Invest? Divest? Conversations Continue

On Monday night this week I had a meeting with a coalition of students concerned with how Wesleyan invests the funds in its endowment. This was a follow-up conversation to one started in my office the week before, when a few dozen students staged a protest to call attention to their demands that the university divest its holdings in companies that profit from (1) the prison industrial complex (2) the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and (3) fossil fuels. The claim was that these three things are inter-related.

When I asked for clarification about what counted as “the prison industrial complex,” big private prison companies were cited as important examples. I agreed with the protestors that Wesleyan shouldn’t be deriving profits from private prison companies, and that I would argue against any investments in these companies. As it turns out, I was happy to be able to report that we don’t hold any such investments. I would certainly argue against the university taking on such exposure in the future. Some people have a much more general sense of the “prison industrial complex,” which would include major financial, juridical and governmental institutions, and here I’ve not been aware of any divestment argument that successfully navigates such byzantine connections.

I was asked about my view of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. I despair of current conditions and the policies that make for a relentless, tragic grind of human lives. There is intricate political, military and economic work to be done to create the grounds for an equitable settlement for Palestinians that meets the legitimate security needs of Israelis. But I don’t see Wesleyan’s selling stock as being at all relevant to the creation of conditions for peace in the Middle East. Indeed, I think that the call for selling stock is a distraction from the essential policy and diplomatic challenges ahead.

Try as I might, I have a hard time understanding how Wesleyan (and even all universities) selling stock in fossil fuel companies would have any impact on climate change. I have little doubt that climate change is one of the defining issues of our time, but the idea that we would divorce ourselves from energy companies through divestment seems inappropriate given our use of power from these companies every day. Selling our shares of an energy company to another institution or individual will not have a meaningful impact on climate change. Changing the nation’s demand for non-renewable energy would have such an impact. Taxing carbon use and pricing oil and gas in such a way as to account for externalities would have such an impact. Again, divestment seems to me a distraction from the hard work of changing governmental policies, reducing institutional and personal energy use, and developing deep commitments to research on alternative energy sources.

Wesleyan invests its endowment so as to strengthen its economic foundation. This foundation allows us to offer financial aid and to subsidize programs that would not otherwise pay for themselves. While the integrity of every investment professional we work with is crucial for us, we don’t choose investment managers as a vote of confidence in their moral, political or aesthetic views. We choose them because we believe they can prudently and consistently increase the value of the funds we entrust to them. On rare occasions we may say to managers that this university does not want to make money from x. This is not because we think we can disrupt x but because we don’t want to profit from an enterprise creating massive social harm. I wrote about this some weeks ago in regard to the Committee on Investor Responsibility’s report on coal. The students with whom I met in the past week feel strongly that large energy companies are indeed creating massive social harm, and they have interesting arguments. I very much respect their views. We must also recognize, however, that the energy sector is absolutely necessary for our current institutional needs. That’s why I don’t support the posture of separating ourselves from the sector — divesting from our connection to fossil fuels. Instead, I want us to focus on making Wesleyan more sustainable, increasing our use of solar power and reducing our carbon footprint. Arguing in the public sphere for the development of cleaner, renewable forms of energy is also important, and I’m pleased to see so many faculty and students do that so powerfully.

The students with whom I met expressed general concerns about transparency in regard to the endowment. There is actually much information on the investment office’s website, including annual letters summarizing the work of the previous 12 months and the target asset allocation. In addition, the Committee for Investor Responsibility periodically raises issues with the Board’s Investment Committee as it did recently in regard to coal. The CIR website also has important information.

I am sure conversations with various Wesleyan constituencies will continue. They are most productive when organized through the CIR. In the fall, this committee will sponsor a talk by Chief Investment Officer Anne Martin on Wesleyan’s investment policy and operations.

I have learned much from our engaged students, especially when we don’t start off sharing the same view. I know I will be hearing more from them. I will be listening.



Winter Board Meeting and Ethical Investing

Last weekend the Board of Trustees was on campus for the winter meeting. In various configurations members addressed issues relevant to the academic program and the campus, facilities and finances, and communications and alumni relations. There are just over 30 trustees, and they are dedicated to helping to steer the university through these sometimes daunting times of change.

One of the most important sessions was focused on a presentation led by students from the Committee for Investor Responsibility. They delivered an excellent analysis of why the university should divest itself of any direct holdings in coal companies, examining social, economic and ethical perspectives. My fellow trustees were very impressed with the thoughtfulness of the report and subsequent discussion. As it turns out, Wesleyan does not have direct holdings in coal companies, but the committee wanted to engage with the CIR, going beyond this specific issue to create an explicit framework for future decisions regarding investments.

The board passed a resolution to integrate a statement on ethical investment into its guidelines, recognizing the university’s “obligation to consider environmental, social and governance issues as part of its investment process.”  Quoting from The Ethical Investor, the resolution instructs the Investment Committee to take into account social harm, “the injurious impact which the activities of a company are found to have on consumers, employees, or other persons, particularly including activities which violate, or frustrate the enforcement of rules of domestic or international law intended to protect individuals against deprivation of health, safety, or basic freedoms.” The resolution concludes that “in selecting external managers or considering direct investments, the Committee and staff will consider environmental, social and governance factors as part of their investment process.” I am so grateful for the CIR’s input into this process.

The Board also discussed (among other things) campus planning, support for research,  possibilities for refinancing outstanding debt, the Wesleyan Student Assembly report on campus issues, fundraising for internships during the final year of the ‘This is Why’ campaign, and building a solar “farm” on a section of the Long Lane property.

Overall it proved to be a productive and energizing meeting that focused attention on challenges and opportunities and rallied support for Alma Mater.


Major Mellon Grant Supports New College of Film

Last week I received great news from the Andrew Mellon Foundation. The board just approved a major endowment grant to our new College of Film and the Moving Image. CFMI will receive a $2 million gift, if Wesleyan can raise another $4 million for the College over the next four years. This is similar to the very generous matching gift that Mellon made to our Center for the Humanities a couple of years ago. We completed that match in 2013, establishing an endowment for the Center for the Humanities for the first time in its 50-year history.

The CFMI is dedicated to advancing understandings of the moving image in all its forms—film, television, and digital media—through pedagogy, scholarship, community outreach, and historical preservation. The focus throughout is on the study and practice of visual storytelling, and the model of a close-knit, interactive college is well suited to the inherently collaborative nature of work in the world of film, television, and digital media. The CFMI—integrating our renowned Department of Film Studies, Cinema Archives, Center for Film Studies, and Film Series—will expand student access to the subject and increase learning opportunities for non-film majors.

I believe that this is the first major grant that Mellon has made to film studies in its long history of supporting liberal education. The foundation explained that Wesleyan’s liberal arts approach to film was “unique” in the field, and its leadership was delighted to help the university build a foundation for a program that had already achieved so much.

Congratulations to the film alumni, students and faculty! And now onward to raise this important endowment match!!

Expanding Access and Creating Opportunity

Last week gave me plenty to think about in regard to creating more opportunities for students to pursue a liberal education at the college level. On Tuesday night, I met with the extraordinary group of veterans who will be starting out at Wesleyan in the class of 2018. While they come from a wide variety of backgrounds, their experience in the military has had a powerful impact on all of them as they prepare for the next stage in their education.

The next day I headed to Washington for a gathering of college and university presidents concerned with creating greater access to higher education for students from low-income families. But access isn’t enough. We also discussed how to improve preparation for college work in the K-12 sector, and also how to ensure that those students we do admit will be successful as undergraduates. Michelle Obama told us that education as opportunity was the story of her life, and she movingly described her own path from working class Chicago to Princeton. She also made the important point, echoed by many others, that low-income students had many assets when compared to those who grew up with privilege. These students had already learned from their struggles; they already had overcome obstacles in ways that prepare them for leadership. We needn’t feel sorry for these students, the First Lady emphasized, we just need to understand how to leverage the strengths they were already bringing to the table.

President Obama made the point that economic recovery without social mobility would undermine our society, and that education was a key to social mobility. Only 9% of students from the bottom economic quintile attend college, but 90% of this group that completes college won’t remain at the bottom of the economic ladder. We can do a lot better than 9% in the United States, and we here at Wesleyan will find ways to do our part. Our alumni remind us again and again: education creates opportunity — not just for a higher salary, but for a more meaningful life.

At Wesleyan we will continue to make financial aid our highest fundraising priority. Our THIS IS WHY campaign has raised more than 320 million dollars, and the majority of those funds will go to the endowment, mostly to support scholarships. I know that some question how I can call for greater access to college when I have also said that Wesleyan cannot be fully “need blind” at this time. Here’s the answer: we remain about 90% need blind, and we will strive to do more. But we must have a sustainable financial aid program, one that doesn’t economically undermine the very educational program to which we are creating access. We must not use our financial aid resources “blindly;” we must use them intentionally to create access where it will matter the most.

Of course, I would prefer not to have to worry about how to pay for the Wes educational experience we value so much. But our endowment, substantial as it is, does not grant us that luxury. So we build the endowment now, with financial aid as our highest priority. Through fundraising and smart endowment management, we will be able to afford to be need-blind in the future without resorting to high loans or tuition increases just to preserve the label. We will no longer raise tuition aggressively, nor will we increase loan requirements. We will gratefully raise more money for scholarships so that a decade from now we will be in a position to promote access without undue worry about how much that will cost.

But we don’t have to wait a decade to do more now. We can use our financial aid dollars to meet the full financial need of every student at the university. In addition, hundreds of Wesleyan students and dozens of faculty and staff are already engaged in helping students in the K-12 system enhance their learning. Over the next several weeks I will be meeting with leaders of many groups involved in this effort to see how we might join forces under the banner of college readiness. We can work together to give students in Middletown and surrounding communities more opportunities to be prepared for and have success in higher education. We can do what Wesleyan folks have always done: advance our own learning by doing good in the world.

Ours is not a perfect situation, but it is one that we can build on to expand access and create opportunity.

Center for the Humanities – Justice and Judgment

When I was a student at Wesleyan in the 1970s, I spent almost every Monday night at Russell House attending lectures from the Center for the Humanities. They usually drew a decent sized audience of faculty and students, and many of the visiting speakers were big names in their fields. It was the heyday of critical theory and deconstruction, and I heard many a talk in these areas that I found difficult to understand. Still, I was always at what were affectionately called “Monday Night Services.” Knowledge was happening at the Center, and I wanted to be part of it.

Years later I came back to Wesleyan to offer a Monday night lecture at Russell House. My faculty advisor, Henry Abelove, was the director of the Center at that point, and he’d asked me to talk about psychoanalysis and the exhibition I’d curated about Sigmund Freud at the Library of Congress. I found it terrifically moving to stand at the podium there where I had often sat in the audience (bewildered).

The Center for the Humanities has gone through a variety of incarnations since it was founded in 1959. Its current director, Ethan Kleinberg, has beefed up its web presence (see iTunes and YouTube), brought together a great group of fellows and speakers, and planned some exciting events. Next Monday at 6 p.m., Professor Samuel Moyn, from Columbia University, will speak on “The Political Origins of Global Justice.” This lecture kicks off the series on Justice and Judgment. The lecture series has moved from Russell House and will take place in the Daniel Family Commons (on the third floor of Usdan).

From September 26-28, The Center will host a conference on Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, which was published 50 years ago. Arendt, one of the most important political theorists of the 20th century, came to Wesleyan’s Center for the Humanities to finish the book, and so it’s particularly fitting that the conference marking its publication will take place here.

For its first 50 years the Center for the Humanities operated with various funding streams that fluctuated with the times. We decided to change that and asked the Mellon Foundation for help. I am delighted to let everyone know that in the late spring we completed a matching gift program with Mellon. Wesleyan raised $4 million in endowment funds, and the foundation added another $2 million! Others may be fretting about the “crisis in the humanities,” but thanks to the generosity of our donors the Center for the Humanities will continue to offer great things to Wesleyan and the world for decades to come.


New Semester, New Year

While I sat in schul this morning to mark Rosh Hashana, my office sent out an all-campus email with some updates for the beginning of the school year. I’ve pasted it in below. Tomorrow afternoon we continue building a new tradition at Wesleyan — a music festival (The Mash — video from last year) on the first Friday of the academic year. There will be plenty of student bands playing around campus, and I’ll be joining Dean Louise Brown, Prof. Barry Chernoff and a couple of their bandmates from the Smokin Lillies to kick it off. We’ll be rockin out on the Church Street side of Olin Library.


Dear friends,

The new year is underway, the humidity has lifted… books are being read, experiments are being conducted, music and sports are being played, films and paintings are being viewed, poems and stories are being written… Welcome to 2013-2014! Here are a few updates.

Financial Aid and the ‘THIS IS WHY’ Campaign. We are working hard to deploy our financial aid resources as effectively as possible – keeping loans to a minimum while meeting the full need of students. At the same time we’ve made financial aid the centerpiece of our fundraising efforts. And this past year I’m so pleased to announce we raised more money than ever before!  As of August 21st, the Campaign is at $306,130,869 in gifts and pledges, well on our way toward our fundraising goal of $400 million. Most of the money is going to the endowment. Financial aid – now more than ever!

Posse Partnership. Wesleyan values a diverse campus culture and actively recruits talented needy students through partnerships with community groups and foundations. I’m pleased to announce a new partnership, this one with the Posse Foundation. Beginning next fall we will annually bring a cohort of ten military veterans to our campus.

Searches. Two administrative positions central to the university, the Chief Diversity Officer and the Director of Public Safety, remain open, but the searches have made great progress and interviews are taking place over the next weeks. The first of these is a Cabinet position (being ably held on an interim basis by Dean Marina Melendez), and the second now reports directly to Mike Whaley, Vice President for Student Affairs. The external review of Public Safety begun last spring is expected shortly, and we plan to share a summary with the community as we begin to vet and implement the recommended changes.

Campus Climate Report.  Last spring, two campus climate surveys were conducted: one for students and one for faculty, staff and graduate students.  The results of the first will not be ready for some weeks, and unfortunately there is some question as to how useful they will be due to low participation. Participation in the second survey was greater, and those results are presented HERE.

The findings of this survey indicate that the area in which we need to improve is the effects of hierarchy on inclusion. Those of lower position within our hierarchies tended to have a less favorable view of the campus climate. This should alert us to ensuring that we treat everyone on campus with respect, regardless of their position and our own.

MASH. This Friday it’s the MASH, a festival that highlights the student music scene on campus, showcasing some of Wesleyan’s most popular student bands and musical groups. I’ll be joining (on keyboards) with the Smokin Lillies to kick things off in front of Olin Library at 2:00 PM. There will be different stages for performances, culminating in bands serenading an all-campus BBQ at the base of Foss Hill Friday evening.

Night Game and Middletown Day. We are inviting our neighbors to campus for a day of athletic contests and fun on September 21. We’ll finish things up with the first night football game in NESCAC history. It’s against Tufts. Go Wes!

Welcome to 2013-2014! May the new year be filled with sweetness, exuberance and joy!

Hollywood THIS IS WHY Event: Politics and Entertainment for Financial Aid

Last night we had an energetic kickoff event in Hollywood. About 100 Wesleyans showed up to drink a toast to alma mater and listen to a conversation with Julia-Louis Dreyfus P’14 and Governor John Hickenlooper ’74. Julia talked about her career in comedy — leaving Northwestern before her senior year to pursue theater and television in Chicago (and SNL).  John discussed his amazing variety of jobs: from geologist to brewer/restaurateur to mayor of Denver and now governor of Colorado. What’s next for Julia?  She loves her award-winning HBO show, VEEP, and with some film work between seasons is plenty busy. And what’s next for John?  He is very happy being governor and will be running for re-election next year.

eve_LA_drefus_hickenlooper_2013-0501193850_edit eve_LA_drefus_hickenlooper_2013-0501200550_edit eve_LA_drefus_hickenlooper_2013-0501200636_edit eve_LA_drefus_hickenlooper_2013-0501200846_edit

It was great fun to see old LA friends and to meet new ones. Julia and John had much to say about contemporary politics, education, and the connection of cynicism to laughter. In their case being funny is just part of  being engaged in their communities. They came out last night to help us raise more money for financial aid. The group there has already donated more than $1.4 million for scholarships.



Wesleyan Taking Over Hollywood (THIS IS WHY)

I’m writing this from Los Angeles, where last night we gathered with more than 200 Wesleyans to celebrate film studies. Each year Rick Nicita67 hosts this great party on President’s Day at the spectacular offices of the Creative Artists Agency. We had much to celebrate this year. I announced that Wesleyan was creating the College of Film and the Moving Image. The college integrates the Film Studies Department, the Cinema Archives, the Center for Film Studies, and the Wesleyan Film Series in ways that will allow Wesleyan to accelerate the success of an already dynamic, high-impact program.

Mike Fries ’85 was at the event to announce his gift to the endowment to honor his father, television producer Chuck Fries. These funds (with help from the National Endowment for the Humanities) have allowed us to hire Andrea McCarty for a new curatorial position at the Cinema Archives. Chuck and his wife Ava joined Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies, founder and curator of the Wesleyan Cinema Archives, Jeanine Basinger, Rick, Mike and me in marking this occasion.

Rick Nicita, Prez Roth, Jeanine Basinger, Ava Fries, Chuck Fries, Mike Fries

Jeanine arrived at the events after a hard day of book signing.  Her I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies is selling like hotcakes and receiving rave reviews. We met up with Joss Whedon, the 2013 commencement speaker, to take a THIS IS WHY photo.

This is Why: Joss and Jeanine


This year is particularly exciting for the Wes Film Empire, with Beasts of the Southern Wild nominated for the Best Picture Oscar (among others). At the reception I met up with some of the producers of the film, and we had a vigorous conversation about recent changes to our financial aid programs. (I also dropped to my knees to pay homage to their extraordinary movie.)

This is Why: Beasts of Southern Wild Producers

Hey, it’s Wesleyan. We aren’t supposed to agree on everything. But we did agree that raising more money for financial aid should be an institutional priority, and that’s what the fundraising campaign is all about.

Financial Aid Now More than Ever. THIS IS WHY.

A “Break” for Getting Work Done

Every year around this time I hear comments from parents and students about the length of winter break. Like most of our peer institutions, Wesleyan begins classes for the second semester around the time of Martin Luther King Day. This year, we start up on the Thursday following the holiday weekend. By that time, many students will be eager to be back on campus, and their parents will be more than ready to help them pack.

But for those on campus, there is anything but a “January break.” As I mentioned in a previous post, Wes athletes are already in stiff competition. On Monday, for example, swimmers were battling Hamilton in the water while the rest of us were side-stepping the melting snow outside. Over the next weeks, staff in Middletown are meeting to plan the rest of the year: developing ideas for new programs, for enhancements to the campus, and for greater efficiencies. It’s a time to make repairs and to dream big. This morning, I met with the whole crew for a second semester “kick-off,” and tomorrow I head out to maintain our fundraising momentum to support our highest priorities: financial aid and academic program endowment. It’s a privilege to ask for support knowing the dedication of the staff and faculty to providing the very best liberal arts education.

I see faculty members in the library, studios, labs and departmental offices busily trying to finish some of their research and their class preparation. Many of our professors have been at professional meetings sharing their scholarship, visiting archives, or just writing one more paper. Others are going over their syllabi to ensure that their students next semester will have access to the best work concerning whatever topic is at hand. Scott Higgins and I are scrambling to finish our Coursera classes, which launch on February 4. We are the first out of the gate in this new venture for Wesleyan. You can check out all the Wes offerings here.

So, there isn’t much of a “break” for faculty and staff at this time of year, and yet we are thinking now about new January programs that would be compelling for students. We’ll be consulting with student groups, faculty and others to figure out how to make future Januaries at Wesleyan even more lively!




Building on our Conversations: From Economics to Education

University Budget discussions take place over several months, with a variety of committees weighing in before the final document is approved by the Board of Trustees at its May meeting each year. Since 2008, we have tried to make much more information available to faculty, staff and student representatives. There is a budget priority committee, a compensation and benefits committee, a budget working group, and then the Finance Committee of the Board of Trustees. There are students, faculty, staff, alumni and parents on these different committees so that we can benefit from their input. The Board, mostly Wesleyan alumni with student, faculty and staff representatives, approves the final budget.

We have been discussing the budget with faculty, student, alumni and staff representatives all year — with a series of focused conversations since February. Of course, not each and every member of these groups has been personally consulted, but representatives have had access to all the data we have. These discussions have been reported on in the Argus, Wesleying, and on this blog.

There have been some folks who want to cut the arts, or athletics, or research support, or sabbaticals, or landscaping, or food quality, or the level of air conditioning. Any meaningful cuts are cuts to compensation levels or to the number of employees at the university.

There have also been folks who want to increase revenue. Come to think of it, nobody has been against increases in revenue! But there are people who are against hiking tuition even more aggressively than we have done in the past, against increasing the number of students leading to crowded classrooms, against selling buildings and land, and against the further commercialization of the university.

There are people who think we shouldn’t worry about the endowment. Rather than put money into the endowment for the future, worry about the needs today. This view has played an important role in Wesleyan’s history, but in recent years we have asked our donors to direct their gifts to the endowment even as we have reduced spending from the endowment. I think this is especially important given the significant losses our investments sustained in 2008. We have yet to recover from those losses, and we still must prepare to begin repaying the $200 million of debt on our books from the early 2000s.

Despite all of these issues, Wesleyan is in an enviable financial situation. We have a balanced budget every year, a beautiful campus and great facilities. As compared to our peer institutions, we are very lean in regard to administrative expenses, thanks to our hardworking staff. Our faculty is second to none: dedicated teachers who also advance their own fields through research and creative practice. We have many resources on which to draw, the most important of which is an extraordinarily talented group of people who care fervently about the health of the institution.

I believe we have charted a sustainable path to maintain for the long-term the highest quality educational experience for our students. This includes supporting the teacher-scholar model that has served us so well, and seeking a diverse student body whose talents, independence and work ethic will enable them as graduates to build on the transformative impact of their Wesleyan years and make a lasting contribution to the world around them.

We will continue to discuss this path, and how we can improve it, with all members of the Wesleyan family. Beginning again in the fall we will continue to meet on campus with student, staff, alumni and faculty groups to gather their best ideas, and we will  integrate these into our planning. We will post information online, and we will meet with alumni groups around the country. We will be discussing more than university finances. We will be discussing how Wesleyan’s approach to liberal arts education can continue to make a positive impact on our graduates and on our society. We will be discussing how our curriculum should respond to the challenges and opportunities of today, so that our alumni are in a position to help shape the culture of the future.

I look forward to these conversations, and I expect to learn from them. After all, there is a lot at stake — not just for Wesleyan but for the future of progressive liberal arts education.