Beginning this semester, Wesleying will hold semi-regular meetings with President Michael Roth to ask all the questions about Wesleyan University that we have wanted, but never previously had the chance, to ask him. We have quite a bit of catching up to do. As Thursday, Nov. 20 was the first of these meetings, editors Samira, kitab, and Gabe, with input from Wesleying staff, used our time to ask a variety of questions about relevant issues from the past few years. As per their request, we informed the President’s Office beforehand on the general topics we wished to cover.
Our half-hour conversation, which we are posting here in its entirety, covers sexual assault procedure, coeducation of residential fraternities, fundraising, the endowment, need-blind admissions, and academic programs. This interview was edited for clarity.
Wesleying: Recently, a number of Wespeaks have been published by sexual assault survivors who said they felt victimized by the judicial process, while other students have reported feeling re-traumatized by the process. How are you planning to reform the judicial process of sexual assault and to better support survivors?
President Michael Roth: That’s a great question. The process we have for adjudicating sexual assault is the product of task forces that involved students, alumni, parents, faculty, and staff over the last five years. We continue to look for ways that are sensitive to the needs of the survivors of the attacks or assaults or misconduct—it varies greatly—and at the same time protect that process so it’s fair to all parties. So whenever I hear that a person who survived an assault feels re-traumatized by the process of having to talk about it, I try to think of ways that you could make that process easier on the survivor who’s already suffered something without making it impossible for someone who was wrongly accused or identified from having to defend himself or herself—usually it’s himself.
We continue to look at not just things in the Argus, but to talk to survivors who we work with and to see how to do it, and to talk to other groups, like the Office of Civil Rights, and now there’s a whole industry of consultants in the field. We try to see what are the best practices that protect the rights of survivors and of those who are accused, so that if the survivor chooses to use the criminal justice system outside the school, we haven’t compromised their ability to do so. But every time you have to report something that was so traumatic, there is the danger that it’s a painful thing to do. So we try to involve CAPS and other people so that we can minimize that pain, although I don’t know if we can eliminate it because just going over it again is a challenge.
A lot of the people who are writing Wespeaks have felt discouraged from going through the process, because of what they see as the school’s bad record in actually getting justice for the survivors. So they feel that the system is set up against them and against having to report and go through the steps. They’ve felt that it’s biased from the start against them.
I don’t think that’s true. I know that the men who have been accused also feel that it’s biased against them, as you’ve probably seen in recent reports both locally and nationally. What we try to do is figure out a way that treats the person who’s making the report of sexual assault with support and fairness, but I realize that if you don’t get the result you expect, you don’t think the process is a good one, and that’s true almost all the time. And those that do get the result they want are not writing about it, and I don’t expect them to. That would be really re-traumatizing.
That doesn’t meant the system is perfect, but I do think it’s important that Wesleyan has expelled people, suspended people, and we’ve found people not responsible. Each case is very different from one another, and I think the panel is trained and does the best it can to try to reach a fair conclusion. I don’t think I can think of a case that was adjudicated where the person says, yes, they agree on what happened. So I’m not satisfied that we have the perfect system, but I do think that we are trying to support the people who report these assaults or misconduct—sometimes they’re not assaults; they’re reported as misconduct—but also to make sure that the process is one that withstands scrutiny and that would be fair. We look at all of these reports and we do ask ourselves, “How can we create a process that’s more fair and supportive without just saying what the outcome will be before we start the process?”
We wanted to know what you see the role of fraternities and even societies on campus being, say, five years from now, looking into the future beyond the recent events of this semester? Do you see the roles changing, staying the same?
Well, there won’t be any single sex residential Greek organizations in five years. So that’s a change for some of them. In that sense, they’ll resemble societies—I guess we now call them co-ed Greek organizations. I used to say co-ed fraternities but people kept saying we can’t say that. I think that it’s very possible that we will have what I think of as the best part of these organizations, that they self-govern, have traditions, are semi autonomous. They will have to be inclusive and they’ll have to be safer than they’ve been in the past. I think they can get there if they want to. It’s not clear to me that there is consensus yet among the members of those groups that they want to become more inclusive, and if they don’t have with women as equal and full members, then they wont exist and residential organizations at Wesleyan. They may exist still as clubs but they won’t exist as residential organizations.
I had this huge binder of tons of responses. They’re really all over the place. People said, “Well, the older alumni will give you a hard time.” It really wasn’t that at all. I was sitting at a football game this year, I guess it was homecoming, in front of two guys who graduated in the ‘50s, a long time ago. As it turns out, they’re from Alpha Delta Phi, which is where I was—am—a member. They said, “Oh, Roth, you remember when we let women in Alpha Delta Phi?” I said, “When I was here, it seems like it was already done. It was pretty balanced. I’m told it happened a few years before, but it just seemed like a natural thing.” And they said, “Yeah, we don’t really remember.”
It turned out all three of us had worked in the kitchen at the Star and Crescent. They said one time the steward who worked in the kitchen came up to them [years later, when they were on campus visiting], and it was a woman, and they said, “How could you be the head of the kitchen; you’re a woman!” And she said, “Well, because I’m the head of the kitchen. Get out!” Or whatever. [Laughs.] And they were laughing about it, and said, “Yeah, we were so surprised, and then we realized, everything seemed to be fine, and everything was working well. We don’t really remember when it happened.” That to me was the perfect way for things to happen—it just happened. It’s not always a paradise for sure; there are conflicts and issues, like any other place where people live. They were all in favor of this stuff, the coeducation mandate.
There were other people who say, “It’s freedom of association. I think guys should be able to live with guys. And women should be able to live with women.” And there are people, like me, who think, well, you wouldn’t say that if you were talking about race. And most of them wouldn’t. And I don’t see the big difference. I’ve wrestled with this over the last several months, trying to think if there was a good argument, and I don’t know if it’s really about argument. I think some people see that, yeah, this is like race, in the sense that all of these Greek organizations excluded African Americans; all of them excluded Jews; many excluded Catholics, at some point in their history. And then they changed. This seems to me like that kind of change.
And some parents and some alumni don’t see it that way. They like the other changes—it’s not like they don’t all think those were good—but this is different. In the end, a lot of us don’t see the difference, so we think it’s important as part of our housing program. We didn’t say you can’t have an exclusive club that’s not tied to residential life; that seems like it would be really overreaching into the lives of students beyond the housing program. Some schools have done that; they say, “If you have a club on campus that excludes Jews or excludes Latinos, we would disband that club.” We probably would, but I’m not sure on what grounds, actually. I think, right now, what we’ve decided to do is to say, “Our housing program, we’re not going to have exclusion a priori on the basis of gender.”
I’ll give you one last anecdote. I had a parent come up to me and say he was really disappointed because he had been an active fraternity member and he wanted his son to have the same experience of camaraderie and responsibility and governing yourself, planning things. I said, “He can still have that. I had that too, at my fraternity.” “Oh, you were at a fraternity!” “Yeah, but we had women. And it still works. You can still have all of those things, and not exclude a group.” And he said, “Oh, alright, we’ll see.” And I have a feeling that’s what they said about other groups: “Well, they can have their own group!” We say “sororities,” but they used to say, “Jews can have their own group,” or, “blacks can have their own group.” I don’t think that’s really in accord with the direction of our campus learning policies. I think the reaction has been 2:1 in favor, to get to the core of your question, which surprised me. I thought there would be more people opposed, actually, than there are. But some people care about it very much. I hope they come around.
Since the University began its major fundraising campaigns—This Is Why, Because—which started last year, along with a more visible push for alumni donations, engagement, and events, how have those actually affected the endowment? How much fundraising has happened? And what’s been the most effective there?
We’ve raised about $350 million towards a $400 million goal, and that includes annual fundraising and most of the campaign. Endowment is the biggest bucket, that’s what we’re trying to raise most of the money for, to become less dependent on tuition and so we can offer more financial aid.
What has been the most successful, well, there are two different kinds of success: There’s the success around participation—how do you get people to give something, give 20 bucks, give $50—and then how do you get Jane Doe to give $10 million. That’s a different thing. I was just telling some students this—I had lunch over at the Butterfield Dorms—that one of the things that’s so great about Wesleyan donors, I have had no one tell me, “Where can I put my name on a building?” You hear about this: At Lincoln Center, they’re having to sell the name Avery Fisher Hall back to the Fisher family for many millions of dollars, so they can rename it for hundreds of millions of dollars. At Wesleyan, I wish we had someone who was giving hundreds of millions—I’d put their name on my head if they wanted it there. But our donors—and many of them are very generous, they make large gifts—they usually say, “What do you really need it for?”
An endowment is a hard thing to raise money for, because if someone gives us a million dollars for endowment, it’s not like we can spend a million dollars in two years. We have to spend only $50,000 a year. I remember a donor saying to me in my first couple of years, “You know, it doesn’t feel like it’s a million dollar gift, what you’re telling me you’ll do with the money.” I said, “Well, it’s only $50,000 a year.” He said, “Well, I want bigger bang for my buck!” And I think, “No, I don’t want to waste it. It’s more sustainable if we take $50,000 every year, then there’s always a million there, and it grows, and we take $55,000, $60,000…” So I think what’s been very successful is making the case for the fact that, through their donations, they increase our ability to offer better financial aid packages. Through their donations, they create a foundation for academic excellence, for inquiry, for research, and for better teaching. We have an endowment for the College for the Environment, which we just started in this campaign, and it’s fully endowed. We now have an endowment for the Center for the Humanities. All over the country, people are saying, “The humanities can’t raise money.” For 50 years we had no endowment; now we have a $6 million endowment for the Center for the Humanities, which can be used for interdisciplinary purposes. So, on the program side, people have been willing to support our efforts to create more interdisciplinary opportunities for students and teachers, and that’s where we’ve been putting a significant amount of money.
President Roth joins Board of Trustees chair Joshua Boger ’73, P’06, P’09 and trustee Amy Schulman ’82, P’11 for an event in Boston.
Another place… is that we’ve been able to raise lots of money—and we need to raise lots more—for internships for students, especially research internships. So the idea that you can go off and get a decent summer job and save some real money and come back to campus. Even when I was here, I was a lifeguard during the summer; I had a little money at the end of the summer, not a lot, but it was enough to support myself when I was doing it. So when we can offer someone, let’s say, a research internship in the summer in a lab, or with a professor in the arts or humanities or social sciences, and give them enough to live on and an experience that’s educational, that’s a really great thing. It’s not exactly financial aid, but it’s, you know, it’s related to financial aid. And people have been very supportive of that. I guess when I started out, I thought, “Well, people should get paid and they shouldn’t [have] volunteer internships,” and then I thought there’s a bigger mix than I realized, and when we can pay students to have an internship, because we have an endowment that gives us that capacity, then everyone wins.
Giving Tuesday is the brainchild of a friend of mine, Henry Timms, who is the chief director of the 92nd Street Y in New York. He created this idea of, you know, Black Friday, Cyber Monday—Giving Tuesday. People all over the world have been activated to make their gifts on that day. And just like the shopping days, people buy more than if you spread it out. So Giving Tuesday is a day that makes people think about philanthropy, and what we’re trying to do—and it’s ambitious—is we want to get a thousand gifts on Giving Tuesday. And we have an alumnus, and a parent, who says if we get a thousand gifts, they will put in an extra $100,000 to a scholarship. So it can be $5, it can be $25, it can be $50, whatever it is. And if we get to a thousand gifts, they will throw in $100,000 for a scholarship, which is pretty cool. We’re trying to get lots of young alumni especially, and seniors and others, just to participate, to be part of this, to add to the financial aid capacity of the school. And then this trustee and his wife will kick in a new $100,000. Anything we can do to get people’s attention will be great. It’s all for financial aid; nothing going to, you know, wherever.
Have you seen any immediate financial effects from getting rid of the need-blind policy? And is there a long-term plan to get back to need-blind?
Our long-term plan is to increase the percentage of budget devoted to financial aid. So I know it sounds better to say our long-term plan is to get back to need-blind, ‘cause it’s faster and catchier, but you know, with the Posse program for example, that’s not blind, that’s very intentional that we decided to do that. And, in fact, schools that are need-blind do things too, but I’m concerned that we increase the percentage of the budget for financial aid—adding money to financial aid. And the campaign’s gonna help us do that. We added some this year, actually; we raised the loan-floor. We used to say that if your family income was $40,000 or less, you had no required loans. We’ve raised that to $60,000 this year. So it’s not need-blind, but for a family that’s making $55,000 a year, asking them to take out a loan, even a small loan, that’s a big deal. So we decided to put more money in that category.
President Roth meets with 10 veterans who joined Wesleyan’s Class of 2018 through a partnership with the Posse Foundation.
Another thing we hear from students—I’ve been having meetings with students from low-income groups—is that we expect them to earn too much money in the summer. The students tell me, “Look, I’m actually giving the money to my parents, my grandmother,” and so I’m gonna have a report this year, very soon actually, about how we can say, “Alright, let’s add money to the package, so that you don’t have to have such a heavy financial burden.” Because although we say that you don’t have to borrow it, people borrow it, because they don’t earn it, they can’t get the job, or as one student said to me, “I go home, and everybody has the jobs already. There are no jobs in my little town.”
So, if I said to you the most important thing was need-blind, I would raise loans and cut packages, and we could be need-blind. And everybody knows that’s a bad thing. If we’re successful and keep adding money to financial aid, eventually, we’ll be need-blind. But I don’t want to incentivize the wrong thing. I don’t want people telling me, “Oh, we’re this close to need-blind, if we just raise the loan level.” It’s amazing how many people say they’re need-blind, but it all comes out, at the right number. I would rather just say, add money to financial aid. Academic programs, and financial aid, those are my highest priorities. So, we’re doing that; the endowment performance is helping. We have been putting more money in the endowment than we even expected to, and of course the stock market’s been doing well, and we have a good investment office and so, knock on wood, we should be able to continue to do more. But it’s so expensive, these schools, so moderating the price increase is another thing. Another way to get back to need-blind is to raise the tuition 5 percent. And the very rich people don’t care. But there are a lot of people who aren’t very rich, who aren’t needy enough to get big packages, and that’s a big deal. If we had stayed on the previous trajectory, we would be the most expensive school in America. And now we’re not in the top 10 anymore; we’re gonna go down. [Editor’s note: According to a July 2, 2014 Business Insider article, at $61,498 total annual cost, Wesleyan University is the #20 most expensive school in the country, down from #6 in 2013.] And so by sticking with that plan, and evaluating over the long run how we can continue to add money, if we get to need-blind I would be very happy. But I don’t want to make that the goal, because I think we start to assume things that aren’t helpful to students.
Since you brought up academic programs: Are there any plans to diversify courses and majors to include more cultural studies? There’s been a push, for example, for Asian American studies, as well as the recent outcry against the faculty changes in the African American Studies department. Are there plans to diversify those areas?
There are plans to hire in the AFAM studies department; we are building that up. There are no plans that I’m aware of—faculty sometimes create clusters or concentrations—to create additional Asian American studies or other ethnic studies groups. It could happen, [but] it’s not something I’ve heard about. I know in AFAM there are searches going underway, and we’re pretty excited about those early reports. I’m hopeful that we’ll hire regular tenure-track faculty there and that will make a difference. Mostly just where I am really interested is in some movement in the faculty and administration to have more project based learning across the curriculum, that is, more opportunities for students—whatever discipline they’re in, whether it’s religion or ethnic studies or biology or history or dance—to tie their study to active team-based projects. We’re creating this digital design studio where the Art Library used to be. We’re going to create a maker space, I think, in the science complex. I hope over the next few years we’ll have a significantly higher percentage of our classes that involve active student projects that fulfill the requirements for the course. As there are in, let’s say, the data science field today, and other areas, lots of places actually; Sean McCann in the English department gives such a class. It’s project based, though it’s based in literature and American studies. I would like to see more courses in design and design-thinking, whether that’s in interactive design or game design, even things that would be closer to engineering. I mean I think that these are multidimensional disciplines that fit right into the liberal arts, but we’re very thin in that regard. Whatever your major is, these kinds of things would be helpful to you when you go beyond the university.
One final question, to end on a lighter note: What are your Thanksgiving Day plans?
We’re spending Thanksgiving in the Berkshires with two of our three kids, plus a friend of Sophie’s from Vietnam. We’ll have extended family coming to visit, hike, talk and feast on Thursday.