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 eight 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); Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness (Yale University Press, 2019); and The Student: A Short History (Yale University Press, 2023). 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, Photography and 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 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 three books published with Yale University Press all bear upon this subject. His Beyond the University (2014), 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 2016 it won 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 Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness (2019), addresses some of the most contentious issues in American higher education, including affirmative action, safe spaces, and questions of free speech. His most recent book, The Student: A Short History (2023), explores some of the principal models for learning that have developed in very different contexts, from the sixth century BCE to the present.

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 helped to make a Wesleyan education more affordable, including a three-year degree program that can save families as much as $70,000. 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. In the wake of the Supreme Court's decision to end affirmative action, Roth ended Wesleyan's small program that gave preferential treatment for "legacy applicants" and reaffirmed the University's commitment to a diverse learning environment—making clear that this includes intellectual diversity requiring a commitment to free expression and thoughtful engagement across differences. As part of his commitment to internationalization, he launched the Wesleyan African Scholars program, providing a select group of undergraduates from Africa with 100% cost of attendance scholarships for four years.

Energizing the curriculum has been a priority for Roth, and he has overseen the launch of five 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, the College of Integrative Sciences, and the College of Design and Engineering Studies. Other notable initiatives include the Shapiro Center for Writing and Criticism, which brings together students and faculty seriously engaged in writing, and the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship, which builds capacity for developing organizations that address major social issues. In cooperation with the Posse Foundation, Roth 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. Under his leadership, the University 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.

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.”