Fraternal Discussions

Near the end of my first year as Wesleyan’s president, I wrote the following:

Fraternities have historic roots with alumni that are important to maintain, and I believe that the frats (including Eclectic) at Wes can continue to play a very positive role at the university. We will not be adding any new Greek societies because there are now many other ways for students to join together in residentially based groups. Wesleyan’s students have a rich choice of social organizations in which to participate, from the very traditional to the most avant-garde. I’m committed to keeping it that way.

In my April 2014 blog post, “Campus Conversations on Fraternities,” I described how my thinking had changed. Six years of hearing about high-risk drinking at fraternities and dealing with fallout from highly publicized incidents of sexual violence have had an effect.  Of course, the larger world has changed too. Today there’s more emphasis upon Title IX and a much greater awareness of sexual assault. The U.S. Department of Education says that under Title IX, schools must “take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the sexual violence, eliminate the hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, and, as appropriate, remedy its effects.”

Are fraternities at Wesleyan hostile environments? It was striking to everyone here when so many students said yes. The students just conducted a survey on their own which indicated that 47 percent feel less safe in fraternity spaces than in other party spaces; the great majority of those thought that making the fraternities co-educational would be helpful in making those spaces safer. But is that true?

Last week at the Annual Meeting of the Board of Trustees we discussed this issue in executive session. Some found the experiences of peer institutions instructive. Connecticut College and Vassar have no Greek life and Bates has never had it. Amherst, Williams, Bowdoin, Middlebury and Colby all eliminated Greek. Amherst abolished fraternities on campus in 1984 (after a brief failed experiment with co-education) and earlier this month eliminated even unsanctioned Greek life. Williams did it in 1962 and students still sign a pledge not to participate in Greek life. By 2000, the Greek system was officially dismantled at Bowdoin, in part because it was losing high-quality students who didn’t want to go to a school with fraternities. At Colby fraternities and sororities were abolished in 1984 because they were inconsistent with the fundamental values of the community, and in 1992 Middlebury did likewise because it found fraternities to be “antithetical to the mission of the college.”

Swarthmore still has two fraternities, and now a new sorority to provide access to Greek life for women. And then there’s Trinity, still in the anguished throes of dealing with angry alumni and students after it mandated co-education of fraternities, raised GPA requirements for frat membership, and did away with the pledging process. There are some who believe that the most draconian approach, eliminating Greek life entirely, is no more painful.

As you might imagine, many Wesleyans don’t care much about the experience of our peer institutions. Others point out that many fine institutions still have active Greek life, or that Wesleyan shouldn’t imitate any institution. Still others emphasize that the rates of sexual assault at schools that have eliminated fraternities don’t give any indication that those institutions are safer environments. For many, the issue is about equity and inclusion more than about direct correlations with rates of reported sexual assault. How can a co-educational institution approve of having a significant percentage of its social spaces controlled by all-male organizations?

Following our discussions, the trustees have asked me to prepare a plan to address the future of Greek life. Ideally, this would be ready before the school year begins, but certainly no later than the November board meeting. Here are the options before us:

(1) We can require fraternities to become safer places through training and education.

(2) We can eliminate single-sex residential organizations or require co-education (with full membership).

(3) We can eliminate Greek residential life entirely.

(4) We can eliminate all Greek life (on campus or off).

(5) We can dramatically expand Greek life so that there are social spaces controlled by women.

None of these options will eliminate the problems of binge drinking and sexual assault. That’s not the point. Which changes in our residential and co-curricular program will make us a more inclusive, educational and equitable place? For now, our question is simple, but it may not be easy to arrive at a consensus on the answer to it: Will Wesleyan be a stronger university (“dedicated to providing an education in the liberal arts that is characterized by boldness, rigor, and practical idealism”) with or without Greek life?

Many people have written to the president’s office to weigh in on this issue. If you would like to do so over the next month or so, we have set up a special mailbox: comments@wesleyan.edu.

We will report back to the trustees and the Wesleyan community at the end of the summer on our plans concerning co-curricular life at the university in general and residential programs in particular. Stay tuned.

Framework for Progress on African-American Studies

It’s finals week, and students are working hard to finish up their projects and study for exams. Still, on Monday about 100 very engaged students made the effort to express their strong concern about the current state of the African-American Studies program. They made the excellent point that a strong program is important for the health of the university. I have also heard from faculty and alumni, as have a number of trustees, the deans and the provost.

There are long-term issues and short-term ones. In the short-term, Academic Affairs has already been working on replacements for two wonderful professors in Af-Am who are leaving (one to Yale, the other to Harvard, alas). These replacements will be visitors who will ensure that we have classes staffed for the coming year. I have also talked with Academic Affairs about two hires on a more permanent basis. We will accelerate the plans to search for a tenure-track (or tenured) professor in African-American studies in global context whose research is in the social sciences. That search will get underway as soon as possible. After filling this first position, we will begin a second search for another social science scholar whose work in Af-Am complements that of the first hire.

While these searches are underway, the provost, deans and I will be talking with faculty across the curriculum whose teaching and research is relevant to African-American studies from a variety of post-national and diasporic perspectives. We have real strength in these areas, and we should tap into it more fully. Indeed, I will be talking with Wesleyan professors who have had shared responsibilities in the past and inviting some to devote their efforts full-time to AFAM in coming years. We will also ensure that the Center for African American Studies can play an important role in bringing some of the most interesting scholars to campus from a variety of fields. This will inform our search process as well as bring powerful intellectual benefit to campus.

We have a challenging but also rewarding endeavor before us, and we will count on the help of key leaders in this area like Professors Lois Brown and Ashraf Rushdy to help us in maintaining a strong curriculum, mentoring students in the program, and conducting successful searches.

Together, we can build a program that will be defined by inspired teaching, advanced research and compelling creative practice.

 

Dialogue on African-American Studies

Yesterday a group of students marched to South College to demand more resources for the African-American Studies major. The program has struggled in recent years, and it recently suffered a blow when two wonderful professors, Leah Wright and Sarah Mahurin, decided to move on to other institutions. Both Leah and Sarah are extraordinary scholar-teachers, and I am very sorry that they are leaving. Given the problems that were already afflicting the program, students are rightly concerned about the fate of Af-Am at Wesleyan.

Almost 100 concerned students met with Provost Ruth Weissman and me late in the afternoon yesterday. We were mostly in a listening mode, as students described to us what they saw as long-term weakness in African-American studies here. Although there was real anger in the room at times, I also heard some interesting ideas from students about potential directions we might take in the future. I was very sorry to hear the frustration in the students’ voices, and their real concern that this field had been allowed to fall into disarray at Wesleyan.

Some of the questions that came up include: What is the relation of African-Studies to recruiting and retaining students of color? How can we bring more disciplines into AF-Am? What connections should there be between American Studies and AF-Am? Between African studies and our program? How can cross-listing classes from various departments help provide the depth and breadth that a strong major requires?

There are many more questions, to be sure, and we will be discussing them with administrators, faculty and students. Together we will find ways to develop the intellectual energy and range of courses that will best serve our program and our university.

 

 

 

A Passover of Peace, a Celebration of Freedom

At Beckham Hall tonight many Wesleyans will join in the first Seder meal that marks the beginning of Passover. You can find out more information about the holiday on campus here. Our family gathered at my brother’s house yesterday for an early Seder, which was filled with the pleasures of breaking matzot together (and eating my matzah ball soup, my only culinary achievement). We talked of politics and education, family stories and sports. And we all marveled at our newest family member, baby Ruby, who reminded us all of how much joy one can get from simply getting another person smile….even giggle.

Part of the Seder is a reflection on the idea that if oppression and slavery still exist, then none of us are really free. At our Seder table, we talked about this in regard to the Palestinians and the Ukrainians, and in regard to the numerous ways in which violence continues to undermine freedom in so many places closer to home.

I hadn’t yet heard of the shooting in front of the Jewish Community Center in Overlook Park, Kansas. Three people were killed in the attack, according to press reports; all three were Christians devoted to family and community. The alleged shooter taken into custody is said to have ties to Nazi groups. He has long been a hate monger with a strong anti-Semitic and racist reputation. As Jay Michaelson wrote in the Forward: “Overland Park should issue a wake-up call. Oppression against one minority is oppression against all. And we Jews should not forget.”

None of us should forget: Oppression against one minority is oppression against all. As we strive to make our own campus community a place of peace, let us remember to struggle against oppression wherever we may find it.

Whatever tradition you belong to, why not use this week to think more about how we can contribute to ending oppression, making our communities places of peace.

How to Choose a (Our) University

The happy emails and web links have gone out (replacing those thick envelopes), and all those fortunate enough to have choices about what college to attend will make a big decision: picking the college that is just right for them. They are trying to envision where 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, with a few revisions.

Of course, for many the decision 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. There are some schools with larger endowments that can afford to be even more generous than Wes, but there are hundreds (thousands?) of others that are unable even to consider meeting financial need over four years of study. Our school is expensive because it costs a lot to maintain the quality of our programs. But Wesleyan has made a commitment to keep loan levels low and to raise tuition only in sync with inflation in the future. We also offer a three year program that allows families to save about 20% 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, have become increasingly popular college destinations, but not, I suspect, for the classroom experience. But 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 Middlebury?

Knowing that these schools all provide a high-quality, broad and flexible curriculum with strong teaching, and that the students all have displayed great academic capacity, prospective students are trying to discern the personalities of each school. They are trying to imagine themselves on the campus, among the people they see, to get a feel for the chemistry of the place — to gauge whether they will be happy there. That’s why hundreds of visitors come to Wesleyan each week and why there will be the great surge for WesFest. They go to classes and athletic contests, musical performances and parties. And they ask themselves: Would I be happy at Wesleyan?

I hope our visitors have gotten a sense of the personality of the school that I so admire and enjoy. I hope they feel the exuberance and ambition of our students, the intelligence and care of our faculty, the playful yet demanding qualities of our community. I hope our visitors can sense 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.

Whatever college or university students choose, I hope they get three things out 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:

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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 the fields in which they work. The commitment of our faculty says a lot about who we are, as does the camaraderie around the completion of senior projects that we are seeing right now on campus.  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 30 years. I bet the magic will enchant many of our visitors, too.

Welcome Home!

Today marks the beginning of Homecoming/Family Weekend. There are many great seminars, concerts, sporting events and recitals planned. Some families will just want to spend time together enjoying Connecticut in the fall, and many alumni will simply want to re-visit their favorite haunts. Whatever your pleasure, I hope you find Wesleyan welcoming, stimulating and festive.

I’m particularly excited about the Dar Williams concert Friday night at 9 pm in Crowell Concert Hall. I’ve been listening to Dar’s CDs for a long time, and recently I’ve been able to hear her play live on campus. It’s great to have her back at alma mater, especially since this concert is a fundraiser for financial aid. We are all working hard to establish more scholarships that meet student needs without high loans, and this concert is an important addition to our efforts.

There are some great seminars, panels and lectures during the weekend. One of the highlights: the 21st Annual Dwight L. Greene Symposium: Women of Color: 40 Years at Wesleyan, and Beyond will take place at 4 pm in the Chapel. You can find a list of events here.

There will be plenty of sports excitement over the weekend. The volleyball team will be in the Silloway gymnasium battling Little Three Rivals, while cross country, women’s soccer and field hockey are playing in NESCAC tournaments on the road. Men’s soccer will have a home contest in the tournament on Jackson field Saturday at 12:30. The mighty Wes football team will take this year’s undefeated streak into a battle against Williams. The game starts at 1:00 pm at Corwin Stadium. Connecticut Public Television is broadcasting the game, and we will have a video link here.

I’m looking forward to seeing old friends and meeting new ones. THIS IS WHY!

 

 

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.

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(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.

Re-Imagining the Residential

In mid-September I put out a call to faculty, staff and students for “1-2 page proposals for initiatives that have the potential to significantly improve the distinctive educational experience of Wesleyan students by leveraging its residential dimensions. What kinds of programs should we strengthen or create to offer our students deeper opportunities for learning? What kinds of programs should we create or strengthen to extend the impact of the years spent on the Wesleyan campus?” We already have heard about some exciting ideas, and we look forward to receiving more proposals by the end of this week.

During a time of enormous change in American higher education, there is a great opportunity to rethink how we can make the most of our work together on campus. How do first-year students become part of an inclusive, creative community? How do the possibilities for campus learning change as students move through the curriculum? What is the role of the faculty in the residential life of the university? How do student interests while they are on campus affect the evolution of the curriculum, or specific course offerings? How are the arts, athletics, and independent research encouraged by our residential facilities, and how can we do even more in these areas?

These are only some of the questions we will be thinking about as we read the proposals. If you are thinking about submitting your ideas, please get your 1-2 pages in by the end of the week to 2020@wesleyan.edu!

 

 

 

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.”