President’s Letter: ‘This Changes Everything’

Each year, incoming students are asked to read a common text as an intellectual introduction to Wesleyan. This year’s selection, a documentary entitled “This Changes Everything,” offers an unflinching look at the impact of climate change around the globe. But the title also feels like an apt characterization of the past six months and the academic year ahead. So much has changed!

At this writing, for example, we are prepared to welcome our students, faculty and staff back to campus for what will be a very different experience than anyone would have expected a year ago. Our students will be tested for COVID-19 twice a week, and everyone will be required to practice social distancing, wear masks, and observe other public health guidelines. This is part of having to learn to look out for one another in new ways; we will, at times, have to make personal sacrifices for the sake of the greater good.

Fortunately, this generosity of spirit is something that has not and does not change from year to year at Wesleyan. It is part of our DNA and it will help keep us in good stead in 2020-21. It is also something we have sought to build upon in recent years. As you may remember, our Civic Action Plan sets specific goals for building civic preparedness among our community members and for enhancing the University’s role in public life. Last year we launched E2020, an initiative covered in this issue of the magazine and now, with hundreds of partner schools, that aims to mobilize college students to learn about their country by deepening their civic engagement.

E2020 underscores the importance of work in the public sphere, be it the heroic efforts of Wesleyan family members who are frontline workers during the pandemic; our many alumni working to develop treatments and vaccines for COVID-19; or our current students helping their communities cope with the social and economic difficulties the virus has precipitated. Young people across the country have reactivated the public sphere as they protest against racial injustice, and we are determined to channel that energy into the political system at the local, regional and national levels. The many schools that have joined Wesleyan in our efforts on E2020 show an appetite for action to increase civic participation in general and voter turnout in particular in 2020.

Participation in the electoral system should encourage engagement with different ideas, and it is vital for the educational enterprise that we not only accommodate but seek out a wide range of views. It has never been enough to simply declare one’s campus a marketplace of ideas in which truth ultimately wins out. We must work actively to ensure intellectual diversity and robust discussion about enduring questions. Of course, this readiness to consider alternate views most empathically does not mean refusing to take a stand. In fact, I have argued that we administrators and professors must go so far as to become antifascists—not by signing up with the AntiFa organization, but certainly by standing up to authoritarianism. When peaceful protesters are being beaten and gassed, we need to do more than simply advocate for the freedom of speech. When the forces of order are encouraged to “dominate the streets,” we must become sanctuaries for those targeted by the state because of their race or ethnicity. We must call out and reject appeals for the violent suppression of dissent. We must fight to defend free inquiry and scientific institutions from their abuse by political hacks fueled by myths of macho violence.

To try to stand apart from these issues—to take the posture of the apolitical—is today to take the posture of complicity, whether that be in relation to racism or violent authoritarianism. And so, while college presidents are supposed to be nonpartisan, we cannot afford to be apolitical. Of course, some will disagree about that (which is a good thing)!

At Wesleyan, we will actively encourage debates about a host of difficult issues on campus in the coming semester. We will disagree vociferously, and, one hopes, productively. As a residential university, we are uniquely positioned to help students expand their political horizons, taking seriously a range of opposing views. In a world where many people seek information merely to confirm their beliefs, a campus should be a place where one’s beliefs are shaken, refined, and where one’s ability to tolerate ambiguity is enhanced. Maintaining civil intellectual diversity takes work, and our campus is exactly where we can build the habit of listening to those with views different from our own. It is an environment in which the specifics that one learns are integrated into who one is as a person and into what one comes to think and believe as a member of a community. That is true for students, faculty, staff and alumni alike.

That is also why, though the pandemic has introduced many thousands more to online classes, we are unlikely to see a massive migration away from residential learning. This moment offers educators a ripe opportunity to broaden their pedagogy, using a wider array of digital tools to make their remote and their in-person teaching as compelling as possible. So, while the tools in liberal education may be changing, its essential mission—its core task of empowering the whole person—is not. Young people returning to colleges and universities don’t want to miss the opportunities that campuses provide to amplify the straightforward instruction from classes via serendipitous encounters, informal discussion and collaborative discovery. We will do our best to help students studying remotely experience versions of this, too. The skills that all students build will strengthen them not just in constructing successful careers but in searching for meaning and connection in their years beyond the university. Learning to grapple with challenges and uncertainty across many dimensions prepares students, indeed prepares all of us to make positive contributions when our circumstances might otherwise prove overwhelming.

We are at such a point right now. And that is why we are so eager to welcome our students safely back to Middletown: We need all the community and learning we can get.