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.

GOLD Parties and a Great Day in NYC

I was in New York yesterday meeting with alumni and parents who are supporting our financial aid program. It was a great day; I am always so inspired by members of our extended family who dig deep to provide scholarship support so that talented students in the future will be able to experience fully the benefits of a Wesleyan education.

Last night there were alumni parties for graduates of the last decade. John Usdan ’80, P’15 sponsored our gathering in Hell’s Kitchen, and we had more than 200 attendees. Ellen Jewett ’80, P’17 very generously agreed to match gifts given last night, and there were lots of credit cards being swiped.

I’ve been president long enough now so that about half of these alums graduated while I’ve been at the helm. It was great to see some familiar faces and to meet new people doing exciting things in New York. There were even a few alumni there who were student members of the search committee that hired me in 2007. Any regrets, we asked one another? None on my side, that’s for sure.

Actors, teachers, financiers, librarians, community organizers and county prosecutors…Wesleyan folks doing it all.


GOLD party in N.Y.C.
GOLD party in N.Y.C.
GOLD party in Denver.
GOLD party in Denver.
GOLD party in Providence.
GOLD party in Providence.

Wesleyan Fundraising Campaign: THIS IS WHY.

This past weekend the Trustees were on campus for our regular winter meeting. This year’s gathering was punctuated by the news that we were launching our fundraising campaign, during which we will aim to raise 400 million dollars. I made a formal announcement of this at a dinner to celebrate Wesleyan volunteers on Friday night, and I was especially excited to share the news that we had already received more than 283 million dollars in gifts and pledges toward our goal. That means we have already raised more money in this effort than in any previous campaign, and I should add that we have already put more than twice as much money into the endowment than we have ever been able to do in a comparable period in the past.

I reflected on the early days of our planning for this campaign, which took place in the spring of 2008. The US economy was trembling on the brink of disaster, and yet we were talking about an ambitious effort to raise hundreds of millions of dollars. I was a brand new president, and I have to admit that I was filled with trepidation. I’ll always remember that John Usdan ’80, P’15, now our campaign chair, leaned over to me and said with a smile that it was just the perfect time to plan to raise money. When the economy began to improve again, he assured me, we would be in the perfect position!

John Usdan, Campaign Chair
John Usdan ’80, P’15, Campaign Chair

We have three priorities in our fundraising efforts. The first is financial aid. We intend to at least double the endowment dollars dedicated to scholarships, raising more than $200 million for financial aid. The second is support for academic programs, with $140 million dedicated to support teaching and research. The third goal will increase the impact of our work beyond the campus, with $60 million to support student efforts to translate what they’ve learned at Wesleyan into engagement with the world. You can read more about these goals and make a gift HERE.

It was fitting that we made this announcement in front of a group of university volunteers. Megan Norris ’83, P’17, who has served this university so well as a trustee and now heads the Alumni Association, joined Board Chair Joshua Boger ’73, P’06, P’09 in speaking about  the powerful role that graduates can play in raising more money for financial aid.

Megan Norris Addressing the Crowd
Megan Norris ’83, P’17 Addressing the Crowd
Joshua Boger at the Podium
Joshua Boger ’73, P’06, P’09 at the Podium

The evening was punctuated by dances from the Wes Precision Dance Troupe.   They even got some of senior staff up on the floor to celebrate.


During the next few years the administration is not going to tell you why we think you should support Wesleyan, but we are going to ask you why you think Wes is a cause worth fighting for. You’ll tell us about opportunities that opened up for you, about friendships that have changed your lives, about teaching that has changed the way you see the world…about why we must continue to work so that Wesleyan can live up to its promise to deliver the best in progressive liberal arts education. We will record your stories and create an archive of your photos. And when you tell us why you support Wesleyan, we will agree: THIS IS WHY.



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!




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!

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.

Thinking of the Extended Wesleyan Family

Over the last 10 days I’ve traveled to Houston, Dallas and Chicago, with teaching and storm preparation on campus in between trips. The travels are opportunities to discuss with parents and alumni what’s been happening on campus, and to continue raising money for our highest priority, financial aid. It’s been good to meet members of the extended Wes family while also reconnecting with old friends. Their generosity and affection for Wesleyan is inspiring.

Among the most inspirational alumni and dearest friends to Wesleyan was John Woodhouse, who passed away earlier this week. John was a member of the class of ’53, a parent ‘79, and a trustee emeritus of Wesleyan.

Two true Cardinals

John served as a member of the Board of Trustees from 1976 through 1979 and again from 1980 through 1992. After retiring from the Board, John chaired the Wesleyan Campaign from 1997 through 2005, meeting with countless alumni all over the world to seek support for Wesleyan. Following the Wesleyan Campaign, John was an active member of the Development Committee (2005-2008) and, most recently, the current Campaign Council (2008-present). In recognition of his loyal service to Wesleyan, John was honored with the Baldwin Medal in 2005. He received the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1993 during his 40th Reunion and he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Wesleyan in 1997.  He will be deeply missed by his family and friends, and all of us fortunate enough to have worked with him.

Over the last few days I’ve been hearing from Wesleyan friends who are still dealing with the aftermath of super storm Sandy. While things on campus have returned to normal, we realize that for many the hardships caused by the storm are very far from over.  Our hearts go out to all those who suffered devastating losses, and we look with admiration on the work being done to restore normalcy in these challenging times.


Fall Plans, Hopes, Hard Work

This past weekend the Wesleyan Board of Trustees was in town for its annual retreat. The Board’s 32 members – plus representatives from students, faculty and staff – discussed two topics in particular: online education and the plans for the fundraising campaign. We spent the first hours of the retreat listening to reports from two of the top officials from the Harvard-MIT-UC Berkeley collaboration: EdX.  They described how the three universities planned to disseminate knowledge through free, open courses and through this venture to better understand online learning and its potential – an understanding they expect to inform the evolution of education on their campuses. We also heard from a partner at McKinsey and Company, who spoke with us in broader terms about the promise and the challenge of online education. He placed online education in the context of the growing demand from around the world for higher education in the United States and also of the growing demand for skilled employees likely to be needed by companies in the coming decades. He had no doubt that online education will grow exponentially to meet those demands.

During the afternoon of our retreat, Professors Michael Weir, Lisa Dierker, Manolis Kaparakis and Eric Charry introduced us to courses that use technology to teach large numbers of students. The trustees had been given homework, freeing up their “class time” for a lot more than just listening to the sage on the stage. Of course, the great majority of classes at Wesleyan are very interactive, and our trustees were reminded (by the performance of our four professors) that no matter how great the use of technology, a great teacher makes all the difference in the world. The strength of our faculty has been and will continue to be key to the power of the Wes experience in the classroom and in research collaborations.

In the second day of the retreat, we discussed plans for our fundraising efforts over the next few years. We are focused on raising endowment funds while maintaining robust annual giving each year. We have already raised over 260 million dollars, and our highest priority in this campaign is financial aid. Recent changes to our budgeting for scholarship only put more emphasis on that priority. Financial aid: Now more than ever.

After the student and faculty representatives left the Board meeting, a group of Wes undergrads concerned about our financial aid policy interrupted the session to make the point that they, too, should be part of that conversation. This interruption could be seen, I suppose, as a sort of prelude to the open forum on financial aid that Wesleying had planned with me for the following day. Monday night we did, in fact, have that conversation, and the students had many good questions about how to mount a sustainable scholarship program that preserves access, enhances diversity, and contributes to the quality of the educational experience on campus. You can watch a recording of the webcast of the hour-long conversation here.

At Wesleyan we have myriad interests and different opinions about liberal arts education now and in the future, but I’m confident that we can all agree on the importance of raising money for scholarships. Financial aid: Now more than ever!

First Day of Summer: The Work Continues

Wandering around campus on this first official day of summer, I see signs of the increased use of our facilities that we have been encouraging these last few years. The Summer Session, now in its third year, has continued to grow, and the students I’ve spoken with are enjoying the small classes and the intense focus. The double-course on filmmaking and film studies seems to be going really well, and I suspect we will be adding resources in this area in the future. Speaking of film, our summer series of free films linked to our archive will begin in a couple of weeks. This year the focus is on some of Paul Newman’s greatest roles, and the line-up (with introductions by Mark Longenecker) is impressive. The series begins on Tuesday, July 10 at 7:30 with Cool Hand Luke, and it continues each Tuesday through July.

Paul Newman - Cool Hand Luke

Heading over to the Exley science center, I am likely to bump into some of the scores of students working in labs. For many years our undergraduates have been able to participate in high-level research and get financial support in the summers for doing so. Much of this support has come from the Hughes Foundation, and we recently learned that we will have to raise our own funds to continue this work in the future. I am working closely with our science faculty and trustees to raise the funds to support mentored summer research. Research support for students is a crucial complement to our financial aid program (about which I am posting more information on the Wesleyan 2020 site).

On the left above is Claire Palmer ’14, and Lisle Winston ’14 and grad student Upasna Sharma are on the right. They were busy working in Scott Holmes’ molecular biology lab when I interrupted them. I also spoke with some students doing exciting work on protein expression and on bacteria from Death Valley and from Slovenia (I didn’t know bacteria had “zip codes”).

Olin Library

I stop in to Olin Library from time to time to pick up books that might prove useful for my own research regarding the development of liberal education in the United States. Olin in summer is an oasis of serenity, as it is (relatively speaking) throughout the school year. Wandering around the stacks, I always find more books than I came looking for. Now all I need to do is find the time to read them! When I leave campus for a break, I will continue my book project on the intellectual history of liberal education in America. The tension between learning for its own sake and learning for practical goals runs like a red thread through the history of American higher education. Rather than try to dissolve that tension, I believe we should cultivate it to generate deeper scholarship and more productive enterprises. The mistake is to think we must choose between liberal learning and an expansive pragmatism.

Summertime is here with intensity today, but the livin’ ain’t easy. The work continues in classrooms, labs, offices and studios.