Our second (and maybe final) presidential interview is with William Chace, president from 1988 to 1994.
William Chace was only president of Wesleyan for six years, but between firebombings, racially charged graffiti, student occupations, and hunger strikes, he probably dealt with enough strife and campus unrest to fill two decades of Wes history. Twenty years later, Chace, a literature scholar and former Stanford administrator, still wrestles with his Wesleyan experience. “Those were the hardest years of my life,” President Chace told Wesleying. “It was a tough place for me.”
“Perhaps some of the problems were of my own making,” he conceded, “but I didn’t bomb my own office.”
Back in the fall, we contacted President Chace, who left the presidency of Emory University in 2003 and now lives in California, for an interview. “Well, of course,” Chace soon replied. “But please keep in mind that I left Wesleyan in 1994, some 18 years ago, and I do not have with me records of the time. So it will be memory, all memory, a facility at once pregnant with apparent certitude and often quite erroneous.”
On a Saturday afternoon in December, Pyrotechnics and I chatted with President Chace about everything from racial tensions and need-blind to PCU and O’Rourke’s Diner. Wesleyan was a pretty intense place in the early 1990s, but in more ways than one, we realized, it wasn’t so different than it is now.
Here’s our conversation with William Chace.
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What are you most proud of having accomplished during your presidency?
We looked at the financial picture and we were able to readjust in a satisfactory way. I inherited a significant budgetary deficit, much more than I had understood before I got there. It was in several millions of dollars. And working together with my other administrative colleagues, it took us a couple of years, but we did stitch together a plan to bring the budget into balance. I would say that was probably, objectively speaking, the biggest change that we made. Underlining that, I would add that one of the few powers a university or college president has is the power to hire or appoint fellow administrative colleagues. And that I did over time. The University Plan was really the result of a lot of us working together. The two chief people involved in that were the treasurer, Bob Taylor, and the provost at the time, Joanne Creighton, who went on to become president of Mount Holyoke. So working together, the provost, the Chief Financial Officer, and I stitched that together. It took some time, it was a complex process, but I’d say that’s the achievement that I look back on.
What do you wish you had accomplished that you didn’t get to?
I wish I had been able to raise more money. The school was seriously underfunded in terms of its endowment, given competition from schools such as Amherst and Williams. If you look at the endowment figures of those schools — against which Wesleyan measures itself — it’s significantly lacking in financial resources. Compare it to Pomona, to Amherst, to Williams, Grinnell, and so forth. And that’s been its problem for decades. It went from the richest school in the country, per capita student and per capita faculty member, and that wealth declined over time and has never reached that height again. That presidents any administration, any president, with significant problems. You probably read in the New York Times a long piece that included a discussion of Wesleyan, Michael Roth [’78], and compared Wesleyan to other schools and talked about the way Wesleyan is trying to manage financial aid and need-blind admissions and so forth.
That subject has been a big discussion on campus this past year.
It was a big discussion when I was there, too [laughs].
How do you think you could have done a better job of addressing Wesleyan’s low endowment?
I would have been more successful if I were more successful. If I were able to raise more money. Presidents don’t actually raise the money—people misunderstand. The president doesn’t just go out and raise money. It’s a complicated team effort. The president might come in at the end, makes the final handshake. The whole development office or whatever you call it—everybody works together. And so it takes dozens of people to raise the money. The president by no means does it himself or herself.
I read an essay that you wrote for Inside Higher Education a few years ago. You wrote that when you came to Wesleyan you tried to address “its budgetary shortfall, its far-flung curriculum, and, above all, the painful question of its identity.” What do you mean by “the painful question of its identity”?
Sure. My inaugural address, which was delivered a year after I got there — which was probably a mistake, one shouldn’t wait that long to give an inaugural address — I’d come, as you probably know, from 20 years at Stanford, which is a major, big-time, big-money, wealthy research institution. And I said during the inaugural address that we should address the fact that Wesleyan University is not a major research university. It is, in most respects, a small liberal arts college with some graduate facilities. That inflamed many members certainly of the faculty, and one fellow practically leapt from his chair and shouted out, “This is war!” Because he was working under the assumption that this was a major research university. Wesleyan’s not a major research university. It has major enviable research activity. But its focus is on key people such as yourself — undergraduates. And that’s a great thing, a noble thing, a wonderful thing. That’s the question of identity. What is it? Its name is Wesleyan University. But just as Dartmouth College should be called Dartmouth University, I think that Wesleyan should be called a college.
The other question of identity is the degree to which it is and is not like Amherst and is and is not like Williams. In many ways it’s like those two schools, and in some ways it isn’t. What are we? What is our role? And so forth. That’s what I mean by identity.
Wesleyan does an odd thing in comparison to other colleges. For ten-year consideration and other things, faculty are expected to have excellent teaching and excellent research. Wesleyan faculty publish more articles and books than the faculty at most of our peer schools. To you is that an identity that Wesleyan needs to move away from or is that something Wesleyan should embrace?
Those same faculty [at other schools] are asked about their publication record and teaching record. At Haverford, I know for a fact that when tenure comes up, their publication record is studied as well as their teaching record. You may be right that Wesleyan faculty publish more than comparable institutions, but I’ve never seen any documentation of that. Maybe you have.
There’s something that admissions shows to prefrosh that shows Wesleyan is slightly above Haverford and significantly above Williams and Amherst as far as publication is concerned.
Well, if they have the data that shows that… But I’m quite sure that those other schools take publication into consideration. Almost any school of any distinction does so today. That’s still the way it works. I’m many years away from the school, so I don’t know now what the balance at Wesleyan is. All I can say is it would be a serious mistake for Wesleyan not to give an awful lot of attention to teaching. How many are there, 2,800? The bulk of those students are undergraduates, and what they expect is to get teaching and what they and their parents are paying for is teaching. During my time there, by and large, the thing I was proud of was that the teaching was excellent. So it would be a profound mistake to go easy on that. I can’t imagine why Wesleyan would want to retain any faculty who aren’t good teachers.
What is your greatest specific regret from Wesleyan?
[laughs] My regret, and I’ve thought about this an awful lot, is that I wish the time had been happier for me and my wife. It was for many instances a painful and difficult time. As you know, my office was firebombed. There was a great deal of racial strife on the campus. Some violence. A student was murdered. All this tension between the faculty and the administration, between the students and the administration, between the students and the Board of Trustees. It was a very difficult place. And those were the hardest years of my life. So I regret all that. It’s too bad. It was a tough place for me.
Perhaps some of the problems were of my own making, but I didn’t bomb my own office.
Do you have happy memories from Wesleyan as well?
Absolutely. The happiest days of my time there were the days of Reunion & Commencement when students would come by the house and I would greet them, my wife and I would greet them and their parents and their family, and many, many students said they just wanted me to know that they had gotten a first-rate education. My wife and I would greet them and their family. And that of course is the point of it all. I was happy for them, happy for the school. Students had gotten a very good education. And that made me extremely happy.
You mentioned the New York Times article. Have you been following the controversy over need-blind at Wesleyan today? Do you recall the protests [regarding need-blind] that occurred when you were president?
I haven’t been following it closely. I’m not up to date on the ins and outs of the struggle on need-blind admissions. But it doesn’t surprise me. As the costs of higher education goes up, the schools have to charge more. When they charge more, families are stretching more. It’s a tough thing. And if you have limited resources — which Wesleyan does — and you have a strong commitment to affirmative action — which I think is an excellent thing — and you have a strong desire to have a diverse class, it causes conflict. You cannot continue — and I guess this is what President Roth and his colleagues are finding out — you cannot continue to offer complete need-blind admissions. I don’t know any more of the details about what’s going on on campus. This is a tough struggle for all such institutions. There are very, very institutions, such as Princeton, probably — well, I think Princeton could probably stop charging tuition. They are so rich. But no school is as rich as Princeton. None.
Many students have been protesting the fact that Wesleyan is no longer need-blind. When you were president, you supported a five-year plan saying the waitlist would no longer be need-blind and students protested that. Do you recall those protests?
I wasn’t surprised. I do remember the protests. I remember a lot of meetings we had about what to do. I think we were as committed as the students to retaining need-blind admissions and providing a first-class education for a very diverse group of students. But the figures undermined that. The financial figures said it’s not possible. You can’t do it. You could do it if you start the spend your endowment at a very high rate, which would be a foolish to do. So we cut the waitlist and we did other things in the corners and we got through the process, but it was difficult.
I wasn’t surprised about student protests. Wesleyan is well-known for its culture of protest. It wasn’t surprising, but it was difficult for all concerned. In effect, all parties have the aim, but the students were not as directly involved in learning about the finances. I don’t blame them. If I were a student, I probably wouldn’t be learning lots about the school’s finances. I’d be thinking about the school’s moral obligation. But presidents and the administration have to think about the aim and principles of the school, but they also have to keep an eye on the ledger.
Is it true that students met with the Econ department [in 1992] and managed to figure out a plan that addressed Wesleyan’s financial realities while keeping the school need-blind. Were you pleased with the plan that they came up with?
I don’t remember that. I don’t remember students going to the Econ department and presenting a plan. I’m sorry, I don’t.
But you didn’t move forward with your plan to make the waitlist need-aware. How do you recall the debate concluding?
That’s all I remember. I remember that we had the protests, I remember that we looked at various scenarios, and we finally came up with something that looked workable at the time. I’m sorry I don’t remember more.
Do you remember students occupying North College?
Do you think cutting need-blind today would undermine the school’s commitment to socioeconomic diversity?
I would say yes is my answer, but I would frame it differently. I don’t think anyone wants to undercut the morality and the ethical righteousness of diversity. But university administrations have more than one responsibility. One of the things that they have to do is balance the books. If they don’t do that, they’re not doing their job. It’s as simple as that. And the trustees should get rid of them. They have to do that. The fiscal solvency of the school is an absolute requirement because it has to continue to exist in perpetuity. They have limited resources. You do everything you can to protect need-blind, but if you do so at the cost of eroding the financial basis, you are seriously injuring the school.
What role do you think alumni can play in that issue?
The important thing is making sure that your fiscal basis is solid and that you have all the resources to do the things you want to do. The best thing alumni can do is to think seriously about the quality of the education they received, and say, “If my alma mater is in some trouble, I should help it out.” That’s the best thing alumni can do. I don’t think alumni are very good at telling the school how it should manage itself because they’re too far away. The percentage of giving for alumni at different schools varies, and Wesleyan is not at the top in any such way.
Why do you think that is the case?
I honestly don’t know. It might have to do with the professions that Wesleyan alumni enter. Compared to professions that Princeton or Yale or Williams or Amherst [alumni] enter, I think Wesleyan is much more given to people entering the academic world, the world of nonprofits, the world of people who do good in the world versus the world of banking, lawyers, and so forth. I don’t think Wesleyan has over the years cultivated its current students with the idea that they have a responsibility once they graduate. At least when I was there. If you compare that to the culture of Dartmouth or Princeton, those students understand that they’ve joined a larger family and that they have a responsibility to contribute insofar as they can when they graduate. Maybe it’s changed.
How do you think Wesleyan can change that culture and attitude?
That’s a really tough question. The Wesleyan that I knew, of ’88 to ’94, was a countercultural campus. It was anti-authoritarian, and that persuasion, that administrative authorities are probably doing the wrong thing, etc, that doesn’t cultivate a sense once you graduate that you owe the school something. If you protest at Wesleyan or any other school for a long, long time, the culture of protestation is powerful and it’s very hard, once you leave, to say, “Oh, I really like the school a lot now” if for four years you were protesting. I think that’s part of the problem.
On the other hand, being part of a protest culture is something I understand very well. I was a graduate student at Berkeley in the ’60s and we protested the hell out of the war and got into fights with the cops and so forth. So I understand it, but objectively speaking a culture of protest doesn’t invariably lead to a culture of loyalty.
Do you think Wesleyan students should protest less? Should they be more loyal to the school’s administration?
Well, it’s not for me to tell students what to do. But if you want to cultivate a culture of loyalty with the idea that students at the end, when they do well enough in their professions, that they give to their alma mater, then they should protest less.
On the other hand, it’s good to have schools like Wesleyan. Not every school should be like every other school. The diversity of Wesleyan and its long history of being a school that’s richly involved in protest gives it its identity, and some students go to the school and apply to the school because they like what they hear about its reputation. That’s good! I’ve got no problem with that.
Can you talk about the firebombing of your office in 1990? What was your initial reaction when you heard your office had been firebombed?
Well, I’ll you exactly what my reaction was. It was 4:30 in the morning. April 7, 1990. It happened to be my wife’s birthday. So when the phone rang at 4:30, Harry Kinne, who was then in charge of Public Safety, said, “Hello?” I said, “Hi, Harry.” I didn’t think Harry was calling me up to wish my wife a happy birthday at 4:30. He said, “Your office has been firebombed.” So I put on some clothes. It was snowing. A lot of firefighters were there. And they had these giant fans sucking the air out of the building, the smoke. And it was quite a scene. Lots of police, lots of firefighters, and one of the firefighters said, “We’ve investigated, and there were no fatalities.” His big worry was that someone could have been burned. He was quite correct about that, because one of the custodians had left the building minutes before the fire started. That guy could have been a goner.
So no fatalities, but a lot of damage to the office. It was about a hundred thousand dollars of damage to the office because the Molotov cocktail landed on a carpet which was made of artificial material and it created this big, greasy substance that covered all the walls, including the ceiling, in that big office. It was a mess. So it was a very devastating experience. What else do you want me to tell you about it?
In your view, what events directly brought about the firebombing?
Well, keep in mind that I have a very strong belief about who did it as the end result that year of a long streak of violent or quasi-violent activity: breaking into buildings at night, creating the event that the Malcolm X harbored obscene anti-black graffiti, protest movements, the hunger strikes. It was the culmination of a lot of things in the year 1989-1990 that had been exploited and created by a small number of students. The charge was that I was a racist, that I was a sexist, that I was a very bad guy, that we weren’t moving more quickly out of South Africa and the divestment, etc, etc. You can read the history. It was no particular event [that singlehandedly caused the firebombing].
You were involved in the Civil Rights movement in the south in the 1960s. What was it like subsequently being accused of racism while you were at Wesleyan?
I found it very surprising. I went to jail in Alabama. I was the only white person arrested in a march in Tuscaloosa protesting segregated facilities in the courthouse. I spent some time in jail. I was protected legally by the NAACP defense and education fund, two lawyers from New York. And when I was in jail, I was told that I was going to be killed. So the idea that I was a racist struck me as kind of funny. I just regard it as absurd. People did not know what they were talking about.
Did you ever find out who perpetrated the racist graffiti in Malcolm X House? Do you think it was directly related to the firebombing?
It preceded the firebombing. I have a very good notion of who did it. It was a very contemptible act. It was students of color who themselves defaced the walls of X House and then tried to blame it on racist folks in the neighborhood. I think most students at the time pretty quickly figured out who’d done it and did not think it was white people who’d done it.
So you believe that students of color wrote the racist graffiti and then blamed it on white members of the community?
What is the evidence for that?
This is a speculation on my part that was shared by almost everyone at the time. There were no racist whites, there were no people who could break into the basement of Malcolm X House and write such things as “Nigger, cunt, and bitch-nigger, KKK, and so forth.” That was ridiculous. I can’t prove it. Because it’s late in the day, it’s 2012, and that happened a long time ago. But at the time, I could assure you — there was almost no doubt on the campus that this was a fraudulent activity — a deceitful activity.
No one was ever brought to trial for that?
There was a trial, as you know, for the firebombing. But the person indicted and charged was found not guilty.
Do you think Nicholas Haddad ’92 was responsible for the firebombing?
He was one of them.
What were some of the factors that caused you to divest from South Africa?
The divestment movement had been going on for some time before I got there. It was part of a national movement. Largely, the principles of the divestment movement were read by a minister in South Africa, Leon Sullivan. His principles lots and lots of universities followed. So over the years, both before I got there and as I was there, Wesleyan proceeded to divest from one company after another if they had holdings or properties in South Africa. But by 1991 or so, 1992, the companies remaining within the portfolio of Wesleyan’s investments were down to just a couple. And one of them was Johnson & Johnson, the large pharmaceutical company. So there was a lot of argument: should we also get rid of Johnson & Johnson. The argument for staying with Johnson & Johnson was that it was the only Wesleyan pharmaceutical company that had itself invested in black management, in setting up hospitals for black South Africans. It had done a lot of good work in South Africa. The students nonetheless protested and said they’re still a racist outfit. I didn’t believe that, nor did the Board of Trustees.
What happened was, one day at a meeting of the Board of Trustees, I said that I think it is ethically right to keep our investments in Johnson & Johnson. On the other hand, we are spending almost all of our time at every Board meeting talking about divestment. And I said, “This might strike you as a doctrine of expediency, but I would suggest that we divest from Johnson & Johnson so we won’t have this on our record to think about anymore.” And the Board of Trustees voted to do that. And the students then were pleased because the record was spotless, no company in the portfolio had operations in South Africa.
On the other hand, I think it was a very difficult thing, and I’m not pleased with that. But it let us turn to the real problems of the institution. South Africa and the apartheid regime didn’t give a damn about what Wesleyan was doing. It didn’t make any difference to them. So it was more a question of our own ethical well-being and sense of confidence, etc, etc, that brought that about. But that’s what happened.
About a year ago I interviewed a Wesleyan alum who found a mummy in his bed in 1990. He said shortly afterwards you took him out to lunch at O’Rourke’s to ask him about the mummy. Do you remember this incident?
[laughs] No, no, I’m sorry! A mummy in his bed, huh? I just don’t remember it, isn’t that funny? It sounds like a good story. I took a lot of students to O’Rourke’s!
What’s your favorite thing on O’Rourke’s menu?
[cracks up] I got to know Brian really well. He became a buddy. We had some really nice dinners. It sounds like a great story. Was the student who found the mummy in his bed male or female?
Huh! I just don’t remember. It’s something I’ll try to resurrect in my thinking. But I don’t remember it.
Okay. So what were the direct circumstances that led you to leave Wesleyan for Emory?
At a certain point, I believed that I would be happier and more constructive if I were to be president of an institution more like Stanford. I’ve known Stanford for a long time. I felt like a major research university would be a better fit for me than a small liberal arts institution.
Were you contacted by Emory’s search committee?
I was not looking for a job at all. I was prepared to stay at Wesleyan. But they came looking for me.
You weren’t planning to leave Wesleyan or asked to leave Wesleyan or anything like that?
No, no, no, no, no. No, no. I was prepared to stay at Wesleyan. I think I had the confidence of the Board of Trustees. But this opportunity came along, my wife and I talked about it very seriously after I visited the school, and I just felt it was going to be a better fit.
What was the most surprising difference you found between Wesleyan and Emory?
I think the major difference is that small colleges are like little towns. And if you have a problem or issue in a small town, it tends not to go away, because there’s just not that many things going on. At a major research university, where you have a law school, medical school, business school, and nursing school and you have a student population of 12 or 13 thousand students, you’re going to get new problems. And the old problems quickly vanish, blown out of the way by the newer problems. That was exciting for me. That was more exciting or fun than having the same problem over and over again, like the question about divestment.
You’ve worked at many different institutions. What do you find unique about Wesleyan?
A really vital, creative spirit. A lot of creative students, a lot of creative faculty people. The world music program, the cinema program, other things that Wesleyan does that other schools don’t do, that stress the creativity, novelty, new ideas, and so forth. I think that’s one of Wesleyan’s greatest strengths. It’s a very lively, challenging place.
How do you think the Internet has changed the nature of leadership at a college?
[laughs] Well, communication is faster on-campus and off-campus. When I was there, we were just really starting getting involved in the Internet. There were still people with typewriters. One of the things that I did do is urge that everyone get a high-speed computer. But the Internet was largely unavailable. You could send email messages back and forth, but you couldn’t Google or do any of the things you can do today. It was a huge advance of information storage and so forth. But you know that.
Do you have recollections of how the Internet started to play a role in education while you were at Wesleyan?
It really didn’t. Look at the dates. I left in ’94, and the Internet was hard to deal with. There was no such thing as Google. It was just starting.
Have you kept in touch with Presidents Bennet or Roth? Do you talk to your successors?
No. I’ve sent President Roth some articles I’ve written and I think we’ve had some other communication, but I’ve never kept in touch with Doug Bennet [’59] or Colin Campbell. They’re good fellows. I wish them well.
In your article for Inside Higher Education, you talk about dealing with the Board of Trustees while at Wesleyan and how many members have backgrounds in business, but don’t necessarily understand how a university works. How do you think that can be improved in colleges?
Wesleyan is not alone. Trustees, by and large, do not come from the world of education. So they’re not going to know about teaching, and they’re not going to know much about research, and those are the primary activities of all these institutions. And that’s unfortunate.
Some schools have made it a point of adding onto the Board of Trustees one, two, or three other college presidents or distinguished professors. And that helps. And if you have lawyers and businesspeople and so forth on the Board, they simply won’t know. So that’s a good step. On the other hand, everyone knows why most trustees are there. Either they have immense loyalty to the school or they have the financial resources to help the school.
Did you ever see the movie PCU?
Yes, it came out while I was there.
Do you think it’s an accurate portrayal of culture at Wesleyan?
No. In fact I got into a kind of tangle with those people who produced it. I told them I didn’t think it was a very good movie. I think they were disappointed and angry. They asked me, “What do you think of our movie?” And I didn’t think it placed Wesleyan in a particularly accurate light. Is Animal House an accurate portrayal of Dartmouth College? Not very accurate. It’s a much funnier movie than PCU. It’s kind of a classic.
Speaking of the Board of Trustees, some students recently have advocated for having one or two students sit on the Board. Do you think that would be a good idea?
I don’t think that’s a very good idea. I don’t think students have the necessary perspective or broad vision of the school. I don’t mean any disrespect to you or your classmates, I just don’t think it’s a very good idea. That’s where I stand.
While you were at Wesleyan you said you wanted to help the faculty take a greater role in the decision-making. Do you feel like you accomplished?
Yeah, we made some steps. After a few months there I said, “I divest myself of leadership of this [faculty senate] and ask you to take leadership of it, because it’s your body.” And they did. We also cut down some of the perplexing redundancies of the tenure process, which when I got there was immensely involved, convoluted, almost like the United States Senate today. It just took forever to get done. So we cut out some of the intricacies and convolutions and made it a more understandable process. I come from Stanford, where the academic senate is immensely strong and it’s all run by the faculty. I wanted Wesleyan to take on some of the same quality.
Did you also teach any courses while at Wesleyan?
I taught every year. I’m a teacher. I’ve been teaching for a long time. I taught a course on James Joyce and Ulysses. I wanted to teach and the English department was happy to have me teach and I liked the students and we got along famously.
Do you still keep in touch with anyone at Wesleyan?
Nat Greene. I keep in touch with Peter Frenzel in the German department. It’s a really short list. All of my administrative colleagues have left their posts. Occasionally I hear something from Barbara-Jan Wilson.
Obviously I’m not very close to Wesleyan today.
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Activism or Terrorism?: The Chace Firebombing, Twenty Years On
Argus: Fight for Old Wesleyan: Murders, Bullets and Molotov Cocktails
The 1992 Need-Blind Occupation: A Look Back with Ben Foss ’95
’90s Need-Blind TV Footage Surfaces
“The Funniest Prank Ever”: The Middletown Mummy Mystery, 22 Years Later