The Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) welcomed President Michael Roth ’78 to its General Assembly meeting on Sunday, Oct. 9, following the board of trustees meeting earlier this month. This meeting marks the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic that the WSA has been able to host Roth in person.
Roth opened the meeting by describing two major, ongoing conversations within the administration and the board of trustees. The first was a discussion surrounding financial aid, its priority within the University’s budget, and what sort of philosophy the Office of Financial Aid should adopt.
Roth noted that the board of trustees spent a great deal of time discussing the “barbell effect” of the University’s current financial aid policy. The barbell effect, he explained, occurs when a large portion of the student body receives a significant amount of financial aid and another large portion receives almost none, creating high concentrations of students at opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum.
“The tension is between wanting to provide more aid to the numbers of students who currently enroll on financial aid, [and wanting] to enroll more students on financial aid as long as we are confident we are authentically meeting their full need,” Roth said.
Another facet of this debate, Roth explained, was truly defining the concept of need and to what extent it reaches past simple tuition and fees.
“For some people, [meeting full need] means, ‘I should have the same experience at Wesleyan as a rich person does,’” Roth said. “And that’s just not gonna happen. But some things at Wesleyan cost money, and [to some] it doesn’t feel like one’s financial aid package accounts for that, or some people are working jobs and sending money home. So, should we be giving those students more aid, or should we be aiming to have a more economically diverse class?”
Roth mentioned another major discussion by the board of trustees, which regarded the place of the University in its students’ lives after they graduated and what role faculty played in that. He noted that, depending on the department, concentration, or professors a student had, they could have wildly different access to careers or opportunities after graduation.
“There are some professors who students know are really helpful in that regard,” Roth said. “But most faculty don’t seem to think it’s their job, and most of them probably aren’t very good at it.”
Exploring the responsibility of professors after students’ graduation is a challenging path, Roth observed, as differences in teaching style or background could contribute to issues of wealth disparity. He pointed to the Film Department’s exit interview policy as an example of a positive instance of the University setting up its graduates for success.
“In the Film Department, where they direct exit interviews with everyone, [they] try to figure out where they want to go [and ask]: ‘Is there someone in that city who you can meet with?’” Roth said. “How should the faculty think about their responsibility to help students beyond the University?”
Beyond summarizing the board of trustees retreat, Roth also shared a few topics which were on his mind. First, he reminded those present that the midterm elections on Tuesday, Nov. 8 are coming up in just under a month, emphasizing grants available to politically active students.
“If you want to spend your fall break working on a campaign or working to protect voter rights, and [you want to] go to a competitive state to do that, Wesleyan has mini-grants for students who want to do that,” Roth said. “It’s a pretty important election coming up, and I’m very committed to the idea that the best way to learn about the political system is to participate in the political system.”
Roth also foreshadowed a call for new ideas for the next decade, likely to come out in the coming weeks. This call, Roth said, would be open for all students on campus to submit ideas, goals, or changes that they hope to see at the University over the next 10 years.
“We did this just after I started, and we got about seven big ideas,” Roth said. “[These included] doubling the size of the international student population at Wesleyan and new financial aid initiatives. But the most tangible thing that came out of that early call for ideas was the College of the Environment, which we started after that and then funded and raised money for.”
Several years later, another call for ideas led to the creation of the Fries Center for Global Studies. While some ideas, such as the creation of a medical school at Long Lane, Roth found unrealistic, it was an important process for improving the University and expanding its programs.
Subsequently, WSA Chief of Staff Ava Petillo ’25 opened the floor to questions, and WSA Senator Angelina Panarello ’25 started the discussion by asking Roth about financial aid. A first-generation, low-income (FGLI) student, Panarello inquired about plans to decrease the isolation and othering of students who receive more aid from the University.
Roth noted that class disparity and the consequent feelings of isolation are not unique to the University, but might be exacerbated by living in close quarters with students who come from very different socioeconomic backgrounds.
“Although it’s not easy to be a low-income student, it’s not easy to be a low-income person in America,” Roth said. “We have to make sure we have the supports in place to help those students get the most out of their time here.”
Roth pointed out opportunities such as the student-of-color-specific Wesleyan Math and Science Scholars (WesMaSS) that already exist at the University, but added that part of the ongoing financial aid discussion has been about social and emotional isolation. He also tied the discussion back to faculty support post-graduation, noting that students who received that sort of guidance would likely be able to succeed better beyond the University.
WSA Senator Anton Lulgjuraj ’23 responded that, while on-campus opportunities were important, these faculty support systems post-graduation were crucial to bridging the gap between FGLI and non-FGLI students leaving the University. He also stressed the importance of communicating expectations, both formal and informal,throughout a student’s college career.
“[FGLI students] are not only poor financially, but we’re poor informationally as well,” Lulgjuraj said. “I’m a senior this year, and I see a lot of people who are freshmen that are doing things that I didn’t know I should’ve been doing as a freshman until now, when it’s already considered too late.”
Lulgjuraj then returned to Roth’s point about the call for great ideas. He cited what he felt was a lack of public art, self-expression, and general vibrancy on campus, and asked Roth if there were any plans in the works to lift the ban on sidewalk chalking that had been put in place by previous University President Richard Bennet in 2003.
“I have no plan to change our policy around graffiti of any kind, whether it’s chalk or spray paint or anything else,” Roth said. “We do have plans about creating more avenues for public art and campus expression. There’s a factory building that’s been abandoned for 25 years on Hamlin Street…and we’re gonna turn those into art studios and performance spaces.”
Roth also expressed that the University was working to put more contemporary art throughout buildings on campus.
WSA Student Budget Committee Chair Ben Shifrel ’25 spoke next, asking Roth to address the possible ramifications of two pending Supreme Court cases surrounding affirmative action, as well as what that would mean for the University going forward. Roth emphasized that the University is in the process of preparing for different scenarios depending on the Court’s decision. He also stated that the University hopes to continue working with community-based organizations that primarily serve students of color.
“We’ve been running scenarios that would allow us to not lose the racial diversity we have, which is tough,” Roth said. “We’re looking at proxies…. For example, if we decided not to have fewer Pell-eligible students and more moderate-aid students…it would be a much whiter class, just statistically it seems unavoidable. So we were looking at other ways in which we could achieve racial diversity through [a] class-based reading of applications and geographical filters.”
WSA Student Life Committee Vice Chair Molly Connolly-Ungar ’25 then asked Roth about the future of new housing spaces on campus. As a member of the class of 2025, which has over 130 more students than an average grade, Connolly-Ungar expressed frustration at the overcrowded residences on campus. She asked whether the restrictions of the graduated independence housing model were worsening the problem, as well as whether or not the University planned to add more housing units without encroaching further into Middletown.
“Yeah, we shouldn’t have another class that size,” Roth said. “It was a confluence of factors…. But we really do want to protect the graduated independence model… I don’t think that gentrification is Middletown’s problem, myself. A problem that Middletown has is that when the University owns a lot of real estate, we don’t get taxed.”
Roth also added that the University was in the process of reviewing current residential spaces for improvement, and had hired an outside contractor to assess where students tend to gather and what spaces are most vital to student life.
“We are now in the course of an evaluation of our space needs with a consultant,” Roth said. “Her name is Linda Eastley…. She’s making her rounds on campus. She’s actually spying on students around 11:30 at night to see, ‘What are the hot spots?’”
Next, WSA Academic Affairs Committee Vice Chair Claire Stokes ’25 shifted the discussion toward tenure-track versus non-tenure-track faculty at the University. According to a figure Stokes raised, 37% of faculty instructors were not on the tenure track as of this year, a number that has been steadily increasing.
However, Roth disputed this specific number, citing the increased number of visiting professors necessary to account for the class of 2025’s size. He emphasized the creation of positions such as Professor of the Practice, as well as general faculty salary raises, as avenues for combatting the disparity between tenure-track and non-tenure-track instructors.
“I want to find a solution that protects the academic freedom that’s so bound up with the tenure system, and protects the teaching quality,” Roth said. “I know there’s concerns about this, and I think some of it is economic and some of it is political, and I share those concerns. So I want to find the solution that people feel works well.”
Shifting the focus toward relations between donors and students, WSA Student Budget Committee Vice Chair Briana Rodriguez Castillo ’23 asked Roth what role the student body can play in expanding support programs when so many of these initiatives are externally funded by donors.
“Be nice to donors,” Roth said. “Some of them want to be anonymous, some of them don’t, and others want to be in touch with students. So if you are part of a program that’s benefited from a donor, and you want to say thank you, that’s great. They know it’s my job. I get paid to cast them a line. But when students say thank you just because they’re grateful, not because there was something for them in it, it’s really meaningful.”
Lulgjuraj then asked Roth about the safety of travel to residential spaces, specifically the program houses located on the north side of Washington Street. Having lived in Lotus House in the 2021–22 school year, Lulgjuraj expressed that he often feared getting hit by a reckless drivers on the road at night. He asked if there was the possibility of adding traffic cameras or other deterrents to intersections along Washington.
“There are many people in the administration who would like to get rid of those houses for that reason, and replace them with something else,” Roth said. “I had not heard before that at two o’clock in the morning nobody’s obeying the lights, so that is something we can talk to the police department about. It’s not every day that the WSA asks me for more police surveillance.”
WSA Senator Felice Li ’24 raised concerns about graduation requirements at the University that prevent interested students from graduating in four or five semesters instead of six or eight. They cited the requirement that all students have at least six semesters in residence at the University (with exceptions for transfer students), saying that it posed an unnecessary financial burden on individuals who would otherwise be ready to graduate.
“There are no plans to change that requirement,” Roth said. “That’s a requirement made by the faculty for graduation…. But there is a three-year program! I started the three-year program because I thought it would be economically interesting for people. You can save a lot of money. But only about 20 people a year take advantage of that.”
WSA Community Committee Chair Valerie Lee ’24 brought up the recent Equity and Inclusion Town Hall hosted in collaboration between the WSA and the Resource Center and issues surrounding participation in discussions. Lee noted that, while many FGLI students are often present in such spaces, it is harder to reach middle-class or lower-middle-class individuals who might feel out of place. Lee asked about Roth’s office hours, as well as what could be done to increase these students’ voices in decision-making spaces. Roth responded by circling back to the financial aid discussion, repeating the challenge of providing ideal levels of funding to all University needs.
“We should be devoting a larger percentage of the budget than we do now to financial aid, but if we do so, we won’t be able to build new housing for the people we move from Washington Street, or won’t be able to pay the faculty as much as they think they deserve,” Roth said. “There’s all these trade-offs. So I am determined to spend a greater percentage of the budget on financial aid every year. How much greater will depend on how generous donors are and the market.”
The final question of the night circled back to Panarello, who spoke on behalf of another student. The student, Panarello explained, felt as though they were not receiving the guidance they needed to navigate the film studies major efficiently. Because the University does not guarantee support for theses and access to required filmmaking resources such as SD cards, FGLI students in the major face an unnecessary barrier, according to Panarello.
Roth tied this back to the issue of professors continuing to support students beyond graduation and recommended that individuals reach out to well-connected professors. He hopes that the University’s alumni network can also help ease issues.
“The film alumni in New York and LA, in particular, though not only there, but especially there, are really eager to work with Wesleyan grads who don’t come from privileged backgrounds,” Roth said. “So I think Professor [of Film Studies Scott] Higgins would be helpful. [Associate Professor of Film Studies Tracy] Strain on the documentary side can be helpful if that’s an interest.”
The discussion concluded after one hour, leaving the WSA to its normal Sunday night business. Roth will likely return to the WSA in Spring 2023, following the next board of trustees retreat.
Sam Hilton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.