President Roth Makes Remarks at 2017 Commencement


Wesleyan President Michael Roth '78. (Photo by Will Barr '18)

Wesleyan President Michael Roth ’78. (Photo by Will Barr ’18)

Wesleyan President Michael Roth ’78 made the following remarks during the 185th commencement ceremony on May 28:

Members of the board of trustees, members of the faculty and staff, distinguished guests, new recipients of graduate degrees and the mighty class of 2017, I am honored to present some brief remarks on the occasion of this commencement.

In the fall of 2013, the political situation in this country was frustrating as you began your Wesleyan careers. Washington politics were not plagued by the scandal, impetuousness and sleaze we see today, but instead presented a spectacle of stasis—with threats of government shutdowns and cynical declarations of pride in the agenda of doing nothing. Stasis and inertia, these are surely the enemies of liberal education. I trust you have found at Wesleyan opportunities for journey and discovery, even if it hasn’t always been clear where you were headed. I hope that over the course of your time here you have felt empowered, your capacity to make a positive contribution to the world around you has increased. This is in line with the oft quoted statement of the founding president of our university, Willbur Fisk. Your education should be for your own good as individuals and for the good of the world.

This notion of the “good of the world,” is, I think, what many students at Wesleyan mean when they call for social justice. Over the last four years, this call has reverberated around campus in demands to eliminate institutional racism and in calls to eradicate the persistent poison of sexual violence. But as we have struggled with the subtler aspects of discrimination and power dynamics, it has often become clear that not everyone has the same view as to what constitutes justice, social or otherwise. This should lead us to recognize that political engagement and community participation must include discussions in which we can explore our differences without fear. A university is the place to have one’s ideas and one’s ways of thinking tested—and not just protected.

But political and social engagement are not just about testing ideas, they are constituted by actions in concert with others. The student culture you have created here at Wesleyan has fostered responsible and generous contributions to making the world around us more equitable and less oppressive. The plight of refugees has been one of the defining issues of our time, and a number of you gave your time and labor to ease their suffering—helping those in camps in the Middle East and smoothing the way for refugee families settling here in the United States. Many of you have worked in the community—tutoring at Traverse Square or the McDonough Elementary School, reaching out to the incarcerated through the Center for Prison Education, seeking to improve health care and food security for Middletown’s most vulnerable. Your efforts inspire others to do more to create opportunity and reduce suffering.

At a time when nihilism is cloaked in intellectual sophistication, and when many are tempted to retreat from the corruption of the public sphere, your cohort at Wesleyan has made a point to stay engaged. You reject retreat by working with environmental groups, from Long Lane Farm to international organizations combating climate change. You reject retreat by standing together to end mass incarceration, or by building solidarity with those marginalized by the dominant culture. You reject retreat by standing by your principles and standing with those desperate for allies.

At Wesleyan, your commitment to see those around you fulfill their potential has been inspirational. This commitment can be found all around the campus: in concert halls, in science labs, on stages or on the playing field. Your commitment to one another has strengthened our campus community; it is a promise that the work we do at this university will be relevant beyond its borders.

I am proud to be here on the podium with our honorary doctorate recipients: a scientist, an activist, a poet. All have found what they love to do, gotten very, very good at it, and found powerful ways to share what they do with others. Some of you may recognize in these phrases the three things that I like to talk about as essential to liberal education. All the same, as Wesleyan’s President Victor Butterfield put it in his final Commencement Address 50 years ago, “whatever the President might say about liberal education in community discussion, or in the college catalog, or in his speeches, he could not really define that education or affect it where it counts; that is, in hearts and minds of students. {Liberal Education} is defined and takes effect from what and how teachers teach, how both they and their students think, how they both listen and read, what they both ask, and by how vitally and imaginatively they respond to each other.” As in Butterfield’s day, this university takes enormous pride in the vital and imaginative responsiveness of its teachers and its students. We celebrate that responsiveness today.

Generations of Wesleyan alumni have benefited from this responsiveness. As I say each year, we Wesleyans have used our education to mold the course of culture ourselves lest the future be shaped by those for whom justice and change, generosity and equality, diversity and tolerance, are much too threatening. Now we alumni are counting on you, new graduates, to join us in helping to shape our culture, so it will not be shaped by the forces of violence, conformity and elitism.

We are counting on you because we have already seen what you are capable of when you have the freedom and the tools, the mentors and the friendship, the insight and the affection to go beyond what others have defined as your limits. We know that in the years ahead you will explore unfamiliar realms and see possibilities that others might not. We know that you will find new ways to make connections across cultural borders—new ways to build community, to join personal authenticity with compassionate solidarity. When this happens, you will feel the power and promise of your education. And we, your Wesleyan family, we will be proud of how you keep your education alive by making it effective in the world.

It’s been nearly four years since we unloaded cars together at the base of Foss Hill, four years since family members shed (or maybe hid) a tear as they left you here “on your own.” To me, it seems like such a short time ago. Now it’s you who are leaving us, but do remember that no matter how “on your own” you feel “out there,” you will always be members of the Wesleyan family, you will always be able to come home to Wesleyan. Wherever your exciting pursuits take you, please come home to alma mater often to share your news, your memories and your dreams. Thank you and good luck!