Continuing Education: Semester #1

My first semester is coming to an end, and as I watch the students make their way across the icy, exquisite terrain of Andrus Field, I find myself reflecting on how these first months of my presidency have developed. I have been listening to students and faculty, to staff and alumni, to trustees and parents, as they try to introduce me to the most pressing issues facing the university today. My second Wesleyan education, like my first, has started with a dramatic encounter with my own ignorance. What do I know about food prices in Usdan or the lines? What about access to courses that are popular but intimate? How can we have more students taking the seminar without spoiling it? How should we balance our immediate budget needs with the long-term health of the school that growing the endowment provides? How can we continue to promote advanced research in all departments while insisting on effective, creative teaching? These are just a few of the many questions I have yet to answer. … Of course, I am still trying to figure out how best to make this blog informative and honest.

By now, people who have read this blog or have heard me speak know that I am given to “thinking in threes.” So, as I think of my chief lessons from semester one, I focus on three main areas:

Access: Wesleyan announced a significant enhancement to our financial aid packages to begin in the fall. We want to ensure that students who are admitted will have the financial assistance they need to thrive here. Many families tell us, though, that we are not doing enough, and they can point to wealthier institutions that are doing more for families in higher income brackets than those to whom Wesleyan offers aid. These families are not poor enough to qualify for the highest support, nor are they rich enough to send students to expensive schools like ours without significant financial sacrifice. I am very aware of this dilemma, and for that reason I have put fundraising for financial aid among our highest priorities. As we increase the size of our endowment for financial aid, we will be able to further ease the financial burden on larger segments of the student body.

Access to Wesleyan isn’t only about financial aid. It is also important that we reach out to new constituencies of students—both in the U.S. and internationally—to introduce the liberal arts and Wesleyan to families from groups currently under-represented on our campus. Diversity is a shared value at our school, but segregation is also a fact of daily life for many on our campus. We must reach out to more groups of potential students, and we must also reach into the various communities at Wesleyan to find ways to connect people across the most obvious identity group barriers.

Communities: I have spent a fair amount of time moving among the various communities that make up the Wesleyan world—from swim meets to COL lectures; from Para la Familia to football games. I know there are plenty of groups I haven’t yet met, and I am looking forward to getting to know students by teaching next term. The multiplicity of groups is exciting, but it also creates challenges for bringing people together in shared purpose, study, even celebration. There are conflicts among our diverse groups over politics, economics, food, personal choices. But we should remember also what we have in common: a devotion to the freedom (and affection) in which education can thrive.

Achievement: I hope to improve access to Wesleyan as I work to strengthen our various communities and their common ties. Why? Because I believe that a Wesleyan education can foster one’s capacity to discover what one loves to do and to get better at it. I’ve seen this throughout my first semester here, as I watch students push themselves to achieve more than they ever thought possible. It is tremendously exciting to see our students shine as performers and scholars, as artists and athletes. Wesleyan students demand a great deal from their education because they give so much to it. I am so grateful to be working among you because it allows me to continue my own education.

Thank you for your patience and your support. Good luck with the remaining papers and exams, and HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

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Old Haunts, New Challenges

I am writing this blog entry from San Francisco, where I went for a quick trip to participate in the centenary celebrations of California College of the Arts, where I was president from 2000 to 2007. CCA had organized an alumni reunion for the weekend, and it was a treat for me to catch up with faculty, my colleagues in the administration, board members, and my old students. The school seems to be thriving, and I was especially pleased to see the new Graduate Center, which was recently completed in the South of Market section of San Francisco. This was a project that we had planned over the last few years, and it was exciting to stand in the new buildings that look over what is now an SF campus that also offers a perspective on downtown San Francisco. CCA emphasizes learning through the arts, and I know that some of our Wesleyan alumni have gone onto its graduate programs in design, architecture and fine arts. Larry Sultan, who has taught photography there for years, told me that his studio assistant is coming to Wes to teach in the spring.

Before heading out to California I visited with alumni in New York to talk about, among other things, our plans to enhance financial aid. This is a project that the Wesleyan family can support no matter when they graduated, no matter what their particular majors. We want our school to maintain rigorous admission standards, and these are only meaningful to us if we are sure that access to the university is open to people regardless of their ability to pay. Fellow blogger (and Sun CEO) Jonathan Schwartz encouraged me to ensure that our students have the support they need to succeed. He reminded me that he had no resources when at Wesleyan, and that if not for a scholarship he would never have graduated. Alumni support equitable access, and their financial contributions actually make it possible. Tuition only covers about 2/3 of the cost of a student’s education, and so we are dependent on the generosity of our alumni, parents and other supporters to subsidize the college careers of all our students. This generosity is especially important to ensure that our financial aid packages allow students with high economic need to thrive once they enroll (and not to graduate with too much debt!). Later this semester I hope to be writing more about new initiatives at Wesleyan in this regard.

While I was away (and many of our students are away on fall break), our student athletes had another great weekend of contests. I was able to watch parts of the football game on the web, and I heard about the other contests from excited fans who emailed me. Congratulations to all, and let’s all of us maintain the momentum in the second half of the semester. GO WES!!

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