Saluting the Remarkable Jeanine Basinger

This morning I sent the following announcement to faculty and staff at Wesleyan. I am so grateful to Jeanine for her ongoing commitment to film and to Wesleyan. I look forward to working with her in this new capacity.

I am pleased to announce the appointment of Jeanine Basinger, Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies, to the position of Special Advisor to the President effective September 1, 2018. As she prepares to retire from Wesleyan, she will work closely with me on matters relating to Wesleyan Film, cultivating partnerships with organizations like the American Film Institute; conducting master classes and workshops; and supporting fundraising for the expansion of the Center for Film Studies. Though Jeanine is stepping away from full-time teaching, she will continue her service to the Ogden and Mary Louise Reid Cinema Archives and offer support to Scott Higgins, the Charles W. Fries Professor of Film Studies and the continuing director of the College of Film and the Moving Image. In her time at Wesleyan, Jeanine founded and built one of the most admired film programs in the world. She will now devote her time to helping me secure the future of her legacy. Please join me in congratulating Jeanine Basinger on her new position as Special Advisor to the President.

New Academic Year!

Welcome to the 2018-19 academic year, Wesleyan’s 187th! For me, it feels like the summer has flown by, and during the last few months lots of Wesleyan folks have been doing great things: our staff and teachers participated in the first-ever Center for Prison Education graduation; students and faculty conducted research on campus and at far-flung locations while also giving back to the Middletown community by leading the annual Girls in Science Summer Camp and the Kindergarten Kickstart intensive pre-K program; and our facilities staff worked tirelessly over the summer to complete nearly 100 projects.

It’s a particular pleasure to welcome the Class of 2022, 26 new ongoing faculty, and 45 visiting faculty. We’ve also had many changes in administration. My new chief of staff, David Chearo, starts this week; Key Nuttall and Andy Tanaka join Provost Joyce Jacobsen as senior vice presidents, which means they will help to coordinate work on a variety of projects across departments. We hope to have news before long on a new head of Human Resources, and soon we will be putting together the search committee for the vice president for equity and inclusion.

Our sports teams had a spectacular year last year, and they will start competing again this week. Homecoming kicks off October 19. We’ll be playing Amherst in football, men’s and women’s soccer, and field hockey, while the volleyball team has a full weekend of matches (the crew teams will be on the Charles River). And there are lots of contests between now and then in many more sports.

There’s so much happening in the arts! Each year I look forward to Wesleyan’s fall music festival, The MASH, which this year will take place on September 8. Be sure to check out the first solo exhibition in New England by St. Louis-based multimedia artist Kahlil Robert Irving: “Street Matter — Decay & Forever/ Golden Age.” It begins September 26 in the Zilkha Gallery.

We expect a Wesleyan education to prepare students for a lifetime of civic engagement. An opportunity for engagement comes on Election Day, November 6, and you can find information about registering to vote here.

I am looking forward to a great academic year, and I wish everyone all the best as we get underway!

Welcome to Wesleyan!

Students have been arriving on campus these last couple of days. Some from faraway places across the globe, a few from right down the road in Connecticut. Today is Arrival Day, when the great bulk of first-year students start moving in at Wesleyan. It will be a hot one, but we’ll stay hydrated and welcome all those who’ve come to participate in this great university.

I’ll be out and about greeting students and their families and will post pics throughout the day.

Mathilde inspecting the field before cars arrive


International Students Welcome Dinner

Book review on Civil Rights for School Children

This week the Wall Street Journal published my review of Vanessa Siddle Walker’s The Lost Education of Horace Tatepublished by the New Press. As we prepare to start the new school year, it’s good to be reminded of the heroic efforts of black educators fighting for civil rights in the twentieth century. 


It’s a historian’s dream, really: meet someone who played a crucial but mostly unsung role in a major historical development; become that person’s confidant; hear firsthand the stories of triumph, frustration and struggle; and then receive a death-bed request to rescue a trove of documents that substantiate those stories, so that future generations can better understand the historical development.

This dream became real for Emory professor Vanessa Siddle Walker, who met Horace Tate (1922-2002) at the end of his long and eventful life and then discovered the archives of the Georgia Teachers and Education Association—the vital organization of black educators that he led for more than a decade. Ms. Walker’s “The Lost Education of Horace Tate” tells the story of generations of black teachers and administrators who fought heroically over many decades for equality and justice.

For many, the struggle for civil rights in education centers on the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Ms. Walker’s account makes visible a previously “unseen network of black educators” in Georgia and across the South who had been pushing for change ever since Reconstruction. They had to be persistent because the forces defending white supremacy were intransigent and often dangerous. In 1878 black educators asked for equal funding for black children; in 1920 they requested equal salaries for black teachers. By the 1960s those requests had turned into demands, and still they went unmet.

Horace Tate was born in Elberton, Ga., and became the principal of a high school in nearby Union Point at age 21. He would eventually become the first African-American to earn a doctorate from the University of Kentucky. Throughout Tate’s life, Ms. Walker argues, he found ways to channel his anger at everyday indignities into strategies for change. He refused to accept that he was a second-class teacher, or a second-class citizen, and (though it’s beyond the time frame of this study) he would go on to serve 16 years in the Georgia state senate.

Ms. Walker’s book, which draws on the archives of the Georgia Teachers and Education Association, is an important contribution to our understanding of how ordinary people found the strength to fight for equality for schoolchildren and their teachers. Asking for a bus so your kids could get from your farm to the school? For a gymnasium in which your basketball team could practice? For basic textbooks so your children could learn? Such requests to school-district authorities were generally met with disdain or worse. At times educators faced intimidation, arson, even murder. Tate received death threats and returned home one summer to find the house he rented burned to the ground.

“The Lost Education of Horace Tate” provides a granular feel for the hopes, fears and frustrations of teachers and school administrators who struggled for basic justice. Unfortunately, sometimes the detail is excessive; too much time is spent on the routine speeches and logistics of professional meetings. We learn more than enough about various officials in different teaching organizations and their subtle disagreements, but very little indeed about Horace Tate’s personal life. His first marriage deserves more than a sentence, and his family is much too far in the background for the reader to understand how his life and work were intertwined.

Later, as larger groups of educators took up the mantle of integration, black education networks sometimes had to fight to maintain influence within the movement. “Second-class integration,” Tate feared, would marginalize black professionals by making them powerless minorities within larger, mostly white, organizations.

Horace Tate was very good at his job, but this didn’t keep him from being forced out of his position as a principal when local officials suspected (rightly) that he was aligning himself with community forces aiming at equality—and, especially, with regional and national groups aiming to ensure African-American citizens could exercise their right to vote. By turning out and being counted at the polls, blacks in the South could gain at least some leverage over politicians, and so there was a concerted effort to deprive them of the franchise. As former Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge put it in 1946: “If you white people love your country, you will challenge” the black people who registered. The sentiment behind these words finds echoes wherever politicians create obstacles to voting.

Reading her book is a powerful reminder of the link between educators and the struggle for equality and justice in American history. For Horace Tate and his colleagues, teaching the lessons of democracy was never about indoctrination. It was—as it remains today—about deepening students’ awareness of the promise of American ideals and how much work is necessary to make them more than a dream.

Congratulations to Shining Hope for Communities

Today the Hilton Foundation announced that an organization with deep roots at Wesleyan received the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize for 2018. Shining Hope for Communities won the $2 million prize, “the world’s largest annual humanitarian award presented to nonprofit organizations judged to have made extraordinary contributions toward alleviating human suffering.” The foundation website puts it this way: “A distinguished panel of independent international jurors selected SHOFCO, which catalyzes large-scale transformation in urban slums by providing critical services for all, community advocacy platforms, and education and leadership development for women and girls.” SHOFCO was started by two recent Wes alumni, Kennedy Odede ’12 and Jessica Posner ’09—the two were married a couple of years ago and recently added baby Oscar to the family.

I remember vividly when Kennedy, Jessica and a group of their Wesleyan friends came to my office to describe the women’s health clinic they were opening to complement the school for girls they had started in Kibera, Kenya. The clinic is named for Johanna Justin-Jinich, their fellow Wes student who had been murdered not long before. Kibera is Kennedy’s home, and it was there that he and Jessica met when she was studying abroad. Kennedy enrolled at Wesleyan and the two had long had the intention of returning to Kibera to help future generations of Kenyans receive a quality education and have access to health care.

Many of us at Wesleyan have been involved with SHOFCO and are deeply moved by this recognition from the Hilton Foundation, which will further strengthen this great organization. Congratulations!!

On Scruton’s ‘Conservatism’

On Friday the New York Times Book Review published my appraisal of a new book by Roger Scruton. I was pleased to read his “invitation to the tradition” of conservatism because I think that American colleges and universities in general, and Wesleyan in particular, can do a better job of studying conservative ways of thinking — from libertarianism to religious traditions. These disparate modes of thinking are not easily held together, and I argue that Professor Scruton only manages to do so by creating a common enemy, a scapegoat. This is not an unfamiliar move, but it is not a necessary one. Studying Smith, Burke, Hegel and the other key figures he discusses, can lead in more productive directions.

An Invitation to the Great Tradition
By Roger Scruton
164 pp. All Points Books. $24.99.

Roger Scruton has written dozens of books on subjects ranging from the philosophy of music to the perils of postmodernism, but he returns often to his core political passions. “Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition” is a concise guide to European and American thinkers skeptical about the ideology of historical progress and about arguments for engineering a good society by making people conform to a rational standard. “I have written this book,” he notes, “in the hope of encouraging well-meaning liberals to take a look at what those arguments really are.” In these polarized times, his call for discussion of conservative intellectual traditions is welcome.

At the core of “Conservatism” is the idea that human beings live naturally together in communities and that we “desire to sustain the networks of familiarity and trust on which a community depends for its longevity.” We may be rational beings capable of planning our future, but we also need customs and institutions to ground and sustain us over time. Good things, Scruton wisely notes, “are more easily destroyed than created.”

The philosophical wellsprings of conservatism are the defense of community associated with Edmund Burke and the defense of free markets and individual choice associated with Adam Smith. The first evolved into ways of thinking that are critical of the enormous societal changes associated with industrialization, like the destruction of the family and the village that comes along with the concentration of wealth in the hands of a small number of people with no social responsibility. The second evolved into ways of thinking that celebrate the benefits of industrialization and turn into heroes those who profit most from the creative destruction that comes with capitalism. The strongest thinkers for Scruton are those who strike a balance between these adverse ways of thinking. He sees the German philosopher Hegel as offering “the most systematic presentation that we have of the conservative vision of political order” because Hegel understood that political freedom evolved in relation to ongoing communities and because his theory of the state preserved a space for private property and exchange.

Scruton knows that conservatism is a reaction against the Enlightenment confidence in improving the world through the use of reason, but he is at pains to distinguish the thinkers he admires from mere reactionaries. His philosophers don’t want to return to the past, he insists. Yet he provides no clue as to how they decide which traditions are worth preserving. Burke may have protested against the cruelties of slavery and imperial domination, but there have been plenty of conservatives who defended these practices. Scruton’s account of the conservative defense of freedom includes not a word about colonialism or racism. To paraphrase what he says of the American conservative Russell Kirk, Scruton just picks the conservative flowers that appeal to him.

But how to hold together an intellectual bouquet that combines the simple blooms of village life and the hothouse hybrids of unfettered economic development? Often a common enemy provides unity, and antagonism toward the modern bureaucratic state has worked well for conservatives. Government officials have long been seen as riding roughshod over local custom as well as getting in the way of industrious entrepreneurs. Throughout the 20th century, moreover, anti-Communism unified conservatives, and they often labeled as Communist anyone who disagreed with their selective defense of freedom.

Scruton can no longer find worthy Communist adversaries, so at the end of the book he turns against Muslims, hoping for a “rediscovery of ourselves” by stoking fear and loathing against those who he says do not share “our” religious or political inheritance. He knows how this will sound to many of his readers, so he warns them against thinking he’s just being racist. But one doesn’t have to be politically correct or to participate in what Scruton calls the “culture of repudiation” to find it unfortunate that a philosopher should stoop so low. The “great tradition” Scruton describes can attract study and respect without stimulating nasty chauvinism. His “well-meaning liberal” readers will find Scruton’s deft handling of a variety of conservative thinkers enlightening (if I may use that word), but they will be appalled at the grand old tradition of scapegoating he employs to rally the troops.

On Political Correctness, Free Speech and Higher Education

This morning the Washington Post published the op-ed below in Valerie Strauss’s education blog, The Answer Sheet. I reproduce it here. 

It would be hard to find a period in peacetime when our government has made a more concerted effort to undermine freedom of inquiry and expression. These attacks start with the press and extend to education. Every week President Trump takes aim at journalists, calling them enemies of the people, or deriding sources he dislikes as “fake news.” As many have documented, his administration has engaged in an assault on the very notions of investigation and truth, doubling down on lies about Russian cyberattacks, economic markets and tariffs, and his own past behavior.

Along with attacks on the press have come attacks on colleges and universities. The link between them is the idea of being politically correct. President Trump made political correctness his personal bogeyman, so that when challenged about any variety of salacious improprieties, he would respond that he didn’t have time to be politically correct, or, put more stridently, “political correctness is killing our country.”

Last week Attorney General Jeff Sessions joined the gratuitous, overheated criticism of higher education — which remains one of the sectors of American culture and economy that has continued to attract respect and engagement from the best and brightest from around the world. Participating in the pile-on culture he claims to deride, Sessions attacked the usual caricatures in his speech to a gathering of conservative students: “Through ‘trigger warnings’ about ‘microaggressions,’ cry closets, ‘safe spaces,’ optional exams, therapy goats, and grade inflation, too many schools are coddling our young people and actively preventing them from scrutinizing the validity of their beliefs. That is the exact opposite of what they are supposed to do.”

In the wake of the awful cruelties and dramatic embarrassments of the Trump administration in regard to immigration and foreign policy, these kinds of attacks are nothing more than a political distraction. At a time when law enforcement is separating families and the racist rhetoric of “infestation” has become a regular part of national presidential discourse, we must recognize that criticizing pc culture is just a fig leaf for intimidating those with less power.

When confronted with scandal, conflicts of interest and the inequitable distribution of resources, it’s far too easy to fall back on talk about threats to conservative activists on campus. I have argued before that many universities should do more to represent conservative points of view in their approaches to the humanities and social sciences. And there is plenty of room for improvement in our efforts to cultivate intellectual diversity. But it is downright unseemly to hear speakers trumpeting their own courage in “not being pc” as they attack especially vulnerable groups in society. As the midterm election battles develop, we should expect to see candidates rush to show they can stand up to this phantom force against speaking one’s mind. Racism and xenophobia get a free pass when folded into an attack on pc elitism.

When his audience of high school students began repeating the irresponsible, uninformed chant from the last campaign, “lock her up,” our nation’s foremost guardian of due process and law enforcement had an opportunity to educate them. Did he take that opportunity?  No, he smiled and joined in the groupthink, while also hypocritically calling for “the molding of a generation of mature and well-informed adults.” He went on to claim that colleges and universities “are doing everything they can to create a generation of sanctimonious, sensitive, supercilious snowflakes.” With the moral spinelessness and alliterative verve of Spiro Agnew, Jeff Session played to his base while championing openness to others.

Political correctness remains a scapegoat with strange powers to titillate liberal and conservative writers alike. Sure, there are campus groups that form around common values and ideas, and sometimes a group can be close-minded. But on my college campus and others I’ve visited, I also see vigorous discussion within the faculty about ideas that matter, and I hear plenty of students rebelling against the notion that young people all think alike. Campuses are challenging places when they cultivate diversity of perspective, a sense of belonging and a common devotion to rigorous inquiry. In an America where there is deep polarization and segregation, one might ask if there are other places today where these arguments are taking place among people from very different backgrounds, and where the conclusions aren’t set in advance.

While the president legitimates fatuous attacks on the press and education, on inquiry and truth telling, let’s recognize the constructive value of ongoing debate, intellectual diversity and rigorous inquiry. These have made American universities attractive to people from all over the world, while our government officials offer a spectacle of cruelty, pandering and corruption.

Time for Summer Sendoffs!

One of the first things Kari and I did after I was appointed Wesleyan’s president in 2007 was to attend a Summer Sendoff. We were living in Berkeley at the time, and the gathering of Wesleyans from around the Bay Area was both welcoming and exciting. We are grateful to the parents and alumni who host these special events at which pre-frosh get to meet others just starting their college careers. This year members of the class of ’22 will also discover the alumni and parent network, a resource that will be part of their lives for decades.

  • Summer Sendoffs are starting this month in New York and will be occurring around the globe.
  • These casual gatherings are the perfect opportunity to welcome our newest students and their families to Wesleyan.
  • All alumni, students and their families, faculty, staff and friends are invited.
  • Specific details and registration can be found here.

If you send in photos, we can add some to this blog post.

Defend Affirmative Action

About a year ago the Trump administration shook up higher education when news leaked that it was to “redirect resources” of its civil rights division “toward investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants.” Recently, the administration weighed in on the lawsuit against Harvard University that claims that the ways Harvard takes race into account discriminates against Asian-American applicants. This week the Departments of Education and Justice rescinded Obama-era guidelines that encouraged taking race into account in a holistic admissions process as a path towards the educational benefits of having a diverse campus.

This last move by the Trump administration was not surprising, but it does not change the law. Given recent court decisions, colleges and universities are still free to develop policies that take race into account in relation to a number of other factors in their efforts to create a diverse educational environment. Wesleyan University will continue to use our nuanced, holistic admissions procedures, which act affirmatively on our core priorities and values ― including diversity.

Promoting access to a high-quality education has been key to turning American rhetoric of equality into genuine opportunity. And throughout our history, elites threatened by equality, or just by social mobility, have joined together to block access for groups striving to improve their prospects in life. In the 20th century, policies were enacted to keep immigrants out of colleges and universities and to limit the number of Jews who enrolled. In more recent decades, referenda and legislators in states red and blue have attempted to block consideration of race at public universities, undermining opportunity for minorities, especially African-Americans.

Creating a diverse campus is in the interest of all students, and it offers those from racial minorities opportunities that have historically been denied them. That’s why governing boards and admissions deans have crafted policies to find students from underrepresented groups for whom a strong education will have a transformative, even liberating effect.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has written that the equal protection clause of the Constitution “guarantees that the majority may not win by stacking the political process against minority groups permanently, forcing the minority alone to surmount unique obstacles in pursuit of its goals ― here, educational diversity that cannot reasonably be accomplished through race-neutral measures.”

Many citizens, but particularly citizens from racial and ethnic minorities, have turned to the federal government to ensure access to political and economic opportunity. That’s why it’s particularly appalling to see the Trump administration attempting to push higher education away from affirmative action. This latest threat to higher education ― like recent decisions undermining voting rights and plans for a “merit-based” immigration system ― is at its core another attempt by elites to hold on to their privileges by limiting access to political participation, social mobility and economic opportunity.

We who work in educational institutions must push back against this threat, recognizing our responsibility to provide real opportunity to those groups who historically have been most marginalized.

College and university admissions programs are not the place to promote partisan visions of social justice, but they are the place to produce the most dynamic and profound learning environments. Higher education institutions need more (not less) diversity broadly conceived ― including intellectual diversity ― and we should enhance our efforts to make them inclusive, dynamic places of learning through difference. A retreat from affirmative action will just return us to the orchestrated parochialism of the past. We must resist it.

Inspiring Fourth of July!

In one of the great speeches of American history, in 1852 Frederick Douglass reminded Americans of the sinful inconsistency that was the perpetuation of slavery, “a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic.”

You declare, before the world, and are understood by the world to declare, that you “hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal; and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; and that, among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;” and yet, you hold securely, in a bondage which, according to your own Thomas Jefferson, “is worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose,” a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country.

…notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work The downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind.

In the summer of 1876, marking one hundred years since the founding of the United States, Susan B. Anthony’s words resounded:

 Our faith is firm and unwavering in the broad principles of human rights proclaimed in 1776, not only as abstract truths, but as the cornerstones of a republic. Yet we cannot forget, even in this glad hour, that while all men of every race, and clime, and condition, have been invested with the full rights of citizenship under our hospitable flag, all women still suffer the degradation of disfranchisement.

It was the boast of the founders of the republic, that the rights for which they contended were the rights of human nature. If these rights are ignored in the case of one-half the people, the nation is surely preparing for its downfall. Governments try themselves….Woman’s wealth, thought and labor have cemented the stones of every monument man has raised to liberty.

And now, at the close of a hundred years, as the hour-hand of the great clock that marks the centuries points to 1876, we declare our faith in the principles of self-government; our full equality with man in natural rights; that woman was made first for her own happiness, with the absolute right to herself–to all the opportunities and advantages life affords for her complete development; and we deny that dogma of the centuries, incorporated in the codes of all nations–that woman was made for man–her best interests, in all cases, to be sacrificed to his will. We ask of our rulers, at this hour, no special favors, no special privileges, no special legislation. We ask justice, we ask equality, we ask that all the civil and political rights that belong to citizens of the United States, be guaranteed to us and our daughters forever.

In the summer of 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a stirring speech on Independence Day.

In 1776 we waged war in behalf of the great principle that Government should derive its just powers from the consent of the governed. In other words, representation chosen in free elections. In the century and a half that followed, this cause of human freedom swept across the world.

But now, in our generation—in the past few years—a new resistance, in the form of several new practices of tyranny, has been making such headway that the fundamentals of 1776 are being struck down abroad and definitely they are threatened here,

It is, indeed, a fallacy, based on no logic at all, for any Americans to suggest that the rule of force can defeat human freedom in all the other parts of the world and permit it to survive in the United States alone. But it has been that childlike fantasy itself- that misdirected faith—which has led Nation after Nation to go about their peaceful tasks, relying on the thought, and even the promise, that they and their lives and their government would be allowed to live when the juggernaut of force came their way.

It is simple—I could almost say simple-minded—for us Americans to wave the flag, to reassert our belief in the cause of freedom-and to let it go at that.

Happy 4th of July! Believe in freedom, wave the flag…..But let’s not “let it go at that.”