President Michael Roth ’78 held a forum at the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) meeting on Sunday, Nov. 17. This forum, where students have the opportunity to ask Roth questions, is held each year before the November board of trustees meeting.
Roth began the forum with a brief description of what will be covered in the upcoming board meeting. The reports that will be presented at the meeting will be a WSA report on campus climate and social life, an admissions report, a finance report on redesigning Exley Science Center and Shanklin Lab, recent trips to Asia, and presentations from Vice President and Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Amin Gonzalez, Vice President for Equity & Inclusion and Title IX Officer Alison Williams, and Vice President for Communications Renell Wynn.
At the forum, students primarily asked questions pertaining to divestment, and Leah Levin Pensler ’20 specifically asked Roth about divesting from Israeli occupation.
“In the past, when confronted on divestment from the Israeli occupation, you responded by saying, quote, ‘I think the call for selling stock is a distraction from the central policy and diplomatic changes,’” Pensler said. “Why do you value your own projections on how change can be made for the lives of Palestinians over the Palestinians who are calling for divestment?”
“Palestinians, I’m not sure who you mean exactly, but if you mean, let’s say, Hamas—” Roth answered before getting cut off, referring to Hamas, the militant Islamic Palestinian nationalist movement.
Pensler asked Roth if he thought all Palestinians are Hamas, to which Roth replied that that was not what he thought. Roth then asked for Pensler to clarify who she meant when she referred to Palestinians.
“Palestinians who are living lives right now,” Pensler answered.
“I don’t think it’s my job as a head of Wesleyan to actually do the things that a group of people call on United States universities to do,” Roth said. “Sometimes they might’ve had good ideas and sometimes they might be ideas with which I disagree, with which University trustees disagree or some students disagree, so I didn’t mean to suggest that Hamas represents all Palestinians, but I also know you think that you do.”
Students also asked Roth about his commitment to not investing in fossil fuels. Thayne Hutchins ’22 asked Roth why the University will not immediately divest from fossil fuels.
“We are unwinding all the investments in fossil fuels,” Roth said. “We will no longer make investments in fossil fuels as a matter of—I don’t use the word divestment because I find it—although it’s religiously appealing and you want to use it, you can, I say we’re unwinding because I don’t want to be misunderstood to say tomorrow morning we’re going to sell every investment that’s connected to fossil fuels no matter what the cost of that is.”
Rose Shuker-Haines ’20 asked Roth to clarify what his definition of unwind means, to which Roth responded that the University was waiting for its contracts with managers to expire in order to remove investments in fossil fuels. He then gave his opinions on divesting.
“When you divest, you’re not actually destroying the stock,” Roth said. “You’re just selling it to someone else. So that’s why I’ve always thought it was foolhardy to express your political opinions through an investment policy when the government in 90 days is destroying the planet. So it just seems like it’s a parochial way of engaging politically, but I think, well, I don’t want the University to make money this way…. There are things we refuse to invest in. Some people think we shouldn’t invest in companies that do business with the state of Israel. I don’t agree with that position.”
Franny Lin ’21 asked Roth why there was not more transparency about where the University was investing its endowment.
“As I said, we don’t, the University doesn’t invest in companies,” Roth said. “We invest in managers, and some of the managers with whom we invest would not take us as a client if we published everything that they did.”
WSA senator Katelin Penner ’22 asked Roth why the University wasn’t divesting from fossil fuels, which she viewed to be the biggest action it could do to help the environment. Along with encouraging political engagement, Roth pointed to individual actions the campus could ban in order to help with climate change, which he argued would be more effective.
“I don’t think that’s the largest scale thing we can do by a long shot,” Roth said. “I think changing steam to water, I think banning cars from campus, I don’t know, would be much better. There were many things we could do.”
WSA senator and chair of the Student Budget Committee (SBC) Aditi Shenoy ’20 asked Roth if the University was considering going carbon-free.
“Those moves are not uncontroversial, using biomass, so we are trying to get there quickly, but in our case we have a very, this old infrastructure of the steam that we need to replace and you have to actually become more energy efficient,” Roth said. “So I believe from what I’ve been told that the most important thing we can do is replace this infrastructure.”
Students also asked Roth questions about his salary, which WSA senator George Fuss ’21 cited as increasing to $1.3 million. Roth denied that this was his salary.
“First of all, it’s not true, that’s not my salary,” Roth said.
Roth’s compensation for his position as president, according to the most recent tax forms from the University in 2017, was over $1.3 million. Nearly $400 thousand of that amount was categorized as “retirement and other deferred compensation,” indicating that Roth may or will have access to those funds at a later point but did not immediately receive it, along with another $126 thousand in “nontaxable benefits” that could include non-monetary compensation, such as the value of his University-provided housing.
WSA senator Bodhi Small ’22 asked why other administrators also had such high salaries.
“It’s a good question,” Roth said. “I think it’s typically called the market, and that’s why they’re paid according to a market for those skills. And I don’t think that’s an adequate justification. That’s why I say I can’t justify it, but that’s how it works.”
Small also asked Roth if he could set his own salary, if he would set it significantly lower.
“I could request them to pay me less, but I don’t see that that would be anything but a way of pandering to you,” Roth said. “So I could do that, and it might help for a week, but then there would be the Palestinians, and then there would be the Chinese, and then there would be fossil fuels.”
Another topic that students asked Roth about was subcontracting workers, as members from USLAC were also present at the meeting and passed out signs they use at protests for students to hold. The signs included messages in solidarity with University employees. Penner asked Roth if he thought it was ethical that the University continued to subcontract workers if it is a tactic for union busting.
“I just don’t think it’s true that it’s led to a greater number of workplace violations nor are the subcontractors typically without unions,” Roth said. “I think that workers often choose their unions not on the basis of what students want but on the basis of their interests as workers…. I’m not aware of greater workplace violations.”
Fuss asked Roth who was included in Roth’s phrase “safe enough spaces” from his recent book release, specifically whether or not employees were included.
“The University should be safe enough for everyone who’s on the campus,” Roth said. “And that includes, especially, the employees.”
Pensler also asked Roth why he ignored worker testimonies and has not committed to hire five more workers.
“The reason is because I don’t think it’s the case that by hiring five, that would actually reduce the workload of the current staff and, again…I actually don’t think I turned my head from that,” Roth said. “We meet regularly with the representatives of the custodians, and there are people who do have the union.”
Pensler then asked Roth if he would meet with workers directly.
“I do meet with workers directly, but I am actually bound by a contract that Wesleyan meets with the union representatives because, you see what happens when people think they’re doing good by workers and bypassing the union, you often actually wind up in a position of patronizing condescension rather than actual activism on behalf of the workers,” Roth said. “So I let them use the structures that the workers have chosen themselves for alleviating the grievances they have about their working environment.”
Students also asked Roth about the recent cancelled proposed joint venture with Hengdian Group to establish a campus in China. Fuss quoted Roth back to himself from the WSA forum in 2018, asking him why he would consider establishing a campus in China despite this quote.
“During your conversation with the WSA in November of last year, you said quote, ‘In China, the regime is not welcoming to liberal arts education,’” Fuss said. “So why did you decide to not only agree to lend the Wesleyan brand to the school in the country that you yourself believe is hostile to liberal arts education but also to not tell students and alumni about the plan until it’s all but finalized?”
Roth began by addressing Fuss’s question as well as concerns regarding educational freedom as reasons for why the proposed joint venture was eventually cancelled.
“Just the premise of the question is totally wrong,” Roth said. “It wasn’t all but finalized. We didn’t agree to do it…. You know, China, like much of the United States, is hostile to liberal education, and our job is to try to make a case for it. In the case in this situation with China, we were invited to open a school, and we looked at that invitation carefully and decided not to do it. The reason we didn’t announce early on that we were invited to participate in it was because we weren’t sure we should do it…. We weren’t even sure we should do the due diligence just find out if we should, basically.”
WSA senator Adam Hickey ’22 asked if the University has any policy about when they release information about projects and if the University is willing to commit to better transparency.
“There are some times when there are conversations that are very preliminary, and you know, there’s that tension between transparency, which is a very important value, and people trying to figure out whether it’s a good idea to do it and not wanting to be embarrassed if they say we’re not going to do it,” Roth said.
“I think in the case of the China discussion, obviously it was a big deal, right?” Roth continued. “If we were going to do the due diligence—which we didn’t do—I mean, if we had gone into that level of research, we definitely would have engaged the students then, because we would want them to be part of the research project. We never got there.”
WSA Senator Justin Nguyen ’23 asked if Roth was influenced by the WSA and opinions of the student body in his decision to eventually cancel the proposed joint venture.
“I suppose the politic thing would be to say, ‘Of course,’” Roth said.
Another topic students asked about was the University’s affordability. WSA Senator and Vice Chair of the Academic Affairs Committee (AAC) Ben Garfield ’22 asked if the University would be willing to increase the allocation of funds for books and supplies in financial aid.
“Often when you meet with members of the student body to discuss concerns, you mention that increasing spending in certain areas would leave less money available for financial aid, but nonetheless, students receiving financial aid have not seen an increase in the allocation for their books and supplies since 2009,” Garfield said. “While the prices for these same books and supplies continues to go up…. I want to ask if you know why this might be and if you’re willing to be active and working towards making change related to this.”
“I don’t know if the facts that you have stated them are accurate,” Roth replied. “So I have to find out if in fact, if that’s the case that allocations for books and supplies has not kept up with the cost. If that is the case, yes.”
WSA senator Rowan Beaudoin-Friede ’22 asked if the University would be willing to look into bringing down fees associated with costs that often crop up in the middle of courses.
“I do think that you get these barriers to entry in some fields or some classes,” Roth said. “We try, the University tries, or the professor tries to say, ‘Okay, well if you’re on financial aid, then there’ll be some grant.’… So we are committed to try to identify those courses, making sure that there are no barriers for financial aid students.”
WSA Senator and Chair of the Student Life Committee (SLC) Huzaifa Khan ’22 cited a 2018 financial aid policy change that made public scholarships count towards University financial aid where private scholarships did not, and asked if Roth would be willing to make both scholarships not count towards the University’s evaluation of need for financial aid.
“I actually would do the opposite, I’m afraid,” Roth said. “I would make sure that the private scholarships would also be counted against need…. I mean, we have a total budget, that money will go to other students. It’s not like it goes back to a general fund.”
Katie Cahn ’20 said that the University’s relationship to Traverse Square was nonexistent and asked Roth if he was willing to improve this relationship.
“Yeah, I think we need to do a lot more, and we have people from the Jewett Center [for Community Partnerships] and people from Reslife [Residential Life] working with the students who live in HiRise, LoRise and connecting with the community members of Traverse Square to try to rebuild the relationship,” Roth said. “I have no intention of building a wall or trying to seal off HiRise, LoRise, so that people can continue to party and not be neighbors.”
Penner also asked Roth if the University would be willing to reaffirm its commitment to protecting Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students.
“The reason we have a commitment to students without documentation, not just DACA students, is because I instructed the admissions office about five years ago to no longer treat undocumented applicants as international students,” Roth said. “And so I very much intended to keep that commitment.”
On the topic of accessibility, Beaudoin-Friede asked Roth if the University would be willing to evaluate the University’s accessibility for disabled students.
“I will make a commitment to talk to the new head of admissions about initiating such a study,” Roth said. “I don’t know exactly how that diversity would manifest, but I think it’s a really important point that the ways in which the University is set up may discourage qualified applicants from applying.”
WSA Senator and Chair of the Community Committee Emily McEvoy ’22 noted some concerns she had heard about new mayor Ben Florsheim ’14’s intentions beginning his mayorship. She asked Roth if he had thoughts about how careerism comes into the University and how it relates to students’ public service.
“I’ve met a lot of Wesleyan graduates over the years, and I don’t know Ben Florsheim well, but he strikes me as, I mean if he was in this room, he would certainly be in the bottom fifth percentile of careerists,” Roth said.
The board of trustees is set to meet on Nov. 22, Nov. 23, and Nov. 24, including a lunch open to students on Friday, Nov. 22 from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. in the Zelnick Pavilion.
Jocelyn Maeyama can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.