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.”




Remember Maine, Reject Violence

I am horrified to find that when I search for the word “violence” on this blog, one finds all too many occasions on which I’ve expressed sadness and outrage at the prevalence of mass shootings in this country. Over the last days, we add Lewiston, Maine to this sad, sad, tally. Eighteen dead, and lockdowns continue as authorities search for the killer. I am reminded of Wesleyan’s own 2009 lockdown as police searched for the murderer our beloved student Johanna Justin-Jinich, gunned down by a stalker in the Wesleyan bookstore.

So much sorrow and pain in each of the many shootings by people who never should have had access to deadly weapons. Killers bent on destruction shatter lives. As I’ve written many times over the years: We don’t have to live this way. We don’t have to make death dealing so easy.

Remember Maine and work to reduce gun violence.

This weekend we will welcome back alumni and parents for our annual Homecoming celebrations. In this horrifying context, I can understand that some will hesitate. But I remain convinced that our educational mission stands against the violence all around us. I remain convinced that by pursuing our mission, we give ourselves a better change of resisting the purveyors of lethality who would have us believe that violence is the only way forward. It is not. Education, learning, is our alternative to violence.

When we choose education, we are choosing conversation against violence; when we choose education, we are choosing meaning — rejecting (and attempting to prevent) violence. When we choose to learn, to remain perpetual students, we commit to openness, to resolving our differences through consideration and not force. Sadly, what I wrote on this blog a few years back is still relevant today:

Recent events remind us of the threats against our choice, as an educational community, for uncertainty. We are reminded of the threats against our willingness to embrace ambiguity, engage with different points of view, and to seek compromise rather than certainty. Now we mourn the fallen, and we aim to help those damaged or still threatened by attacks. And we hold fast to our choice against violence—our choice for meaning and for education.

Hold fast to our choice, celebrate the power and affection of our education. And remember.

Meeting Wesleyan’s African Scholars!

What a pleasure today to meet with the inaugural cohort of Wesleyan’s new African Scholars Program. Hailing from various parts of the continent they are quickly making Wes their home. As we build this four year scholarship program going forward, this year’s group will be a foundation for all we do in the future.

Pictured here (left to right) are members of the Class of 2027: Yinka Vaughan, Lois Amponsah, Leonard Zheve, Tihitina Gebeyehu, Holiness Igiraneza, Cheruiyot Allan, Chukwudi Udechukwu, Daphine Kemigisa, and Yamani Mpofu






Go Wes!


Return to China

Last week I visited with Wesleyan folks in Beijing and Shanghai. I used to visit regularly, but this was my first time back since the pandemic. We made the trip to reinforce the connections with our Wesleyan community that had been seriously frayed by the pandemic and by international tensions.

We had a very positive trip, combining recruiting prospective students with some meaningful touch points with alumni. In Shanghai we hosted a reception at which I met some wonderful high school students already enamored with Wesleyan and eager to apply early decision. They had the chance to spend some time with our alumni. While in that city, I also gave a lecture to undergraduates at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and this university would like to do some cooperative programming with us in the humanities. In Beijing we welcomed a good turnout at our reception, and I now have the additional pleasure of greeting several former students from my own classes as alumni.

We also visited what we were told is the best international school in Beijing. Again, there were amazing students already quite knowledgeable about Wesleyan. Some even brought me copies of Beyond the University in Chinese translation to sign.

We had a spectacular meal with the parents of recent alumni and current students. What a joy to break bread together.

Although it was wonderful to connect with old friends and meet new Wesleyan folks, it was a difficult time for me to be away from campus. Many students, faculty and staff are feeling the pressure of the war in the Middle East, some very directly. The brutality of the Hamas’ terrorist attacks, and the severity of the retaliation in Gaza chills the soul. Like so many on campus, I try to imagine what an enduring peace might look like, a very hard thing to do in this time of war.

Here on campus I trust we will continue to look out for each other, to support civil discussion and our efforts to learn from one another. The alternatives are much worse.


Enough Suffering: Find Ways to Comfort, To Learn

How best to confront our feelings of frustration, sadness, fear and anger as events unfold in the Middle East? We see the horrors of war and the attendant suffering of civilians In Israel and Gaza in the wake of Hamas’ terrorist attacks last week. Today a rocket explosion at a hospital in Gaza….the suffering is all but unimaginable. But we try to imagine, and ask what we can do in response to what we are learning, what we are feeling.

I know that on campus Jewish and Muslim students have gathered, sometimes separately and sometimes together, to talk, to mourn. Groups from all parts of campus want to understand more about what’s happening in the region, and faculty are stepping up to offer guidance where they can. War is notoriously difficult to grasp while the fighting is going on, and yet we want to learn, we want to know.

I am grateful to the Wesleyan Chaplains and many other faculty and staff for offering guidance in this difficult time. I have heard reports that Muslim students on campus are feeling particularly vulnerable right now, and that in addition to concerns they have about what’s happening in Gaza, they feel targeted as terrorist sympathizers or anti-Semites. This compounds the pain they are already feeling as they struggle, like all of us, to make sense of the awful news reports we see every day. We must ensure that Muslim students feel they are full members of the Wesleyan community. Because they are.

Of course, people at Wesleyan have different political views about what is happening in the Middle East. But these differences should never spill over into attacks based on race, ethnicity or religious belief. Neither Islamophobia nor anti-Semitism have any place at our University.

There is enough suffering right now. We should find ways to comfort one another, to learn with one another, to generate hope for peace in a time of brutal war.

Trying to learn and to find hope in a time of sorrow

What a difference a week makes! Last week I was focused on book reviews and readings, and my blog could have highlighted the volleyball team’s Little Three Championship or the fact that Eve Shockley’s book of poems (published by Wesleyan University Press) is nominated for a National Book Award. But world events have overtaken the usual news from campus.

When last Saturday I denounced the Hamas attacks on Israel, I was not fully aware of their horrific brutality. And the news has only grown darker since then. Early in the week, Jewish students gathered in front of Usdan to recite a psalm and affirm the importance of our visible presence on campus. The three chaplains hosted a discussion with students of various denominations. I heard it was emotionally intense, as one would expect, but also civil and productive. I am grateful for that. The group Students for Justice in Palestine had an information desk in front of Usdan yesterday, I am told, and people stopped to hear this group’s perspective on the occupation and related matters. We learn from one another while we share this beautiful campus. University climates can, of course, change, but I am proud that so far our students, faculty, and staff have offered one another support. 

I have received quite a few messages from alumni and others asking that the university do more, that it stay neutral, or that it punish people who fail to express the views they hold. These are, obviously, unfolding events, and we will continue to do whatever we can to help our students find ways to learn from them. War is a terrible thing, and the news from the Middle East will likely be extremely disturbing in the weeks to come. Reactions are everywhere, and then there are responses to those reactions. Despite the noise, I am hoping to keep performative gestures to a minimum.

I know that some of you have family and friends directly impacted by these events. I do hope you and yours find peace and healing soon. 

I often attend Torah Study on Saturday mornings. Today we, like Jews around the world, are “starting over” with Bereshit, Genesis. I’m trying to find some hope in that.

Sickening Violence

I’m looking with horror, sadness and disgust at the images of Hamas atrocities as the organization has launched  a war that will only cause more horrific trauma to a region already scarred by too much suffering. The kidnapping and slaughter of civilians, and the celebration of vicious murder by armed fighters recalls the worst dimensions of human violence. The war that Hamas unleashed this morning will be devastating. It already is. 

May the wounded receive care, the kidnapped be returned to their homes and the bereaved find comfort. And may it not be long before the peacemakers can find a way.

Happy Birthday Kidcity!

Twenty-five years ago, Jennifer Alexander ’88, Hon ’09, P ’15, ’16 had the dream of starting a center in Middletown that would serve the city’s children with programs that were fun and educational — and that would also delight their parents. Thus, Kidcity was born, and ever since it has been providing our fair city with a place of learning, exploration, and creative joy.  Kari and I took the grandchildren there in the spring and they were over the moon. This photo is from the Commencement Ceremony of 2009 when we paid tribute to Jen’s work with an honorary doctorate. In her remarks, she talked about reading “Charlotte’s Web” with her Wes teacher Anne Greene.  She reflected on the fact that most graduates would leave the home we’ve had for four years, but that a few would stay — and make a big difference. 


Now, it was a Sunday morning, 21 years ago, when I was sitting where you are now, graduating with my class from Wesleyan. That very afternoon the exodus began. San Francisco, Seattle, Brooklyn. Like Charlotte’s babies hatching from the egg sac, my friends floated away to wonderful futures. But I had fallen in love – with Middletown and with my partner – and so I stayed. At the time, it felt like a failure to dream big enough, but it later turned out that the simple act of staying brought more joy and accomplishment to my life than I could have imagined.

And so as you go in every direction this afternoon – with our blessing – I hope you find something in your life that makes you want to stay – in a place, in a discipline, in a friendship. The lesson I want you to take from “Charlotte’s Web” is this: When some of the spiders decided to stay, it didn’t just matter for Wilbur and it didn’t just matter for the barnyard: it mattered for the spiders.

Everyone benefits when we take the time, energy and passion to contribute to Wesleyan’s home city. Jen has done that in a spectacular way, and we celebrate her and her Kidcity colleagues today!


Arrival Day! And Here We Go….

There are several students here already — last night I was part of a great First-Things-First program for FGLI students last night and saw the mighty women’s soccer game in a scrimmage. But today the great bulk of frosh arrive on campus. Welcome! I’ll post pictures today and tomorrow. 

These “dawn of the semester” shots are from a few days ago on Foss Hill:

Arrival Day photos with thanks to all those who sent them to me:

David Knapp ’49 1926-2023

I learned recently that a great friend of the university, David Knapp ‘49, passed away this summer, just shy of his 97th birthday.  I met David shortly after I began as president in 2007. He regularly attended campus events, especially reunions. He mentored students, supported scholarships and lived a life of purpose and joy.

I talked with David about his efforts to fight discrimination against gay people in the Boy Scouts of America. An Eagle Scout himself, David was kicked out when the organization found out he was gay. A tireless advocate for civil rights, he continued to march for gay rights, often in his Scout uniform. He helped create change in the organization and eventually would write to me, I felt so happy and proud to be officially back in the Boy Scouts at 89 and to be promoting both Scouting and GLBTQ civil rights…

I saw David at Reunion Weekend in late May and had a chance to acknowledge his great participation in so many a Wesleyan tradition. He was part of a tradition of service, of civic engagement, and of a dedication to equality.

Rest in peace, David. May your memory be a blessing.