Students Heading to Physical Isolation, Faculty Re-Tooling Classes

These are strange times, indeed. It’s the middle of spring break, but the campus is emptying out for the rest of the semester. Friends are saying goodbye in Middletown, or expressing sadness at already being so far apart. Anxiety hovers over us all as we deal with the disappointment of finishing our school year through distance learning while we yearn for connections with one another. But it’s the connections that put us at risk.

Well, it’s physical connections that put us at risk. We can — we must — connect with one another in other ways. In the coming weeks, we will share academic work through various platforms online, and we will talk to our friends, share music, photos and stories through our lively networks. In addition to the new materials we will generate, there are many videos, works of art and music already available through the Wesleyan website. We can watch them together, and we can find ways to talk about them — even at a great distance. It won’t be the same as sitting around Usdan, or chatting by the gym, or hanging in a wood frame, but it will preserve some of our connectivity. We don’t have to be isolated from one another in spirit.

Many of you will keep journals during this period — some in notebooks, others in podcast form, while others in videos. We will find ways to connect people registering their experiences. We want to hear from you. More on this soon.

Students are stepping up in big ways to help one another, and faculty and staff are finding ways to support those who need it the most. There are various efforts underway to give assistance to those at risk. No surprise, I prefer using official channels to ad hoc, if well-meaning, private projects.  Students who need emergency funding are asked to contact Dean Mike Whaley (mwhaley@wesleyan.edu). Members of the extended Wesleyan family who want to donate to the fund can do so here.

It’s a frightening time, to be sure. But we will depend on one another, deepen our connections with one another, so that when we come back to campus, we will be the stronger for having gone through all this.

 

Working Together in Anxious Times

Yesterday I sent the following note to all faculty and staff at Wesleyan. These folks have been working tirelessly to help our students through this crisis while also dealing with the threats posed by the epidemic. I am so grateful for their efforts!

 

Dear friends,

As you prepare for a weekend of ‘socially distanced’ activities, I wanted to thank everyone for their extraordinary efforts at making Wesleyan’s response to the current crisis as humane and responsible as possible. Many faculty members have been actively sharing information about how to move their classes into distant learning modes. Along with many others, I have learned much that will be relevant to my own class. Students, too, are preparing for learning in an uncertain future. Of course, many of them are deeply saddened to be torn away from friends and teachers, classmates and coaches. Yet, most are already figuring out how to continue to learn, and, eventually, to thrive. Countless staff members have been working with an intensity that is truly heroic as they prepare the campus and our students for the weeks ahead. The complexities of a diverse student body are everywhere apparent – from varieties of learning styles to a complex range of personal circumstances that require us always to customize. We have a framework of principles for making decisions, but I am so proud of the ways that we’ve tailored that framework for the specificity of individual students.

Faculty, students and staff – we are all educators at Wesleyan, and we are all especially attentive to the most vulnerable members of our community in this time of anxious planning and generous caring. I don’t want to overuse this phrase, but this seems to me ‘compassionate solidarity’ at work.

So, thank you for exemplifying the “independence of mind and generosity of spirit” signaled in the university’s mission statement. I am proud and grateful to be your colleague.

Yours ever,

Michael

Wesleyan Moves Classes Online and Asks Students to Leave Campus

 


This week we posted this video and sent the following message to all Wesleyans. We have been dealing with individual questions over the last couple of days, and we are trying our best to provide support for those who most need it. A couple of things have come up often: 1. why do I have to come back to campus now to retrieve my stuff; 2. why did the university not just suspend school for 2 weeks at a time (as some other schools have done).

In answer to the first question, we do not encourage students to fly back to campus to retrieve their belongings. We will work with students and their families to make alternative arrangements. In answer to the second question: I carefully considered this approach, but the public health experts I consulted found it unrealistic, at best. The consensus of professional opinion is that conditions will only worsen, and I believe it will be least disruptive to our community to have a clear and consistent plan to complete the semester remotely. That said, I find it immensely sad to see our students deprived of the chance to thrive together on this campus we love. 

This is the kind of event that has happened once in a century. We must keep our community safe and our mission clear.

Here’s my message.

Dear friends,

This is a message I was hoping not to have to write.

With the CDC today reporting nearly 1,000 known cases of COVID-19 nationwide (having doubled since Monday) and Governor Ned Lamont declaring a public health emergency in Connecticut, it has become clear just how rapidly this potentially deadly virus is spreading. As hard as we work to make the on-campus Wesleyan experience the best it can be, we must apply that same diligence and care to protecting our community’s well-being in light of this growing threat.

After consulting with a variety of public health experts and other higher education institutions around the country, we are announcing the following preventive measures:

  • In-person classes have been suspended for the remainder of the spring semester; we will be transitioning all classes to distance learning models.
  • Undergraduate students who are able should return to campus through March 23 to gather their belongings; all students without University-approved alternate arrangements must depart campus by that time.
  • We know that there are students for whom Wesleyan is their only home. We have set up an online petition to work with them to make sure that access continues, as well as for students who would like to request an extension for picking up their belongings.
  • Students who cannot return to campus for their belongings should contact reslife@wesleyan.edu and staff will work directly with them on packing, storage or shipping solutions.

I am enormously grateful to staff for continuing their regular work schedules on campus to support these transitions and care for students for whom leaving is not an option. I also want to express the trust I have in our faculty and students to adapt to teaching and learning in this new mode. I have always known Wesleyan to be an inventive place that rises to new challenges, and I have every confidence that the remainder of the semester, while taking a much different form than in the past, will be successful.

While it may not diminish any sadness and frustration, it’s important to note that my colleagues and I have searched far and wide for ways to avoid this suspension of in-person classes and campus activities. Realizing that the closeness of our richly interactive community is what makes us more vulnerable to this disease has led us to this unhappy decision. And now, we are determined to find ways to empower student learning while most are away from campus.

We continue to update the central coronavirus/COVID-19 webpage with the latest available information, including a video message I have recorded explaining our rationale behind these decisions. Additionally, I would encourage everyone to review the list of Frequently Asked Questions we have compiled in anticipation of the many inquiries these decisions will understandably raise. Should you have further questions, please direct them to Covid-19Info@wesleyan.edu or call us at 1-888-675-2011 and we will respond as quickly and thoroughly as possible.

With thanks for your patience and understanding,

Committed to International Diversity

With all the attention being devoted in recent weeks to the assassination of Suleimani and potential war with Iran, to Ukraine and impeachment, and to China and the coronavirus, it’s easy to lose sight of an isolationist trend in Washington worrisome in its own right. Although not everyone who wants to “make America great” means to cut it off from the rest of the world, the current regime’s isolationist instincts are powerful, persistent and perverse.

This came home to me during my recent trip to India to visit with Wesleyan families and to talk with prospective liberal arts students. Many told me that the United States seems less welcoming than before, and concerned parents wondered whether their children would feel at home in a country that seemed determined to cast foreigners in a harsh light. In some cases, they were attuned to this hostility because they saw their own government in Delhi using similar tactics. I tried to assure them that most Americans were open to meeting foreigners and that our traditions of hospitality remain strong. But they contrasted the current US climate with what they see in Canada, and to some extent in Australia.

Here at Wesleyan, we have a long tradition of collaboration with scholars and teachers from outside the United States. Nobel Prize winning chemist Satoshi Omura still looks back on his time as a researcher at Wes as formative to his experiments in developing new medicines from organic materials. African drummers like Abraham Adzenyah, Javanese gamelan virtuosos like Sumarsam, and dancers like Eiko Otake, have made Wes their home for decades because of its open learning environment, one that cultivates respect for tradition as well as enthusiasm for innovation. I proudly told my interlocutors in India about our longstanding Navaratri Festival of music and dance, and about the recent book by Hari Krishnan on how Bollywood creatively appropriated those traditions.

Shortly after I returned to campus, the Trump administration announced a new set of travel restrictions on people coming to the US. On Jan. 31 the President signed a proclamation banning visa applications from Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar and Nigeria. The reason given was that these countries presented risks because of their security procedures and information sharing. The administration’s announcement also included harsh immigration restrictions for people from Sudan and Tanzania.

The announcement is of a piece with the administration’s goal to restrict immigration of (almost) all kinds. For months in 2019, it refused to sign off on a new framework for refugees – the result being that in October ZERO refugees were legally admitted to the US. That’s the first time a month went by without the US providing legal refuge to someone. When President Trump eventually approved a legal ceiling for those seeking refuge here, it was for a mere 18,000 refugees, an all-time low. Even the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page complained in regard to the latest executive order that “punishing innocent people trying to come to America legally undermines Mr. Trump’s claim that he opposes illegal immigration, not immigrants more broadly.”

At Wesleyan, we value the vibrant, cosmopolitan community that we build in Middletown. About 15% of our students come from outside the US, and we cherish the opportunities to learn from one another. Rather than blocking off parts of the world from interactions with Americans, we believe in building positive, effective interconnectivity. Rather than refusing to listen to others we perceive as different from ourselves, we should cultivate the sharing of stories as a path to a broader more powerful education.

Let’s take Ahmed Badr’s ’20 Narratio project as our inspiration. Ahmed came to the US as a refugee from Baghdad and will graduate from Wesleyan in May. Determined to empower others, he created Narratio which invites youth around the world to share their stories  through the publishing of poetry, photography, art and narrative. Already Narratio has published 300+ works across 18+ countries.

Let’s push back against the anti-immigrant, anti-refugee messages coming from Washington. And let’s remember to listen to one another’s stories – lending an ear with special care to those that may come from faraway places.

 

 

 

It’s Almost #GivingTuesday

There is still turkey in my fridge, even though our guests are long gone. Mathilde seems to like the broth on her dog food, and I’ll be enjoying turkey soup for quite some time. I don’t do much shopping online, but I can’t avoid all the Black Friday and Cyber Monday ads. Tomorrow brings a different kind of post-Thanksgiving online transaction: Giving Tuesday.

There are so many ways to express gratitude, and I find a powerful one to be showing generosity toward organizations and people one cares about. A few years ago, my friend Henry Timms (now the president of Lincoln Center in New York) came up with the idea of a “giving day” to follow Black Friday and Cyber Monday. And so #GivingTuesday was born. It’s a simple idea. Just find a way for your family, your community, your company or your organization to act philanthropically. Then tell everyone you can about how you are giving. Generosity is contagious! Be a part of a national celebration of our great tradition of philanthropy.

#GivingTuesday has become internationally recognized as a time to show one’s support for the values and missions one cares about. People all over the world use the occasion to support their favorite causes. This is Wesleyan’s sixth year participating. During that time, thousands of Wesleyan alumni, parents, students and friends have chosen to make donations. Together, we have unlocked millions of dollars in matching funds for financial aid.

Every gift made through Tuesday, December 3, 2019 will be matched with a dollar-for-dollar contribution to Financial Aid, up to $100,000, thanks to the generosity of Stuart Ellman ’88 and Susan Berger Ellman ’90.

I hope you will be giving to your favorite causes tomorrow, and I am especially hopeful that Wesleyan will be among them. Don’t forget about WESUFM, and other university initiatives. There are many worthy causes out there, and this university is very grateful for any and all gifts.

Teaching and Religion

This essay on teaching intellectual history courses that take religion seriously builds on some pages in Safe Enough Spaces. It recently appeared in The Atlantic

 

I had hardly finished my lecture when the student came bounding down the auditorium’s stairs.

“You’re just like all the others,” he said, fuming. “You don’t really take religion seriously.”

This happened a few years ago, when I was teaching a college course on virtue and vice. I had just finished talking about the Catholic thinker Thomas Aquinas. My sin? According to my student, I had “intellectualized” Saint Thomas. I had described his philosophical sources and his historical context, but had said little about the philosopher’s fundamental project—one that had everything to do with the salvation of our souls.

My student’s name, fittingly, was Tom. He was a believer at a secular liberal-arts school, and he was sick of being condescended to either by a campus lousy with self-congratulatory progressives or by teachers (like me, he assumed) who treated religious faith as an inert museum piece. “Wait,” I told him. “Today we talked historical context, and next time we’ll illuminate religious practice.”Tom was a rare exception. As a teacher, I find remarkable resistance to bringing religious ideas and experiences into class discussions. When I ask what a philosopher had in mind in writing about salvation, or the immortality of the soul, my normally talkative undergraduates suddenly stare down at their notes. If I ask them a factual theological question about the Protestant Reformation, they are ready with answers: predestination; “faith, not works”; and so on. But if I go on to ask students how one knows in one’s heart that one is saved, they turn back to their laptops. They look anywhere but at me—for fear that I might ask them about feeling the love of God or about having a heart filled with faith. In my cultural-history classes, we talk about sexuality and identity, violence and revolution, art and obscenity, and the students are generally eager to weigh in. But when I bring up the topic of religious feeling or practice, an awkward silence always ensues.

Trump Tweets and Higher Education

It’s been clear from the time Donald Trump ran for the Republican nomination for president, that he represents a force contrary to the goals of education. My personal political leanings aside, I feel obligated to speak up in defense of the values that animate Wesleyan and so many other schools—values that President Trump attacks on a regular basis. From the denial of science, to the politics of division and cruelty, his irrationality and downright nastiness have been a direct challenge to the research, teaching and inclusion that lie at the core of the mission of colleges and universities. This mission includes promoting intellectual diversity, but it can not abide the politics of racist divisiveness. Condemning President Trump’s attack is not about choosing “sides” in a debate about ideas. It is a defense of what higher education stands for, and of the kind of country in which higher education can thrive.

President Trump’s tweeting tirade against four congresswomen of color this past weekend, telling them to go back to their countries, is just the latest example of racism run amok at the highest level of our government. White supremacists and neo-Nazis are celebrating his administration’s insistence on hate as a vehicle for stimulating the most destructive energies of a sector of the American population.

As many of us plan our return to the campus at the end of the summer, let us imagine alternatives to the noxious brew of racism and xenophobia emanating from the White House. Let us imagine creating a vision for our country as a place of inclusive experimentation — a project that can be achieved only by considering a wide range of ideas that will help us create greater opportunity, freedom and justice. I know these words often conceal hypocrisies and worse, but let’s strive to find ways to make them more real — at least as a civic aspiration for our campus and beyond. We don’t have to live in President Trump’s country of carnage. Let’s return, or turn toward, a country, our country, that we build together.

 

 

Welcome Home to Wesleyan!

The reunions are upon us, and it is a glorious spring morning. We’ve been planning for Commencement and for welcoming back a few thousand alumni. Foss Hill looked ready early this morning:

We’ve had plenty to celebrate lately. The women’s lacrosse team is heading to its first Final Four in program history this weekend, and so we had a special graduation ceremony for the seniors on the team. It was fabulous!

While we were holding that special ceremony, the Wesleyan Women’s tennis team was WINNING THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP! It’s our first ever in women’s sports.

Coach Fried was named Coach-of-the-Year and Victoria Yu ’19 was named Senior Player of the year!! Many other awards to come!

Other seniors were practicing their graduation poses, getting ready for the big day:

They invited me to join in, but I’ll have to wait for one of our seniors to send me a photo of me posing with them.

Post your photos from the weekend on social and tag us at #wesreunion or #wes2019.

How to Choose (Our) University

Throughout the month, high school seniors with the acceptance letters in hand, will be 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, with a few revisions.

Of course, for many the decision will be made on an economic basis. Which school has given the most generous financial aid package? Wesleyan is one of a small number of schools that meets the full financial need of all admitted students according to a formula developed over several years. Wesleyan has made a commitment to keep loan levels low and to maintain only moderate (very close to inflation) tuition increases. We also offer a three-year program that allows families to save about 20% 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, have become increasingly popular college destinations, but not, I suspect, for the classroom experience. But if one seeks small classes and strong, personal relationships with faculty, then liberal arts schools, which pride themselves on providing rich cultural and social experiences on a residential campus, are especially compelling. You can be on a campus with a human scale and still have plenty of things to do. Wesleyan is somewhat larger than most liberal arts colleges but much smaller than the urban or land grant universities. We feel that this gives our students the opportunity to choose a broad curriculum and a variety of cultural activities on campus, while still being small enough to encourage regular, sustained relationships among faculty and students.

All the selective small liberal arts schools boast of having a faculty of scholar-teachers, of a commitment to research and interdisciplinarity, and of encouraging community and service. So what sets us apart from one another after taking into account size, location, and financial aid packages? What are students trying to see when they visit Amherst and Wesleyan, or Tufts and Pomona?

Students who are visiting campuses this month are trying to discern the personalities of each school. They are trying to imagine themselves on the campus, to get a feel for the chemistry of the place — to gauge whether they will be happy there. That’s why hundreds of visitors come to Wesleyan each week. They go to classes and athletic contests, musical performances and parties. And they ask themselves: Would I be happy at Wesleyan?

I hope our visitors 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 hope our visitors can sense our commitment to creating a diversity in which difference is embraced and not just tolerated, and to public service that is part of one’s education and approach to life. 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, especially this year (once again) with a record number of applications. 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 more than 30 years. I bet the magic will enchant many of our visitors, too.

Wolfgang Natter (1955-2018)

Hearing the news this week of the death of my friend, Wolfgang Natter, I walked over to the place we first met – the co-educational fraternity Alpha Delta Phi here on the campus of Wesleyan University. We spent countless hours at the fraternity in the mid 1970s discussing ideas, washing dishes, listening to music, finding ourselves. Together, we projected repeated screenings of Les Enfants du Paradis, debated Hegel and Marx, protested against a world that we also earnestly sought to understand. Entering Alpha Delt, thinking of Wolfgang, I gravitated to the kitchen in which we had been co-workers, sometimes co-conspirators, always friends. The place was bustling with undergrads dealing with the end of the 2018 semester, but I could still feel the force of memories forty years old.

Wolfgang had widely varied interests, and he pursued them with passion. After Wesleyan, he continued his studies at the broadly interdisciplinary Center for the Humanities at The Johns Hopkins University. He had an abiding interest in the World War I period, a time when, I recall him saying, everything changed. When we were young, he spoke of making a movie about the period, perhaps writing a play. Later, Wolfgang turned his dissertation on the literature of the Great War into a book, Literature at War, 1914-1940: Representing the “Time of Greatness” in Germany. His scholarship managed to be both meticulous and broad-minded – a rarity.

Mostly, I remember Wolfgang’s gentleness, his way of welcoming people into conversations about movies, about German literature or drama, about politics. His mind was sharp, but what stood out was his generosity, his curiosity, his openness. When I lectured at his invitation at the University of Kentucky decades after we graduated from Wesleyan, I learned that Wolfgang had become a leader in a humanistic approach to critical geography and that his intellectual interests had grown to include sophisticated spatial analyses of all sorts of subjects that I had never realized even had a spatial dimension. We spoke for hours about his new lines of inquiry. He had left nothing behind, but his intellectual world was growing fast. I was so impressed by his students, whom he treated as colleagues, and his colleagues, whom he treated as friends. What a mentor he was! I could see the constellation of his qualities – the fierce intelligence, the wide-ranging curiosity, the humor and intellectual curiosity – emerging in his students.

For many years, our paths rarely crossed, but recently we both found ourselves back at Wesleyan. I was now president here, and Wolfgang had come to help us as a consultant before becoming Vice-President for Academic Affairs at the College of St. Scholastica in Minnesota. Joseph, son of Wolfgang and his former wife Liz, was then a student at Wesleyan, and the father had the joy of seeing alma mater through the eyes of his thoughtful and engaged son. Wolfgang also fell in love again at Wesleyan, finding a life-partner in Sarah Kendall, a fellow Alpha Delt and Wes alumna.

Wolfgang was the rare academic administrator who approached the work with open-minded inquiry, with the curiosity and care characteristic of the best research in the humanities. A few weeks before he died, he wrote me with a question about how to help constituents of a school get past points of conflict and return to their deeper mutual convergence. He was so good at finding (sometimes building) convergence while respecting differences. He believed in the spirit of the academic enterprise and exemplified what is best about it. I miss him already.