President Michael Roth ’78 attended a meeting of the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) on Sunday, Feb. 26 to report on the board of trustees meeting that took place on Friday, Feb. 24, and Saturday, Feb. 25, and to answer questions from WSA senators and students in attendance. The board’s various committees discussed the continuation of construction projects, quality of life in Residential Life (ResLife) buildings, and messaging for the University’s upcoming capital campaign.
In addition, Roth told the WSA that the board’s finance committee approved a tuition increase of 4.7%, which will raise the cost of attendance by roughly $3,000 to $4,000 per student starting Fall 2023.
“[The increase of 4.7%] is in the mix of schools we know about so far and [is] lower than inflation,” Roth said. “But still, obviously, an increase like this makes the University get more expensive for people who are paying tuition and fees.”
Roth also spoke on the admissions report that was presented to the board and a shift in the financial needs of the University’s applicants.
“It’s a large pool of just around the same size as last year, but it’s a pool that a smaller percentage of which is applying for financial aid,” Roth said. “So we’re trying to figure out what that’s about and how to increase requests for financial aid and how best to meet them.”
At that point, WSA Chief of Staff Ava Petillo ’25 opened the meeting to questions, the first of which came from WSA Senator Jack Johnston ’25. Johnston brought up Roth’s recent all-campus email about academic freedom and asked what protections existed for faculty at the University—tenure-track or otherwise.
“Well, the protections are, in many ways, rhetorical in the sense that they outline the kinds of things that people will not be forced to accommodate,” Roth said. “I don’t want people, especially on the faculty side, to confuse academic freedom with just having tenure, because a lot of people don’t have tenure, and they, too, should be able to pursue their teaching the way they see fit…. But we want to make sure that faculty feel empowered to teach, as they professionally see fit, and to have the freedom to speak about teaching, whether that’s on Twitter or in the newspaper.”
Next, WSA Senator Anton Lulgjuraj ’23, who is co-leading the student forum “Rethinking the Palestinian State,” asked if Roth’s academic freedom email was sent in response to the recent choice by the U.S. Department of State to rescind Professor of the Practice James Cavallaro’s nomination to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Roth clarified that his email was not sent in response to the situation.
Lulgjuraj then followed up by asking if there were plans for the University to expand class offerings into more controversial and sensitive subjects such as the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“I have had students who are supportive of Israel come to see me and say that they feel they can’t speak out for Israel on campus for fear of retaliation from fellow students,” Roth said. “But I haven’t heard from faculty who feel that they couldn’t teach a course in that area…. If there are people who worry about what they could say, I’m not sure what they would worry about exactly.”
In response, Lulgjuraj invited Roth to come to the “Rethinking the Palestinian State” student forum to discuss the topic further.
Next, WSA Student Budget Committee Chair Ben Shifrel ’25 returned to the subject of financial aid. He asked Roth to clarify a topic of conversation from the board of trustees meeting surrounding the smaller number of financial aid applicants for the class of 2027. Specifically, Shifrel brought up the possibility that this shift in aid numbers might allow the University to dispense more financial relief.
Roth explained that, because the aid committed for Early Decision is very unlikely to change, the University is more restrained with its financial aid offers in Regular Decision because it doesn’t know which admitted students will matriculate.
“The admissions office will say, ‘let’s be careful not to offer too many people full scholarships,’” Roth said. “Like if we offer X number of full scholarships, 30% of them will say yes, but if 80% of them said yes, we have to give them money, and that’s not in the budget…. So now since we didn’t use the money during Early [Decision], we have more flexibility…. We can offer more aid…and if we’re over our goal in the financial aid sector, we’ll be okay.”
Shifrel followed up by asking Roth to expand on what the University is doing to figure out why this class has a smaller number of students requesting aid, as well as how the University will respond to this.
“We work with financial aid consultants who help us not to offer too much money for scholarships that we can’t afford…so we’re going to ask them—because they work with probably 100 schools—if they see this elsewhere,” Roth said. “And the financial aid office has some ideas about some particular things we could do that would be attractive to financial aid students.”
WSA President Nigel Hayes ’23 asked Roth about a topic that came up at the board meeting regarding campus safety. Specifically, Hayes wondered if the University or board had any plans to implement new security measures such as active shooter drills and gun safety. Roth noted the recent test of the University’s active shooter emergency notification system and encouraged both Public Safety officers and students on campus to role play what they would do in an emergency situation.
“We have no specific plans to change the flow of people or information or communication on campus, because of these very unfortunate events,” Roth said. “We do have a very open campus compared to [other schools]… I think that’s something we’d like to retain and not be forced to become a more barricaded institution.”
WSA Senator Jonghwa Kim ’25 followed up on the financial aid discussion and asked Roth what the University’s hopes were for supporting students financially in the long term. Roth answered by noting the University’s plan to increase the tuition discount rate—that is, the percent of total tuition and fees collected that is covered by financial aid—by one percent each year.
“The other thing that is really important is to talk about Wesleyan in communities where they wouldn’t dream of affording to come here,” Roth said. “Continuing to bring that information to more parts of the country and world would be really important—and we’re increasing philanthropy, we’re raising a lot of money, which is great. What I failed to do so far is to figure out how to make the education less costly.”
Next, WSA Senator Ruby Clarke ’24 brought up a recent article in The New York Times about higher education admissions in relation to affirmative action that mentioned the University. Clarke recalled a conversation that Roth had with the WSA in the fall about what the Office of Admission plans to do if the Supreme Court strikes down affirmative action, and asked if any progress had been made.
Roth emphasized that the University’s response would heavily depend on the specific wording of the Supreme Court’s decision and that the Office of Admission was planning for multiple different outcomes. The current plan, if the Court’s decision allows it, is to work with groups that center around students of marginalized identities to encourage them to apply to the University. He also emphasized the need to communicate with groups and individuals who don’t agree with the greater community.
“What [one] trustee said—I think he’s absolutely right—is that people at Wesleyan have to find better ways of talking to people who don’t agree with our stance on affirmative action, who don’t see the world like you see it at a liberal arts college, and figure out how to talk to those people to convince them that this makes sense, rather than to ignore them,” Roth said.
WSA Academic Affairs Committee Chair Claire Stokes ’25 asked Roth if he had a timeline for the University going need-blind. The Office of Admission, for reference, has been considering an applicant’s financial situation and ability to pay since 2012. Roth had mentioned earlier that the University was a long way off from being able to regain its need-blind status.
By the end of his presidency, Roth said, he hopes to have restored the University to being need-blind, although he noted that that this could be more aspirational than realistic. He also claimed that, in order to return to need-blind admissions, the amount of aid given to students would have to decrease significantly.
“I don’t want to create a situation where we incentivize the reduction of individual packages,” Roth said. “And there are people on the boards that have said, ‘why don’t we have to get merit aid?’ And I had to say, ‘I’ll quit if we have merit aid!’…Because we don’t have enough [money] for people who need it to get it.”
Next, WSA Student Life Committee Vice Chair Molly Connolly-Ungar ’25 brought up the situation surrounding Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) and its return to campus. Roth confirmed that DKE will be coming back. Connolly-Ungar followed up by asking if the University had plans to increase investment into sexual violence prevention and resources in response to the fraternity’s controversial reputation on campus.
“If I had any thought that the return of this organization as non-residential club to campus would increase the threat of sexual violence, we would not allow them to return as a club,” Roth said. “But it’s not up to me, of course, so long as they obey the rules, so I think the [Office of Student Involvement (OSI)] is working with some students from DKE to make sure they understand what the rules are…. But there are no plans for a single-sex organization on campus, and there won’t be one.”
In response, WSA Senator Catherine Auerbach ’26, who sits on the Community Committee (CoCo) and works with OSI, told the room that DKE was having discussions with both CoCo and OSI about the group’s terms for returning.
WSA Senator Angelina Panarello ’25 returned to the subject of financial aid, asking what lessons the University could take from what Roth described as the ‘bad old days’ before need-awareness in 2012. Roth emphasized that the biggest hurdle was making sure that, if the University goes need-blind again, it can still afford to cover all demonstrated need.
“Right now, for like 90% of the people we admit we don’t have to worry about whether they can pay or not,” Roth said. “But the last 10% we have to see, ‘well, do we have enough money in the budget to meet their needs?’ And we’re very fortunate that we have a big pool so that if we don’t [admit someone because they are unable to pay], the people we admit instead are academically super qualified to be here as well.”
Panarello followed up by asking if by going need-blind, the University would be encouraging more student loans. Roth quickly and definitively clarified that this was not the University’s plan, stressing the importance of the recent increases to the no-loan initiative.
WSA CoCo Vice Chair Asija Qyteza ’24 asked Roth if there were any plans for the University to invest in the Middletown community, as had been done with the Green Street Art Center.
“There are no plans for something like that,” Roth said. “We do invest a lot in our community, and I think we have good intentions. We have no plans for opening a daycare center.”
On the subject of Cavallaro’s rescinded nomination to the Department of State, Nellie Ghosheh ’23 asked Roth what protections were in place for students who were seeking research funding from a pro-Palestine perspective. Ghosheh specifically brought up an example of a hypothetical student who would apply to a grant related to Palestine, asking what the University would do to ensure that their research was shielded from controversy or a loss of funding.
Roth remarked that a student would likely have a harder time receiving research funding that favors a Zionist perspective than a pro-Palestinian perspective, and that it’s not donors or trustees who control who gets money and who doesn’t. He emphasized once again the importance of academic freedom and diversity of viewpoints.
“I think that’s really important that people get to hear different sides, and they also get to participate as active members of communities that are engaged in that region,” Roth said.
Ghosheh also shared that a number of professors had indicated their reluctance to teach courses on Palestine, fearing student retaliation, a fact that Ghosheh believed delegitimizes the Palestinian solidarity movement on campus. Roth acknowledged this, citing hesitation from certain professors when he suggested offering classes on psychologist Sigmund Freud.
“When I say, ‘I want someone to teach on Freud,’ because I like Freud, they’ll say, ‘I’d love to teach a course on Freud, it’s just I’m afraid that the time on campus isn’t right,’” Roth said. “If you look in the course catalog, I think it’s really easy to teach a course on anti-colonialism, on race—I don’t think there’s any shortage of courses on progressive causes…. I’m surprised that people are afraid, I don’t know what they’re afraid of.”
Ghosheh closed the night by responding that some professors are cautious because of what happened to Cavallaro—that is, losing out on opportunities as a result of their opinions. Roth reassured anybody who felt this way that he would support them and that they should come to him with such issues.
“I don’t know who they are—their own situation may be more precarious than someone else—but I would definitely defend the right of professors to teach meaningful courses in this area and in other areas,” Roth said.
Sam Hilton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.