Argus: Do you think anything has changed about Wesleyan since you took over?
President Roth: On the infrastructure side, there’s been a greater focus on economics and fiscal discipline, and there is a much greater emphasis on the long-term economic growth of the institution. There’s been a greater focus on what is distinctive about the Wesleyan educational experience. Over these past few years, I’ve been having conversations with faculty, students, and alumni about not just how strong we are as a school but what is particular about the Wesleyan educational experience that we cherish and want to preserve for future generations. That has allowed us to make some significant changes on the academic side, co-curricular side, and in the way we talk to alumni. Instead of celebrating the success and the strengths of the school, which we try to tease out from our own experiences of Wesleyan, we have been trying to look at what we think is characteristic of the personality of the institution and to strengthen these areas, such as creativity and political engagement. We’re trying to define how liberal arts can be made relevant to culture and society. I think we’ve made some progress as a result of those conversations. Here are a few examples: we’ve created the College of the Environment, we’ve enhanced our ability to do work in the community, and we’ve worked to make diversity not just a slogan but a more meaningful experience for Wesleyan students. We’ve also really worked on the way we do admissions and to try to celebrate what’s “Wesleyan-ish” about the place.
A: Throughout your three years as President, you have introduced new ideas, new plans, and new ways of running the University. What are your goals for the future and is there a larger vision driving these changes?
PR: We’ve had a series of conversations with student leaders, faculty, students, and alumni about the overarching goals of the Wesleyan 2020 plan. I hope the things I’ve articulated in that document build on the progressive legacy of the Butterfield years. Although we’ve set up the COE and the Center for the Study of Public Life during the year marking the fiftieth anniversary of the College of Letters, the College of Social Studies and the Center for the Humanities, I do think there’s a lot more than can be done. The vision is to champion curricular reform that enlivens the liberal arts while making it relevant to culture, society, and the economy, and promoting access to the institution from diverse quarters. In that regard I’ve emphasized geographic diversity in addition to racial and ethnic diversity.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what Wesleyan stands for. In our history as a university we have taken stands that are progressive, and we know that because others have followed us. There’s a whole range of places where Wesleyan is an intellectual pioneer. Part of the vision I have for Wesleyan is that we should strive to always be pioneers. This will mean that sometimes we will fall into a trap or make a mistake because we have to take risks. That’s something about Wesleyan students, that they do take risks. Sometimes they fall, but it’s such a compassionate community that when people do fall, someone usually helps them up.
A: How does your background as a scholar and former Wesleyan student inform your role as an administrator?
PR: I think I come to my position with the perspective of a faculty member. The only administrative position that I’ve held at a college or university is that of president. As a faculty member, I was intensely suspicious of any administrator, and so I think I understand a healthy skepticism about any administration. I have tried to be as transparent as possible about what we do, especially in economic matters. Occasionally, there are serious issues of privacy that make it impossible to be as transparent as one would like to be. But on the whole, I think that faculty should be suspicious of administrators.
My scholarly work also influences me, which may be for better or worse. My work is about how people make sense of the past. How you deal with memory, desire, trauma, and emotion. Here I am, back in the place where I went to college, which for me was an extraordinarily transformative experience. The person I was when I got here was very different from the person who graduated, in large part because of the teachers I had and the students I met. So for me coming back here is not just an administrative responsibility, but it’s a deeply emotional and intellectual responsibility because, after all, I work on how people deal with their past. The book I am completing this summer deals with issues of history and memory in French cultural history, as well as in teaching these subjects in the contemporary American university.
My scholarly work has always been infused and informed by what I’ve been teaching. I always think of my work in as integrated a way as possible, and I try to keep it that way, even while being a university president.
A: The recession has strained the University’s finances and forced the University to re-evaluate many of its plans. What has the recession taught you about running a University? How has the recession affected your priorities as President?
PR: The recession has taught me that we must be extremely prudent in our use of resources that should in an institution like ours last forever. I think I began to see that necessity for prudence even before the recession hit, when we postponed the science building, but the recession showed us that we really needed to concentrate on our priorities. We did balance the budget, we did cut a lot of things, but we didn’t cut financial aid. The faculty and staff had a pay freeze and those of us at the top had a pay cut, but we didn’t have to have generalized layoffs. In fact we hired over 20 professors in the middle of the recession because we decided we would not cut corners in the curriculum. These hires will have a big impact on students. We also during this period started the Small Class Initiative and added dozens of small classes being taught by our regular faculty.
The economic conditions of the last year have really shown me how important it is to be more disciplined about how we use resources we’re lucky enough to have. We have to save money for emergencies; we have put together reserves for contingencies. I don’t think the student experience has been negatively impacted by the cuts we’ve made, and I really want to make sure that that remains the case. I joke with the alumni sometimes that when I came back to Wesleyan, I discovered that I am a fiscal conservative. Of all places to make that discovery, Wesleyan? But it’s true; I don’t like to spend money I don’t have. Some people said we should have a freeze on hiring, I said no, that would have meant fewer classes. We can’t afford to have fewer classes. We did receive a $1 million grant to start the small class initiative and we did go out and hire Amy Bloom. She’s a great writer who was teaching at Yale, lives nearby and would love to teach at Wesleyan. Happily, I could find a donor to pay for it.
All this is to say that I think there are some really great things you can do in the middle of an economic recession as long as you’re really careful about how you spend money.
A: Certainly as students, we find the day-to-day college experience to be quite unpredictable. What have you found to be most surprising in your three years as President?
PR: The murder last year was by far the most shocking. The shock of the event itself and then the responsibility of trying to keep the campus as safe as possible while there was still a murderer at large was of course beyond surprising. And the compassion, and cooperation, and solidarity at Wesleyan and people outside of Wesleyan… I can’t say enough how proud I was by their generosity of spirit. So there was the surprise of horror and the surprise at how wonderful people can be.
And then there are the surprises of being woken up at 3 a.m. and being asked to protect our students from the Middletown Police Department down on Fountain Avenue. Coming out in the middle of the night, and finding the street filled with drunken students and a TV camera was very surprising. I’ve also been to some just wonderful performances and even performed myself, which I never thought I would do in public. I’ve really enjoyed playing music here, and students have been so kind. Other surprises: The economic conditions at the University were surprising to me, but now we’ve got things in hand.
And I was just surprised by how much attention people pay to the president. I didn’t do that when I was a student. It’s really surprising to me that people pay attention if I go the gym or walk Mathilde. I should add that people here have been so friendly most of the time; sometimes parents come up to me and complain about a grade I gave in my class, but that’s very infrequent (HA HA).
A: What are you most proud of in your term as President and what would you have done differently?
PR: I’m most proud of the leadership team’s response last year to the murder. I think we did our best, and that was the most important thing at that moment. Looking ahead, I’m really proud of how we’ve been able to put the university on a track to build the endowment through fundraising, rather than spend money through fundraising. That is an enormous shift in a difficult economic climate. I love the curriculum initiatives, the College of the Environment and creative writing. I think the heart of the school, you know I’m a nerd at heart, is the curriculum and in the end you reflect your values by what you teach. So strengthening the academic programs is really important to me.
What do I wish I had done differently? I opened my mouth about too many things my first year and got myself in unnecessarily hot water. I created distractions by saying something in student life was stupid and The Argus ran with it because I really did say it. I said some things as if I knew the place better than I did. I did go here, but it was a long time ago. I’ve come to realize that I only knew a small part of Wesleyan—my friends, classes—and that was my world, but not all of Wesleyan. So I wish I had been a little more circumspect. I talk a lot, but like Wesleyan students, I’m willing to make mistakes. I don’t have a secret formula, I don’t do everything perfectly, so I try to make sure that I am respectful of others and clear in my reasoning. That’s the best I can do. I’m called upon to make many judgments: from big budget items to individual judicial cases. I don’t pretend to have the magic solution. I look at every case, and really think about it, so as to be as consistent and fair as possible.
A: What are your plans for the year ahead?
PR: Next year, we will continue to work on the things we’ve started. This will include civic engagement work, the internationalization of the student body, and changes in the curriculum. We will look for opportunities for partnerships with other institutions to extend the reach of the University with partners that make sense for us, whether they’re in China or Chicago. And the other thing we’ll do is we’ll stir the pot again, that is we’ll say, ‘OK, we did the College of the Environment, what’s the next big thing?” I think the curriculum should be constantly offering opportunities for innovation. There are faculty members who would like to see more classes that reach across more of the curriculum. I would also like to see us really build on our strengths. It’s a great university overall, and we attract wonderful students, and there are some places where I think lately we have really shined. The film department, for example, is a program that is internationally recognized for its excellence as a small, but mighty crew. We can build on that.
Our science programs are also internationally recognized. We will also invest in the sciences. We really want to make sure that although they are not getting a new building in the near future, we are investing in the equipment and the facilities so that students and faculty continue to do very high level research. In film, they go off to Hollywood and make movies, and in the sciences we also have stars go off to medical school, research careers and biotechnology firms, and I want to make sure we’re giving them the tools they need to be successful. We’re not giving them a brand new building, but we can invest in the sciences.
There are opportunities to give the faculty more tools to expand their horizons and to build on the curriculum in ways that go beyond campus. The Albritton Center opened this year, as did the Shapiro writing center. I’m delighted that that building is now being used so well. And next year the squash courts will be under construction as we build a new home for the Career Resource Center, and the Art History and COL Departments. We may not be able to save MoCon but we can make something beautiful out of the old Squash Court Building. That’s something to celebrate.