How to Choose a (our) University

I’ve just spent a day meeting with the presidents of the schools in our athletic conference (NESCAC): Amherst, Bates, Bowdoin, Colby, Connecticut, Hamilton, Middlebury, Trinity, Tufts, Williams. Fine schools every one. Although we all believe in the virtues of a well-rounded liberal arts education, we also each think that we offer this education in distinctive ways.  Often students who visit Wes on their campus tours have already seen or are on their way to see some of the other NESCAC schools.  Do the distinctions that are so important to the students, faculty and staff who are already part of the schools come through to visitors?

This question seems especially germane now when graduating high school seniors are trying to decide among the colleges to which they have been accepted. The thick envelopes (or weighty emails) arrived a couple of weeks ago, and the month of April is decision time. Of course, for many (especially this year) the decision will be made on an economic basis. Which school has given me the most generous financial aid package? Wesleyan is one of a small number of schools that admits students irrespective of their ability to pay, and which meets the full need of 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.

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. In recent years, campuses in New York and Boston, for example, have become increasingly popular. But if one seeks out small classes and strong, personal relationships with faculty, then liberal arts schools, which pride themselves on providing cultural and social life 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 of the liberal arts colleges, but much smaller than the urban or land grant universities. We feel that this gives our students the opportunity to have 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 teacher/scholars, 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 — and they wonder whether they will be happy in that particular context. Hundreds of visitors will be coming to Wesleyan this weekend for WesFest (our annual program for admitted students). They will go to classes and athletic contests, musical performances and parties. And they will ask themselves: Would I be happy at Wesleyan?

I hope our visitors get 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 diversity in which difference is embraced and not just tolerated, and for which public service can become part of one’s education and approach to life.

We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into (especially 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 celebration of senior theses completions at the library this week said a lot about who we are. 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 strike many of our visitors, too.

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WesFest

Over the next few days our campus will be filled with visitors checking out Wesleyan as a place to spend their undergraduate years. WesFest combines parties and seminars, musical performances and athletic events, music and fashion shows to celebrate Wesleyan and (finally) the arrival of spring.

I met with a group of pre-frosh and their families this morning in Beckham Hall. They want to know if Wesleyan is the place where they will truly thrive; they want to know if Wesleyan will inspire them to expand their horizons while providing them with a community in which they will develop close friendships that go beyond the circles of relationships they began forming in high school. Students want to sense if faculty truly care about mentorship (they do), and if their fellow students are truly welcoming and supportive (they are). Parents want to understand that the liberal arts education being offered their students will help them know themselves better, navigate in the world more effectively, and remain a resource for life-long learning. I tell them that the liberal arts curriculum at Wesleyan does all these things because I’ve seen it happen time and time again. I’ve also experienced it in my own life. Ours is a challenging community, one that expects much from students, faculty and staff. But it is also a community that pulls together when faced with difficulties, and that celebrates (with gusto) achievement in athletics, scholarship, artistic endeavors and scientific research.

Wesleyan is a joyful place to learn. Now that it is April, I am reminded of this each day when I look from my office in South College over to Foss Hill. If you are here on campus, Welcome to WesFest!! If you are reading this far away from Middletown, just remember the happy music that drifts across Andrus Field as students ask their teachers if they can have class outside, and as we welcome spring to New England.

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April Visitors

It’s admissions season, and several hundred happy high school seniors recently got a thick packet from Middletown. After considering thousands of applications, poring over transcripts, studying reports of interviews, and reading letters of recommendation, the team in our Admission Office is gearing up to explain Wesleyan to young men and women trying to decide which school to attend. Over the next few weeks, many will visit our campus. What will they be looking for?

Students who make their way to Middletown will want to meet faculty to get a sense of whether they will have a rapport with teachers who could become their mentors. They will also want to meet current students, trying to envision whether they could be happy members of the various communities that make up our student body. I suspect that our recently admitted prospective students will be looking for that sense of fit that gives one a feeling of belonging, of being able to find friends and to make discoveries that will expand one’s intellectual and personal horizons. Many getting ready to begin college want to find a place where they will feel “comfortable.” I’d like to think that would-be Wesleyan students are also looking for an adventure that will alter their comfort zones — that will challenge them to discover more fully who they are, and what they love to do.

I’m told that for the last several years Wes undergrads have been expressing the fear that the student body is changing, and that the university is becoming more like some of the other highly selective liberal arts schools. This is such a Wesleyan concern! We pride ourselves on being different: more creative, more independent, more experimental and more progressive than many of our peer institutions. I think there is much truth in this, actually. Wesleyan continues to attract an applicant pool full of talented men and women who can celebrate difference, who have an exuberant attitude to learning (and much else in life), and who can make use of their freedom to develop qualities of originality in a rigorous, highly demanding context. Of course, the university has changed, and it will continue to do so, but in ways that make us more distinctive. That’s why it’s so cool to be part of the Wesleyan family. What hasn’t changed is the expectation of being able to learn about oneself and the world, and to develop strong personal relationships within an affectionate, open-minded community. And we maintain the expectation that as Wesleyan alumni we will continue to learn, and to have a positive impact on the world around us.

We welcome our visitors in April as they try to discover what Wesleyan is really like, and whether they can see themselves being engaged, creative and happy here. This has long been a very special place, but also one that is always changing in response to the contributions of our students, faculty and staff.

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April brings theses, final exams and papers, recitals and a flurry of theater productions. It also brings senior art exhibitions, and this week I had a chance to meet some of the artists and their teachers. The student work in the Zilkha Gallery this time of year is really stunning, and it is a tribute to our seniors and to the art faculty. BRAVO!!

Thirty years ago I wrote my own senior thesis on psychoanalysis and politics. I’m still going back to those themes, as you can see in a book review I recently published: http://www.bookforum.com/inprint/015_01/2249

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