If President Michael Roth were a student, he would be graduating in the coming weeks after coming to Wesleyan in 2007. Instead, he has signed a seven-year contract with the University. He is overseeing Wesleyan 2020, and hopes to make progress over the next decade in energizing the distinctive aspects of the Wesleyan curriculum, expanding the public’s recognition of Wesleyan, and strengthening the University’s finances. As has become a year-end tradition at The Argus, we sat down with President Roth to discuss his tenure and his plans for the year ahead.
The Argus: So you recently renewed your contract with the University. What are your plans for the year ahead in terms of academics?
Michael Roth: I think next year we should spend a lot of time thinking about the curriculum we have and whether it’s serving our students as well as we would want it to. I have focused since I started on the first year and the last year [in college]. This year the faculty passed a resolution encouraging capstone experiences for all students. We want to see what’s possible in that regard, and then turn our attention to whether the first and second year students are doing what we hope them to be doing. I want to beef up our advising system, and we ‘re going to be running a pilot that will to be experimenting with new ways of doing advising next year. We will continue to try to raise money for financial aid and to support the academic core.
A: What about in terms of infrastructure? Are there any plans to do anything to student housing, for instance?
MR: Well I don’t anticipate any major infrastructure changes, but I do expect the old squash courts to be a great new home for the Career Resource Center, the College of Letters, and the Art History Department. Beyond that, we will continue to invest major sums of money in the renovation of our science facilities, in new labs, and improved safety and ventilation systems, and we will continue to do that. On student housing, the biggest challenge is that the most popular student housing we have—the woodframe houses—are also the most energy inefficient, and we are constantly trying to keep them from falling down. We respect the students’ living choices, but if we can replace the most dilapidated houses with the prototypes, like the ones around the [Freeman] Athletic Center, we will continue to do that. But that will be a slow process. I don’t foresee any major building projects, although I do hope we can work with the city of Middletown to improve the corridors between Wesleyan and Main Street.
A: You’ve been called a public intellectual, blogger, and columnist, among other things. How do you think your engagement with your intellectual work and with public and political life affect the way you administer the University?
MR: Being a president has had an important impact on my intellectual work and my writing. Part of it is the nature of the job and what I have time for. I did start writing more at Cal Arts, and I did intervene quite often in the public in arts education, because I was a president of an arts college. So at Wesleyan, I’m back home, both in the sense of where I went to school, but also in the kind of education I practice as a teacher, not just what I administer as a president. It’s a much tighter feedback loop between what I do as a teacher, writer, and administrator. I do think it all blends together. That being said, being the president of Wesleyan puts me in a different position in national conversations about education. That is, I have an opportunity to argue for the type of education I believe we exercise at Wesleyan in a national context.
A: What’s the case for institutions like Wesleyan? What should the role of the University be in our public life?
MR: The notion that there’s not enough variety in American higher education is nonsense. There’s more variety in American higher education than ever before. It may not be at the highest quality, but there’s enormous variety, from community colleges to certifications to traditional liberal arts colleges. But the call for practicality in higher education is really a call for social conformity, made by people who have every interest in seeing that students graduate without any ability to rock the boat, whether it is the economic boat or the political boat. But I think that the people who make the case are not actually misguided, they’re just disingenuous. Education has served the American economy and culture well when it is a broad encourages the capacity for innovation. Training for well-defined vocations that you have been slotted to enter in advance is antithetical to democracy and to the contemporary economy. So I do feel these attacks on education in the name of economic practicality are [on par] with the attacks on other forms of progressive economic thought aimed at creating a culture of conformity among workers and bureaucrats.
A: So I’m aware that you’ve been meeting with student leaders to get a sense of the different communities on campus. My sense was that the idea is to improve mental health services. Is that the larger vision driving these discussions?
MR: I’ve been trying to have conversations with students about how they support each other and how that plays out on campus. I haven’t noticed significant differences among groups I’ve met with—many themes carry over. Part of it is listening to and hearing what students were saying. Mental health plays a role in this. There are students who depend on professional health to get through their daily lives, and those students are here in part because they’ve successfully gotten to this point with professional health in high school. We want to make sure the Office of Behavioral Health is supportive of those who are used to advocating for themselves, but also to help those students who develop mental health issues between the ages of 18 and 22, who need help to get help, who need to communicate to second group that it’s a good thing to get the help you need. It’s about creating a community in which friends can tell one another, you need help, or let me help you get help. Sometimes the best friend you’ll have is someone who says not just ‘you need to talk to someone,’ but ‘I’m going to sit with you.’ Friends should help us advocate for ourselves when we need to. We want to encourage students to exercise their compassion in productive ways.
A: We know that increasing the visibility of Wesleyan around the world is a major component of Wesleyan 2020. What exactly to build the brand, as it were?
MR: There are three or four main vehicles we can use. One is recruiting and trying to find the best students, whether they’re in Houston or in Shanghai. Another is making sure that the achievements of our faculty and students are given as much prominence in the media as possible, and [Director of Media Relations] David Pesci has done a great job of getting the work of our folks featured in various media outlets all over the world. Every day I get a report when one of our students or faculty or alums gets mentioned in a newspaper or TV or radio station, anywhere in the country. We track that very carefully and try to build that as much as we can over time. We’re not singing the praises of the University, but by association we build the identity of the University because the work of its students, its faculty, its alumni, is being celebrated. Texas is a good example. We’ve made an effort to get in media outlets there and recruit students there, and be on the minds of people who think about higher education. I meet with newspaper editors from around the country. I try to get my own writing about education out in front of as many people as possible. These are all pieces of it. The most intense coverage we got in the last year was for the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracked campaign advertising. And that was just great work that involved students and faculty, especially [Assistant Professor of Government] Erika Fowler, and it got enormous attention. So over time this builds the sense that Wesleyan is doing big things, whether in Ethnomusicology or Government or Neuroscience.
A: What advice do you have for soon-to-be graduates?
MR: I do think it’s a very difficult environment out there for new graduates. And those words have been spoken millions of times in many different contexts. I do think that the transition out of Wesleyan is much more difficult than the transition into Wesleyan for most people because of the intensely positive experiences most people seem to have on campus. My advice is to use your Wesleyan network. Remember your Wesleyan friends and stay involved with them. Because one of the great things about going to a school like this is when you leave, you’re still a part of it. That can be very practical—someone can give you advice about jobs or about internships—and it can also continue your education. You start hearing about people who are doing all of these interesting things who, like you, were scared to death at the end of their senior year and were not sure what to do. And now they are doing all of these wonderful things. So maintaining your Wesleyan identity even after you leave Wesleyan would be my advice.