President Michael Roth spoke about his ongoing campaign to spread and strengthen the University’s reputation, as well as redefine academic priorities, at Sunday night’s Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) meeting.
Roth also spoke candidly about his conception of the ideal Wesleyan student, his issues with chalking and attempts to “Keep Wesleyan Weird.”
“I have been impressed by the serious, energetic activism of groups at Wesleyan working for peace, on the environment, on anti-racism, and on behalf of workers,” Roth said. “This is not about weirdness, it’s about progressive politics and building our campus culture.”
WSA member Saul Carlin ’09 asked Roth about the “Keep Wesleyan Weird” movement, which began last year amid criticisms that administrators were lessening the University’s uniqueness.
“Frankly, I think its nonsense, it’s puerile,” Roth said. “Wesleyan has been a leader in political struggles. That’s not weird, that’s admirable.”
Roth said he discussed what makes Wesleyan unique at November’s Board of Trustees meeting, and emphasized the University’s core values.
“Wesleyan has been at the forefront of critical thinking about issues of social justice since the 1960s,” Roth said. “This is far more important than cultivating an interest in the tunnels, or composing anti-corporate juvenilia.”
This response prompted another question on chalking, to which Roth expressed reservations about chalking as political expression.
“I don’t really have an opinion on writing on the sidewalk with different colored chalk,” he said. “I’m more interested in what people say than in the colors they use to write—whether they put the ideas in chalk or on flyers. I wish energy was used in making a difference in neighborhoods in Middletown, or on national issues rather than expressing an attitude.”
Roth reiterated his previously stated goal to identify Wesleyan as a bastion of political action among liberal arts colleges and to distinguish its public image from that of peer schools like Vassar and Williams.
Roth also discussed potential changes to the University’s academic program. He echoed earlier calls to create a required capstone experience for seniors.
“When everyone goes through Wesleyan they should go through something that is intense and academic,” he said. “There should be something of parallel intensity, almost ritual. All seniors would go through it. I think it would add a lot to the school. I’m eager to find a way to find that Wesleyan can have seniors do something ’Wesleyanish’ before they graduate.”
As the admissions season ramps up, Roth said he initiated a discussion with the Board of Trustees about what qualities Wesleyan should be looking for in new students.
“What Wesleyan students should be, we’re looking for students of extraordinary academic ability in all areas with proven achievement in one of more of those areas, passionate engagement on those ideas with other people, a taste and appetite for discussing issues in a community with a tolerance for views,” Roth said. “It’s a tall order, it’s a lot of things. The key for me is students who have courage, capacity, and care.”
WSA President Matt Ball emphasized that change was not something that students have to fear.
“Students can be afraid of change,” Ball said. “[Chair of the Board of Trustees] Jim Dresser once said that you can count on students to be more conservative than the Board when it comes to change. We have to realize that change can be good.”
Ball spoke to suspicions of Roth’s plan to redefine the University across both the nation and world.
“Yes, he’s intent on redefining the image of Wesleyan, but not in the ways that people are scared about,” Ball said. “It’s not about mainstreaming Wesleyan and making us exactly like Tufts. It’s about emphasizing that negative stereotypes about Wesleyan are not true. I think that’s good.”
WSA Organization and External Affairs Committee member Robert Alvarez ’11 enjoyed Roth’s talk.
“I agreed with a lot of the things he said,” said. “He’s a great speaker and a very charismatic person, and I appreciate that.”
Ball underscored Roth’s continued commitment to listening to students as he solidifies his plans for the University.
“He is goal setting right now, and he’s talked a lot about setting institutional and academic priorities,” Ball said. “He invited the WSA to come up with a list of student priorities that he can take into consideration when he makes his list of institutional priorities, and that gives students a great opportunity to shape the future of the school.”