2014 Reunion and Commencement

Wonderful conversations yesterday with trustees and trustee emeriti were followed by great encounters with old friends returning to campus for Reunion. Late in the afternoon, we dedicated a plaque in the chapel for John Woodhouse. John was one of Wesleyan’s deepest supporters, and he was an invaluable source of wisdom for me when I began my presidency.

The dinner with the class of 1964 last night was a blast. The alumni had many questions about the changes at Wesleyan, and we discussed how the contemporary Wes was in many ways still working to fulfill the mission that Victor Butterfield set out for liberal education in the 1950s. After dinner we had the enormous pleasure of listening to Randy Newman sing some of his great old songs, and even a few new, unfinished tunes.

I look forward to seeing the thousands of returning alumni, friends and parents today and tomorrow. Reunion and commencement bring out some of Wesleyan’s deep traditions in synergy with the great vitality of today.  It’s a celebration of independence of spirit and practical idealism.

This is Why.

Family with cardinal



Wesleyan University; Reunion & Commencement; rc2014



Award Winning Physics Alum: Guy Geyer Marcus

I’m very late on this, but still I wanted to give a shout out to Guy Geyer Marcus ’13, who recently won the Apker Prize, which Prof. Brian Stewart tells me “is the highest award for undergraduate research in physics.”  Wade Hsu ’10 won the prize in 2010, while working closely with Prof. Francis Starr.  Wesleyan students compete against all the big research institutions, and, to quote Prof. Stewart, “to have a second award within just a few years is a real tribute to the hard work of Guy and the support of his mentor Greg Voth — and to the learning environment Wesleyan provides.”

Here’s how Guy describes his work: “My undergraduate work… ranged from experimental fluid dynamics to topics in theoretical ion trap physics. My experimental work in fluid dynamics consisted of novel measurements of the rotational dynamics of anisotropic particles in turbulence. In particular, we introduced a new class of techniques for measuring Lagrangian statistics of rotational dynamics in turbulence. These techniques may also have exciting applications in topological fluid dynamics. On the theory side, I studied fundamental problems in quantum chaos and particle dynamics in Paul traps peripherally related to quantum computing.” Guy now has a graduate fellowship at Johns Hopkins, where he’s gone on to the easy stuff like quantum matter, topological defects and skyrmion dynamics.

marcus_guy                                                                                                                   Image courtesy of Stefan Kramel

The sciences at Wesleyan continue to produce research at the highest levels, and to involve students in that work. A belated congratulations to Guy, and to all those who helped him launch such a promising scientific career.


Red and Black Turns Blue

This week I was in Boston for a fundraising event to raise money for financial aid. Chris Wink ’83 is one of the founders of the Blue Man Group, and he arranged for us to have a night in the theater packed with Wesleyan folks whose ticket purchases went to support our scholarship program. There were alumni representing at least the last four decades, along with current students and some kids who might already be dreaming of becoming part of the class of 2024.

Chris explained that his Wesleyan experience resonated as he began to work with some friends on the Blue Men. He drummed here, and he also studied history, music, psychology and a host of other subjects. I was particularly impressed with his description of a campus where the elemental worked side by side with the avant-garde. This reminded me of something that has been important at Wes for more than 60 years: a combination of the deeply traditional with the wildly experimental. THIS IS WHY.

Celebrating with Joshua ’73 and Amy Boger P’06, ’09
Celebrating With Two Great Wes Athletes


Talking with Chris Wink ’83 after the show

Photographs by Olivia Drake

What a Great Homecoming!

It was an amazing weekend, filled with artistic, athletic and academic achievements. It was great to see the crowds at the Alumni Show II art exhibition (which you can still see at the Zilkha Gallery), and I enjoyed meeting some of the artists there. My early bedtime prevented me from seeing the play in the Olin stacks, but I heard it was an enlivening experience.

John Ravenal ’81, P’15
John Ravenal ’81, P’15



I was also thrilled to learn that Gail Jenkins Farris ’84, P’14, P ’16, one of the founders of our volleyball program, was awarded a special Letter over the weekend. A great athlete herself, Gail has been a tireless advocate for women’s sports. She was still pretty jazzed about being recognized for her work when I saw her at a reception later in the day.


This swim team had a successful meet, and men’s soccer won a tough match against Connecticut College in the first round of the NESCAC tournament. We were all very excited by football’s first Little Three championship in over forty years! Lacrosse, softball, soccer, and baseball have won Little Three crowns in recent years, and we are delighted with football’s success. I was very moved when Coach Whalen presented me with the game ball.


Alumni Association Chair Megan Norris ’83, P’17 distributed a very cool video today on football’s victory. You can see it here.



Wesleyan Alumnus-Greenpeace Activist Jailed in Russia

This morning I read a moving op-ed in the Washington Post about Dima Litvinov ’86, a Greenpeace activist recently arrested in Russia. Having organized protests against Russia’s exploitation of the Arctic, Dima was originally arrested with several others on charges of piracy. After protests against this dramatic over-reaching, the charges were reduced to hooliganism. The charges in this case were prompted by Greenpeace activists trying to put a banner on a Russian oil rig.

The op-ed piece is by Dima’s father, and this is how it concludes:

Dima and the others are threatened with long prison terms because they love and defend nature. That includes the Russian Arctic, which is threatened by senseless and dangerous drilling.

I know only too well what a prison term in Russia means. I was arrested for participating in 1968 in a demonstration against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Lev Kopelev, Dima’s grandfather on his mother’s side, a Soviet writer, spent eight years in Soviet prison camps because he protested the looting and raping of the German population by Soviet officers and soldiers during World War II, when he fought the Nazi army.

Dima’s grandfather was arrested under Joseph Stalin, and I, Dima’s father, was arrested under Leonid Brezhnev. The Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore, but Dima has been arrested under Russian President Vladimir Putin — a former member of the Soviet secret police, the KGB. Is it not the time to break the cycle?

The Wesleyan community has been asked to support Dima and the other Greenpeace activists. They were peacefully protesting, but they are no hooligans.

(Igor Podgorny/Associated Press) – In this photo released by Greenpeace International, activist Dima Litvinov in a defendants’ cage at the district court, in Murmansk, Russia, on Oct. 23.

Bioethics and the Limits of Experimentation

Since coming back to Wesleyan in 2007, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Joseph Fins ’82, who was on the Board of Trustees (and the presidential search committee) when I was hired. Joe is a proud graduate of the College of Letters, a physician and a bio-ethicist. I just read his powerful critique of experiments in Romania on children who had the misfortune to grow up in that country’s orphanages. Joe questions the ethics of randomized studies with children, when it is very likely that those children will be harmed by the conditions being studied. In a recent Hastings Center forum he writes:

One of the salient lessons of twentieth-century bioethics is that scientists cannot always do the experiment they would like to do. When you are not in a lab and unable to control all the variables, if you try to control all the variables, people can get hurt. That is what happened in Romania. And it is a double tragedy because investigators could have had the same policy impact if they had done their research in a different way. They could have been more attentive to the fact that some of the children suffered harm from ongoing early exposure to the orphanages that could have been interrupted.

Joe quotes his COL teacher, philosopher Elisabeth Young-Breuhl:

It is the great task of human beings–the essential task–to understand what adults should give children; what is–to use a legal phrase–“in the best interests of the child.” The basic needs of all children are the same; there are universal needs. And it should be the task of any and all adults to understand those needs and meet them. Children depend upon adults for this understanding, and if it is not applied, not translated into the actions of child-rearing and education, children cannot grow and develop freely and become adults who, in turn, give such understanding and action to their own children.

I sit on the Board of Trustees of the Hastings Center with Joe and Joshua Boger ’73. I so value the way these Wes alumni (and other members of the Hastings Center) connect a deep knowledge of science with questions of politics, policy and ethics. This is at the core of a liberal education. You can read more of Joe’s essay here.
Joe Fins will be on campus to hold a WesSeminar on medical writing, consciousness and human rights over Homecoming Family Weekend. You can find out more here.

Fall Break Travels — Amherst, Washington, San Francisco

Fall break is usually a busy time for me, and this year is no exception. It started off with a bang at Amherst. All our athletes competed superbly, and our football team won at Amherst for the first time in many years. It was an exciting game, and there was a great Wesleyan turnout in the visitors’ bleachers. I’m not sure if our lusty cheering helped all that much, but it didn’t hurt. In the end the team left Amherst at 5-0. This is a result for which Alumni Director John Driscoll ’62 has been waiting for a long time!


This morning I headed down to Washington, D.C., to talk about improving learning outcomes in higher education at an event sponsored by the Hamilton Project. Our session was chaired by former Secretary of the Treasury Robert E. Rubin, and I was joined by University of North Carolina President Thomas Ross and Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa from the University of Texas. Although the challenges of these large public systems are quite different from those we face at Wesleyan, I was proud to learn that many were looking to our work at Wesleyan for innovative ideas that might translate to a variety of educational contexts.

Hamilton Project Panel on Higher Education
Hamilton Project Panel on Higher Education

Tomorrow I head West for a great THIS IS WHY event in San Francisco with Michael Pollan P’15 and Jonathan Bloom ’99. They will be talking about food as pleasure, necessity, and industry. I can hardly wait!


We had a great turnout last night for the conversation about food, politics, culture and the environment. I saw several recent alumni and alumni from decades back (some who are also current Wes parents). Jonathan was a wonderful interviewer, and Michael described both the systemic issues in the way we produce (and waste) food and what we can do about it. I was particularly glad to hear him describe the massive political challenges while also analyzing the positive steps that we can take that make a difference immediately. And he gave a great shout-out to Wesleyan farmers at Long Lane and to our environmental activists more generally.

Michael Pollan P'15 and Jonathan Bloom '97
Michael Pollan P’15 and Jonathan Bloom ’99

This is Why.


Board of Trustees on Diversity

One of the points that emerged from last year’s campus-wide discussions concerning diversity was that all constituencies of the university should think hard about what it means to create an inclusive, equitable educational institution. For its part, the Board of Trustees decided to devote its fall Retreat to this topic. We just finished our meetings yesterday, and they served to raise crucial issues and affirm core values.

The Retreat weekend began with a lecture by Al Young ’88, a distinguished professor and chair of the department of sociology at the University of Michigan. Al has done much research on issues of race and inclusion, research he began in a Wesleyan context by studying the Vanguard Class of African American men who attended Wesleyan in the late 1960s. He spoke at the Retreat about the challenges faced by the students then, and he compared them to the challenges faced by students from under-represented groups today. What will be our institutional response to these challenges, he asked? Chair of the Board Joshua Boger and Vice-Chairs Irma González and Ellen Jewett played leading roles in keeping us focused and productive, and they were well supported by staff, Wesleyan Student Assembly and faculty representatives.

Over the next 48 hours, Retreat participants addressed issues of diversity, equity and inclusion with respect to various aspects of the university experience. How does one weigh the imperatives of free speech against the offense caused to others by those words? How do we reflect the changing interests of students while retaining core areas of study? How do we select a student body in a highly competitive admissions process that makes the most educational sense for all?  How do we recruit and retain faculty and staff who exemplify talent, diversity, curiosity, empathy and achievement? How do we build a culture at Wesleyan in which all can thrive? …We didn’t expect to arrive at a consensus on answers, but we did commit to remaining mindful of the importance of these questions for our community.

As I reflect back on the meeting, three streams of concern are paramount: Admissions, Campus Learning, Alumni Engagement. I share in the most general terms my own thoughts about our goals in these areas.

1. Admissions. We should recruit extraordinarily talented students with a commitment to find people with the kind of deep potential that will enable them to learn in a residential community dedicated to “boldness, rigor and practical idealism.”

2. Campus Learning. We should ensure that all at our university have the maximum opportunities to realize their potential and to make use of untapped resources they hadn’t previously recognized. This exploration takes place in a context that amplifies personal benefits by creating possibilities for their social resonance and relevance. People discover what they love to do; they get better at it; they share it with others.

3. Beyond Campus. We should engage alumni so they are a resource to help support goals 1 and 2, and we should make the university a resource for lifelong learning. This commitment to lifelong learning is reflected in the support of research and creative practice that makes a contribution to “the good of the world.”

Diversity and Inclusion, as I wrote in a series of blogs in August, touch on almost all aspects of the university. By addressing these issues at its Retreat, the Board of Trustees re-affirmed the institutional commitment described in the Mission Statement: “to build a diverse, energetic community of students, faculty, and staff who think critically and creatively and who value independence of mind and generosity of spirit.”


Online Education, Political Engagement

This week I’ve been in the Washington D.C. area for meetings with colleagues and alumni. The trip started out with a talk to the Annapolis Group, an organization of liberal arts colleges from across the country. I’d been invited to participate in a session devoted to teaching MOOCs, and I shared the podium with Andrew Shennan, Provost at Wellesley College. Andrew knows Wesleyan well, as he was part of our visiting team during the accreditation process. He spoke about the investment that Wellesley has made in EDx, and the long process that his campus is still going through to develop classes, produce them and share them through the platform started by Harvard and MIT. I’m sure their four classes will be interesting, and I look forward to seeing them in the coming year.

I spoke more about the experience of teaching a MOOC, and the surprises that came from working with very different kinds of students from around the world. I explained that I saw our large online classes neither as a quick revenue stream nor as a threat to the model of residential learning. The courses for now are free, and we don’t yet know how exactly they will be monetized. That’s why we are keeping our investment in MOOCs very modest, financially speaking. But we are learning a lot about teaching in a different medium and about how to communicate what liberal education is all about to students from around the globe. This will inform our work back on campus.

I explained to my liberal arts college colleagues that rather than seeing MOOCs as a threat to what we do, I see many of them as showing an appetite for the kind of broad, contextual learning that we prize. It was clear from many of the discussion boards for the Wesleyan classes on Coursera that students were learning for its own sake, and that they saw these courses as opportunities to broaden their intellectual horizons and connect with other people around the world who might have similar interests. There is no way that the experience of these online classes replicates the campus experience. The dynamic synergies of campus learning in a small residential setting are uniquely powerful. The online experience is quite different, but it, too, can provide a context of learning that is compelling for many students who otherwise would never have an opportunity for this kind of education. Through our Coursera classes, Wesleyan faculty have been able to share some of what we’ve learned on campus with an extraordinarily large and diverse audience. The appetite for liberal education is much deeper and broader than many of us had imagined!

Last night I moderated a conversation with three Wes alumni who exemplify many of the virtues of liberal education. Governors Peter Shumlin (Vermont) and John Hickenlooper (Colorado) and U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (Colorado) joined more than 150 Wesleyans in a campaign kick-off event in Washington, D.C. We spoke about the joys of public service and also about the frustrations of gridlock. Education was high on our list of issues to be addressed, and we also fielded questions from the audience concerning climate change, poverty, gender, money in politics, and the challenges of compromise in an age of hyper-partisanship.

316_this_is_why  eve_dc_2013-0619192952 (1)

There were several current students in the audience, as well as alumni from the last six decades. We all reconnected with old friends and made some new ones. We raised money for scholarships and reminded one another that Wesleyan’s progressive liberal arts education should inspire us to take on the most pressing issues in the public sphere.



From Mississippi to Middletown

Coming back from lunch Friday, I saw two people having their picture taken on the steps of South College. Ollie L. Hamblin Jr ’74 and his wife Virginia Hamblin were back on campus for the first time in almost forty years. Ollie is a teacher in a small town in Mississippi, and he and Virginia wanted to visit Wesleyan to renew old memories and see what’s changed. He explained that he had been recruited to come to Wes in 1969-1970, and that he seized on the opportunity even though he didn’t know anything about the university. The full scholarship he received was life-changing, and his career as a teacher is grounded in the educational experience he had as an undergraduate. Ollie joked that he didn’t have a million dollar check to hand over, but that he wanted to express his gratitude for the opportunity that his scholarship provided. I explained that his account was priceless, and that fundraising for scholarships was our highest priority. He and Virginia (they married in Ollie’s senior year) were happy to take a pic with our BECAUSE poster.

BECAUSE Wesleyan is our cause
BECAUSE Wesleyan is our cause

Ollie L. Hamblin, Jr. ’74 — math teacher extraordinaire in Canton, Mississippi. THIS IS WHY.