Wesleyan Ends Encampment

This afternoon (May 18th) I sent the following message to the Wesleyan community. Over the weeks and months to come, I look forward to working with students, faculty, alumni and staff to help our university continue to be a force for positive contributions to the public sphere. THE WORLD NEEDS MORE WESLEYAN!

But now, we will be preparing for Reunion and to celebrate the class of 2024 at Commencement!

Dear friends,

Over the course of the past three weeks, the Administration has been in meaningful engagement with the group of pro-Palestinian protesters on campus. Our conversations have been rooted in a shared affection for Wesleyan and a desire that the institution be aligned as fully as possible with its community’s values. Provost Nicole Stanton and Dean Mike Whaley have now successfully concluded their discussions with representatives of the group of protesting students and their faculty monitors.

In these meetings, the University explained that as of December 31, 2023, 1.7% of Wesleyan’s endowment was invested in companies categorized as Aerospace and Defense businesses. None are directly involved in the manufacturing of weapons. As of the same date, 0.4% of the endowment is invested in companies in Israel, all of which are software companies. The protesters did not ask for information about investments in any other countries, but we can say that Wesleyan’s endowment is not invested in any companies listed by the protesters.

Later this month representatives from the pro-Palestinian protest will meet members of the Investment Committee. In the fall, the Committee for Investor Responsibility (CIR)—a standing representative body of students, faculty, alumni, and staff—will be able to propose changes to the Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) framework for investment/divestment for consideration by the Board at its fall meeting.

Agreement Ending Wesleyan’s Encampment

The protesters have agreed to clear their camp by Monday morning. No students will face disciplinary sanctions for being in the encampment, but after the camp is cleared normal university regulations will be enforced. The protesters agreed not to disrupt Reunion and Commencement events. Individuals who refuse to comply will be suspended and face legal action.

It is always important that we maintain a safe enough environment on campus for people who disagree with one another and who embrace opportunities to learn from people with various points of view. Yes, protests are demanding for all constituencies of a university. At their best, they help turn our attention to issues that really matter. I am hopeful that soon we can re-direct our collective efforts to urging our lawmakers, both here in Connecticut and in Washington DC, to do everything in their power to create a resolution in Israel and Gaza that will result in the return of the hostages, an end to the fighting, and a commitment to a process that will recognize the rights of all parties. More generally, I have hopes that the political energies recently displayed by our students will play a positive role in addressing the momentous questions before this country in the coming elections.

Sincerely,

Michael S. Roth
President

On protests, encampments, freedom of expression

I’ve been writing about the situation in Israel and Gaza since October 7th when I posted a blog entry here. More recently, I have called for a humanitarian cease fire, considered issues of academic freedom, and thought about the relevance of Passover to these events.

Yesterday, I sent the following message to the Wesleyan community about protests on campus. I reproduce it here:

Dear friends,

This morning you can find pro-Palestinian protesters camped out behind North College. The students there know that they are in violation of university rules and seem willing to accept the consequences. The protest has been non-violent and has not disrupted normal campus operations. As long as it continues in this way, the University will not attempt to clear the encampment. The University will not tolerate intimidation or harassment of students, staff, or faculty. Protesters assure us that they have no intention of engaging in these kinds of actions. We will continue to monitor the situation to keep everyone safe and will send updates as necessary.

There will be many on campus who cheer on the protesters, and many who are offended or even frightened by their rallies and messages. But as long as we all reject violence, we have opportunities to listen and to learn from one another. This may not happen during the chanting and drumming, but it can happen during some of the planned discussion sessions and deep conversations that will take place throughout the week.

This is a challenging time in world affairs and in the lives of many—including college students—concerned about their own relation to the brutal war in the Middle East. May we at Wesleyan find ways to learn from this difficult moment—determining what it is we can do to serve the goal of a sustainable peace—even as we finish out this academic year.

With hope,

Michael S. Roth

Thanksgiving Wishes

Yesterday I sent the following message to the campus community:

Dear friends,

As we prepare for Thanksgiving, we remind ourselves of all the things for which we are grateful. This is a time of year for connection, gratitude, and compassion—all much needed in these days of brutal conflict.

I believe more than ever that it is through openness to learning that we can find common ground. On many campuses, instead of searching for connection, people seem to be honing hate and gleeful intimidation. This will not happen at Wesleyan. Instead, we will learn together, acknowledging our differences. Whether this be through the study of a classic text, current events, or historical context, we will expand, not narrow, our understanding and our sympathies. Our faculty and staff are stepping up to offer guidance. We strive to find ways to comfort one another, to learn with one another, to generate hope for peace in a time of brutal war. I can’t think of a better place to be right now than here at Wesleyan.

I wish you all a peaceful holiday with family or friends. And I look forward to seeing you back on campus as we prepare to end the semester with boldness, rigor, and practical idealism.

Warm regards,

Michael Roth

Happy 4th!

As I write my annual Independence Day blog message, I am still reeling from the recent Supreme Court decisions and from the rhythm of mass shootings that now punctuates all our seasons. Despite the current malaise, when I think back to last year at this time I am very grateful — grateful that COVID has receded and that over the last 12 months we at Wesleyan have managed to learn together while supporting others beyond the campus. Last summer at this time I was struggling with my own COVID infection and about to resume working with colleagues on building a ‘safe-enough’ educational environment. What a difference a year makes! Now, I eagerly anticipate the coming semesters, ones that will be filled with creativity, inquiry and exuberance!

But there is time for that. Today we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a document of aspiration often used to remind citizens of our promise but also of our failure to live up to our professed values. These are values worth remembering and celebrating! As an anonymous writer (identified only as a “Black Whig”) said just a few years after the document was signed, “And now my virtuous fellow citizens, let me entreat you, that, after you have rid yourselves of the British yoke, that you will also emancipate those who have been all their life time subject to bondage.” I take this quote from columnist Jamelle Bouie, who wrote “The story of the changing meaning of the Declaration should be a reminder…that we had more than one founding — and far more than just one set of founders.” Perhaps each generation needs a new set of founders!

 Here’s one of those re-founders, the poet Walt Whitman. I Hear America Singing:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
 
Let’s try to hear that singing even as we await a time when we live our values, a time of re-founding. And with the great poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, we can say “I am perpetually awaiting a rebirth of wonder.” So many good things begin in wonder, don’t they!
 
Happy 4th!! 

Celebrating the Class or 2023!

The following message was sent to Wesleyan students, faculty and staff.

Commencement is over, and mortar boards, it seemed to me, flew even higher than usual. It was such a beautiful day with strong speakers and a celebratory crowd. The graduating seniors seemed especially joyous. They had every reason to be proud of how they had stayed focused through the disruptions caused by the pandemic. Their achievements were not theirs alone, however, and their enthusiastic applause for faculty and staff showed how grateful they were. I hope all our faculty, staff, and students can take a moment to recognize their individual and collective accomplishments of this past year.

Our commencement speakers stressed the importance of how we develop civic engagement on campus, and they urged our graduates to carry those lessons forward—as citizens. At a time when jarring voices across the country question the benefits of higher education, we can be confident that those who receive a Wesleyan education will showcase its benefits to the world.

Here on campus, we must continue to pursue our mission with passion and purpose. That mission does not change, but we pursue it in light of changes in the world. By fall semester, there will likely be a Supreme Court decision on affirmative action. Regardless, we will redouble our efforts to build a diverse community in which all—students, faculty, and staff—can thrive. Work is already underway on the three organizational priorities identified through the WesThrives Campus Survey—diversity, inclusion, and belonging; performance management; and communications—which we will more deeply focus on when our entire community is together again in the fall.

Summer approaches, and I hope these next months bring you the balance of rest, enjoyment, and productivity that you seek. 

 

How to Choose A (Our) University

Throughout the spring, high school seniors with the acceptance letters in hand are once again visiting campuses as they try to decide where to attend college. They are trying to envision the school at which 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? As I do each spring, I thought it might be useful to re-post my thoughts on choosing a college. We have been hosting many campus visitors, and today we begin  WesFestI invite you to visit our Admitted Students website to learn more about Wesleyan.

In the wake of the pandemic, many students today are wondering what campus life will be like in the fall. At Wesleyan we are planning for a normal university year. Sure, we expect to continue to take health precautions, including ensuring that all students are vaccinated and boosted before they begin the semester. Of course, we will monitor the pandemic’s course should things take a turn for the worse.

For many, the decision about where to attend college 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. Wesleyan has made a commitment to keep loan levels low, and we have replaced them with grants for high need families. We also offer a three-year program that allows families to save about 20 percent of their total expenses, while still earning the same number of credits.

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, are popular college destinations, but not, I suspect, for the classroom experience. 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 Pomona?

As students scan the Wesleyan website, go to chatrooms and listen to current students talk about their experiences, I hope they feel the brave exuberance and ambition of our students, the intelligence and care of our faculty, the playful yet demanding qualities of our community. I would like prospective students to get a sense of 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. Our students have the courage to find new combinations of subjects to study, of people to meet, of challenges to face.

Whatever college or university students choose, I hope they get three things out of 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 to admitted students a few years ago:

We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into, 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 their disciplines. At Wesleyan, 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 almost 50 years. I’ll bet the magic will appeal to many of those who are still in the process of getting to know our extraordinary university.

And Now, Towards the Finish Line!

As we gather in the wake of spring break, it’s good to remember that many Wesleyans have been busy these past two weeks preparing for the last half of the semester. I know that many seniors working on theses, performances and art projects didn’t get away and have been making progress on substantial pieces of work. Whether they are studying federal regulations in the government department or working to understand personal dis-regulation in psychology, they are combing through data and honing their arguments. Biologists at Wes are closer to their fruit flies than one might think possible, while physicists work with computer scientists and mathematicians on the properties of sensors. These are quite different, thank goodness, from the properties of censors, which very few of our artists have to worry about (I trust). They are making films and dance performances, writing novels and analyzing philosophical texts for ideas that might change the way we look at the world.

All of this is to say that many of us have not been on much of a break at all. Spring sports teams have been busy competing, staff here in Middletown have been preparing the campus for the new season of activities. Writers are writing, readers are reading … You get the picture. 

Speaking of pictures, here’s one of Lola on the first day of spring:

Good luck with the rest of the semester!

On Pragmatic Liberal Education

I posted this piece a few weeks ago in the Washington Post under the title “Some see liberal arts education as elitist. Why it’s really pragmatic” (Washington Post, 2/5/2023).

At a time when misinformation grows more sophisticated and demagoguery runs rampant, the public should be able to turn to higher education for guidance. But there is declining trust in the sector, which has been embroiled in controversies ranging from its high cost, to tensions between academic freedom and religion, to questions about the role of social justice on campus. From Texas to Florida, government leaders have felt empowered to ramp up their war on universities. Critics on the left accuse universities of being the servants of neoliberal corporatism, while critics on the right view them as engines of indoctrination into world views that dismiss the lives of ordinary people. At a time when higher education should be contributing to our public lives, many of its leaders are busy playing defense, or worse, just laying low.

Colleges and universities in the United States come in a wide variety of forms, but one of their most distinctive elements is pragmatic liberal education. This form of learning — no matter what you are studying — combines the acquisition of specific skills (such as literacy and numeracy) with understanding of how those skills fit into broad contexts. Rather than being just trained how to be a cog in a machine, you are taught to understand how machines work within the systems in which they (and you) are embedded. Pragmatic liberal education in the United States has emphasized that in a diverse democracy, it is crucial that people develop the capacity to listen to those with views different from their own.

Today the relevance of that vision is being challenged on many fronts. There are those who claim that colleges are creating insular tribes adept mostly at canceling one another rather than promoting a diversity of viewpoints. Liberal learning, others argue, contributes to the divisiveness afflicting American society by reinforcing a sense of superiority — in turn, inciting righteous indignation among those who feel elites with fancy diplomas are looking down on them.

Critics are not wrong to point out that biases exist in the American academy that can lead to contempt for those who don’t play its idiosyncratic language games. They are not wrong to question whether professors are providing the tools of facile rejection under the guise of empowering critical thinking, paying lip service to academic freedom while expecting ideological or intellectual conformity. These are legitimate concerns for anyone who believes that education should liberate one from dependence on someone else’s thinking (even the teacher’s) and that learning should foster open-ended inquiry and self-reliance.

Because liberal education is a path well-trod by elites, it can also seem to be the pathway to elitism, cementing economic inequality and enabling a fortunate few to assume an attitude of haughty privilege. Selective institutions like my own take too much pride in the number of people they reject in admissions. Throughout U.S. history, writers have argued that while education was essential for a healthy democracy, it could also lead to a class of pretentious elites condescending to their fellow citizens (if they recognized them at all).

Champions of pragmatic liberal education have long recognized this issue. In the early part of the 20th century, Jane Addams, for example, saw that so-called sophisticated modes of education often stifled the ability to see things from another’s point of view. She recognized that strong thinking often became self-protective and detached from the concerns of others. She insisted on the development of empathy and the sympathetic imagination, underscoring participation in civic life as a vehicle for liberal learning that wouldn’t become parochial and elitist.

The U.S. tradition of pragmatic liberal education of which Jane Addams is a part doesn’t just want students to have read a set of sanctified Great Books. They realize that real inquiry must be tested beyond the university, and that real learning, including the study of classic works, must be relevant beyond the classroom. This American educational tradition took a bet on what pragmatist philosopher John Dewey called “practical idealism,” a bet on the value of situating learning in relation to society and the aim of contributing to its well-being.

That wager inspires students from all walks of life who choose educational paths that allow them to make unexpected connections to discover fields of inquiry of which they were unaware in high school. Students may enter higher education with very specific goals, but in large public universities and small liberal arts colleges, in historically Black colleges and universities, and in faith-based institutions, they encounter teachers who show them how to build skills while also broadening their awareness of the world around them.

I’m thinking of Kennedy Odede, who came to the United States from Kenya, and while studying social science at Wesleyan University started schools for girls in slums around Nairobi. Some of those girls are now applying to colleges in the United States. I’m thinking of Livia Cox, who studied neuroscience and trained as an emergency medical technician while an undergraduate, and who now has been awarded grant support to put her medical training into a broad public health context.

We should recognize how our campuses thrive with productive nonconformists and practical idealists who are building companies and purpose-driven organizations. On campuses today you can certainly find examples of cancel culture, but you also find faith-based groups supporting health care workers, liberal arts students working with the incarcerated, and an impressive array of young people defending the right to vote.

Higher education in the United States can be pragmatic without being conformist, and liberal education can inspire students to think for themselves in ways that include learning from people with views different from their own. A pragmatic liberal education promises to engage with issues that students will have to deal with beyond their university years; it’s more ambitious than a short-term training program. The jobs of the future and the problems confronting our world today cannot be tackled by technical specialization alone. Environmental degradation, artificial intelligence, public health, increasing inequality, international political tensions — these are complex areas that demand the kind of holistic thinking characteristic of liberal education.

Our pragmatic approach to liberal education is one of the reasons more than a million students from outside our borders flock to U.S. colleges and universities each year. Their confidence in our institutions is no replacement, though, for the trust of our fellow citizens. To strengthen that trust, we must demonstrate that our educational institutions foster open inquiry, deep research, and pragmatic approaches to the pressing problems and opportunities before us. If our colleges and universities graduate practical idealists rather than narrow-minded conformists, we will be serving our nation and the world.

Historical Recollection and Political Inspiration on MLK Day

A couple of years ago on the the holiday commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr., I quoted my friend and Wesleyan alumna Saidiya Hartman (’84, Hon. ’19) on the importance of remembering for the work of political imagination: “In every slave society, slave owners attempted to eradicate the slave’s memory, that is, to erase all the evidence of an existence before slavery.” We don’t have to accept the triumph of amnesia. “Never did the captive choose to forget; she was always tricked or bewitched or coerced into forgetting. Amnesia, like an accident or a stroke of bad fortune, was never an act of volition.” Today, we can choose recollection.

Memory always takes place in context; it is never neutral. Prof. Hartman writes:

To believe, as I do, that the enslaved are our contemporaries is to understand that we share their aspirations and defeats, which isn’t to say that we are owed what they were due but rather to acknowledge that they accompany our every effort to fight against domination, to abolish the color line…To what end does one conjure the ghost of slavery, if not to incite the hopes of transforming the present.

In the past year, Prof. Hartman published the 25th anniversary edition of her pathbreaking Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in 19th Century America. In her new preface to the book, she notes that even in slavery “everyday practices cultivated an imagination of the otherwise and elsewhere, cartographies of the fantastic utterly antagonistic to slavery…the enslaved articulated a vision of freedom that far exceeded that of the liberal imagination.” Of course, recollection and imagination were not enough to change the world. “What awaited us were centuries of struggle animated by visions that exceeded the wreckage of our lives, by the avid belief in what might be.”

Recollection and imagination and struggle in hopes of transforming the present. This, too, can be a way to mark this holiday and those who fought to transform their lives. To what end does one conjure the memory of Dr. King, one might ask, if not to incite the hopes of transforming the present?

Happy New Year!

As 2022 comes to an end, I send my best wishes to the extended Wesleyan community around the world. Campus has been cold and quiet until very recently, and in the next week or so students, faculty and staff will start returning for Winter Session, research activity, athletic training and competition, and to continue the preparations for the semester ahead. 

Our past year has been filled with challenges and with the creative energies we’ve summoned to meet them. The pandemic has continued to take a toll on us all, and yet we have found ways to build back an ever more capacious environment of learning, innovative experimentation and achievement. This will be the foundation of our efforts in 2023.

I do hope your holidays have been joyful and restorative. I look forward to seeing what we can all come up with as the sun rises on a new year!