Biography of Michael S. Roth


Michael S. Roth '78 became the 16th president of Wesleyan University on July 1, 2007 (inauguration). Formerly president of California College of the Arts (CCA), Roth is known as a historian, curator, author and public advocate for liberal education.

A professor in history and the humanities since 1983, Roth was the founding director of the Scripps College Humanities Institute in Claremont, Calif., a center for intellectual exchange across disciplines. He developed a reputation as a leader in the arts community through his accomplishments as associate director of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles and his success as president of the California College of the Arts in enhancing that institution’s academic quality, national reputation and financial strength.

Roth describes his scholarly interests as centered on "how people make sense of the past." He has authored seven books: Psycho-Analysis as History: Negation and Freedom in Freud (Cornell University Press, 1987, 1995); Knowing and History: Appropriations of Hegel in Twentieth Century France (Cornell, 1988); The Ironist's Cage: Trauma, Memory and the Construction of History (Columbia University Press, 1995); Irresistible Decay: Ruins Reclaimed, with Clare Lyons and Charles Merewether (Getty Research Institute, 1997); Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living with the Past (Columbia University Press, 2012); Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (Yale University Press, 2014); and Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness (Yale University Press, 2019). Irresistible Decay stemmed from the exhibition of the same name that he co-curated for the opening of the Getty Museum. He also curated the major exhibition Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture, which opened at the Library of Congress in 1998, and garnered praise for its balanced and wide-ranging view of Freud's intellectual and cultural heritage. The exhibition traveled internationally in subsequent years. Roth has edited and co-edited numerous journal issues and books, including Looking for Los Angeles: Architecture, Film, Photographyand Urban Landscape and Disturbing Remains: Memory, History, and Crisis in the Twentieth Century (both co-edited with Charles G. Salas, Getty Research Institute, 2001), and he regularly publishes essays, book reviews, and commentaries in national newspapers and scholarly journals. He continues to regularly teach undergraduate courses, and through Coursera has offered MOOCs, the most recent being “How to Change the World.”

Roth’s call for a “pragmatic liberal education” is the cornerstone of both his scholarship and his administrative work at Wesleyan. His 2014 book, Beyond the University (Yale University Press), has been a powerful tool for students, their families, faculty and policymakers who are wrestling with the future of higher education in America. The book has been assigned to pre-frosh and to boards of trustees, and Roth has continued to amplify its message in public speaking engagements across the country and through essays in major media outlets. In January 2016, Beyond the Universitywon the Association of American Colleges & Universities’ Frederic W. Ness award for a book that best illuminates the goals and practices of a contemporary liberal education. Roth’s newest book, Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness (Yale University Press, 2019), addresses some of the most contentious issues in American higher education, including affirmative action, safe spaces, and questions of free speech.

Early Years

A native of Brooklyn and in the first generation of his family to attend college, Roth entered Wesleyan in the fall of 1975. He designed a university major in "history of psychological theory" and wrote a thesis titled Freud and Revolution, which began the exploration that would become his first book and the basis of the Library of Congress exhibition. He completed his undergraduate studies in three years, graduating with University Honors, summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and went on to earn his doctorate in history at Princeton University in 1984.

Scholarly Career Beginnings

Roth began his teaching career in 1983 at Scripps College, becoming Hartley Burr Alexander Professor of the Humanities there in 1989. He was also the director of European Studies at the Claremont Graduate University, where he helped to found the Ph.D. program in Cultural Studies.

In 1994 Roth was invited to participate as a visiting scholar in the Getty Research Institute's year on memory. Two years later, he was asked to lead the scholars and seminars program at the Getty. Roth focused research there around such topics as the history, architecture and arts of Los Angeles, the representation of traumatic events, the problem of giving “the passions” artistic expression, and the role of the humanities in public culture. He also built partnerships with cultural organizations in the East and South Central sections of the city, as well as with international centers of research.

Higher Education Administration

In 2000, Roth became president of the California College of the Arts and led an effort to revise the school's curriculum to emphasize interdisciplinary work and liberal learning. The school added new academic programs, including undergraduate degrees in community arts, creative writing, visual studies and animation, as well as master’s programs in curatorial practice, visual criticism, interactive design, writing and architecture. His legacy there includes the development of the Center for Art and Public Life, which fosters community partnerships in the San Francisco Bay area and models ways art can benefit underserved urban neighborhoods and their schools, and the strengthening of the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, which has developed an international reputation for its exhibitions and public programs. In 2006, the San Francisco Chronicle noted that CCA had evolved into “one of the most progressive arts education institutions in the country.”

Leadership at Wesleyan University

Since becoming president of Wesleyan, Roth has undertaken a number of initiatives that have energized the curriculum and helped to make a Wesleyan education more affordable. These include a three-year degree program that can save families as much as $50,000. He has eliminated loans for the neediest students, replacing them with grants, and ensured that other students receiving financial aid are able to graduate without a heavy burden of debt. In an effort to attract more students from under-represented groups, he has eliminated the standardized test requirement and he has welcomed undocumented applicants who’ve grown up in the U.S. as admissions candidates eligible for the same robust financial aid as American citizens.

Under Roth, the University has opened the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life, and a new home for the College of Letters, Art History and the Career Center. He has overseen the launch of four new interdisciplinary colleges emphasizing advanced research and cohort building: the College of the Environment, the College of Film and the Moving Image, the College of East Asian Studies and the College of Integrative Sciences. Another new initiative, the Shapiro Center for Writing, brings together students and faculty seriously engaged in writing, while the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship builds capacity for developing organizations that address major social issues. In cooperation with the Posse Foundation, Roth has created a program for cohorts of military veterans, and he has invited retired military officers to teach at Wesleyan in attempt to broaden campus perspective and to take steps to bridge the military civilian divide.

Roth oversaw the most ambitious fundraising campaign in Wesleyan's history. The campaign, which concluded in June 2016, raised more than $482 million, far surpassing its original goal of $400 million, with the majority going to financial aid. Another step in 2016 solidifying Wesleyan’s financial future was the successful issuance of $250M of 100-year, fixed rate taxable bonds, refinancing the majority of the University’s existing debt. Since then, Roth has outlined a number of new investments Wesleyan can make to ensure that it remains at the forefront of pragmatic liberal education. These include expanding the faculty so as to create more opportunities for mentorship; sustainability initiatives; an institution-wide effort to build greater equity and inclusion; creating more internships that allow students to connect their campus learning to their aspirations to the wider world; continuing to increase financial aid; and launching facilities projects that leverage technological changes in teaching and learning. 

Wesleyan was a transformational experience for Roth, and he wants to ensure that the distinctive educational experience offered there will continue to create profound opportunities for students long into the future. Intellectual diversity and the challenge of encountering new ideas will be at the heart of that experience, as will a supportive and diverse community that inspires students to achieve their personal best—go beyond what they thought they could accomplish for “for the good of the individual and the good of the world.”