c/o Sam Hilton, News Editor

c/o Sam Hilton, News Editor

For 5,369 days, Michael Roth ’78 has served as president of Wesleyan University. His administration has been filled with ups and downs, controversies, and commendations. Some consider him to be the boogeyman of campus, and others think him a well-balanced and reasonable leader, but all can agree that he’s had a lasting impact on the University thus far. After the board of trustees extended Roth’s contract through 2026 last year, I wanted to take a look at the story of Roth’s presidency over time.

Shortly before the end of the 2006–2007 school year, Roth spoke to a crowd of students, faculty, staff, and members of the greater University community on his goals and ideas as the incoming president. Then Staff Writer Lindsay Ceballos ’07 reported on it in an article from Tuesday, May 1, 2007 entitled “Roth returns: Community welcomes alumnus as President.”

“In an improvised speech, Roth stressed what will be three tenets of his presidency: freedom, equality, and solidarity,” Ceballos wrote.

During a recent interview with The Argus, Roth reflected on this speech and noted that some of its potency would have probably been lost had he written it ahead of time.

“That speech was a total improvisation,” Roth said. “I had no idea that I was giving the speech until I gave it, and sometimes that shows you that preparation is bad. I think that was one of the better speeches I’ve ever given.”

Roth elaborated on the promises that he made in his improvised speech, which were inspired by the French Revolution’s motto of liberté, égalité, fraternité.

“Freedom means, in this context, the ability of people at Wesleyan to choose the kind of educational experience they want to have and to not be encumbered by official censorship or by unofficial groupthink,” Roth said. “Equality means for me to make Wesleyan as accessible as possible to people of various economic capacities, and while they’re here to make sure that they have access to the full resources of the University and the experiences that those resources enable. Solidarity means to foster a sense of community. Sometimes it’s stronger than other times, but it’s always been a goal throughout my tenure.”

When looking back on the defining moments of his presidency, Roth solemnly reflected on the fatal shooting of Johanna Justin-Jinich ’10 in May 2009. He recalled that this heinous murder had a profound impact on him.

“It was shocking to me as a fairly new president that the president of a university would have such an important role, not just logistically with the police and keeping people safe and all that, but also the symbolic role,” Roth said. “As a student, I didn’t really give too much attention to the president except as a figure to protest against. But at that time, the weight of dealing with a community that was in sorrow and in fear…was definitely a defining moment for me as a president and as a person.”

Additionally, Roth remembered being taken aback by a report in The Argus (an article that, after scouring the Argives, I, unfortunately, could not find in time) published shortly after his inauguration, exclaiming that the president was humble enough to walk his own dog. Roth reminisced on his realization that in his position, he had become a widely-recognized entity at the University.

“The Argus wrote an article, ‘He even walks his own dog!’” Roth said. “Which was just so ludicrous in a way. When we came [to Wesleyan] there was a person who was making sandwiches in the [president’s] house, and that person had a supervisor, and we didn’t want any of that extra stuff.”

For Roth, this revelation symbolized the panopticon that was the University’s presidency.

“It was kind of funny because I actually didn’t walk Matilda that often,” Roth said. “I thought, ‘Who cares?’ [The article] was just saying whatever you do in this job, it’s not about me. It was a job that had taken on more importance than it should. That was something to keep in mind.”

The irony of this image of Roth humbly walking his dog was not lost in the aftermath of the Wesleyan Union for Student Employees (WesUSE) rally held on Sunday, Dec. 4, during which Roth was mocked for having a Christmas tree delivered to his home at the time of the rally. 

“Michael Roth [can] sit in that big house that you guys all pay for with his $500,000 raise, watching people bring his Christmas tree in right now with his smoking jacket and slippers, and have no respect for any of us here today,” Executive President of the Connecticut State Building Trades Council Joe Toner said at the rally. “That’s gotta stop. Michael Roth is a phony, he’s a fake, he’s a farce.”

As Toner’s fiery words imply, Roth’s time as president has not been without controversy, from critiques of working conditions for student and non-student staff to the departures of multiple high-level administrators. Despite this, the Board of Trustees has re-upped his contract through 2026, determining his performance as president and connections with faculty, staff, and alumni outweighed his controversies.

During an interview with The Argus in October 2021, Chair of the board of trustees John B. Frank ’78 discussed the checks and balances in place to ensure the president’s effectiveness in the role.

“The board works closely with the president, and the president reports to the board, so we have ample opportunity to observe the president informally and formally,” Frank said to The Argus in the fall of 2021. “In addition, we have an annual review process that involves establishing goals for the president and assessing the president’s performance towards those goals.”

Now, as Roth prepares to enter his 32nd semester as Wesleyan’s president, he emphasized his pride in what the University has accomplished during his time here. One area he’s particularly proud of is the University’s continued commitment to maintaining a broad academic offering without overly specializing in one area.

“Wesleyan remains a place where we’re strong in the [natural] sciences and social sciences, and also the humanities and arts, and we’ve managed to have—against all odds nationally and internationally—a really balanced student culture that thrives with scientific work, theatrical work, musical [work], philosophical [work],” Roth said. “I’m really pleased that we haven’t gone the route of many other liberal arts colleges towards hyperspecialization and vocationalism.”

Love him or hate him, Roth has been a stable and predictable force at the University since his inauguration. Here’s to four more Rothtastic years, bestie.

Sam Hilton can be reached at shilton@wesleyan.edu.

“From the Argives” is a column that explores The Argus’ archives (Argives) and any interesting, topical, poignant, or comical stories that have been published in the past. Given The Argus’ long history on campus and the ever-shifting viewpoints of its student body, the material, subject matter, and perspectives expressed in the archived article may be insensitive or outdated, and do not reflect the views of any current member of The Argus. If you have any questions about the original article or its publication, please contact Head Archivist Sam Hilton at shilton@wesleyan.edu.

  • Martin crane

    When Roth started his tenure, Wesleyan was considered a known alternative to attending the Ivy League. In my class of 20002 at least half the students turned down Ivies or schools like UChicago, Northwestern & Duke. We were still actively known as one of the little three with Amherst and Williams. Despite my love for Wesleyan, I have never a college brand sink so far under a president than has occurred under Roth. And the irony is that competitive, prestigious colleges have only only become more so in that timeframe. Wesleyan is the complete outlier in that equation. So, I am not sure what Roth has done to secure his position over the past decade and a half because the alumni could not be more disappointed.