One of this country’s great historians, Annette Gordon-Reed, has written a powerful book about Juneteenth and her own personal connection to this holiday. Marking emancipation, it also recalls slavery. Marking oppression, it also points to the possibilities for positive change. Professor Gordon-Reed has underscored her own ambivalence about this history:

Historians are, of course, supposed to reject out of hand this type of Whiggish narrative of American history, one driven by faith in the idea of inevitable progress toward a better, more enlightened destination. The American experiment does not have to “work.” Empires and nations rise and fall. But while I am a historian, I am also an American. In thinking about the country, I experience a classic split between my head and my heart. Intellectually, I know there is no reason at all to believe in any particular direction of the American future. As we have seen, and been reminded daily to an absolutely exhausting degree, anything can happen. At the same time, in my heart, I have hoped. I’ve wanted to believe that the country that started with dispossession of native peoples, slavery, and a dedication to white supremacy could live up to the more idealistic aspirations of its founding—the statements about equality and the pursuit of happiness, and the desire to create a representative democracy in which the people were sovereign.

That vision of the future has been challenged of late. But, as in years past, the many people who share this vision have mobilized in support of it. I suppose that is the most that can be hoped for, because that kind of struggle is the only way better futures can be made.

Middletown will mark Juneteenth on Saturday, June 18th. Alison Williams, VP for Equity and Inclusion, notes:

On Saturday, June 18, Middletown will have a Juneteenth celebration in Smith Park. Wesleyan’s Office for Equity & Inclusion is a Gold sponsor of this event. We invite everyone to come out and celebrate with us.

Juneteenth is also known as Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Juneteenth Independence Day, and Black Independence Day.  It marks the date when, on June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, TX, and announced the end of the Civil War and the end of slavery.  The Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln, had legally freed slaves in Texas on January 1, 1863, almost 2½ years earlier. Even after the general order, some slave masters withheld the information from their enslaved Black people, holding them captive through at least one more harvest season. Thus, Juneteenth became a symbolic date representing African American freedom.

Juneteenth is a time when we can reflect on the painful mistakes of our nation’s past and work towards racial reconciliation, honoring the day as a time for healing, learning and taking action. Many families honor the day by hosting a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. It is also a time when we celebrate the significant contributions of African Americans to every aspect of American culture.

Alison asks me to note that she is the 4th generation descendant of Frank Lightner, a slave, the offspring of Mollie and Lightner, who enslaved her.

There are many Juneteenth celebrations throughout Connecticut. A day to remember.

We Don’t Have to Live This Way (2)

It’s Commencement season, and in speech after speech graduates are told that they can change the world, that they can carve their own paths, that their generation will address the massive problems left to them by others. As educators, we want our students to feel hopeful and creative — not complacent or fatalistic.

But it’s also another season of mass shootings. Another season of hearing “there is nothing we can do” because of our Constitution, our politicians and the lobbyists who rule them.

You’ve seen the statistics. The United States has about 5% of the world’s population and roughly 40% of the world’s mass shootings. Across the nation, there are more firearms in the land than there are people to fire them. In every country there is mental illness, alienation, resentment, racism, antisemitism and rage. Only in our country are these things combined with easy access to guns. There are murderous impulses everywhere, but only here are they so easily attached to weapons with gross lethality. “It’s precisely because they cannot legislate murder out of the human heart,” David Frum has underscored, “that civilized societies regulate the instruments of murder in human hands.”

But contrary to the messages we give our students, we hear again and again that efforts at common sense reforms are “a non-starter.” This fatalism can be self-fulfilling, but happily there are now signs from Congress that some significant steps toward gun safety may become law. We must keep the pressure on legislators to make a serious gun safety bill law.

Our Commencement messages should ring true. We don’t have to live this way. America has faced daunting and deadly challenges in the past, and we have enacted laws and regulations in response. Not that long ago, people smoked in trains, movie theaters, classrooms and everywhere else. When smoking bans were being considered, there were protests about personal liberty.  No smoking in restaurants? People shouted, “it couldn’t be done – not in our culture!” Folks were so certain that New Yorkers, for example, would never accept being prohibited from smoking in bars. But research about tobacco smoke was clear, and regulations were passed in New York and all over the country.

Going further back a few decades, there were several cities that were so choked by pollution that cars, buildings and clothing were quickly covered in grime. Lungs, too. It was easy to be fatalistic and assume the air couldn’t be changed. But that was wrong. Research on pollution helped show how to remove from the atmosphere the poison folks thought it was necessary to breathe. Pittsburgh is a great example of a city whose air quality many thought impossible to change. It was Pittsburgh. They were wrong. New laws curtailed the right to pollute, creating a city safer for everyone. There is still pollution, of course, but we didn’t let fatalism prevent us from making things better.

These public health efforts were resisted at every turn by special interests determined to protect their profits. Tobacco companies and industrial polluters hijacked the language of liberty to defend their right to inflict massive harm. But in the end, scientific research showed how we could clean up our public spaces, and that we could do so without destroying freedom or economic development. Breathing in America became safer, and universities helped make that happen.

Today, guns are making Americans unsafe, and once again we hear the claim that there is nothing we can do. The gun lobby has in the past succeeded in blocking research that might show there are regulations that would make our communities safer. Once again, we hear the defense of personal freedom even as racist extremists target black communities, even as children and their teachers are gunned down by people who could have been prevented from having easy access to massively murderous weapons. Some business leaders stepped up after the Parkland school shootings, and they are being urged to do so again. Special interests encourage complacency. As Michael Tomasky underscores, gun violence “is happening, over and over, because certain people who very obviously have the power to try to stop it are refusing to do so and letting it happen.”

In Texas, “letting it happen” is too weak an expression for its government’s abetting of gun violence. According to the state’s Attorney General, public universities would “exceed their authority” if they prohibit concealed handguns on campus. Professors would be “exceeding their authority” if they forbade students from packing heat in their classrooms.

We don’t have to live this way. When confronted with overwhelming pollution, researchers showed how this was cutting lives short and how we could start cleaning up the atmosphere. Scientists at universities showed skeptics (some of whom were funded by tobacco companies) that second-hand smoke kills, and then public policy researchers showed how common-sense regulations could reduce the lethal affects that someone’s “freedom to smoke” had on others.

Now, universities should double down on research on guns as a public health issue – an issue we can address. We already know from historical scholarship,  that gun regulations go way back to colonial times in North America and beyond that to English common law. We know that the weapons that the framers of the constitution had in mind when thinking of “well-ordered militias” have little in common with the lethality of today’s killing machines. We know that the risk of suicide is magnified because of easy access to guns. Scholars at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, DukeWesleyan and the University of Wyoming are already working on these matters and we need more research on the effectiveness of age restrictions and the potential for “smart guns.” Research and public policy development are key, and universities should do their part. Universities should address guns as a public health issue energetically, just as they have with the work on vaccines, genomics, or….weapons development. 

We don’t have to live this way. We know how to create regulations that reduce risk. This is not a call for banning guns; it is a call for universities to use their resources to target the most pressing public health issues created by open access to massive lethality. “Helplessness,” Jay Caspian King underscored, “is the sense that we will keep reliving the brutality of history over and over again.”  But we are not helpless. We showed we could significantly reduce pollution, and we showed we could change personal habits embedded in culture and even addiction. University sponsored research can help us reduce the risks of gun violence.

We all should have learned in the last two years that fatalism is deadly. In concert with a variety of institutions, universities must support research that will contribute to the crafting of regulations to clean up this horrid, heartbreaking mess.


John Driscoll

I write with sad news of the death of John Driscoll ’62, a much beloved member of the Wesleyan community known for his long and devoted service to alma mater. For more than three decades, John oversaw our alumni relations programs. With his ever-present good cheer, he was a remarkable ambassador of goodwill, rousing an enthusiastic “Go Wes!” wherever he went. And he went everywhere.

John joined the Wesleyan staff in 1982 as alumni director, having previously served with the U.S. Office of Education and the Civil Aeronautics Board. An engaging speaker and storyteller, he emceed or spoke at countless events, drawing on deep knowledge of all things Wesleyan. He had an unsurpassed ability to make friends, to engage alumni of all ages, and to build Wesleyan’s community worldwide.

Among Freeman Asian Scholars, his name and that of his wife, Gina, are synonymous with enduring affection and unstinting support. For many years the Driscolls traveled extensively throughout Asia with the late Houghton “Buck” ’43, Hon. ’93, P’77 and Doreen Hon. ’03, P’77 Freeman to interview prospective Freeman scholars. The Freeman Driscoll Endowed International Scholarship was named in their honor.

For their extraordinary service, John and Gina received the Raymond E. Baldwin Medal in 2017, the highest award of the Alumni Association, presented to them by President Emeritus Colin G. Campbell.

A faithful and ever-enthusiastic fan of the Cardinal football team, John led a revival of the Wesleyan “Fight Song,” teaching it to generations of Wesleyan first-year students. He became the first Wesleyan administrator to receive “emeritus” status, served under five Wesleyan presidents, received an Appreciation Award from the Black Alumni Council for his service, and was an active leader in Class of 1962 reunions. Off campus, he was a member of the Kiwanis and Conversational Clubs.

John had the great gift of making everyone in the Wesleyan community feel welcome and appreciated. We will hold him warmly in our memories as an inspiration and a reminder of what it means to act with generosity of spirit.

He is survived by Gina, who has a laudable record of service to Wesleyan as a member of the University’s Advancement team. He is also survived by son David and his wife Willow Cheeley; daughter Laura and her husband, James Taft (a Wesleyan Information Technology Services staff member), and their children Clara and Eli; and son Douglas and his daughter Lenora. Condolences may be sent to Gina c/o Wesleyan University, Office of Advancement, 291 Main Street, Middletown, CT 06457. Donations in John’s memory can be made to the Freeman Driscoll Endowed Wesleyan Scholarship Fund  (Wesleyan University, Office of Advancement, 291 Main Street, Middletown, CT 06457). Information regarding services for John will be announced at a later date.

Welcome Back 2020!

Kari and I were walking Lola last night and came upon several members of the class of 2020 who had just returned for their weekend of celebrations. These were the seniors who had only a virtual graduation two years ago, and we are welcoming back folks for parties, seminars and, on Sunday, a Commencement on Andrus Field. The graduates asked Prof. Robyn Autry to address them, and she has agreed to share some thoughts from Denison Terrace.

It’s lovely to be welcoming back these young alums!


Writing on Sunday, June 5.

What a great Commencement it was! You can find more photos here.

We Don’t Have to Live this Way

The news is gut wrenching. I have been visiting my 94-year-old mother and suddenly we heard the awful bulletin of children being shot. This time Texas. This time also a teacher; this time also a grandmother.

Many commentators have underscored that the United States is alone among industrialized countries to prioritize access to guns over things like health care and public safety. As the Washington Post noted today, “since Sandy Hook, the nation has experienced more than 3,500 mass shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit organization that tracks gun violence and defines a mass shooting as an incident in which four or more people are killed or injured.”

But we don’t have to accept this. As Nicholas Kristof has written, if we took a public safety approach to guns, as we do, say, with cars, we have every opportunity to use common sense measures to reduce the lethal consequences of gun violence. Here’s a section of his essay:

“What would a public health approach look like for guns if it were modeled after cars? It would include:

Background checks

22 percent of guns are obtained without one

Protection orders

Keep men who are subject to domestic violence protection orders from having guns.

Ban under-21s

A ban on people under 21 purchasing firearms (this is already the case in many states).

Safe storage

These include trigger locks as well as guns and ammunition stored separately, especially when children are in the house.

Straw purchases

Tighter enforcement of laws on straw purchases of weapons, and some limits on how many guns can be purchased in a month.

Ammunition checks

Experimentation with a one-time background check for anybody buying ammunition.

End immunity

End immunity for firearm companies. That’s a subsidy to a particular industry.

Ban bump stocks

A ban on bump stocks of the kind used in Las Vegas to mimic automatic weapon fire.

Research ‘smart guns’

“Smart guns” fire only after a fingerprint or PIN is entered, or if used near a particular bracelet.”

When I look back on my blog over the years, I see how many times I have had to write about guns, killing, and our failure to enact sensible public safety regulations. Wesleyan historian Jennifer Tucker is just launching a Center for the Study of Guns and Society. Perhaps by understanding our history, we can develop sensible policies for reducing gun violence. What could be more urgent than protecting children from another school massacre?

White Supremacy, Guns, Murder

How to respond to yet another mass shooting? First, we can express sorrow and convey our sympathies to those immediately affected by the violence. The black Buffalo community that was attacked yesterday is suffering, and it will take a long time to heal. Compassion for their anguish is the least we can offer, and we do so with heavy hearts.

And we can join in condemning hate and the awful malice that lies at the core of this mass shooting — keeping in mind what happened in Buffalo yesterday was not just some generic form of hate. Given what we know about the alleged shooter’s motivations, it was politically inspired, racist violence. The ideology behind it, white supremacist replacement theory, is promulgated by important voices in the mainstream media. Its core tenets speak to the fears and resentments of contemporary neo-fascists in this country and around the world. In a country awash with the weapons of mass killing, these are murderous ideas. These are ideas that we who are committed to education must fight.

There will be a time for reflection, analysis and policy recommendations. Today is a time for mourning the lives lost, the wounds of the Buffalo community, and the persistence of violent anti-black racism in our country.

Women’s Tennis Champs!!

What a thrilling afternoon I spent yesterday watching the Women’s tennis team mount a come-from-behind victory over a very good Middlebury team! We were behind going into singles play, despite our strong doubles teams. Yet, the Cardinal women pulled it out, with a culminating win by senior Venia Yeung ’22. It was a very close third set, and the tennis was at a wonderfully high level. With both teams standing at the adjacent court and the crowd cheering, Venia served out to win the NESCAC Championship. It’s three-peat for Mike Fried’s team, and a continuation of their undefeated season. WOW!

On the the NCAA Tournament! Go Wes!!

Wesleyan Weekend

So many events — from playoff competition in lacrosse to orchestral music, dance, hip hop and theater. I’m going to see Horse Girls on Sunday (I even have a small pre-recorded part), and will catch CFA events as best I can. Sailors and rowers are on the water, runners and jumpers are at NESCAC events, and recitals are all around us. Check out these and more:


What a great weekend for the 50th reunions of the classes of 1970 and 1971. Their years on campus were marked by disruption, turbulence and more than a little uncertainty about the future. Sound familiar? I’ve enjoyed my conversations with them and look forward to more.

You can see more 50th Reunion photos here.


Little Three Champs in Baseball and Women’s Lacrosse

Now that the WesFest visits have concluded (what great groups of young people were on campus this month!), I want to use the blog to congratulate two teams that won Little Three Championships this spring. The baseball team won its first championship in six years after claiming wins against Amherst and Williams a few weeks ago.

You can catch the next game on Dresser Diamond on Friday afternoon.

The Women’s Lacrosse team is having a stellar season and is ranked 11th in the country. This spring they beat Amherst and Williams handily. As our athletics website reminds us: Wesleyan’s third Little Three title in the past four seasons signals the massive evolution of the program in recent years. Prior to 2017, the Cardinals had won the Little Three just three times and went without one for 34 straight seasons (1983-2016).  

The women head to Connecticut College for their final game of the regular season. Watch for them in the playoffs!

These spring season Little Three Champs join the championship women’s tennis team — which remains undefeated! All Wes teams are a joy to watch and make us proud!

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 tomorrow we begin three WesFest FridaysI 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 throughout the coming months.

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 more than 40 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.