The Wesleyan Fund recently sent me yet another exhortation to contribute to my alma mater. I’m sure you’re getting them too, or perhaps you are still counting the days until writing checks to Wesleyan becomes optional. My lack of donation thus far has not dissuaded them, however, so I’ve decided a more public response is necessary. Perhaps afterwards they will stop wasting my time. Here’s why I’m not giving a dime to the Wesleyan Fund: not now, not ever.
No current underclassperson was at Wesleyan in 2003 when President Bennett banned chalking, presumably in an effort to make our campus “prettier” for tours, or perhaps simply to shut down one avenue of student activism. I wasn’t there either. But like me, you’re probably peripherally aware of it, because chalking has remained an occasional hot topic on campus. Similarly, when the current senior class graduates, no one but a few graduate students who happened to once be particularly cool freshman will remember the police brutality on Fountain Avenue in the spring of 2008 that sent three students to the emergency room with dog bites and left countless others desperately washing pepper spray from their eyes. In two or three years, no current student will remember that time the University deemed a cartoon character too subversive to provide even his name to a storied and harmless festival. That Zonker Harris Day has since regained its name, only after Roth and co. were mocked by Gary Trudeau on a national stage, does nothing to redeem the University. (Their capitulation was also tarnished by the new requirement that the festival include a “community service element” — apparently it’s no longer politically correct to throw a festival for art, music and fun). And in two years, no student will remember what it was like to sit on Foss Hill, legally drinking a beer.
The point is that Wesleyan University has proved time and time again—under the leadership of President Bennett and the leadership of President Roth—that it is willing to abuse the short institutional memory of a naturally transitive student body.
I watched President Roth take his oath of office, and I watched a few weeks later when he declared chalking to be graffiti. I watched the police dogs savagely attack fellow students, and took a punch to the stomach for my trouble (thanks, Officer Clark). I watched as Roth called a 30-old festival “stupid,” as though that were sufficient explanation for the University’s flagrant suppression of speech. And then, my senior year, I was sent to the SJB after an incident at Senior Cocktails. I was intoxicated and certainly in the wrong. But my transgression of Connecticut law was not a violation of the Code of Non-Academic Conduct. And I watched as Scott Backer and Dean Rick Culliton simply ignored the University’s judicial procedures and used the SJB, a puppet body, to sentence me to 30 hours of community service. I refused, and still do not have my diploma. I realize that not all will agree with me that both the letter and the spirit of the law are violated when the former is ignored ostensibly in service to the latter. Far worse was the case of 1 Pearl.
A few weeks after my run-in with the “justice” system of Wesleyan University, the seniors living in 1 Pearl had their own encounter. They were required to pay about $2,000 for damage that unknown others had caused, across campus, during an event that had begun outside their house, and for which they had provided nothing but a Facebook invitation and a list of campus locations. They chose to pay rather than forfeit their diplomas—I don’t agree with their decision, but I can understand it. The school’s decision to abuse its position of power and hold them liable for the actions of others was as shocking as it was immoral. Never have I heard of an institution of higher education similarly debasing its lofty purpose. The ruling was also illegal under Sec. 53a-119 of the Connecticut Penal Code.
Chalking continues, occasionally, but it is few and far between. The culture of chalking that once existed is now gone. After the incident on Fountain, steps were supposedly taken that will ensure the Middletown Police do not abuse students when they are engaged in legal activities. Steps were also supposedly taken after a similar incident in 2002. And as for the hypocrisy of a university that champions critical thinking while shamelessly repressing the speech of its students—well, that remains an open question.
These are the actions of a university that does not respect its students, its traditions, or itself. Small wonder, then, that the rate of alumni giving, especially among recent alums, is but a small fraction of our peer institutions’.
This is not the letter of a bitter, resentful alum. I loved my time at Wesleyan, a fact I attribute entirely to the amazing students that populate its halls. Kudos to the Admissions Office, for consistently selecting a blend of incredible talents, interests, and passion from an enormous applicant pool. And I do not find it difficult to reconcile my disappointment with the Wesleyan administration with my love for the student body. But—wait!—you say: donations from alumni are what enable this place, administration or no. You’re right, and here’s the solution.
First, if you are still a student: keep doing what you’re doing. Keep brewing beer and writing songs and saving the world. Keep creating subversive art. Continue chalking in front of South College and dancing in Exley. Keep punking tours: if the Captain Makeout prank hasn’t happened yet, it’s definitely time. Don’t spend all your time on classwork — be a part of your community. Keep building things bigger than yourself, and believing that you can make it happen if you really want to.
And if you’re an alum or a parent: remember what it is about Wesleyan that you loved, and give your money directly to it. Don’t worry, it will still be tax-deductible. If it’s a scholarship, contact the trustee. If it’s a course of study, seek out the professor. If it’s a club or a cause, find the students who are as passionate as you once were, or still are. And don’t trust the Wesleyan Fund to forward your money. I spent months during my senior year tracking down donations made to the sailing team, and I’m still not sure I found them all. It will require more effort on your part, and there won’t be a polished website that accepts your credit card. But it is an investment that will come with a greater return.
We can best honor the spirit of Wesleyan and the liberal tradition not by blindly donating to an increasingly imperious administration, but by carefully targeting our support: by funding the experiences that shaped us when we were students. As for me, I’ll be giving my money to the sailing team and a few other special student organizations. And I’ll be sending a version of this letter to student-run campus media every year, because incoming students deserve to know just how their university has treated those that have come before them.
Mayer is a member of the class of 2010.