All right, I’m going to throw my hat into this ring.
The University is cash-starved. Thus, the Wesleyan administration’s primary concern at this point in time is to try to find ways to maintain and develop a financial base that will allow it to do its job, which is to provide a liberal arts education according to a certain set of values. In other words, it has to find ways to survive in order to keep doing what it’s doing. In this pursuit, the University possesses two broad strategic directions which can and should be pursued simultaneously: (1) to increase cash inflow, and (2) to cut as much spending as possible in areas that it can practically bear.
The University has thus far pushed a number of initiatives on both fronts. However, many of these initiatives are controversial. The University has chosen to make certain morally questionable investments to increase the cash inflow (catalyzing the emergence of the Committee for Investor Responsibility), and now has made a push to cut need-blind admissions (which has sprung up this entire conversation).
As we have come to be quite familiar with, the core conflict here is the following: should the university compromise some of the fundamental values it purports to hold in the pursuit of mere institutional survival? Or, to put it another way: is it better to survive by compromising your principles, or is it better to struggle to commit to your original values, but risk a very possible end to your institutional existence?
Indeed, in my mind, these questions lie at the periphery of a much deeper and infinitely more vital question: What the hell is the point of Wesleyan?
There was a time in our history when Wesleyan was affiliated with fiercely liberal social values. These values included (but certainly were not limited to) a commitment to educational accessibility, to societal diversity, to free speech, to the unburdened pursuit of art and knowledge, to academic excellence, and to the holistic cultivation of its students. Furthermore, there was also a commitment to a higher value that transcended mere materiality. There was a sense that it is imperative that those who walk the halls of Olin should not only be people who could afford it, but for everybody who deserved a chance at a good education and subsequently a good life.
A university has core practical responsibilities as well. A university is responsible for allowing its students to stand a chance of achieving gainful employment, for the securing the safety of its campus environment, and for being there when students need help in any and all forms.
I submit that this constellation of values and responsibilities should be the point of Wesleyan. Of course, you are perfectly free to hold and voice your own views. You are perfectly free to believe that Wesleyan matters more as a physical institution, and that it should remain so no matter how far it may drift from the values and responsibilities it purports to hold. If this is the case, then I suggest you stop reading—in case you haven’t already.
Now, I have been following these developments from afar quite closely, and a few things have come to my mind. Firstly, it seems odd to me that the administration is making the argument that the option to cut need-blind is absolutely imperative. That, under all these financial burdens, this is an absolutely necessary way to open enough financial breathing space. Is this truly the case? I cannot say anything about this for myself, for I am not privy to the accounting at hand. Secondly, surely it is the case that spending cuts can be made elsewhere in far less vital places. Surely we do not need all the amenities we seem to be getting. Are flat-screen TVs in residence halls and classrooms the most cost-effective and productive ways of enhancing Wesleyan’s educational experience? Do we really need flashy new construction projects for any reason other than safety? Will expanding the student body really cover the cash inflow problem, or will it exacerbate it instead? And finally, why in the world is President Roth doing an excruciatingly horrendous job at community engagement and communication? Aren’t we in the same boat, after all?
But let me get to the point of why I started writing this entire piece in the first place. I fully defend the alums’ move to cease their donations. My reasoning is simple: while I understand that our donations may be vital to the supply of the University’s cash inflow, it can also be perceived as a tacit form of approval for the policies that the university is planning to enact in its pursuit to stay afloat. In other words, if I give you my money, you might—and probably will—take that as an indication that I approve of the decisions you are making. And it just so happens that I absolutely disagree with the direction that this university is moving towards. Some have made the argument that stopping our donations isn’t going to help – in fact, it’s making the situation worse. Indeed, I understand the anxiety and concerns from which this argument emerges, and I do hesitate in lending my support to this issue when I remember that this argument does come from students who depend on financial aid which in turn depends on our donations. But you know what? The school’s probably going to cut you anyway. And they might think I – along with other like-minded alum peers – are completely cool with it, and that they will not really be held accountable for it.
Yes, I have a commitment to my alma mater. But my commitment is not blind. It is not uncritical. To rephrase it in more accurate terms: I have a commitment to the ideals my alma mater once shared with me. Right now, at this point in time, with Wesleyan’s failure to address sexual assaults, to properly build a sense of community and solidarity in a healthy fashion, and to make good and moral decisions to stay afloat, I cannot support you. I will not support you. And I will certainly not let you lie or talk down to me.
Now, I graduated this past spring. And let me tell you, the emails asking for donations came very, very quickly. I graduated in the immediate aftermath of the Holi incident, where the University failed to take a normative stance on the matter, and right before all this crap kicked in. I graduated at a ceremony where the president gave what was ultimately a tepid speech – a speech full of clichés and tropes and empty pieces of inspirational sound-bites. A speech that was in essence all flash and very little substance. A speech that perhaps represents a forecast of what Wesleyan is to become.
I love this place. To the very fiber of my being, I do. There has not been a day when I have not thought about how it felt to be a member of the family there. Foss, Olin, the particular smell of Butterfield A, raging silently in a crowd of ecstatic young people, late nights in PAC – these are all things that I will take with me wherever I go. And so, it is with a heavy heart that I implore you, whoever you are, to remember why you are part of this community, and what you want from this community.
Keep talking. Don’t shut down the conversation. You deserve a real conversation. The great comic Louis CK once said (to Jon Stewart, no less) that “all conversation is good conversation.” I’ve been reading the comments section on Wesleying, and you know what? I think they’re great, even the abundance of cynical ones. Like that one Wes grad who wrote, passionately, “Bottom line, Wesleyan kids need to realize that stomping your feet does not get you what you want like it did when you were a kid. The world is not fair sometimes.” Or that other one from another Wes grad, who wrote: “I donated two days ago. And I don’t regret my decision.” They are points of view, they are perspectives, and I think it’s completely cool that you folks hold them. But they are not arguments, and they are words that end real conversations.
Please, speak more. Tell us why you don’t regret your decision. Tell us why you think the world isn’t fair sometimes, and why we should accept that. If there’s one academic thing I ever learned from my time at Wesleyan (via Professor Richard Adelstein), it’s that we’re always working with imperfect information. Heck, while I was writing this, I just found out from another alum that spending on flat-screen TVs is miniscule compared to the rest of the budget. Because we’re working with individual limitations, we need to work together. We need to collaborate, we need to keep working through this together, and most of all, we need to respect one another.
Once again, I implore you: remember why you are part of this community, and what you want this community to be. I will not lie to you – there is a chance that you will fail. There is a chance that at the end of the day, you will have to either give up on our ideals or fold as an institution (unrealistic as that might be). But if you do fail, it will not be for a lack of trying. It will not be because you never gave yourselves a chance.
Whatever, I’m still pretty optimistic. You can find a way. You just need to keep looking, and to do that, you have to keep talking. Good luck. I know you can do it.
Nicholas Quah ’12/frostedmoose.
PS: I usually like being anonymous. I like not getting phone calls, not being reduced as a person to a single argument, and I like being able to change my mind on things (but not on a Romney-level). But I think this is something I should stand up on. Other alums, if you’re reading this, please stand up too. I t’s not like they can write us up, AMIRIGHT??
tl;dr – (1) Please keep talking, and (2) I’ll donate when Wesleyan earns my donation. Until then, Ira Glass and NPR will get my cash money.