Last year sure was eventful. Before heading to the inaugural State of the School this Thursday, buff up on some of what went down in 2014-2015, tune in to issues that are currently up in the air, and make note of what to look out for in President Roth’s remarks. Here are some of the most talked about issues, in no particular order.
February’s Overdoses: Last February, 10 students and two guests overdosed on a substitute of Molly/MDMA and either were sent or voluntarily went to Middlesex Hospital. Two students in critical condition were airlifted to Hartford for more intensive treatment. Subsequently, five students were arrested in connection with the overdoses, and two of them were indicted by a federal grand jury on five counts of selling controlled substances. It will be interesting to hear how President Roth addresses the overdoses and subsequent arrests, both tonally and substantively.
Black Lives Matter: On Dec. 8, 2014, University students and faculty marched through campus and down to the intersection of Main and Washington Streets to call attention to systemic racism and police brutality. Students performed a “die-in,” blocking traffic in the area for some 30 minutes. Wesleyan was later billed for $7,500 by the City of Middletown for the police overtime required at the die-in. Wesleyan later paid the fine despite fervent protest from student activists. President Roth marched with the Black Lives Matter protesters for a portion of the march, so it will be interesting to see if Roth continues his efforts of solidarity in any form in his speech or addresses racism on campus at all. Since the Black Lives Matter March, Wesleyan students have had several smaller-scale protests including sit-ins and forums in public forums such as Usdan, where students of color shared their experiences with racism both on and off campus. In an age where racial inequality is at the fore of the national dialogue more-so than it has been since the late sixties, it would be surprising if President Roth does not dedicate a significant portion of his speech to racial justice and Black Lives Matter.
Changes in Sexual Assault Policy: Sexual assault remains one of the most pressing problems on any college campus, and the University is no exception. With several recent documentaries on the covering-up of sexual assault on college campuses across the country, as well as student activist campaigns such as former Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz’s “Carry That Weight” work of endurance performance art, the dialogue surrounding sexual assault has changed drastically in the past year as compared to previous years. In light of the Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act, the University has made several changes to its sexual misconduct policy, as well as to how sexual assault is reported here. Which of these changes President Roth mentions and highlights will set the institutional tone concerning sexual assault. More broadly, Roth’s willingness or unwillingness to dedicate a significant portion of time to this issue will be crucial to his trustworthiness among students, especially survivors of sexual assault.
Ethnic Studies: One of the major academic and cultural issues at the University is the treatment of its ethnic studies programs. The African American Studies (AFAM) Program has been understaffed in the past and arguably the present, resulting in the #AFAMiswhy campaign that became visible to social media users when many students changed their profile pictures to the de facto logo of the movement. The issue hasn’t exactly been resolved, and President Roth’s tone and substance on this issue will be closely monitored.
Another more recent movement was the push for the establishment of an Asian American Studies Program, which has begun to come to fruition with the University hiring its first professor of Asian American Studies, Visiting Assistant Professor of American Studies Long T. Bui.
Greek Life and Vacant Houses: For the first time in decades, the University’s three major residential fraternities, DKE, Beta, and Psi U, will all be without their signature houses, which will remain vacant and off limits to all students for the entirety of the academic year. Many have accused President Roth and the administration for being unfair and opaque in their treatment of Greek organizations, as was evident at the forum on Greek life that took place in Usdan on Sunday night. Roth is a member and former president of Alpha Delta Phi, so it will be interesting to see if he cites his own Greek experience to support or distance himself from his decisions on Greek life. Additionally, many students will be interested in what President Roth says about the social void left by the vacant houses, which were some of the most central social spaces on campus.
Wesleyan’s Financial State: Once having the largest endowment of any university in the country—mostly due to our shares of skyrocketing Xerox stock—the University has long been panned by our rivals for having too small of an endowment for a school of our pedigree. Although there will most likely not be anyone affiliated with Williams or Amherst in the audience, much of what motivates Wesleyan’s seemingly constant fundraising efforts is our rivalry with members of the so called “Little Ivies” and the Ivy League, specifically our endowment per student, which is a key metric in the most influential college ranking systems. The 2014/2015 margin of growth in the endowment is what one should focus on when Roth speaks about the school’s financial situation. There are many ways to spin financial data, and how President Roth presents Wesleyan’s financial situation will reveal how the administration and the board of trustees feel about Wesleyan’s finances, especially in relation to our greatest competitors, such as Brown and Vassar.
First Generation and Low Income Students: Wesleyan has made great strides in improving the experience of first-generation and low-income students. Many of these strides were due to the grassroots efforts of students who have formed supportive communities. Many first-gen, low-income students believe, however, that there is much more that the administration could be doing to make the University a more equitable and inclusive institution. How trustworthy and relatable President Roth presents himself to first-generation and low-income students will be crucial in progressing the dialogue that takes place between the administration and these students this year.
Campus Conflicts: In his email welcoming students back to campus, President Roth acknowledged that there will be conflicts on campus this year. Given that he didn’t present campus conflicts in the conditional, implying that these conflicts are sure to ensure, there’s a chance that Roth will say that these conflicts are a social good at Wesleyan; perhaps he will use transcendental rhetoric to ease tensions among various factions on campus and even between students and the administration.
New Projects: Wesleyan completed several capital projects over the summer, so look for a humblebrag by President Roth over the material improvement.
Progress Toward Need-Blind Admissions: It is unclear whether or not President Roth will even mention need-blind admissions, or an intent to return to a need blind admissions policy in the near future, in his speech. This is an issue that galvanized many students when the policy change was made two years ago, and concern over need-aware admissions has not faded from student activism.
Tone and Message: Given the events of last February and their national coverage, as well as the trauma they brought to campus, we may see a very different President Michael Roth on Thursday night. Normally highly energetic and even improvisational when speaking publicly, this may be a rare chance to see a more reserved Roth, who will be speaking for a school recovering from great trauma, as well as one who remains President of one of the best universities in the world and retains the potential to produce graduates who will go on to change the world.