conformists, we will be serving our nation and the world.

Statement on Academic Freedom


Sharing this message I sent to the campus community this morning.

Dear friends,

Given recent conversations on campus and the controversies raging around the country concerning free speech, censorship, and the governmental intrusion into higher education, this seems a good moment to say something about academic freedom here at Wesleyan University. First, what does academic freedom mean? A former president of the American Association of University Professors started off this way:

  1. Academic freedom means that both faculty members and students can engage in intellectual debate without fear of censorship or retaliation.
  2. Academic freedom establishes a faculty member’s right to remain true to his or her pedagogical philosophy and intellectual commitments. It preserves the intellectual integrity of our educational system and thus serves the public good.

At Wesleyan, we might add that the intellectual integrity of our community is preserved when any of its members, including staff and students, can remain true to their intellectual commitments and their approach to learning. We trust that remaining true to one’s commitments is combined with remaining open to people with commitments different from one’s own. This is how real learning happens, with “independence of mind and generosity of spirit.”

As we state in the University’s governing documents (faculty handbook and student handbook): “every member of the Wesleyan community should feel that he or she can enter into controversy without fear of being silenced or constrained. This community’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas and pursuit of knowledge requires a wide range of protections for speech and expression, even when noxious or offensive. Belonging to this community, however, carries with it the responsibility of extending respect and openness of mind to others.”

In America today, academic freedom once again needs its defenders—people who know that learning requires freedom from intimidation and censorship while also demanding openness and attentiveness. The combination of qualities that constitute academic freedom may seem idealistic to some, but for us at Wesleyan it is the practical idealism at the heart of liberal education.

Michael S. Roth