Argus: What do you feel you have accomplished in the face of the recession over these past two years?
President Michael Roth: I think balancing the budget this year and creating a plan for long term sustainability has been a joint accomplishment of the faculty, students, trustees and staff. I was proud to lead that effort and try to bring our spending in relation to our resources.
Being more prudent about our capital expenditures last year and this year has been very important. We have improved financial aid, reducing student indebtedness by 35 percent overall.
The economy has prevented us from making as much progress as I’d hoped in many areas because we’ve been working on balancing the budget. I’ve spent a lot of time consulting with different constituencies, making sure we have enough to money to get through tough times.
A: What are your goals for the future?
MR: I would like to see Wesleyan become confident in its distinctiveness, sure of itself as a leader in American higher education, and articulate in expressing what we stand for. There are seven areas that have been the most important points of focus.
The first is enhanced financial aid—when I first started we immediately changed the financial aid program to make it more generous to our neediest student, which I think is very important especially in light of the current recession.
The second goal is investment in the sciences. We’ve postponed a major capital expense for our new science building but we still need to invest in the sciences—and in people and in equipment. As the economy improves, I think we’ll be able to start doing just that.
The third area is called curricular reform; I’ve focused on the first year and last year. I would like to see the first year experience to be much more of a cohort-building threshold experience, providing students with the sense that they’re in a different kind of place—some place unlike wherever they’ve studied before. The other thing I’ve mentioned is a senior capstone experience; eventually I’d like to see everybody graduating from Wesleyan accomplishing an independent project of some kind—not necessarily a scholarly thesis, but some kind of independent project to serve as a transition between Wesleyan and whatever comes next.
The fourth goal is internationalization. Wesleyan has had approximately seven percent of its students from outside the US; I’d like to see that doubled over several years. I also want to make sure the curriculum is as international and cosmopolitan as possible. It has to be a faculty-led process whereby we examine each sector of the curriculum to ensure that the education our students are getting what prepares them to be global citizens, not just members of the US economy and culture.
The next two areas are things people have long said about Wesleyan students that I’m not convinced we have anchored in our curriculum. The first is that we’re an activist bunch, with a lot of politics on campus. Rather than try to run away from that image, I think we should embrace it. Wes students should learn how to be more effective neighbors and citizens, more effective at civic engagement because of their time on campus. The other thing people say about Wesleyan students is that we’re a creative bunch. I want to make sure that creativity is actually an innovation, plugged into the curriculum, so that it’s not just for the studio art majors but something that is accessible for everyone. In every department, there are ways I believe we can help people become more creative or at least be more aware of the creative possibilites.
The last area is the College of the Environment, which we’ve taken a big step towards an obligatory linked major, which has just been approved by the faculty. Eventually, I’d like that to become our new College of the Environment. We have the College of Social Studies and the College of Letters, both of which are celebrating their 50th anniversaries. It’s the perfect time to start the College of the Environment.
All of these are attempts to take what Wesleyan students stand for and to try to make us better and more serious about those things. It’s important for the President to talk about these initiatives in the public sphere, and so I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to share what Wesleyan stands for, traveling around the country meeting with alumni, giving speeches, and writing for the Huffington Post and the Los Angeles Times.
A: In what ways has Wesleyan changed since you were a student?
MR: I think there’s a spirit at Wesleyan that’s remained strong. This sense of practical idealism, of people who have great ambition and dream big but learn to acquire skills that allow them to operate in the world and to make stuff happen—this was characteristic of Wesleyan in the seventies and is still so.
Things that have changed…the role of parents has changed enormously since I was a student. My parents heard from me once a week—now there are students who call their parents before they call their advisor. I don’t think it’s a sign of the strength of the family, but a sign that people are not allowed to grow up. Parents are concerned and parents are often paying, but the fact is that students are adults. But this isn’t a Wesleyan change—it’s a national change.
Wesleyan has a lot more school spirit now than when I was a student, and I think that’s a good thing. I belonged to Alpha Delta Phi and I was very involved with the activities of the fraternity but I’d never heard the fight song—I didn’t even know there was a fight song! Wesleyan students sing it not so much with irony as with glee. Of course, part of the student culture is oppositional and that’s also a very good thing, but I think we express our school spirit more freely today than in the past.
A: What was your experience at Wesleyan like?
MR: I was involved in some political things but I was very serious about my studies. I was only here three years so I had a lot to do quickly. I worked in the kitchen at Alpha Delt, so I was there late at night and early in the morning. I wanted to be a writer so I wrote short stories and poetry, some of which were published in Hermes. I volunteered in a hospital psychiatric ward, I tutored an elementary school kid, I was a senior interviewer, I was a T.A. in psychology. Now that I think about it, I wonder how I had the time, but there were just so many interesting things to do.
A: What does Wesleyan stand for to you?
MR: This is what I hope to be talking about with students and faculty over the next year. To me, Wesleyan represents a progressive liberal arts education, meaning that it’s a leader in higher education and that other people follow what we do. I suppose one way to think about Wesleyan’s future is that we want to be a better school, richer, more selective, but that’s boring to me. Wesleyan isn’t just another liberal arts college that’s hard to get into. We have stood for something special, for creativity, for political engagement, for a research-oriented curriculum. These are qualities to build on in the future.
A: What do you think are the greatest challenges going into next year?
MR: There are still great economic challenges to giving people the resources they need to be great at what they do. There are cultural challenges in getting people to think: “What does the University as a whole stand for?” Sometimes it’s very hard for someone in one field to talk to someone in another, so we have to find ways of bridging that. I disagree with anyone who says we should just be a small teaching school. At Wesleyan, our teaching is great because our research is deep. Research shouldn’t isolate us—it should give us more ways of linking to one another.
A: What plans do you have to address the budgetary crisis in the future?
MR: I would like to see Wesleyan much more economically secure than we are today. The short term goal is to put spending in line with resources, which we’ve almost done. The long term goal is to increase economic capacity so that we know that the important things are here to stay. I would like to see a much larger portion of the financial aid program endowed, so at the next campaign I hope to raise a couple hundred million dollars. It’s not just about raising money to spend in a year, but saving and investing so that over time our financial aid program will be secure. We have created emergency funds through cost-cutting and we have tried to show our donors that we are responsible and creative stewards of generosity. A lot of what I’ve talked about—the core values, what we stand for—are good in themselves but if we do them well we will also inspire generosity. Communication about these values and programs is really important; we need more people around the world to know that we have something very special at this university.
A: Overall, what are your feelings about your first two years as president?
MR: I’m not satisfied. There are things I’m proud of, I’ve made some mistakes, I joke around a lot and sometimes say things I shouldn’t say. As President, I want to show respect for all members of the Wesleyan community. I think I can do more to help the University realize its potential and I think I have to be an even better listener. As you can see, I like to talk, but I really want to be a good listener so I can understand what students, alumni, faculty, trustees, and staff think about where we’re going. The more I can understand other points of view, the more effective I’ll be as a leader.