Diversity and Transformation

On Friday, in New York, the president of Middlebury and I co-hosted a meeting of liberal arts college representatives about diversity and innovation. It was an exceptionally stimulating gathering, facilitated admirably by Susan Sturm and Freeman Hrabowski. Susan is the George M. Jaffin Professor of Law and Social Responsibility at the Columbia University Law School, where she also directs the Center for Institutional and Social Change. Freeman has been president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County for 20 years and is widely recognized for his success in steering African American students into research and professional positions in the sciences.

Provost Rob Rosenthal and VP Sonia Manjon joined me at the meeting. The discussions made it clear how important our diversity work is for some of our major initiatives. For example, we have been adding resources and leadership strength to our civic engagement programs over the last few years; now we  must ensure that all our students have opportunities to work in community, find productive internships, and generally translate their education into practical terms off campus. We recognize that inclusion and difference are important to the success of civic engagement; now we must turn that recognition into specific goals for tapping into the strengths of our diverse community.

Over the last few years we have also been emphasizing the role of creativity and innovation throughout our liberal arts curriculum. At the meetings in New York, it was clearer than ever to me that we must leverage the creative spark that comes from having teams of heterogeneous students, faculty and staff. At Wesleyan we have become adept at celebrating difference; now we must become better at finding ways to turn the different perspectives we bring to projects into forms of creative energy. This is less about personal identity than it is about harnessing the productive synergies that come from bringing together folks from different backgrounds with different points of view.

For Wesleyan to continue to thrive in the long run, we must show the relevance of a liberal arts curriculum to students from diverse backgrounds around the world. In our scholarship, teaching and co-curricular activities, we must make this education relevant as a resource to those concerned about the future shape of higher education. By embracing the transformative power of diversity, Wesleyan can help shape the future of higher education rather than just react to the emergent cultural and economic conditions for colleges and universities.

Liberty, Equality and Solidarity

When I first spoke (mp3 audio file) at Wesleyan after being appointed president-elect in the spring of 2007, I talked about education in terms of freedom, equality and solidarity. As an old French historian, I said then, this trinity of values had made a great impression on my thinking. Of course, I’d replaced “fraternity” with “solidarity” in my speech, looking for a gender-neutral way of talking about the bonds of community.

A liberal education, I have said many times since my introductory speech in 2007, is about overcoming your self-imposed immaturity (as Kant said), or learning to obey laws that you give yourself (Rousseau). I had felt liberated by my own Wesleyan education. The sense of freedom that came from discovering what I loved to do, getting better at it, and sharing it with others, is a gift that Wesleyan has given to generations of its graduates.

Equality remains such an important value at Wesleyan, which opens its doors to talented students regardless of their ability to pay. At Wes, our commitment to equality makes our economic diversity possible. Which is why financial aid is such a key part of our budget, allowing us to support students whose families could not otherwise afford to send them to our university. During the last several years, we have seen an unparalleled growth in economic inequality in this country, and wealth increasingly is the primary mechanism for accessing cultural, political and economic opportunity. When access to higher education is based on wealth, even strong universities just reinforce inequality. At Wesleyan, our embrace of equality and diversity is a commitment to fight this trend, and many alumni help in this endeavor by contributing to financial aid.

In my introductory remarks to the Wesleyan community in 2007, I stressed a third theme of “solidarity.” I spoke about how at Wesleyan we were a strong community that valued freedom and equality combined with diversity. I have since written about the affectionate solidarity that runs through our campus culture, and about the exuberance that creates individual excellence and deep social connectivity. Wes students continue to produce work at the highest level while remaining tied to one another in community.

Now, I look out on a peaceful, rainy, Andrus Field, the calm before the outburst of activities around Reunion Weekend and Commencement. As the weather brightens at the end of the week and alumni begin streaming in, I know they will be eager to re-connect with old friends, former teachers and the powerful memories that still reside for them on this beautiful campus. I trust they will be stirred anew by   the excitement of discovery that was part of their transformational Wesleyan experience. Freedom of inquiry combined with an ethos of equality and solidarity remain hallmarks of our campus culture, the culture that returning alumni have helped build over the years.

On Sunday a new group of Wesleyan students will join the alumni ranks. The class of 2011 began their college education with me four years ago, and I am grateful to them for their patience with a new prez, their spirited sense of play and work – their devotion to our traditions and their spirit of creativity.

It will be bittersweet for Kari and me as we say goodbye on Sunday — it seems like such a short time ago that we were all attending pre-frosh summer send-offs together. We wish our new alums only the best, and we look forward to welcoming them back to campus whenever they need to plug into the power of the liberty, equality and solidarity that are hallmarks of the Wesleyan tradition now and forever their own.

Local Thoughts on Women’s History Month

One of the most dramatic transformations of Wesleyan was the achievement of co-education in the early 1970s. The university had experimented with co-education at the beginning of the 20th century, but the male students just couldn’t deal with women studying alongside them. The contrast with the 1970s was great, and when I arrived in the middle of the decade it seemed that men and women were treated equally on campus. Of course, that was just one guy’s perspective.

And that guy was wrong. Having now spoken with many alumnae from the early 1970s, I have come to realize how difficult gender and sexuality issues were at Wes. Women reported routine harassment, a curriculum and campus culture geared to men, and a reluctance of the institution to change. But change did come, as richly talented women joined the student body and the faculty.

One of the important changes was the development of a Women’s Studies component of the curriculum, a process that culminated in the faculty approving a program in 1979, and a full major about a decade later. More recently, students and faculty changed the name of this concentration to Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies, to better reflect the evolving teaching and research going on in the program. More on the history of FGSS can be found here.

There are plenty of other professors at Wesleyan who have been cultivating this vineyard. Suzanne O’Connell, for example, has received major support from the National Science Foundation to help women at all academic levels take part in programs that emphasize professional development in the geosciences. In addition to being a professor of Earth and Environmental Science, Suzanne also has been directing the Service Learning Center. Carol Wood has been a leader in making the mathematics field more inclusive. Carol is Chair of the Board of the American Mathematical Society, where she continues her long-term work of promoting possibilities for women in math departments across the country. The Edward Burr Van Vleck Professor of Mathematics at Wesleyan, Carol has been president of the Association for Women in Mathematics and represents the United States at the International Mathematics Union.

Su Zheng, Associate Professor Music, has been teaching and writing about the intersection of gender, sexuality, globalization and music. Her interests range from world music and experimental composition to heavy metal. Gina Ulysse, Associate Professor of Anthropology and African-American Studies, has been teaching and writing about gender, transnational feminism, race, class and performance — to name just some of her many topics. I was delighted to learn recently that Ruth Striegel, Walter A. Crowell University Professor of the Social Sciences, will be returning to the psychology department next semester. Her research and teaching on eating disorders has had a deep impact on our understanding of these phenomena, and her teaching has inspired generations of Wesleyan students.

The achievements of these fine scholar-teachers – and there are many others on this campus doing important work in this area – exemplify the Wesleyan spirit of engaging in academic work that reverberates in society. You can find a similar spirit among our campus activists fighting for reproductive freedom, gender equality and civil rights. It is Women’s History Month, and while much has changed here at Wesleyan, we can be grateful that the work of building a more inclusive community continues.

Education and the Work of Social Justice

Education can be an important vehicle of social mobility, for giving people the capacity to change their lives for the better. Education should allow students to expand their horizons and to choose (and work for) the kind of life they want to lead — rather than merely accept the lot in life that seemed to have been assigned to them.

Education can also be an important vehicle for protecting social privilege, for giving people the capacity to protect their own and their children’s social standing. Education can be an exclusive good, allowing the sons and daughters of the elite to remain on top.

At Wesleyan we have long believed in opening the university’s doors to talented, creative and ambitious students from all walks of life. We have worked hard to recruit students from groups previously excluded by elite institutions and to provide them with the tools for success here on campus and beyond. We know that everyone in the university benefits from having a diverse campus in which students, faculty and staff educate one another to think critically and creatively while valuing independence of mind and generosity of spirit. That’s our mission.

All around us, however, we see the effects of an educational system that functions to re-empower those with resources while undermining the chances for success of those who do not have that good fortune. There are, however, extraordinary men and women working to change that dynamic, and one of them is here today. Geoffrey Canada, president of the Harlem Children’s Zone, will be our Martin Luther King Jr. speaker this afternoon, and he will share his “simple yet radical idea: to change the lives of inner city kids we must simultaneously change their schools, their families, and their neighborhoods.” He does the work of social justice through education.

Mr. Canada’s talk helps kick-off the year’s Social Justice Leadership Conference. Students, faculty, staff and alumni are coming together to discuss a wide range of issues linking education to other efforts to enhance freedom and fairness. A schedule is here.

Admissions and Recognition

As January is coming to an end, I am writing this on a plane back to Connecticut from Texas. I’ve been in Houston and Dallas the last couple of days, meeting with alumni, parents and even a few pre-frosh. When I began my presidency in 2007, we  increased our communications efforts in areas of the country where Wesleyan wasn’t as well known as it is on the Coasts, and we placed a special emphasis on Texas. We have many alumni there who work in the technology, education, medicine and energy fields, to name just a few. We’ve held well-attended events in Houston and Dallas the last two years, and this week’s gatherings were energetic and popular. The Roff family, our host in Houston, has had six family members at Wes, and the Barth clan there can count seven! We discussed the planning framework, Wesleyan 2020, in both cities, and even the torrential rains in Dallas didn’t dampen the high spirits at the reception hosted by the Wolins (P ’12).

I was pleased to report that in the last three years we have tripled the number of applicants from Texas. This is one chapter in a very impressive admissions story. Last year applications were way up, and so a reasonable person might have expected some pull back from these numbers in 2010. But the application pool has increased again, this year by about 6%. That means that our pool has grown about 30% in two years! Most important, the quality of the pool is very strong, and we are meeting our goal of increasing geographical diversity. Early decision applications are at an all time high. It’s a tribute to our community that so many talented people want to be part of it!

Why are so many more people applying to Wesleyan? It isn’t easy to point to any specific factors with confidence. Clearly, we have benefitted from positive press thanks to the great work of our faculty, students, staff and alumni.  Our admissions and communications departments have been in high gear making sure that we get the word out about what makes Wesleyan an extraordinary institution. The campus looks great, and investments in our physical plant have had compelling results. We have been emphasizing some of the distinctive aspects of a Wes education, and above all, students and their families have been talking to others about their own experiences. Enhanced recognition  is important not only because it allows us to put together ever more diverse and talented classes, but also because it increases the value of  Wesleyan diplomas for all our alumni.

We don’t need to “sell Wesleyan,” or develop some slick marketing messages. After all, by emphasizing our distinctiveness we are also saying that Wes isn’t for everybody. The culture of openness and experimentation, exuberance and achievement, creativity and focus…this culture is different from  the ones that have developed at other fine schools. We want to get the word out, but we don’t need to present ourselves as just another highly selective school for successful high school seniors.

Now that we have well over 10,000 applications for next year’s class, the admissions staff has to read each one of them with the time consuming care that comes with a holistic application process. I thank them in advance for all the hard work that will go into putting together the class of 2014!

[tags]applications, Wesleyan 2020[/tags]

Messy Cooperation or Isolated Purity?

Reading the announcement of Senator Gregg’s embarrassing withdrawal from consideration for Secretary of Commerce, I began thinking about the temptation to maintain one’s purity by staying away from people one doesn’t always agree with. In the case of the would-be Secretary of Commerce the issue might have simply been Republican pressure to close ranks around unthinking obstructionism (the old fashioned way to avoid responsibility), or perhaps it was just that he discovered a principle “in his heart” that he just didn’t realize he had when he lobbied for the post. But the tendency to avoid working with people who might not share your ideas extends far beyond Washington.

The college years are supposed to be a time when you have uncommon and unparalleled opportunities to engage with talented people who have ideas and experiences very different from your own. On campus we should be hearing different points of view, meeting people from different walks of life, participating in vigorous debate, while we also work together to get things done, to build community, or simply to have a good time. These are some of the challenges and joys of being at a university.

But there is also a tendency at many schools to find people who have made the same choices as you, who want what you want, and then to spend all your time deepening your connections to them. Isolated micro-communities spring up, and they also contribute to one’s education and life. There is a cost to this, though, because it means a diminished capacity for real teamwork — a compromised ability to work together while acknowledging difference.

As Wesleyan moves into the heart of the semester, we all — students, faculty and staff – experience many demands on our time and energies. Will we continue to work together in messy cooperation to get things done, or will we drift to like-minded groups that take comfort in isolated pockets of agreement rather than general effectiveness?

Seeing some of the economic and educational challenges that lie ahead, I count on us remaining a variegated community that is home for many differences while being still capable of uniting behind common purposes. To meet these challenges we will need the diversity and the commonality.

[tags] Secretary of Commerce, Washington, teamwork, diversity, commonality [/tags]

Africa in New York

I spent a few days in New York this week to visit with parents and alumni. On Wednesday I attended a great reception that brought together current students, trustees and alumni all of whom had a strong connection to Africa and the Caribbean. Co-hosted by Chair Emeritus Steve Pfeiffer ’69 and Wesleyan Trustee Mora McLean ’77, there were people from Jamaica, Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria – to name just a few of the countries represented. There were teachers and doctors, humanitarian workers and investment bankers. A group of current students came down from Wesleyan, and with them I discovered an intense connection between Africa and our chemistry department. We shared stories of how people got connected to Wes in the first place, as well as our plans for future internationalization. Afro pop, an amazing archive of African music led by a group of our alumni, provided the soundtrack for the reception, and Sonia Manjon told me that the party continued until somebody at the law firm turned the lights out.

It was great to be reminded in this time of economic contraction and budget cutting that Wesleyan’s reach across the globe remains strong. We intend to make it even stronger by raising funds for additional scholarships for African students. I’m grateful to Lagu Androga ’07, Chinelo Dike ’00, and Miriti Murungi ’99 for making this happen, and I look forward to seeing Wesleyan deepen its interconnections with Africa!

[tags] Africa, Caribbean, Steve Pfeiffer ’69, Mora McLean ’77, Afro Pop, Sonia Manjon, scholarships, Lagu Androga ’07, Chinelo Dikie ’00, Miriti Murungi ’99 [/tags]

Productive Idealists

For many years I would tell friends that Wesleyan entered the 1960s well before the decade really started and continued in the sixties spirit decades after the official end of that turbulent time. I meant that Wes was already exploring uncharted, radical territory in the 1950s, and with Norman O. Brown, Carl Schorske on the faculty, along with the impact of John Cage and Buckminster Fuller, there was a willingness to defy convention and explore new boundaries in culture and society. This was complemented by curricular innovations under Victor Butterfield, and especially with the university’s commitment to affirmative action and diversity long before other schools recognized their importance. When I was a student here in the mid-’70s this legacy was active and creative, with strong feminist and environmental movements that were exploring intellectual as well as political alternatives to the status quo.

It is easy to treat these trends with irony or cynicism. Were they romantic and idealist? Sure they were, and that was part of their ability to inspire many to go beyond what had been expected of them. Recently, I was asked to review a new book that trashed both the spirit and the accomplishments of that time, Gerald DeGroot’s The Sixties Unplugged. Although the author has an easy time of showing how much of the romantic rhetoric of the day was not in accord with what was really happening, his book makes no effort at understanding why people were in fact committed to political and cultural change, to social justice. You can read my San Francisco Chronicle book review at:

At Wesleyan today it is worth trying to understand the value of idealism and the productive role of imagining radical alternatives to the status quo. When I spoke with prospective students and their parents this weekend, I emphasized how Wesleyan students become innovators, intelligent risk takers whose ideals are cultivated rather than punctured by the education they receive. At a time in our history when technological and cultural change will continue to accelerate, we need people who can continue to learn, to adapt and to become leaders of innovation. We need the courageous creativity of Wesleyan grads in the sciences, arts, business world, education and politics. And we need those grads to remember their commitment to justice even when those around them seem to have forgotten the victims of change. Wesleyan graduates have long been productive idealists, and they will continue to play that role in the future.

Having seen the small but vocal rally for Wesleyan’s physical plant employees this weekend, I can well imagine some reading this thinking: “Well, Roth, if you are so concerned about justice, why don’t your physical plant employees have a contract?” We continue to negotiate with the union representing these employees, but it has been a frustratingly slow process. Nevertheless, we compromised on our initial proposals many times and reached an agreement with the union representative and the union’s bargaining committee more than a week ago when Wesleyan accepted the offer made by the union. To our great surprise, after we reached this tentative agreement on the proposal, the members of the union rejected the proposal their own representatives had made! We are back at the negotiating table, but it is disturbing to see students enlisted in a protest (“No contract, no peace!”) that seems aimed to make up for the failure of the physical plant employees to agree with their own representatives. It is hard to miss the irony of physical plant employees having extra work to do as they clean up the scrawled messages of their student supporters.

Let me be clear: We are and have been negotiating in good faith throughout the bargaining process, and I am committed to see that those who work for Wesleyan are fairly compensated for the good jobs they do. I hope very much we soon reach a fair and economically sustainable agreement.

On a lighter note, when Sophie saw “contract now!” scrawled on our driveway, she thought we were suddenly to become smaller…

[tags]1960s, Norman C. Brown, Carl Schorske, John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Victor Butterfield, Gerald DeGroot, The Sixties Unplugged, San Francisco Chronicle, book review, productive idealists, physical plant, contract, negotiations[/tags]

April Visitors

It’s admissions season, and several hundred happy high school seniors recently got a thick packet from Middletown. After considering thousands of applications, poring over transcripts, studying reports of interviews, and reading letters of recommendation, the team in our Admission Office is gearing up to explain Wesleyan to young men and women trying to decide which school to attend. Over the next few weeks, many will visit our campus. What will they be looking for?

Students who make their way to Middletown will want to meet faculty to get a sense of whether they will have a rapport with teachers who could become their mentors. They will also want to meet current students, trying to envision whether they could be happy members of the various communities that make up our student body. I suspect that our recently admitted prospective students will be looking for that sense of fit that gives one a feeling of belonging, of being able to find friends and to make discoveries that will expand one’s intellectual and personal horizons. Many getting ready to begin college want to find a place where they will feel “comfortable.” I’d like to think that would-be Wesleyan students are also looking for an adventure that will alter their comfort zones — that will challenge them to discover more fully who they are, and what they love to do.

I’m told that for the last several years Wes undergrads have been expressing the fear that the student body is changing, and that the university is becoming more like some of the other highly selective liberal arts schools. This is such a Wesleyan concern! We pride ourselves on being different: more creative, more independent, more experimental and more progressive than many of our peer institutions. I think there is much truth in this, actually. Wesleyan continues to attract an applicant pool full of talented men and women who can celebrate difference, who have an exuberant attitude to learning (and much else in life), and who can make use of their freedom to develop qualities of originality in a rigorous, highly demanding context. Of course, the university has changed, and it will continue to do so, but in ways that make us more distinctive. That’s why it’s so cool to be part of the Wesleyan family. What hasn’t changed is the expectation of being able to learn about oneself and the world, and to develop strong personal relationships within an affectionate, open-minded community. And we maintain the expectation that as Wesleyan alumni we will continue to learn, and to have a positive impact on the world around us.

We welcome our visitors in April as they try to discover what Wesleyan is really like, and whether they can see themselves being engaged, creative and happy here. This has long been a very special place, but also one that is always changing in response to the contributions of our students, faculty and staff.


April brings theses, final exams and papers, recitals and a flurry of theater productions. It also brings senior art exhibitions, and this week I had a chance to meet some of the artists and their teachers. The student work in the Zilkha Gallery this time of year is really stunning, and it is a tribute to our seniors and to the art faculty. BRAVO!!

Thirty years ago I wrote my own senior thesis on psychoanalysis and politics. I’m still going back to those themes, as you can see in a book review I recently published: http://www.bookforum.com/inprint/015_01/2249

[tags]Admission, applicants, book review, senior art exhibitions, thesis, Zilkha[/tags]