Veterans Day

For many years now, veterans have enrolled at Wesleyan or worked here as faculty and staff. Since the fall of 2014, we have cooperated with the Posse Foundation to bring cohorts of 10 undergraduate veterans to Wes each year. Here is the latest group:

Posse Class of 2020
Posse Class of 2020

You can learn more about the program here and here. Some of our Wesleyan undergraduate veterans are featured in this video:

Tomorrow we will have a “salute to service” just before our final football game of the year. Today is Veterans Day, and I ask that we pause and remember the men and women who have served our nation in uniform. They are family members, neighbors, friends, faculty, staff, alumni, and students. They deserve our acknowledgment and our gratitude.

Honoring Veterans, Thinking Peace

Every year I attend the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce breakfast to honor military veterans. This morning we began the event with bagpipes from a Middletown group, and we ended with taps. There were hundreds in attendance, many wearing insignia for the branch of the armed forces in which they served, or the VFW post with which they are now affiliated. Some Wesleyan students were in attendance, including members of our Posse group.

Middletown Pipes and Drums
Middletown Pipes and Drums

Tuesday, November 11 is Veteran’s Day.  I ask you to take a moment to reflect on the sacrifices of those who’ve put on the uniform and of their families. The Middletown Council of Veterans and City of Middletown invite everyone to come together on the northern edge of campus, on Veteran’s Green just off Washington Street at 11:00am where a Veterans Day Ceremony will take place.

Veteran’s Day is celebrated in many countries in the West as Armistice Day, marking the end of the brutal fighting of World War I. So this is also a day to think about peace, how we achieve it, preserve it, and whose responsibility it is to defend it.

Veterans often think very seriously about peace, and also about healing. It’s the healing part that is at the core of Rev. Tracy Mehr-Muska’s efforts to bring a broad spectrum of the Wesleyan Interfaith student group to the Veteran’s Home retirement community in Rocky Hill. Here’s a photo of a recent visit, with two members of our Posse Group holding the flag.


Wes folks visit Veterans' Retirement Home
Wes folks visit Veterans’ Retirement Home

Honor Veterans. Think Peace.


Welcome Back!

It’s great to see students back on campus despite the bad weather, and I’m looking forward to the start of classes – as I always do! The cold over these next days will doubtless provide an encouragement to stay indoors and get a good start on the kind of highly productive work that distinguishes faculty and students at Wesleyan.  🙂

Over the break the Wes community has surely done some celebrating, but faculty have also been preparing their classes, doing their research, and working on various educational projects. I’d like to extend a special thanks to those faculty who have been spending some time on camera to help us prepare our new Coursera class: How to Change the World.

Some students got an early start to the semester with our Winter Session and Winter on Wyllys programs. The interest shown by students augurs well for the future of these programs. And of course many of our athletes have been here competing vigorously.

Great teaching makes Wesleyan the outstanding liberal arts institution that it is, and in that regard I’m so pleased to announce that Quiara Alegría Hudes, a Pulitzer Prize recipient, will be the new Shapiro Distinguished Professor of Writing and Theater for three years beginning in the fall of 2014. Quiara served as a visiting playwright in 2012, and I have no doubt those of you who met her then will share my excitement about the return of this gifted artist. Also, noted New York Times film critic A.O. Scott will be teaching this semester in our brand-new College of Film and the Moving Image, a marvelous opportunity for the students selected for his criticism class.

Last week I joined leaders from 100 universities and 40 nonprofit groups at the White House to discuss improving access to higher education. There is no greater challenge facing higher education because research has shown that far too many highly capable students from lower-income families are not enrolling in selective universities and colleges. It’s essential that we do a better job of finding and enrolling these students if we’re going to make progress in addressing the growing economic divide in this country.

Wesleyan will do its part. We are committed to increasing the number of QuestBridge scholars on campus – low-income and first-generation students who receive full scholarships.

We will work to expand efforts to retain students from under-represented groups in STEM fields, including development of a summer bridge program and more introductory science courses revamped to support retention, as successfully demonstrated by the biology department. We’ve also partnered with the Posse Foundation to enroll 10 military veterans each year, and last week I celebrated with our first “posse” in New York. These students will join the class of 2018 in September, adding to the rich diversity of our student body.

As the new semester begins, Wesleyan renews its commitment to boldness, rigor, and practical idealism.  Welcome back!

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.

Welcoming Veterans as Part of Class of 2018

On Tuesday evening I attended the ceremony honoring the cohort of veterans who have been selected to begin their education at Wesleyan in the fall. With this group, we join with the Posse Foundation and Vassar College in expanding educational opportunities for the men and women who have served in the armed forces since 9/11. We plan on accepting groups of ten veterans through this process each year.

The Posse Foundation’s philosophy is to provide educational opportunities to students from under-represented groups who support and inspire one another in strong cohorts. The 10 Early Decision students have served in Iraq, Afghanistan and here in the United States. They have this in common: a strong desire to support one another as they pursue a broad, engaged liberal education at Wesleyan. Having already gone through a rigorous selection process, they seemed very much ready to join our campus community. I know they will make important contributions to it as they interact with students, faculty and staff.


This year we have also decided to increase the number of Questbridge scholars in the class of 2018. Questbridge Scholars add significantly to our diversity as they enliven our classrooms, stages and playing fields. At Wesleyan we don’t have unlimited resources for scholarships, but thanks to generous donors at all levels, we can use our scholarships to make a profound difference in the lives of individual students and in the character of our community. I’m very grateful for the contributions we’ve received that make these and other financial aid initiatives possible at Wesleyan.

This week I will be attending meetings on college access at the White House. I hope to learn about more ways that we can leverage our resources to create new opportunities for low and middle income families.  While we raise money for financial aid endowment, we are already finding ways to offer enhanced scholarships within a sustainable economic model. This will mean keeping our tuition increases in line with inflation, and maintaining financial aid as a fundraising priority. The THIS IS WHY campaign has already raised more than $300 million, the majority of those funds going to the endowment. This will enable the university to become less dependent on tuition, so that we can truly disregard the financial capacity of applicants and meet full demonstrated need without requiring excessive loans.

At the end of the festivities with Posse, our new members of the class of ’18 joined me in a boisterous GO WES!! I can hardly wait to welcome them to campus.


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!

“Preach a Crusade Against Ignorance”

On a slow Sunday morning browsing through the paper, I came across Nicholas Kristof’s column describing what he calls “our broken escalator.” He is referring to our education system, what has been for so many of us the moving stairway of social mobility. He details the ways that his own beloved high school is being slowly eviscerated by budget cuts. More than 80% of school districts across the US are going to cut their budgets this year, and three quarters of them made cuts last year. “The immediate losers are the students,” Kristof writes, “in the long run, the loser is our country.”

These thoughts echoed with what I’ve been reading lately about education programs at the very beginning of our country’s history. I am spending a good part of the summer doing research for a book about why liberal education matters. Recently I’ve been reading Thomas Jefferson, and also some of his contemporaries. The political importance of education has rarely found as powerful a proponent as Jefferson, one of whose proudest achievements was founding the University of Virginia on a model of liberal learning that is ultimately practical. His friend and political rival John Adams was also a stalwart proponent of the importance of an educated citizenry. At the dawn of the Republic Adams, too, knew that only through education could citizens ensure that their government would remain responsive to their needs. As he wrote to Jefferson: “Wherever a general knowledge and sensibility have prevailed among the people… arbitrary government and every kind of oppression have lessened and disappeared in proportion.”

Jefferson was a man of the Enlightenment, and for him this meant faith that the accumulation of knowledge would improve public and private life. His conception of “useful knowledge” was capacious — extending from an array of languages to mathematics, sciences and history. He wrote: “education generates habits of application, of order, and the love of virtue; and controls, by the force of habit, any innate obliquities in our moral organization.” The experience of undergraduates, as we all know, doesn’t at all points stimulate the habits of moral organization that the author of the Declaration of Independence had in mind. But don’t we still hope that our students acquire a love of virtue, even as they discover through hard work and sociability just what “love” and “virtue” might mean?

Of course, we have grown accustomed to criticizing problematic aspects of the Enlightenment worldview of our nation’s founders. Jefferson’s hypocrisy is legendary; his insight into structures of oppression didn’t disturb his own personal tyrannies. If our third president understood that education was inexorably linked to the possibility of freedom, his racism and sexism led him to think that women, Africans or native peoples should not enjoy that possibility.

But this summer, as I listen to the partisan haggling over the debt ceiling in Washington while the epidemic of unemployment rages on, and as I hear about school districts and university systems across the country slashing budgets and cutting back on educational programs, I read Jefferson with renewed energy and engagement. As representatives in 2011 labor to preserve the tax advantages of multi-millionaires, I admire how Jefferson recognized that a sure way to preserve the privileges of wealth is to curtail educational opportunity for those without them. In his proposal for public education in Virginia, he advocated a system for discovering youngsters with talent who would benefit from scholarships so that they could pursue their studies and serve the public at the highest level. His proposed that “Worth and genius would thus have been sought out from every condition of life, and completely prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth and birth for public trusts.” In our own time, with school districts shortening their academic calendars to save money and universities struggling to replace financial aid support once provided by government, we are undermining the hope for change and improvement that is so essential to both learning and democracy. What will become of this nation if it turns its back on the promise of education as a vehicle for social and economic mobility?

At many of the highly selective universities that have the benefit of alumni support and endowment funds, we aggressively look for “worth and genius” in all areas of the country so as to create a diverse cohort of students who will stimulate learning for and from one another. Through programs like QuestBridge or Posse Posse, and with many community-based organizations as partners, we find young men and women who can thrive in and contribute to our campus communities. We do this not out of some imagined commitment to “political correctness,” as critics of higher-ed like to complain, but so that every student (rich or poor, private, public or home-schooled) has the opportunity to expand his or her horizons. And we do this, to paraphrase Jefferson, because education should be the keystone of the arch of our nation.

As the morning wore on, I left the newspaper in the kitchen and headed out to our town’s local Sunday softball game. It’s a great community event, with kids, parents and grandparents joining in our version of the American pastime. Waiting our turn at bat, two neighbors talked with me about how the local towns had balanced their budgets this year. Guess what had to be cut in order to balance the books? Education turned out to be the easiest target. My neighbors shook their heads in sadness because, as they said, the towns balanced the books at the expense of the future. Students lose now; in the long run our region will suffer.

As we wrestle with notions of “shared sacrifice” and “living within our means,” let us not ignore our responsibility to invest in the future by supporting education. We must not allow our representatives to protect tax breaks for the most advantaged while ignoring our responsibility to give the next generation the education they need. Only education will allow the youngsters on that baseball diamond and at others across the country to protect their freedoms while competing in the world. Only by supporting their right to learn, will we have the chance to strengthen our country’s economic, political and cultural future. As Jefferson said: “Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people.” “No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness.”

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