Rothupy Wall Street: Roth on OWS, Education, Equality in Academia

“In big lecture halls, students can’t buy the best seats or arrange for extra help sessions with their parents’ checkbooks.”

Above, a group of Occupy Atlanta protesters link arms on Peachtree Street as city police move in to make arrests. Hours earlier, Mayor Kasim Reed revoked an executive order permitting the protesters to remain in the park. In Oakland, police resorted to tear gas and a stun grenade to disperse over 1,000 protesters marching on Oakland City Hall. In Lower Manhattan—where this whole party originated over a month ago—protesters continue marching through the streets “denounc[ing] for-profit healthcare.”  Wesleyan came, saw, and got arrested.

From DR’s Himanshu to Daniel Handler ’92 to Tenured “Claire Potter” Radical (newly hosted over at the Chronicle of Higher Education), a colorful grab-bag of WesCelebs have weighed in. (And really, what’s a party without Slavoj Žižek and Judith Butler?) So where’s everyone’s favorite BOF (Blogger Over Fifty) amidst the chorus—what’s Michael Roth’s take on all this?

Publicly silent on the issue until recently, President Roth came out last week with a bold, sweepingly optimistic Huff Post column that directly addresses the nationwide protest movement—and links it (surprise!) with higher education and the university model specifically. (We’re a little slow on the reporting, but hey, Fall Break happened, and this shiz is still mighty relevant.)

“At Wesleyan,” MR writes, “some of our students have joined the group in Zuccotti Park in New York, and others have found a variety of ways of expressing their support.” No mention of the arrests, but Roth is at least moderately supportive of the activism: “it’s easy to mock the lack of clear policy initiatives . . . but it seems to me that we get a pretty clear picture of their discontent”:

It’s easy to mock the lack of clear policy initiatives . . . but it seems to me that we get a pretty clear picture of their discontent. Like many Americans, they are revolted by how huge infusions of money are corrupting our political system. And, they are aghast at the trajectory of increasing inequality.

“Economic inequality in the country is accelerating in frightening ways,” the president admits. “There is plenty to protest.”

So where can we turn?

Shocker: President Roth likes writing about Wesleyan. But it’s more than that: in Roth’s vision, the university is more than a place of education. It’s a “place of equality and freedom,” a site of Jeffersonian egalitarianism, and so it may serve as the model of equality (or at least reduced inequality) the Wall Street protesters are seeking.

The main points, essentially:

  • Once you’ve made it to the university, comparative wealth means little. “In order to learn, you have to park your privilege at the classroom door. In order to teach effectively, we try to ensure that our students have an equality of opportunity that doesn’t erase their differences.”
  • In the university system, freedom and equality function in tandem—without libertarian-style cries against centralized authority. “Universities and colleges are lucky insofar as they still have an ethos of equality that is linked to freedom in the classroom and around campus. You don’t need strong central power to ensure this.”
  • It’s all about the Jeffersons, baby. “Even with all his prejudices, [Thomas Jefferson] favored education at the public expense to prevent the creation of permanent elites based on wealth.” [ . . . ] “Jefferson saw education as a key to preventing permanent, entrenched inequality.”
  • So keep on keepin’ on, then. “Universities must at the very least serve as models: they must continue to strive to be places where young people discover and cultivate their independence and must themselves resist the trends of inequality that are tearing at the fabric of our country.”

Roth’s rhetoric of the university is inspiring, but his discussion of entrenched inequalities that dot the road to the university may seem fleeting. Where does the disparity end and equality beginand to what extent is the university system relevant as a model for broader society? Thoughts?

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  • Chinchilla

    interesting article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/amy-goldwasser/generation-ys-wall-street_b_1033278.html

  • Molly Salafia

    Hello All, This week the Patch is reporting that over 450 Wes students have been registered by the local Dem’s to vote in the local election. YES- participation in government is good and encouraged. WE want students to participate locally. However, the alternative view on this is that these students are not choosing people who necessarily the popular vote of the permanent residents would be choosing. In the late 1980’s, Paul Gionfriddo’s mayoral campaign made a valiant effort to mass register Wes students. He won that election, ironically “some say” that he was not the ‘hometown” favorite of those who own property, live, work, and raise children here. There is no way to measure other than word of mouth at the time and claims by both parties on voter feed back.

    I was present when Mayor Giuliano gave a speech to the Wesleyan Republicans saying he encouraged students to participate in local government, if they truly showed concern for citizens here and made educated decisions. He encouraged them to get active in Middletown culture and activities. Alex Levin is running for BOE on the same ticket as me and he is a student at Wesleyan who plans to stay for the long haul and serve if elected.It is of my opinion, not my party, or the Mayor’s, but my own, that when a particular candidate lines up shuttles to drive students to the polls works with only single party organizing the effort ( ie College Democrats) not a bipartisan group on campus (Democracy Matters), he is sending the message that he Dan Drew does not believe Middletown residents are educated & smart enough to make decisions about who they want elected for themselves. 

    These students have also not been educated, from my understanding, to the fact that by changing their permanent address to Middletown, they are now subject to local car tax and possibly state income tax. 

    A plea to Wesleyan students: Not long ago, I too was a college student in a small City. I have had Wesleyan students and professors as roommates since becoming a home owner right around the corner from campus. I love going to Wesleyan concerts especially Taiko Drumming. Please be careful when you vote, use your head, be kind & keep citizens at the front of your mind rather than party affiliation, and realize your vote may weigh more than you know.  There are real families attached to every decision you make.

    As many letters during election season are written by the party and signed randomly with a name, I decided to skip that and sign my own name.
    Food for thought- Thank you!

    Molly Salafia, Assoc, AIA, LEED GA – a really annoyed citizen, and yes (R) candidate for P&Z
    I am a blogger for the Middletown Eye, I do the really annoying cartoons everyone loves to hate.
    molly.salafia@gmail.com

    • MrSilence

      I understand your plea, Ms Salafia. I would like you to understand, however, that when I vote later this year, I will be voting for my community’s best interests, just like every other person in Middletown. I will vote for what I think is best for Wesleyan, for students like me. We are an active part of the larger Middletown community, and although each of us leaves after 4 years, the University remains, and so do our general student interests. 

      Every Middletown resident will probably vote in a way that reflects how they want their life in this city to improve in the future. My vote will similarly reflect what I think is best for future students of this University. 

      I find the idea behind your post quite disconcerting though. It seems as if you were even trying to convince us not to go to the polling booths because our voices do not deserve to be heard in this community. I beg you, Ms Salafia, to reevaluate your opinion of my university in this town: until you are able to recognize the legitimacy of our input in the local polls (in whichever way that is), I doubt that you will be veiling for this whole city’s best interests.

      • Ed McKeon

        Curious?  Who will you vote for to get the “best for future students of this University” and why?

        I don’t think Molly is discouraging anyone from voting, or questioning your legitimacy as a voter.  She thinks that all voters should be informed.  I do too.

        Who will you be voting for for Board of Assessment Appeals, and why?  I’m not even sure I have a good answer for that one yet, but I do know the candidates, and I’ve spoken with them.

        Please vote.  But vote for candidates who you know will reflect your interests, and not for candidates who have what may appear to be the appropriate party candidacy affixed to their name.

        Ed McKeon

    • Ben Florsheim

      A correction for the record: no candidate or party is lining up shuttles. Transportation to the polls is arranged annually by the Wesleyan University Center for Community Partnership and the Wesleyan Student Assembly, nonpartisan organizations. The Wesleyan Democrats have been working with Mr. Drew’s campaign, but we reached out to him (rather than the other way around), and in no way claim to speak for all students on campus nor those who utilize the University-sponsored transportation to the polling place. 

      It is also inaccurate that students have not been educated about the residency implications of choosing to register to vote; those students who are employed by the University or at local businesses are made aware by those employers of the applicability of the state income tax to Connecticut residents. Additionally, car taxes only apply to that small minority of Connecticut-registered vehicles at Wesleyan that are in the name of the student (as opposed to their parents), itself a small minority of people at Wesleyan period, the vast majority of whom do not have cars. Students will not be randomly taxed for registering to vote.With those corrections made, I also agree with the entirety of MrSilence’s comment.

  • Adam

    It might be true that wealthier students “can’t buy the best seats or arrange for extra help sessions with their parents’ checkbooks,” but poorer students might have to commit X hours a week to a work-study job that their wealthier classmates could put toward studying.