Commencement 2013 — Tradition, Activism, and Living With Contradiction

Presiding over the Commencement ceremonies is one of my most moving and fulfilling duties. Each year I not only get to congratulate several hundred deserving Wesleyan students and their families, but I also get to soak in speeches from wonderfully interesting honorees. This was a year of many highlights, from Jim Dresser’s reminder of the deep traditions of excellence (and humor) on which we draw still today, to Majora Carter’s reminder that we must continue to struggle against long odds if we are devoted to change that matters. Joss Whedon had me in stitches when he told us gravely that our commonality was based on the fact that we were all going to die. His killer address brought home the importance of living with contradiction, with the energetic ambivalence that we should never try to smother.

I can’t reproduce the honorees remarks here, though soon we will have videos to share. Meanwhile, I humbly present some excerpts of my own remarks to the class of 2013.

During your four years here, Wesleyan has been largely isolated from many of the troubles of this world. While you have been students, the United States has been engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and on this Memorial Day Weekend, I begin by asking us all to take a moment to remember that these wars have cost the lives of thousands of American soldiers and tens of thousands of civilians in those countries.

Economic times have been difficult as well. When you first arrived, in the fall of 2009, the global economy was reeling from the most massive disruption since the Great Depression. Unemployment in this country quickly skyrocketed and is only now slowly receding, while the distance between the very wealthy and the average American has increased enormously. 2009-2013 has been a good time to be in a bubble—even a pretty leaky bubble like our own here on campus.

You have spent four years taking advantage of an education that we believe is devoted to boldness, rigor, and practical idealism, and now as I speak to you for your last time as students here, I’d like to underscore three ideals that I hope you will take with you and make practical in your lives going forward: non-violence; diversity; and equality.

Campus culture is something that students, faculty, and staff create together, and for all the glories of the culture we’ve created here, it has not been immune to violence. Whether the subtle aggressions of institutionalized racism or the trauma of sexual assault, we have witnessed how violence disrupts lives—how it infects our heads and hearts. One of the tragedies of university campuses across this country is that, for all their purported liberalism, they often cater to a culture of privilege in which under-represented groups and women are subjected to forms of violence that preserve social hierarchies as they destroy individual lives. I trust we have learned at Wesleyan how important the aversion to violence is for education. The free inquiry at the core of learning certainly depends on vigorous discussion and debate; it depends on our willingness to take risks and to discover that even our deepest convictions may be mistaken. But learning also requires freedom from the senseless wounding of aggression.

In a land all too prone to pointless violence, I trust that in the future you will work to create non-violent communities that promote creative experimentation, and that you will reject cultural tendencies that subordinate patient inquiry to macho projections of force.

A second ideal I hope you will make practical in your lives after graduation is the value of diversity as anti-conformity. At Wesleyan our commitment to diversity is related to our belief that we have a better chance of developing powerful ideas and practices if we work through a multiplicity of perspectives. We know that homogeneity kills creativity and that diversity is a powerful hedge against the “rationalized conformity” of groupthink. Productively connecting things that had not previously been brought together is very much in the Wesleyan spirit. For example, think of your experience with Wescam these last few weeks Of course, not all combinations will be productive—some creative experiments fail. But without divergent thinking we will be more likely to fall into patterns of enforced conformity that undermine our potential for the future.

You are beginning your post-collegiate years at a time when the phrase “potential for the future” points to something extremely fragile for many young people in this country. This brings me to the third ideal: equality. I trust you have experienced a spirit of egalitarianism here at Wesleyan—a spirit that celebrates great performance rather than great privilege. But while you have been in college, the privileged have become more and more powerful across this land. And this may well continue as entrenched elites forge better and better tools to protect their advantages. Access to a real education is the best antidote to the unnatural aristocracy of wealth. Education creates opportunity, allowing for the experience of freedom as one’s capacities are enhanced and brought into use. Access to education has never been more important, and that’s why I pledge to you today that as long as I am president, financial aid will remain my highest fundraising priority.

Wesleyan will remain a place where students from diverse backgrounds come to rely on themselves, their neighbors and teachers in a context of non-violent egalitarianism and community. Having made this education your own, I am confident that you will resist the trends of inequality that are tearing at the fabric of our country.

Non-violence, diversity and equality…these are ideals shared by generations of Wesleyan alumni. As I say each year, we Wesleyans have used our education to mold the course of culture ourselves lest the future be shaped by those for whom creativity and change, freedom and equality, diversity and tolerance, are much too threatening. Now we alumni are counting on you, class of 2013, to join us in helping to shape our culture, so that it will not be shaped by the forces of violence, conformity and elitism.

We are counting on you because we have already seen what you are capable of when you have the freedom and the tools, the mentors and the friendship, the insight and the affection to go beyond what others have defined as your limits. What you can do fills me with hope, fills me with confidence in the potential of education. I know that you will find new ways to build community, to experience the arts, to join personal authenticity with compassionate solidarity. When this happens, you will feel the power and promise of your education. And we, your Wesleyan family, we will be proud of how you keep your education alive by making it effective in the world.

My dear friends and colleagues, four years ago we met while unloading cars together here on Andrus field. Later that day, many of your family members sat teary-eyed in the chapel as we spoke about how they would be leaving you “on your own” at Wesleyan. It seems like such a short time ago. Now it’s you who are leaving, but do remember that no matter how “on your own” you feel yourselves to be, you will always be members of the Wesleyan family. Wherever your exciting pursuits take you, please come home to alma mater often to share your news, your memories and your dreams. Thank you and good luck!



How to Choose a (Our) University

WesFest is over, and in the next ten days all those folks who are fortunate enough to have choices about what college to attend will make a big decision: choosing 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? I thought it might be useful to re-post my thoughts on this, 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.

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 came to Wesleyan last week for WesFest. They went to classes and athletic contests, musical performances and parties. And they asked 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:


We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into (even more difficult this year!). 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 whole country seems to be in a debate about MOOCs, massive on-line classes in which many thousands of students enroll. At Wes most of our classes are small, but we are also the only liberal arts college currently offering several MOOCS. While the Homerathon was taking place on campus these last few days, thousands of students around the world were listening to Andy Szegedy-Maszak’s lectures on Greek History. Lisa Dierker’s statistics class, to take another example, is being used in graduate programs and businesses, with students enrolling from all over the world. Here in Middletown, Prof. Dierker’s students are working to improve local schools with the lessons they learn from analyzing the district’s data. Good teaching all around. Effective scholarship that makes a difference in the world and right here on campus.

The commitment of our faculty says a lot about who we are, as does the camaraderie around the completion of senior projects that we’ve seen these past weeks. 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.

Conformity, Education, Diversity

I am just on my way back from Pennsylvania State University, where I gave a lecture on liberal education as the kick-off to a conference on the University and Society. My host was Matt Jordan a former graduate student of mine who is now an associate professor in Communications and an active participant in the Social Thought Program. As I was preparing to return home to Middletown, I posted the following on the HuffingtonPost.

As we marked the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war, over the last month many stories emphasized the false pretenses under which we entered the conflict, the surprising rapidity with which American armed forces deposed Saddam Hussein’s regime, and our extraordinary lack of preparation for the ensuing conflicts among Iraqi groups. Commentators used the idea of “groupthink” to describe the enormous enthusiasm for war in the spring of 2003 and how many in the political class went along with the invasion.

We must be wary of attributing too much power to “groupthink” for what came to seem like an inevitable United States attack on Iraq. After all, there is a good case to be made that many knew that they were simply disseminating false information in order to create a quasi-legal basis for war. These folks weren’t swept along by unconscious conformity with a group. They were lying to the American people and the rest of the world about the threat posed by Saddam’s regime.

We must also be wary of the retrospective notion that there was a universal desire for military action 10 years ago. From January through the summer of 2003, many thousands of people across the country participated in organized protests against the rush to war, and more than a million protestors hit the streets in Europe. On February 19 President Bush was quoted as saying, in his inimitable style: “Size of protest — it’s like deciding, well, I’m going to decide policy based upon a focus group. … The role of a leader is to decide policy based upon the security, in this case, the security of the people.” No focus groups or groupthink for him! We remember that for this president, thinking meant listening to your gut. And he wasn’t about to hear any outsiders’ perspectives that might get in the way of him hearing himself.

But soon after the war began, it became clear that groupthink had in fact played some role in the government’s (and the press’) eagerness for military conflict. Although incompetence and dishonesty were part of these war preparations, the quasi-automatic process of “groupthink” unconsciously swept many along into conformity with “expert” opinion.

William Safire discussed this in his “On Language” column in the summer of 2004, pointing back to William H. Whyte Jr’s coinage of the term “groupthink” in a 1952 Fortune magazine article. Whyte, the author of The Organization Man, bemoaned the “rationalized conformity” that had become a “national philosophy.” He was pointing to orthodoxy that is justified through conventions deemed efficient, right and good. Twenty years later, Irving Janis published Victims of Groupthink, in which he explored how cohesive groups create pressures so that “the members’ striving for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”

You can see the vicious circle: the more cohesion, the more pressure toward “rationalized conformity.” The more conformity, the more cohesion. Outsiders, and ideas from the outside, are not welcome. Everybody hears the same one-note chorus.

Meanwhile, in the same year in which the Iraq war began, the Supreme Court upheld affirmative action policies within a holistic admissions process. In 2003 the court recognized that maintaining diverse student bodies served an educational interest. Sometime in the next several weeks the court will issue its decision on Fisher v. University of Texas, and then on Michigan’s Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, the latest challenges to 2003 ruling. Many are expecting judgments that sharply reduce a university’s ability to take race into account as it tries to create a diverse campus culture.

Educators are rightly concerned that this will lead to more homogeneous student bodies. We are concerned not because of a shared political commitment, but because we know that homogeneity kills creativity. We know that diversity is a powerful hedge against the “rationalized conformity” of groupthink.

We have learned that when conformity is rationalized it becomes a powerful enemy of democracy. It is also a powerful enemy of learning. Inquiry, especially at the highest levels, depends on challenges to convention, as American writers on education have known from Jefferson to Emerson, from du Bois to Addams, from Dewey to Ravitch. Since the late 1960s many universities steered away from cultivated homogeneity and toward creating campus communities in which people can learn from their differences while still finding their commonalities. This means working in teams with folks from different backgrounds while developing shared loyalty to the school’s mission.

Alas, American universities have at times produced their own bizarre forms of conformity, even under the guise of celebrating difference. Partisan visions of social change are taken by some to have the status of established social science, and campus clubbiness can mean enforced homogeneity of political opinion. A colleague of mine was shocked when I raised this point with him about the leftist assumptions of many college classes. What did I mean, he asked, citing several schools offering classes that explored an impressive variety of radical movements.

As educators, we must fight conformity by subjecting it to scrutiny from a variety of perspectives. Without the push to explore alternative possibilities, we are more likely to miss potential opportunities, even rush headlong into catastrophes. Diversity of background, of values and of methods are all assets in developing iterative cross-pollination — ongoing inquiry that productively connects things that had not previously been brought together. Of course, not all combinations will be productive — some creative experiments fail. But without divergent thinking we will be more likely to fall into patterns of rationalized conformity that undermine research and teaching.

Conformity, whether rationalized or simply imposed, undermines our government, our press, and our educational systems. We have had to learn some hard lessons about this over the last 10 years. Surely one of them is that we must defend diversity as a tool for innovation and for responsible decision-making.

Diversity Forum Update

Many members of our community are working to make our campus more inclusive by focusing on three priorities we identified after the fall student forum, Diversity University: In Theory and In Practice. The priorities are: (1) improving interactions between Public Safety and students, (2) increasing the scope and intensity of the Making Excellence Inclusive program on campus, and (3) enhancing town-gown connections to increase opportunities for positive interactions between the campus and the city.

Dean Rick Culliton is overseeing a Public Safety Review Committee, composed of students, staff, and faculty members. The committee’s charge is to work with the director of Public Safety to address concerns raised by students last fall. The committee has recommended that Public Safety modify campus safety alerts to provide descriptions of suspects without using race as a descriptor, and Public Safety has adopted this practice. The committee continues to review the department’s policies and protocols, web presence, and schedule of trainings. Ensuring that there is a clear path for reporting concerns to the department is important. The committee also will serve as a liaison for an external review by Margolis Healy and Associates, a leading campus law enforcement consulting firm. The consultants will meet with students, faculty and staff on April 30 and May 1 to conduct a complete assessment of the Office of Public Safety.

Vice-President and Chief-Diversity-Officer Sonia Mañjon has been leading our work on the intensification of MEI. Faculty, staff, and students will receive a Campus Climate Survey on Monday, March 25, and I urge you to respond to this important document. One of the recommendations that has emerged from our MEI discussions already has been to pursue faculty and staff diversity more energetically, seizing opportunities to hire members of groups under-represented on campus. We have been doing so and are encouraged by the results. The Making Excellence Inclusive task force and the WSA committee on Diversity and Inclusion are expected to make recommendations with regard to MEI goals based on discussions with students, faculty and staff.

To address our third priority, improving town-gown relations, we have held a variety of meetings with local stakeholders in education, community enhancement and economic development. Vice-President John Meerts has been meeting with groups on-and off-campus, and we continue to explore ways to be a better institutional citizen and neighbor.

The next Diversity University Forum will be held on April 24, and will focus on diversity in the curriculum. Our work to build a more inclusive and caring community will continue with new student orientation in the fall of 2013, which will be devoted to “Diversity and Inclusion.” The Board of Trustees will focus its fall retreat on discussing diversity on campus.

Recognizing that building an inclusive campus culture is a work-in-process, Wesleyan remains committed to creating, as our mission statement puts it, a “diverse, energetic community of students, faculty, and staff who think critically and creatively and who value independence of mind and generosity of spirit.”


Steps Toward Inclusive Excellence: Campus Climate Survey

Our Chief Diversity Officer, Sonia Mañjon, has arranged for students, faculty and staff to receive a survey today that will bring together information about the climate of diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus.

Results from the survey will also help to inform next steps for Making Excellence Inclusive. The surveys are voluntary and anonymous, with results presented in aggregate form. We will not report any data for groups of fewer than five individuals that may be small enough to compromise identity.

For students, we are using the Diverse Learning Environments (DLE) Survey hosted by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA. It asks about students’ perceptions of the climate on campus, of academic work, of interaction with faculty and peers, of participation in campus activities, and of the use of campus services. Students will receive an email explaining the survey with a link so that they can complete it quickly.

For faculty and staff we have developed a survey to better understand perceptions of community, career development, access to resources, and to collect general feedback on the culture of the institution. Staff and faculty will receive an email that explains the survey with a survey link.

I hope that many will take the time to complete these surveys. The data we collect will help us in our work to cultivate a campus culture in which everyone can flourish.

Diversity Conversations and Programs Continue

Today I had lunch with a group of students whom our chief diversity officer Sonia Mañjon invited to my office for sandwiches and conversation. I learned a lot from the students’ candid comments about some of the barriers to inclusion that still exist on campus. We spoke about ways in which students can sometimes feel a lack of respect in the classroom, and how they can feel that the campus climate might prevent those from under-represented groups from getting the most out of their Wesleyan experience. We talked about ways of improving our recruiting and retention of students in the sciences, and I also heard about a plan to recognize those on campus who go the extra mile to help others succeed at Wesleyan. This was just one in a series of conversations I will have with student groups. These will help us develop policies to make our university a more equitable and welcoming place for all.

Developing a campus climate that makes excellence inclusive is the subject of our MLK celebration tomorrow, Friday, February 1. “Diversity University: From Theory to Practice,” is the theme of this year’s daylong commemoration.

Diversity University: Moving from Theory to Practice

Friday, February 1, 2013

Schedule of Events

10 a.m. – 12 noon: Session Block I
1 p.m. – 3 p.m: Session Block II

Film Screening & Discussion: Cracking the Code: The system of Racial Inequity
Facilitators: Dr. Shakti Butler & Dr. Sonia Mañjon
Location: Usdan 108 (Session I); PAC 001 (Session II)

 Film Screening & Discussion: Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible
Facilitator: Professor Sarah Mahurin & Professor Lois Brown
Location: Usdan Multi-Purpose Room (Session I); PAC 002 (Session II)

Exploring Privilege by Examining Socialization
The messages we grew up with have implications for how we perceive ourselves and others. The power and privilege associated with our group identities often account for how we experience life. By reviewing the Cycle of Socialization and taking the Privilege Walk it will illuminate dynamics that impact the situations we find ourselves in on Wesleyan’s campus.
Facilitators: Tanya Bowers & WesDEF’s
Location: Fayerweather 106 – Theater Rehearsal Room (Session I & II)

Inside-Out & Outside-In: A Creative Identity & Ally Workshop
This workshop will use the arts to explore the perception and reality of our own identities. The impact of examining what we perceive from others and who we really are will inform an understanding of our own bias. We will then use that information to explore key concepts in allyship.
Facilitators: Elisa Cardona & Joanne Rafferty
Location: Usdan 110 (Session I & II)

I’m especially looking forward to the keynote address. You can learn more about the programs here.


3:15pm, Memorial Chapel

Keynote Address by:

Dr. Shakti Butler


Diversity Forum Update

A month ago, following on the student forum Diversity University: In Theory and In Practice, I proposed to our community three priorities on which to focus for making our campus culture more inclusive. As you may remember, the priorities are: (1) improving interactions between Public Safety and students, (2) increasing the scope and intensity of the Making Excellence Inclusive program on campus, and (3) enhancing town-gown connections to increase opportunities for positive interactions between the campus and the city. Feedback over the past weeks confirms that these priorities are on the right track, and I have been especially gratified to see that those who responded expressed willingness to help with their time and effort as well as their words.

I also received a number of initial recommendations from the Committee for Inclusion and Diversity, a subcommittee of the Community Outreach Committee of the WSA; these recommendations emphasize social justice training and increased resources in academic and administrative areas that facilitate deeper understanding of social justice issues. The committee plans to continue developing its recommendations and to publish them independently next semester. I also take note of the groundswell of support among faculty for better understanding of such issues as sexual harassment and hurtful behavior stemming from insensitivity to differences based upon race and socio-economic background. Faculty, students, and the administration are all moving forward, if sometimes on separate tracks, to make our campus more inclusive.

Next steps for the administration with regards to the three priorities above include:

(1)   Public Safety:  Reconstitute and review PSAFE advisory committee; review alert protocols so to avoid giving the impression of targeting any particular group; engage outside consultants to conduct a comprehensive review of the department.

(2)   Making Excellence Inclusive: Conduct Campus Climate survey; make Diversity the theme of new-student orientation; reinforce focus of Vice President for Institutional Partnerships and Chief Diversity Officer on campus culture; continue (and track) MEI  training; focus on pipeline issues (McNair, Mellon, Upward Bound).

(3)   Town-Gown: The Vice President for Finance and Administration will convene a committee to look at opportunities to increase positive interactions between campus and the city.

As I indicated two weeks ago, I will give a report on the progress we make in these areas just after spring break, and then we can schedule another forum to discuss what has (and has not) been accomplished. The desire to build a more inclusive and caring community here at Wesleyan is sincere, and we will now take positive steps to do just that.


Conversations, Consultation and Feeling Thankful

This past weekend, the Board of Trustees was in town for its annual November meeting. Some trustees arrived Thursday to attend classes, and in the evening they met with a group of faculty over dinner to discuss skill building and career preparation. I had the pleasure of seeing a group of inspired students and Rinde Eckert in the Theater Department’s production of The Last Days of the Old Wild Boy. I went with Kari, who had been in conversation with Rinde about the human/animal distinction for the last several months. It was an extraordinary evening, the product of great teamwork, extensive preparation, and intense performance. I was so thankful to be there and to be part of a university where this kind of work takes place.

On Friday morning, a group of women on the faculty got together with the women on the Board of Trustees. I’m told that they had very productive conversations about the challenges facing women on our campus, and that they will continue to try to find ways to make our campus a place of true gender equality. During the day on Friday, trustees, along with faculty and student representatives to the Board, worked in committees on topics ranging from energy to the honor code, from fundraising for financial aid to the use of online courses to expand the reach of our educational mission. At the end of the afternoon, several board members met in an open meeting with a few dozen students to discuss financial aid. There were good questions raised, I thought, that clarified many of the issues we’ve been discussing since February. Over dinner that night, we celebrated newly elected trustees emeriti, and student, faculty and staff accomplishments. It was a joyful evening. Reading through the remarkable work that students were doing, I felt thankful that Wesleyan continues to attract and nurture such talent.

The Board concluded its work on Saturday, and we spent a good deal of time talking about the issues that had arisen at last week’s forum on diversity. We didn’t come up with a magical solution, but there was a commitment to continue to make our campus more inclusive. I headed to the gym with Sophie to get a little exercise, and then to watch the men’s basketball team (led by Derick Beresford ’13) win the Herb Kenny Tournament in convincing fashion. Dreisen Heath ’15 powered the women’s basketball team to a big win at St. Joseph’s tip-off tournament. The men host Williams tonight (Tuesday).

On Sunday evening, I was able to attend the first half of the African Students Association’s fall presentation. There were stirring performances of poetry, drumming, music and dance. I also learned a lot from the presentations. I left to attend the WSA meeting to go over our Board of Trustees discussions with the students gathered there for their weekly meeting. The student representatives spent hours (after I left) discussing key issues facing the university. We should all be thankful for their efforts.

My final meeting Sunday night was with more than 70 high school juniors and their alumni, staff and faculty parents, who are beginning the college search process. I could see the anxiety in some faces, and in some the hopeful anticipation of young people ready to begin a new stage in their lives. I extolled the virtues of liberal arts education today, and I emphasized that in our changing economy and culture this form of learning is more relevant than ever before. Looking around the room and thinking about my interaction with students over the last several days, I told the high school students that I hoped they would find a campus community where they were able to thrive, NOT because they were with people like themselves, but because they were in a diverse, dynamic and affectionate community from which they could learn. When they found such a community, I concluded, they would be very thankful. I know I am.

There will be plenty of work to do when we come back from break. For now, Happy Thanksgiving, Wesleyans!

Last Night’s Forum: Diversity University, In Theory and In Practice

Last night’s forum, Diversity University: In Theory and In Practice, was an intense, disturbing and enlightening experience for me, as I imagine it was for many others. I want to thank everyone who attended, and I especially want to thank the student organizers, the panel participants, and all those students who showed the courage to share their stories about their Wesleyan experiences. The emotional honesty and thoughtfulness I witnessed gives me hope that together we can create a more inclusive, supportive and inspiring campus culture.

Last night’s forum follows on the heels of campus discussions among a variety of student groups, the WSA, and participants in Making Excellence Inclusive (MEI). There are two other general forums planned in the near term: the first, on November 20th from 6-7pm, will be with the WSA Committee on Inclusion and Diversity.  The second, The Barriers that Inhibit Productive Dialogue About Race at Wesleyan, will be coordinated by Invisible Men, Asian American Student Collective, Ujamaa, and the WSA Committee for Inclusion and Diversity and moderated by Amy Tang and Lois Brown.

Between now and the end of the Thanksgiving, we will follow up on specific student issues raised last night, and we will develop a list of the most important policies on which we should be working. As I mentioned at the forum, I will send a draft list of the issues at the end of the month. Once I receive feedback on those priorities, I will assign staff to work with students and faculty on making progress in each area. Just after spring break I will give a progress report to the campus community, and then we can schedule another student forum to discuss what has (and has not) been accomplished.

It was difficult last night to realize that we have fallen short, and that I have fallen short, of my aspirations for making Wesleyan an inclusive campus for progressive liberal arts education. But it was good to be reminded of those shared aspirations. It was difficult (terribly difficult) to hear the accounts of disappointment, anger and pain. But it was good to see the solidarity and affection of members of our community as they reached out to comfort one another — with snapping fingers, with applause, with hugs. We will build on those aspirations and on the affectionate bonds that connect us as we work together to make Wesleyan an institution that values diversity in theory and in practice.


Moving Our Campus Community Forward

Today I emailed the following message to Wesleyan students:

As I sat nervously watching election returns Tuesday night, I wondered how the country would digest the outcome, whatever it turned out to be. This election cycle has been so bitter and brutish, would representatives be able to work together to get things done? Would we find ways to tackle the important problems that we all know are undermining our economy and our culture?

In his victory speech, President Obama evoked the spirit of service that he also spoke about in his Wesleyan Address at Commencement in 2008. He talked about the sacrifices that people make for one another in tough times, and about the shared hope for a better future that he believed would overcome our differences. “The task,” he said, “of perfecting our union moves forward.”

At Wesleyan this year we have seen our fair share of differences on issues ranging from teaching loads for visiting professors to the possibilities of building a small cogeneration plant for backup power in the event of emergencies. The most important issue that has sowed divisions has been our decision to allocate a defined amount of the budget for financial aid, which we expect will mean we are “need-blind” for about 90% of the entering class. I think this will allow us to meet the full needs of the students who are here, preserve diversity, and keep our debt levels low while restraining future tuition increases. Others think we are abandoning not just a technique for achieving diversity but a key principle. We have our differences.

We have been discussing these issues with students, faculty, alumni and staff, even as we try to raise more funds for financial aid. For the first time in its history, Wesleyan is entering a fundraising campaign whose highest priority is endowment for financial aid. I have been traveling around the country seeking support for this campaign, and alumni and parents have been responding with great generosity. Last year we secured more than 60 million dollars in gifts and pledges, and we are keeping up that pace this year. I believe that supporting financial aid is more important now than ever, and on this, I think, we agree.

Debates about financial aid have exposed divisions within our campus community. To ensure a sustainable economic model, some think we should raise tuition more aggressively, others think we should lay off staff or faculty, while others want to cut programs they deem less important to the student experience. I’ve been listening to and participating in these debates, and I’ll continue to do so. We have significant financial resources, and we have enormous talent on this campus. We will continue to energize Wesleyan’s distinctive educational experience while working within a sustainable economic model. We have our differences, but what unites us is far more important.

In a far uglier vein, recently some have tried to exploit or create divisions in our campus community by appealing to racism and hatred. In anonymous posts on websites known for their vulgarity, homophobia and misogyny, there have been racist comments posted about Wes students and Middletown residents. They are hurtful to students of color and to all who value diversity and inclusion.  I have not spoken out on this until now because I think such comments are beneath contempt.

Students have also raised concerns about recent campus security alerts that used racial identifications in describing alleged perpetrators. Were these more hurtful than useful? I have also heard complaints from students of color who feel marginalized or intimidated by certain aspects of our campus culture. We must make diversity meaningful on campus by creating a culture of inclusion. There is work to do.

On Monday night in Beckham Hall at 7:30 pm students have organized a forum to discuss issues of race and inclusion on campus. Sonia Manjon will moderate a panel on which I will participate with student and Public Safety representatives. I hope there will be a good turnout so that we can have a frank conversation about how we can create a campus climate in which all are treated with respect. More than that, we want a campus that builds on acceptance, creating bonds of affectionate solidarity.

The project of building this community is ongoing, and I am eager to help lead it. I want students to know that I am available to meet with any group, formal or informal. I have regular office hours on Monday afternoons, and scheduled sessions with the WSA, and Argus editors during the semester. I frequently meet with student groups at various times throughout the week. The open forums I’ve held with students have been candid exchanges, and I’ve learned much from them. I’m happy to hold additional meetings of that kind. I am eager to hear your views and find ways to join forces to enable our school live up to our aspirations for it.

I am continually inspired by the talent, energy and purpose of Wesleyan students – on stage, in athletic competitions, in classrooms, studios and research labs. We are not, to paraphrase President Obama, as divided as our politics sometime suggest. We are brought together in shared hope to ensure that Wesleyan will be a champion of progressive liberal arts education for generations to come. Together, we will move our campus community forward.