Inaugural Address – Wesleyan University
Michael S. Roth, 16th President
I am grateful for the introduction by my friend and my teacher, Carl Schorske. Carl has always exemplified what is best about Wesleyan’s commitment to engaged teaching and learning. He has inspired generations of students with his love of the arts and his desire to understand how other times and places can best guide us in the face of contemporary challenges. He thinks with history, and we think better with him.
Carl has focused on three elements of my career thus far: teaching, scholarship and institution building, and I would like to use these categories to organize my remarks today.
The first thing that struck me when I visited the Wesleyan campus 33 years ago was the exuberance of learning that went on here. I had never seen anything like it. The amazing Wesleyan students I met that day (a few of whom are here this afternoon) were not like anyone I had encountered in Massapequa Park. They had a joyful intensity as they went about their writing, performance, and experimentation. The faculty I met that day and later studied with had more than time for students; they had affection and respect for those who had chosen to study here. And boy, were they demanding! The faculty asked us to read more, to think harder, to write better, than we’d ever thought possible.
This is just as true of Wesleyan professors and students today. Our faculty expect that students bring “their best selves” to class, but they are also wise enough to know that this won’t always happen. That’s where great teaching comes in. Our professors understand that there will be times when students don’t know how to access their capacity to be rigorous, passionate learners. And our professors know how to help students find that capacity and use it.
Over the last months I have traveled around the country meeting with alumni from the 1940s through 2007. The most consistent things they value about their Wesleyan experience are the relationships they established with their teachers. Wesleyan faculty change the lives of their students, opening up worlds of experience and learning. I have felt the power of that pedagogy, and the main reason I have returned to campus is to work with my colleagues to enhance it for future generations of students.
One last thing about teaching and learning at Wesleyan: It is very hard work. Our professors set an example through their own continual education, their endless efforts to pursue scholarship and research practices in the arts, humanities, social sciences and sciences. We must demand the best from our students to prepare them for productive lives after graduation, but we can only do that successfully if we demand the best from ourselves. The Wesleyan faculty do that every day.
If I may be permitted a more personal remark: I count myself so very lucky to have worked with extraordinary teachers. Teachers like Henry Abelove, who took me under his wing and stewarded by work in history and psychoanalysis and guided me as I finished my first book; teachers like Victor Gourevitch, with whom I studied political philosophy, and to whom I turned when after graduation I discovered in a Parisian suburb the correspondence between Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojeve. The last time we were together in Middletown we sat by a fire and worked through our translation of those letters for publication.
As your President, I aspire to also be an effective teacher, and next semester I will have my first shot at that in a class cross-listed in Film Studies, Philosophy and History. As President I pledge to work with the faculty and students to develop a curriculum that emphasizes the radical freedom to explore new ideas, to cross boundaries, and to combine aesthetic or scientific practices. I pledge to foster a teaching culture that encourages students to discover what they love to do by demanding that they work hard at things that matter to them. Wesleyan attracts some of the most gifted students at any school; by teaching them how to draw on their gifts, their passions, we enable them to work with enthusiasm and creativity.
Wesleyan offers its students an environment of learning as intense and intimate as the best small liberal arts colleges. But we are a proud university with a strong focus on the professional practices of all who work here. As teachers, we are often stimulated to turn back to our research in new ways because of the insights we gain in the classroom. It is no accident that our students co-author so many papers with their teachers. There is a virtuous circle of learning from classroom to scholarly and artistic productivity. And there is the same positive feedback loop from the campus to the world beyond. The scholarship we produce here should find a place in broader cultural arenas in which it can have an impact. Our learning should help shape the public culture that we will enter after graduation. The alternative – all too visible in our country today – is that our culture will be shaped without the benefit of any learning at all.
Wesleyan will remain dedicated to advancing all of the fields in which we teach. Our curriculum must reflect the best practices of research in every area, and we must have the highest expectation for those who work here. Unlike many of the larger research universities, we remain open to stimulation from students, and from the unexpected combination of fields of study. We mean to shape liberal learning through our work outside the classroom, too. Wesleyan must defy conventional departmental boundaries as well as interdisciplinary fads. We must pursue research to solve problems and seek out opportunities using whatever tools are appropriate for the issue at hand.
The research done at our university should be one of the defining characteristics of the Wesleyan experience. As a university dedicated to undergraduate learning and advancing the professional fields in which we work, we should require that every student have the experience of producing original research. Whether one majors in biology or music, film or philosophy, as a Wesleyan student you will become a participant in and not just a spectator of the professional practices in your area of study. We have a glorious tradition of active learning at this university, and we must ensure that every student who receives a diploma has a first hand experience of it.
I feel so very fortunate to be working at an institution that sponsors scholarship that is innovative and path breaking. There are countless examples, but let me just cite Andy Szegedy-Maszak’s work on photography and archaeology; Jeanine Basinger’s work on the Hollywood "system;" Gary Yohe’s work on the importance of measures of adaptive capacity and relative vulnerability to climate change; Laura Grabel’s on developing neural stem cells from embryonic stem cells. Research practice takes many forms at Wesleyan, and I am honored - thrilled - to be part of a ceremony that benefits from the great music composed by Jay Hoggard.
As President I pledge to create new opportunities for faculty and students to pursue research practices that advance their fields. This will mean bringing new resources to the university, and it will also mean finding ways to connect our researchers with one another and with colleagues around the globe. It is not enough that we encourage, even demand, the very best from our students. We must set an example through the work we do in whatever field we choose to apply ourselves. This takes time, money, energy and a joint commitment to support innovative excellence wherever we find it in our community. As President, I will dedicate myself to this endeavor.
3. Institution Building
We must build an institution that will be sustainable - a responsible caretaker of tradition, a nimble innovator, and an example of how liberal education can make a positive difference locally, nationally and internationally.
Last year Wesleyan celebrated its 175th anniversary. We have much to be proud
of. Over the last many years our school has been at the forefront of some of the
most vital and progressive currents in American higher education. From
interdisciplinary study to affirmative action, from integrating the arts into
the curriculum and athletics into campus life, we have achieved much - perhaps
so much that we now take these achievements for granted. In the last three
decades, as the official culture and media in this country have grown ever more
reactionary, some have mocked the values that have been the foundation for
Wesleyan’s excellence. Respect for difference, a concern for the disadvantaged,
an activism that searches for justice, an experimental culture that produces
aesthetic and scientific innovation…. these are the enduring qualities of the
Wesleyan education and the Wesleyan community. As other institutions focus on
maintaining the status quo and avoiding risk, we can be proud of the qualities
of mind and heart that are enhanced by the education we offer. And we should be
proud of a community that mixes experimentation with kindness; that combines
edgy critical thinking with affection and tolerance.
We must sustain and cultivate these qualities. We must do so not just by what we teach on campus, but by how we behave as an institution. Wesleyan should not pretend to be able to cure the ills of the world, but we must be a responsible institutional citizen - locally, globally, and nationally. Let me give brief examples in each area. Locally, we must be engaged citizens in our Middletown community. By being a great university, we will also be able to work with our neighbors to attract intellectual and financial investment in our city’s schools, businesses and cultural organizations. Globally, we must work to attract students here from around the world, building on the extraordinary success of the Freeman Scholars program, which I hope will become a permanent part of our university. And we must do our part and join with other institutions to confront one of the most pressing problems facing us today: global climate change. This month I will sign the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, and I ask you to join me in making Wesleyan a more thoughtful steward of our environmental legacy.
Nationally, Wesleyan must again find its voice as a champion of liberal arts education as an essential part of our public culture. Our education system at the k-12 level is in disarray, and our best colleges and universities have a responsibility to bring new ideas to this broken system. Education in America has become a vehicle for preserving privilege, and it should be a vehicle for social advancement. Education at all levels should produce a spirit of freedom, and advance the possibilities for meaningful equality. At Wesleyan we are fortunate to experience this spirit and the community to which it gives rise. But we must not let the experience become a luxury available only to the wealthy. We must protect need blind admissions and enhance it.
In my first two months on campus we have prepared a plan to reduce dramatically the amount of money we ask students to borrow to attend our school. Starting with the frosh class entering in 2008, we will significantly decrease student indebtedness and entirely eliminate required borrowing for our neediest students by substituting grants for loans. All first year students entering in the fall will have loan levels significantly reduced, and most students whose household income is under $40,000 will have Wesleyan grants instead of debt. Frankly, I wish we could do even more, but we cannot afford to do anything less. Wesleyan must not only preach, we must act. And so we will.
Since developing this plan, I have been greatly encouraged by the support already offered by our alumni and parents. From West Coast to East, we have received several generous gifts to the endowment that will support this initiative. In the last several weeks we have received more than 10 million dollars in gifts to support student aid. Led by its thoughtful and resourceful Board of Trustees, the Wesleyan family is engaged, supportive, and generous because we ourselves have experienced the gift of the education offered here.
It is one of the great joys of my life to be here with my family, colleagues, teachers and friends to accept the charge to be Wesleyan University’s 16th president. I believe that my alma mater stands for the best in progressive liberal arts education, teaching our community to think with purpose and passion, and then to connect that thinking to the world beyond our campus in ways that are fulfilling and effective. This is “a high and lofty goal,” to repeat the words that Victor Butterfield used when he was inaugurated as Wesleyan’s eleventh president in 1943. In the middle of horrific global war, President Butterfield had the courage and faith to remind our community of the importance of liberal learning. During a time of crisis and a call to arms, he underscored the ideal of “perpetual learning” and “the humble restless search for truth in all experience.” When faced with profound and violent challenges, President Butterfield urged the Wesleyan community to preserve its ideals, and to “sail by the stars.”
“We can do no less.”
As one of America’s great institutions of higher education, Wesleyan University has a responsibility to contribute to making our public culture more thoughtful and more humane, more creative and more just. As your president, I pledge to join with you in making that contribution, and I joyfully accept the charge given me today.