As a student at Wesleyan University in the 1970s, Michael Roth was an intellectually curious student with a keen sense of humor who could discuss 19th-century philosophy and the poetry of Bob Dylan with equal aplomb.
Since graduating in 1978 – he finished in three years, primarily to save his parents money – Roth has swiftly steered his way through the hierarchy of academia, earning a reputation as a young marvel whose ambitions matched his talent.
He earned a doctorate in history from Princeton University in 1984 and took a teaching job at Scripps College and Claremont Graduate School in California. He received tenure three years later, and was promoted to full professor in 1990.
“It’s no surprise he’s been a kind of rocket,” said Jane L. Polin, a friend of Roth’s from Wesleyan who works as a philanthropic adviser in New York. “He was the first or the youngest in almost every position he has ever held.”
With more than 2,700 undergraduates, Wesleyan is roughly twice the size of the arts college and has a much more diverse campus. Roth said he is confident he will be able to lead the biologists and dancers, political scientists and physicists, Frisbee players and freethinkers who make up the Wesleyan community.
“My job has always been to try to understand the languages people need to do their work,” he said during a telephone interview Monday afternoon. “I’ve always enjoyed the learning curve. I look forward to understanding the biologists and chemists.”
The Wesleyan Roth will lead is a different place from the one he entered as a freshman in 1975. But then, as now, the campus had a reputation for intellectual rigor.
“I was very much attracted by [the] combination of community engagement … and intellectual seriousness,” Roth recalled. In the mid-70s, students at Wesleyan, like at many colleges, were busy protesting apartheid and nuclear power. The school had recently undergone significant growth, transforming itself from a small men’s college of 1,600 to a bustling co-ed campus.
The younger of two boys, Roth grew up on Long Island and attended a high school known more for its football program than its challenging curriculum. His parents did not attend college.
While at Wesleyan, Roth volunteered in the psychiatric ward of Middlesex Hospital and tutored public school children. Those experiences shaped his belief that a university ought to be a partner with the community that surrounds it, and he says he intends to continue Bennet’s commitment to building bonds with the city of Middletown.
Roth also plans to bring a commitment of his own: He plans to teach a class each semester, as a way of staying connected to the student body. At the California College of the Arts, he teaches a class on the philosophy of art, and it is one of the school’s most popular offerings.
“Contact with students is very important to me,” he said.