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.


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!

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!



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.

Veterans Day and Open House

It’s Veterans Day, and at Wesleyan that will mean many visitors flocking to campus to check out the university. High School juniors and seniors, transfer students and their families will be coming to Middletown to check out the distinctive constellation of qualities that make our school so special. I know our students, faculty and staff are ready to share their thoughts on what it means to be a Wes student today, or simply to show visitors where to get a good sandwich or the best cup of coffee.

This should also be a day when we remember the service of our veterans — the men and women who have defended the freedoms that the rest of us often take for granted. It is especially important to acknowledge this service while we are mired in an unpopular (and often invisible) war. At Wesleyan we are fortunate to have alumni who have created a scholarship for returning veterans, and we hope to be able to attract more applications from those who have served. At our Open House today I will be joined by two of our current veteran scholarship recipients, and it will be an honor to stand beside them to represent Wesleyan.

Thousands of our alumni and parents have been checking out reports of our election day celebrations on campus last week. Let’s also remember that the service of our vets have made it possible for us to have elections and to celebrate in peace.

[tags] Veteran’s Day, prospective students, alumni, veteran scholarship, Open House, election day, celebration [/tags]

Questions and Conversations: Past and Present

Yesterday I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Cecilia Miller’s class on European Intellectual History from the Ancient Greeks through the Renaissance. Professor Miller asked me to talk about how I became an intellectual historian myself, and the students (ranging from frosh through senior theses writers) read a few of my essays on history and memory. As I spoke with the students about my scholarly interests, I kept coming back to my own undergraduate Wesleyan education. My first book (Psychoanalysis as History: Negation and Freedom in Freud) was based on my senior thesis here, and my second book (Knowing and History: Appropriations of Hegel in 20th Century France) certainly came out of the work I did at Wesleyan on Hegel. My subsequent research and publications also were linked to the intellectual and political concerns that I began to develop at Wesleyan. My autobiographical reflections as an intellectual historian turned out to be reflections on the education we offer here.

The students in Prof. Miller’s class were awfully impressive. They asked good, probing questions about the links among my works, and about some central concepts I use (but perhaps don’t develop adequately!). I realized that I should have left more time for discussion because these were very able young men and women who had read some of my work with important critical insights. For example, in my introduction to a book called The Ironist’s Cage: Memory, Trauma and the Construction of History, I use the concept of “piety” to describe a vehicle for moving beyond ironic cultural criticism. Although I wrote this essay twenty years ago, I still need to develop that concept further. The students, bless their hearts, pointed this out. Teacher, you must keep learning!

On a very different, but equally impressive, level, this past week I met with a student group against the war in Iraq. Following on a resolution passed last spring by the Wesleyan Student Assembly, they are asking that the University divest from its holdings in two companies that make weapons used in the current conflict. If the university is going to be a socially responsible investor, they argue, it cannot maintain its holdings in these companies. The arguments of the students were thoughtful and well informed. Furthermore, they had gathered significant support from others on campus through a petition drive. As I listened to their presentation, I recalled my own student days when we urged Wesleyan to divest from companies doing business with South Africa. The students today, I thought, are better prepared than I remember being.

Wesleyan has the good fortune to have a Board of Trustees that listens to the views of students and faculty, and this committee will have a chance to make its case. I look forward to a productive conversation about these important matters with students, board members, and faculty. I told the students that I could not predict the conclusion of these conversations, but I could ensure that there would be a reasonable presentation of Wesleyan’s position after all the arguments were heard. Stay tuned.

Whatever one’s position on the war in Iraq, I think the Wesleyan community can be proud that we are offering support for returning veterans. Too often in our history, veterans have been badly neglected by the country they were asked to serve. In recent years few have had the opportunity to benefit from a first-rate liberal arts education. To address this, two of our alumni—Frank Sica ’73 and Jonathan Soros ’92—have generously contributed funds to secure scholarships at Wesleyan for those who have served in some branch of the military. This is an important signal of support for these men and women, and it will add to the real diversity of the Wesleyan campus. You can read about the specifics of this program at:

[tags] Cecilia Miller, European Intellectual History, Psychoanalysis as History, Knowing and History, The Ironist’s Cage, war in Iraq, divestment, Board of Trustees, Frank Sica, Jonathan Soros [/tags]