Michael Roth ’78 has been selected as Wesleyan’s next president, the University announced Monday. Roth, currently the president of California College of the Arts (CCA), will become the University’s 16th president effective in May.
“I believe that he embodies the qualities of leadership we seek to develop in our students, and his career reflects the sort of innovation and achievement we intend to maintain and even accelerate at Wesleyan in the years ahead,” Chair of the Board of Trustees Jim Dresser ’63 said in the all-campus e-mail about the decision.
Roth’s selection was the culmination of a yearlong process headed by the Presidential Search Committee, comprised of students, faculty, and trustees. In an interview with the Argus, he pledged to double the University’s endowment within five to seven years, triple fundraising, enable students lacking financial means to attend the University without hardship, renew the relationship between the administration and faculty, and make facilities “second to none.”
When pressed on the specifics of his vision for the University, such as reducing student debt, Roth admitted that he had not figured out the exact how-to details of his program.
“I need to learn more about Wesleyan today,” he said. “I really need to spend time just listening to students tell me what they care about.”
According to Roth, his path to the presidency was far from deliberate and planned. He said he was surprised and flattered when, in the fall, a colleague asked if she could nominate him for the committee’s consideration.
“At the time, I didn’t think there was much of a chance,” Roth said, adding that he and his family had not been intending to make any major changes in their lives but that he relented because of his affinity for the University. “Wesleyan is this special place to me, and had an enormously positive influence on me.”
Roth is the first member of his family to attend college, according to the press release. He created a University major during his time as an undergraduate in “history of psychological theory,” studying with professors, such as Victor Gourevitch, he would later work with as an academic.
“I should say that my teachers were profoundly gifted people and made great contributions to their fields,” he said. “When I was 19, I didn’t really care about that. I just knew they were great people to hang out with and learn from.”
After earning his Ph.D. in history at Princeton University in 1984, he taught at Scripps College and Claremont Graduate School. In 1987, he founded an interdisciplinary institute based on the Center for the Humanities, according to the press release.
His fondest memory of the University comes from the time he spent living in Alpha Delta Phi, a fraternity at the time, enjoying socializing with his friends.
“They created an atmosphere of freedom and affection that was totally compatible with getting an enormous amount of work done,” he said. “I’ve never seen it, quite frankly, anywhere else.”
Roth is the author of many books in his area of expertise, European intellectual history and the history of psychological thought. His works run the gamut from a book on Freudian theory to one on French appropriations of the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, but he is particularly interested in issues of historical memory. As an intellectual historian, Roth said, his experience working across disciplines and investigating the production of knowledge has prepared him to supervise the University’s science program.
“There is no choice between sciences and the humanities,” Roth said. “You have to look for how to integrate these two.”
Roth’s background in the creative arts and his experience as an undergraduate makes him dedicated to a progressive liberal arts education, he said.
“We want to give people the very best in progressive education in our country,” Roth said, adding that the job of the University was to equip students to connect their education to the real world and that he wished to increase the University’s involvement in the Middletown community.
He also intends to teach a history class next semester. According to Jade Olson, a CCA student who had a class with him, Roth is particularly good at making abstract ideas understandable.
“The first day of class I was definitely a bit thrown by his unconventional approach to lecturing, but after a few weeks his quirky antics really kept me interested,” Olson said. “I never wanted to miss this class.”
At CCA, Roth spearheaded a program to partner artwork with community service and urban renewal, called the Center for Art and Public Life. According to the press release, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that CCA became “one of the most progressive arts education institutions in the country” under Roth’s tenure.
Although he holds to his vision of an integrated and synergetic university community, Roth said he understands that being president will involve tough decisions. He acknowledged that not all decisions he makes as president will please all parties at the University, but he pledges to be as open as possible and explain his rationale thoroughly.
“I will have a decision-making process that is transparent,” he said, adding that he must be able to explain why a particular decision was made.
He will be open to compromise and looking at various approaches to a given issue, he said.
“I am always happy to discover a better idea than mine,” Roth said. “Hopefully that will keep the dialogue alive.”
One of the respects in which this may become important is in the incoming president’s dealings with faculty, some of whom have voiced their discontent with their pay and benefits.
“I look forward to learning more about faculty concern in regard to salaries and other things so I can figure out how to advance the productive role of our faculty,” he said. “I want to ensure we can recruit the best faculty, retain the best faculty, and that the core faculty feel dedicated to Wesleyan’s mission, and feel that Wesleyan is dedicated to their well-being.”