Fighting for the soul of Wesleyan

Apart from the strategic planning sessions, focus group polling, and glossy brochures, I like to think there exists some kind of collective soul at the core of a university—not a living, breathing thing capable of articulating itself but, rather, a sort of impression that’s mainly crafted by students… an identity, a shared understanding, an ideal… and a hope for the future.

That student-formed vision often runs up against the realities of the marketing campaigns that Admissions pumps out to boost our rankings and, ultimately, the quality of incoming classes—however they choose to define that.

We’ve reported on parts of this before; for example, there was Oberlin’s adoption of a cheesy new slogan: “We are Oberlin. Fearless.” The same marketing agency that created that gem was also the one that spun our very own “Independent Ivy” campaign back in ’98-’99, which led to much student protest.

Isn’t it only a matter of time before the next hired gun pumps out another catchy, bold, and fearless media message for Wesleyan? (Sorry, Admissions: “The Art and Science of Education Since 1831” isn’t catchy, bold, or fearless.) Isn’t it time we became more aware of the marketing messages being cultivated by the administration? Isn’t it time we thought about where we want Wesleyan to go?

This was all brought to the surface by a confluence of factors: the Roth administration’s clamping down on things like Zonker Harris Day, its refusal to let the chalking moratorium lapse, and its general reluctance to support “things that are stupid”—all the while defining “stupid” as whatever, in its opinion, it thinks will turn away the kind of high school students it wants to attract. It’s that thinking that leads our president to say things like:

“Zonker Harris day should not be on the calendar next year, and it won’t be,” Roth said. “The institution should make it clear that it’s not supporting things that are stupid.”

What an efficient way to do away with decades of tradition for the sake of robbing the Ivies of a few of their potential students…

And then, Andrea Silenzi ’07 sent us an NPR report by Dan Bobkoff ’05, bringing Oberlin’s advertising campaign back into the news (bonus: they play MGMT’s “Kids” at the end of the segment).

I listened, and was particularly struck by one section:

It’s too early to know if the strategy is resonating with prospective students. Consultants hired by Oberlin say it’s polling well in ongoing focus groups.

And then it hit me: is this how we’re going to define the soul of Wesleyan? Does our school’s image depend on the results of focus groups, opinion polls, and target demographics, or does it depend on us?

Here’s hoping for the latter.

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52 thoughts on “Fighting for the soul of Wesleyan

  1. Anonymous

    the problem with the chaliking was when students started outing professors’ sexual preferences outside their department offices.

  2. Anonymous

    the problem with the chaliking was when students started outing professors’ sexual preferences outside their department offices.

  3. Anonymous

    I like the duality of these comments. There is such a clear division line between people who have a need to rely on this institution for personal gratification and satisfaction and those that need to rely on this institution as a base to further their divergent ideologies which would otherwise be lost to the realm of some future new ageism. You’re both crazy for being so uncompromising and I suppose thats one of the beauties of being really fucking young but really I need to put it out there that no matter which side is telling the other to grow up, I guarantee that neither of you have. You are growing up, you have not and will not finish by the age of 22. Real growing up is not concerned with the acceptance and reliance on institutions or the rejection of the oppressive qualities those same institutions engender. Real growing up has to do with learning how to deal with restraints and constrictions constructively. This is why Roth is still good in my book, he is a constructive thinker at an age when many people already have their brick wall nice and high.Definitely be the change you wish to see in the world, but don’t get all caught up on who is keeping you back because you’ll just end in a defensive standstill.

  4. Anonymous

    I like the duality of these comments. There is such a clear division line between people who have a need to rely on this institution for personal gratification and satisfaction and those that need to rely on this institution as a base to further their divergent ideologies which would otherwise be lost to the realm of some future new ageism. You’re both crazy for being so uncompromising and I suppose thats one of the beauties of being really fucking young but really I need to put it out there that no matter which side is telling the other to grow up, I guarantee that neither of you have. You are growing up, you have not and will not finish by the age of 22. Real growing up is not concerned with the acceptance and reliance on institutions or the rejection of the oppressive qualities those same institutions engender. Real growing up has to do with learning how to deal with restraints and constrictions constructively. This is why Roth is still good in my book, he is a constructive thinker at an age when many people already have their brick wall nice and high.

    Definitely be the change you wish to see in the world, but don’t get all caught up on who is keeping you back because you’ll just end in a defensive standstill.

  5. Anonymous

    Why should anyone “grow up”? Since when have 19-22-year-olds become stodgy old retirees whose only interest in diversity is their portfolio? You think it’s “grown up” for students to be grateful that the institution they love is being compromised for the sake of the bottom line? We have years ahead of us to accept that kind of passionless bureaucracy. And anyway, the bottom line really is that we are clients of this school, we pay for the privilege of coming here (both tuition and our future time spent on the phone with University Relations fund raisers) and we have a right to make demands. This school not only has an identity crisis – it has a customer service crisis. How’s that for the bottom line? -AN

  6. Anonymous

    Why should anyone “grow up”? Since when have 19-22-year-olds become stodgy old retirees whose only interest in diversity is their portfolio? You think it’s “grown up” for students to be grateful that the institution they love is being compromised for the sake of the bottom line? We have years ahead of us to accept that kind of passionless bureaucracy. And anyway, the bottom line really is that we are clients of this school, we pay for the privilege of coming here (both tuition and our future time spent on the phone with University Relations fund raisers) and we have a right to make demands. This school not only has an identity crisis – it has a customer service crisis. How’s that for the bottom line? -AN

  7. Anonymous

    I think 9:11pm meant ” double-standard extremists who think the rules shouldn’t apply to them.” Not that I agree or disagree. I really just need some milk for my oreos. Which, in a metaphysical/dualistic/ semi-jungian post modernist sense, can be viewed as a metaphor for this whole thread. Which is fine. But I’d also like some milk, too.

  8. Anonymous

    I think 9:11pm meant ” double-standard extremists who think the rules shouldn’t apply to them.” Not that I agree or disagree. I really just need some milk for my oreos. Which, in a metaphysical/dualistic/ semi-jungian post modernist sense, can be viewed as a metaphor for this whole thread. Which is fine. But I’d also like some milk, too.

  9. Anonymous

    The whole ‘Keep Wesleyan Weird’ thing is so weak. Try that approach once you leave here. It’s bad enough people don’t take us seriously because of a small but very vocal percentage of whiners, upper west side babies with entitlement mentalities, and double-standard extremists who think the rules should apply to them. I for one am glad they’re trying to do something to improve our reputation. Who wants to work their ass off for four years only to have people in the “real world” roll their eyes when you tell them where you went?

  10. Anonymous

    The whole ‘Keep Wesleyan Weird’ thing is so weak. Try that approach once you leave here. It’s bad enough people don’t take us seriously because of a small but very vocal percentage of whiners, upper west side babies with entitlement mentalities, and double-standard extremists who think the rules should apply to them. I for one am glad they’re trying to do something to improve our reputation. Who wants to work their ass off for four years only to have people in the “real world” roll their eyes when you tell them where you went?

  11. Anonymous

    This is the same bullshit that ruined the “Keep Wesleyan Weird” movement. Stop bitching about what the University wants to make you and BE that University.The conundrum here is that whenever you all go out and try to be weird, it’s so forced that it defeats the purpose.So the truth is we AREN’T that Wesleyan you all want to be, because you’re all too boring. Not really a constructive comment, I know, but internet comments really aren’t.

  12. Anonymous

    This is the same bullshit that ruined the “Keep Wesleyan Weird” movement. Stop bitching about what the University wants to make you and BE that University.

    The conundrum here is that whenever you all go out and try to be weird, it’s so forced that it defeats the purpose.

    So the truth is we AREN’T that Wesleyan you all want to be, because you’re all too boring. Not really a constructive comment, I know, but internet comments really aren’t.

  13. ROTH

    I learned a lot from the exchanges above. I DON’T think Wesleyan should mainstream…not at all. The reason I talk about what I value most about Wesleyan is to find out what students, faculty and alumni themselves value most. I hope I can continue to rethink my own understanding as I interact with students and listen to their views. This happens everyday, though of course students disagree with one another.I should never have said that a valued activity was stupid. I apologize again for that, I was just talking informally and I was WRONG to say that. I DO think we should try to communicate what we value most about Wes…why it IS so distinctive. I’ll keep trying, and I hope you will continue to help.This is my first comment on Wesleying. Now, I have to get back to work.

  14. ROTH

    I learned a lot from the exchanges above. I DON’T think Wesleyan should mainstream…not at all. The reason I talk about what I value most about Wesleyan is to find out what students, faculty and alumni themselves value most. I hope I can continue to rethink my own understanding as I interact with students and listen to their views. This happens everyday, though of course students disagree with one another.

    I should never have said that a valued activity was stupid. I apologize again for that, I was just talking informally and I was WRONG to say that.

    I DO think we should try to communicate what we value most about Wes…why it IS so distinctive. I’ll keep trying, and I hope you will continue to help.

    This is my first comment on Wesleying. Now, I have to get back to work.

  15. Rob

    In response to 2:05You could make that same argument about America or the world in general. Why bother if you won’t be around forever?You know what – I care about Wesleyan, and I want it to be a place I want to live in.

  16. Rob

    In response to 2:05
    You could make that same argument about America or the world in general. Why bother if you won’t be around forever?
    You know what – I care about Wesleyan, and I want it to be a place I want to live in.

  17. Anonymous

    “is Wes the connecticut version of amherst or williams?”Seriously, yes, it is. I’ve spent extended periods of time at all three places, and, they can feel very similar. I’m always torn between being amused and upset when people say that we’re so different. But, on the plus side, I tend to think that those institutions have made changes that make them more similar to wes, rather than vice versa.(This is not to say that I think wes should try to “mainstream” itself. The truth is quite the opposite; I think we’ve set our sights too low with statements like “Keep Wesleyan Weird” and the like; I want to make Wesleyan less mainstream than it was when I got here.)

  18. Anonymous

    “is Wes the connecticut version of amherst or williams?”

    Seriously, yes, it is. I’ve spent extended periods of time at all three places, and, they can feel very similar. I’m always torn between being amused and upset when people say that we’re so different. But, on the plus side, I tend to think that those institutions have made changes that make them more similar to wes, rather than vice versa.

    (This is not to say that I think wes should try to “mainstream” itself. The truth is quite the opposite; I think we’ve set our sights too low with statements like “Keep Wesleyan Weird” and the like; I want to make Wesleyan less mainstream than it was when I got here.)

  19. Mad Joy

    I also feel that mainstreaming Wes is unlikely to make it more competitive – instead, fewer students would choose Wesleyan over schools like Tufts or Haverford that are of similar academic rigor but have less of a distinctive character (in my opinion). Or even over other schools like the Ivies – there are a fair number of students here who chose Wesleyan over such more statistically prestigious schools for other reasons.

  20. Mad Joy

    I also feel that mainstreaming Wes is unlikely to make it more competitive – instead, fewer students would choose Wesleyan over schools like Tufts or Haverford that are of similar academic rigor but have less of a distinctive character (in my opinion). Or even over other schools like the Ivies – there are a fair number of students here who chose Wesleyan over such more statistically prestigious schools for other reasons.

  21. Anonymous

    How about this for a slogan?”California College of the Arts 2: Electric Boogaloo” ?

  22. Anonymous

    How about this for a slogan?

    “California College of the Arts 2: Electric Boogaloo” ?

  23. Alexander

    Sure his job is to increase the applicant pool along with the endowment, but at what cost. Do we really want more applicants if those applicants are not ones who will buy into, and ultimately perpetuate the spirit of intellectual rigor coupled with curiosity, playfulness, and an understanding of the learning that can be achieved outside of academic setting that Roth himself has stressed as central to the Wesleyan identity? I don’t. Perhaps the kind of prefrosh that would be terrified by Wesfest (which was not that ridiculous) are not the type of students that will fit best in the type of environment that we have here.In response to Anon 11:50, we do have the power to continue to be ourselves and define the campus atmosphere, but the administration has the power to choose those who, in the same way, will define it in the future. So, through the mainstreaming PR campaigns future incoming classes will be less willing and able to live up to what we all want Wes to be.

  24. Alexander

    Sure his job is to increase the applicant pool along with the endowment, but at what cost. Do we really want more applicants if those applicants are not ones who will buy into, and ultimately perpetuate the spirit of intellectual rigor coupled with curiosity, playfulness, and an understanding of the learning that can be achieved outside of academic setting that Roth himself has stressed as central to the Wesleyan identity? I don’t. Perhaps the kind of prefrosh that would be terrified by Wesfest (which was not that ridiculous) are not the type of students that will fit best in the type of environment that we have here.
    In response to Anon 11:50, we do have the power to continue to be ourselves and define the campus atmosphere, but the administration has the power to choose those who, in the same way, will define it in the future. So, through the mainstreaming PR campaigns future incoming classes will be less willing and able to live up to what we all want Wes to be.

  25. Anonymous

    You are aware that focus groups, target demographics, opinion polls are all of high school students right? What gives you all the right to determine what “Wesleyan” is, instead of them? Or instead of those on campus who believe that Roth is a welcome change, and that he’s right in saying a school approved celebration of illegal drugs is stupid. Grow up people. The school is a business, and they want to get as many applicants as possible. And lets not forget that there are faces to this. They aren’t just chaging the face of Wesleyan to garner support of some large nameless group. There are hundreds of students who come to WesFest and are completely terrified of the school, not even knowing the kind of academic rigor and intellectual acumen that exists. Get over yourselves. Grow up. Roth’s job is to make people come to the school, and to make people donate money so you can have “cultural festivals.” Don’t bitch about how he does it. If you had his job, this school would be broke in 4 years.

  26. Anonymous

    You are aware that focus groups, target demographics, opinion polls are all of high school students right? What gives you all the right to determine what “Wesleyan” is, instead of them? Or instead of those on campus who believe that Roth is a welcome change, and that he’s right in saying a school approved celebration of illegal drugs is stupid. Grow up people. The school is a business, and they want to get as many applicants as possible. And lets not forget that there are faces to this. They aren’t just chaging the face of Wesleyan to garner support of some large nameless group. There are hundreds of students who come to WesFest and are completely terrified of the school, not even knowing the kind of academic rigor and intellectual acumen that exists. Get over yourselves. Grow up. Roth’s job is to make people come to the school, and to make people donate money so you can have “cultural festivals.” Don’t bitch about how he does it. If you had his job, this school would be broke in 4 years.

  27. Mad Joy

    Well-said, Justin.I do still think that Roth has good intentions and is a welcome change from Bennet: he seems very interested in maintaining the intellectual integrity of the school, which I greatly appreciate. Whenever I’ve heard him speak, I’ve been impressed with both his style and substance.However, I am a little wary of efforts to tone down the “wackiness,” the “things that are stupid” aspect. We’re college students, but we’re also Wesleyan students. That mean we’re adult and mature and can make a difference on the world and still not be too serious about it. That’s what I loved about Wesleyan compared to, say, Swarthmore, which is similar in intellectual rigor and political leftness: we are way, way more laidback. And that’s one of the beautiful things about Wesleyan and its student body: we’re smart, capable, and totally have life in the right perspective.So doing away with Zonker Harris Day, or making regulations that lead to experimental drug use that is more forbidden (and thus less talked about) and less responsible is a poor idea.Michael Roth, a ’73 alum commented on your blog by saying:”Suffice it to say, that he, much like I had a few year before, fell in love with the place: the surprising friendliness; the widespread commitment to serious inquiry of all sorts. And, the playfulness. That was key for me. I’m not sure I would have graduated but for all the people along the way who were willing to “come out and play” with me, on my terms.”I think this comment is key. Commitment to serious inquiry of all sorts and playfulness go hand and hand at Wesleyan. I think that you know this, President Roth – at least, when you speak, it seems like you do – so I hope your policy also comes to reflect it.(Also, in regards to chalking: the issue of chalking did not, in fact, start out as a “thing which is stupid.” Queer groups used chalking to write controversial (and anonymous) messages about gender and sexuality on the ground, to try to make people question and think about their assumptions. When chalking was banned, there was a widespread belief that it was because these controversial messages were viewed as too vulgar and perverse – when the intention had been to question why, say, homosexuality was viewed as vulgar and perverse. And due to this complex history of chalking at Wesleyan, chalking symbolizes much more than a mere medium of message. So even if you do not choose to reinstate chalking, I hope that your reasons are more than “what a dumb way to articulate!” or that “we asked physical plant workers to clear the surfaces, using even more energy resources than we already were doing” – it wouldn’t be necessary to ask Phys. Plant to clear the surfaces if it weren’t banned, and we just let the rain wash it away. The problem is not the chalking, but the reaction to the chalking. I urge you to reconsider your policy on chalking. Even if you don’t reinstate it, I’d love to hear an intelligent response as to why it is banned – a response that President Bennet never gave.)

  28. Mad Joy

    Well-said, Justin.

    I do still think that Roth has good intentions and is a welcome change from Bennet: he seems very interested in maintaining the intellectual integrity of the school, which I greatly appreciate. Whenever I’ve heard him speak, I’ve been impressed with both his style and substance.

    However, I am a little wary of efforts to tone down the “wackiness,” the “things that are stupid” aspect. We’re college students, but we’re also Wesleyan students. That mean we’re adult and mature and can make a difference on the world and still not be too serious about it. That’s what I loved about Wesleyan compared to, say, Swarthmore, which is similar in intellectual rigor and political leftness: we are way, way more laidback. And that’s one of the beautiful things about Wesleyan and its student body: we’re smart, capable, and totally have life in the right perspective.

    So doing away with Zonker Harris Day, or making regulations that lead to experimental drug use that is more forbidden (and thus less talked about) and less responsible is a poor idea.

    Michael Roth, a ’73 alum commented on your blog by saying:

    “Suffice it to say, that he, much like I had a few year before, fell in love with the place: the surprising friendliness; the widespread commitment to serious inquiry of all sorts. And, the playfulness. That was key for me. I’m not sure I would have graduated but for all the people along the way who were willing to “come out and play” with me, on my terms.”

    I think this comment is key. Commitment to serious inquiry of all sorts and playfulness go hand and hand at Wesleyan. I think that you know this, President Roth – at least, when you speak, it seems like you do – so I hope your policy also comes to reflect it.

    (Also, in regards to chalking: the issue of chalking did not, in fact, start out as a “thing which is stupid.” Queer groups used chalking to write controversial (and anonymous) messages about gender and sexuality on the ground, to try to make people question and think about their assumptions. When chalking was banned, there was a widespread belief that it was because these controversial messages were viewed as too vulgar and perverse – when the intention had been to question why, say, homosexuality was viewed as vulgar and perverse. And due to this complex history of chalking at Wesleyan, chalking symbolizes much more than a mere medium of message. So even if you do not choose to reinstate chalking, I hope that your reasons are more than “what a dumb way to articulate!” or that “we asked physical plant workers to clear the surfaces, using even more energy resources than we already were doing” – it wouldn’t be necessary to ask Phys. Plant to clear the surfaces if it weren’t banned, and we just let the rain wash it away. The problem is not the chalking, but the reaction to the chalking. I urge you to reconsider your policy on chalking. Even if you don’t reinstate it, I’d love to hear an intelligent response as to why it is banned – a response that President Bennet never gave.)

  29. Anonymous

    I think everyone is a bit insecure… everyone has been complaining for years about Wes “mainstreaming”… and I look around me and is Wes the connecticut version of amherst or williams? not by a long shot. what about trying this: instead of trying to stop mainstreaming, why not continue to be yourselves? the admin doesnt have the power to change the school. we do. plus, I dont think a slightly more polished version of Wes is a bad thing…

  30. Anonymous

    I think everyone is a bit insecure… everyone has been complaining for years about Wes “mainstreaming”… and I look around me and is Wes the connecticut version of amherst or williams? not by a long shot.

    what about trying this: instead of trying to stop mainstreaming, why not continue to be yourselves? the admin doesnt have the power to change the school. we do. plus, I dont think a slightly more polished version of Wes is a bad thing…

  31. Anonymous

    it is indeed a fact that roth is giving the school a new ‘slogan,’ and you can bet that he’s not gonna be asking students for their input.i think that his PR campaign will be more subtle yet more dangerous than the ‘independent ivy’ business. i used to believe roth would be a fresh of breath air for this campus, but now i think he’s going to be responsible for the quiet anesthetization of wes and all of her glorious and wacky traditions.

  32. Anonymous

    it is indeed a fact that roth is giving the school a new ‘slogan,’ and you can bet that he’s not gonna be asking students for their input.

    i think that his PR campaign will be more subtle yet more dangerous than the ‘independent ivy’ business. i used to believe roth would be a fresh of breath air for this campus, but now i think he’s going to be responsible for the quiet anesthetization of wes and all of her glorious and wacky traditions.

  33. Kate G

    I don’t want to believe Roth has so little respect for us that he calls our social events stupid, although he seems to hold us low regard. There is a trend by the administration to ignore the social component of our lives here, and solely focus on our academic work, in a myopic way that is destructive to the university’s current and past personality. Oddly, I wouldn’t compare my freshman year (when Bennet was still here) to summer camp, but I would make that claim of Wesleyan’s squeaky clean trajectory.I suggest, that we poll ourselves and make the information public. For example (and I am making this example up): 50% of Wesleyan students are wary of the changes made within their time enrolled. etc. I also suggest no longer going through the university’s channels to gain access or permission for certain activities. We don’t need to give the ridiculous bureaucracy of the university power over all of our actions by acquiescing to the rules we find inappropriate. It isn’t that these actions are supposed to change the intended path of the university. The administration wants to mainstream the school. We, however, shouldn’t think of these changes as inevitable, but we should view the conflicts as disagreements between the wants of the students and the wants of the trustees. The university will change because in the opinion of the administration, the wants of the trustees carry more clout. Still, we should give our own opinions respect by fighting for them.

  34. Kate G

    I don’t want to believe Roth has so little respect for us that he calls our social events stupid, although he seems to hold us low regard. There is a trend by the administration to ignore the social component of our lives here, and solely focus on our academic work, in a myopic way that is destructive to the university’s current and past personality. Oddly, I wouldn’t compare my freshman year (when Bennet was still here) to summer camp, but I would make that claim of Wesleyan’s squeaky clean trajectory.

    I suggest, that we poll ourselves and make the information public. For example (and I am making this example up): 50% of Wesleyan students are wary of the changes made within their time enrolled. etc.

    I also suggest no longer going through the university’s channels to gain access or permission for certain activities. We don’t need to give the ridiculous bureaucracy of the university power over all of our actions by acquiescing to the rules we find inappropriate.

    It isn’t that these actions are supposed to change the intended path of the university. The administration wants to mainstream the school. We, however, shouldn’t think of these changes as inevitable, but we should view the conflicts as disagreements between the wants of the students and the wants of the trustees. The university will change because in the opinion of the administration, the wants of the trustees carry more clout. Still, we should give our own opinions respect by fighting for them.

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