In the Media

Michael Roth is “An Unusual President”

The Chronicle of Higher Education has published a major profile on President Michael S. Roth, highlighting the “unusual” ways in which he uses his post to engage in public debates on the problems facing higher education, and what he sees as its future.

“He seems to revel in the debates about the future of education, speaking especially sharply against what he sees as ill-considered technological fixes that, as he said to me in an interview, ‘aim at conformity over thinking.’ Now he’s published a book [Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters] that examined the history of debates on the nature of higher education, and found that, while the details vary, we’ve been arguing about much the same thing for centuries,” writes David Perry ’95, an alumnus who had grown distant from Wesleyan before being drawn back by an alumni event featuring Roth on the topic “How to Destroy Higher Education.”

Perry writes, “In his writing, Roth seems to be trying to reshape the narrative of crisis and disruption in American higher education.” And while others have spoken out with similar views, “Roth has the power to actually effect change at one of America’s elite universities.”

Roth tells Perry about some of the changes coming to Wesleyan, including encouraging students to create a portfolio of work to show what they can do with their education, and making Wesleyan more accessible to a diverse population of students.

 

Tucker: Can Culture Transcend Russia-West Conflict?

In an op-ed in The Moscow TimesJennifer Tucker and Aria Danaparamita ’13 write about the recent controversy over the British Museum’s decision to lend Russia the Parthenon marbles, “one of the most esteemed vestiges of Western art and civilization.”

According to the op-ed:

Controversy has followed the marbles since Thomas Bruce, seventh earl of Elgin, claimed in 1811 to have obtained a permit to remove the classical Greek marble sculptures from the Acropolis in Athens. They were purchased by the British government and passed to the British Museum. Greece has long lobbied for the restoration of the country’s monuments, and this year UNESCO agreed to mediate the dispute between Britain and Greece.The controversy was revived after the artwork was flown to St. Petersburg.

The authors contend, “Yet whatever one thinks of the morality or legality of the British Museum’s decision, it is a mistake to minimize the potential for art to play a role in cross-cultural negotiations and political dialogue.”

Danaparamita was a history major at Wesleyan, and received high honors for her thesis, titled, “British Borobudur Buddha: Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, Orientalist Antiquarianism, and a Material Historiography of Java (1811-1816).”

Tucker is associate professor of history, associate professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies, associate professor in the environmental studies program, associate professor of science in society, and faculty fellow in the College of the Environment.

Hughes Discusses the Latest in Space Research

Assistant Professor of Astronomy Meredith Hughes participated in a discussion on WNPR’s “Where We Live” with other astronomers about all the latest exciting research on space.

“This big ultimate question that we’re all interested in is: What kinds of planets form around other stars, how frequently do planets form around other stars, and ultimately are there environments that are friendly to life and how common are those around the galaxy,” said Hughes.

She discussed her research looking at the regions where planets are forming, and the very youngest solar systems that are just starting to emerge from their birth cocoons of gas and dust.

 

The Timely Sculpture of Rachel Harrison ’89 Featured

The New Yorker has a lengthy profile of Rachel Harrison ’89, a sculptor whose work is “both the zestiest and the least digestible in contemporary art. It may also be the most important, owing to an originality that breaks a prevalent spell in an art world of recycled genres, styles, and ideas.” Ann Temkin, the chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, is quoted as saying, “When I first saw work by Rachel, I actively disliked it. I thought, Uh-uh! Then I couldn’t get enough of it.”

According to the article, Harrison enrolled at Wesleyan in 1984 and declared a major in comparative religions, but left after her sophomore year. She then traveled and took odd jobs, and completed a disappointing semester at another school, before returning to Wesleyan in 1987, where “she was strongly influenced by two teachers: [Chair and Professor of Art] Jeffrey Schiff, a sculptor, and [John Spencer Camp Professor of Music, Emeritus] Alvin Lucier, a composer who makes sound installations. Another teacher introduced her to the poetry of William Carlos Williams, who appealed to her partly because, in his other career, as a family doctor, he delivered the artist Robert Smithson in 1938, in New Jersey. A line from Williams’s epic ‘Paterson’ became a watchword for her: ‘No ideas but in things.’”

Lipton on Thinking Machines

James Lipton, professor of computer science, vice-chair of mathematics and computer science, spoke to the website Kill Switch about the “Turing Test.” Almost 65 years ago, Alan Turning, perhaps the first computer scientist, posed the question, “Can machines think?” and developed a test to answer this question. Given all the computing advances that have allowed machines to act more and more human, Lipton considered relevance of the Turing Test today.

Robinson Pinpoints Addiction Center in Brain

Mike Robinson recently published an article in the Journal of Neuroscience about the center of the brain that triggers addiction.

Mike Robinson recently published an article in the Journal of Neuroscience about the center of the brain that triggers addiction.

Having trouble resisting another glass of wine or a decadent slice of chocolate cake? In a new study, Mike Robinson, assistant professor of psychology, assistant professor of neuroscience and behavior, pinpoints the part of the brain that triggers addiction. It’s in the brain’s amygdala, an almond-shaped mass that processes emotions, reports the news site Medical Xpress.

These findings were published Dec. 10 in the Journal of Neuroscience (read the full story here). Robinson is the lead author, and co-wrote the paper with two colleagues from the University of Michigan.

The study was done using a technique called optogenetics with rats. Whenever the rats pressed a lever to earn a sugary treat, a laser light painlessly activated the amygdala in their brains for a few seconds, making neurons in it fire more excitedly. When the rats pressed a separate lever to earn a treat, their amygdala was not activated. When the rats were then faced with a choice over which lever to press, they focused exclusively on getting the reward that previously excited their amygdala and ignored the other. They were also willing to work much harder to earn the first reward.

Robinson told Medical XPress that the results suggest a role for the amygdala in generating focused and almost exclusive desire as seen in addiction.

“Understanding the pathways involved in addictive-like behavior could provide new therapeutic avenues for treating addiction and other compulsive disorders,” he said.

Scott: Is Our Art Equal to the Challenges of Our Times?

Distinguished Professor of Film Criticism A.O. Scott writes in The New York Times that ever since the financial crisis of 2008, he’s been on the lookout for the next great piece of art–a new “The Grapes of Wrath” or “Death of a Salesman.”

“The originals are all still around, available for revival and rediscovery and part of a robust artistic record of hard times past,” he writes. “But we are in the midst of hard times now, and it feels as if art is failing us.”

Scott explains, “Serious art and popular entertainment, in their diverse ways, offer refuge and distraction. Their pleasures and comforts are not trivial, but essential. Art is the domain of solved problems, even if the problems are formal and the solutions artificial.”

Grossman: Madoff Pales Next to “Forex” Scandal

Though Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme shocked the nation and grabbed headlines in the months following the subprime crisis, in his latest post on OUPblog, Professor of Economics Richard Grossman draws readers’ attention to two far more economically significant scandals: Libor and forex (foreign exchange). He writes:

 The Libor and forex scandals have several especially troubling aspects in common. First, unlike Madoff, they did not require asset booms in order to succeed: profits could be made on days when a particular currency rose or fell. That is, no prolonged asset bubble was required for forex manipulation to succeed—nor would the scheme collapse if an asset bubble collapsed. In theory, forex manipulation could have continued indefinitely.

Second, unlike Madoff, who only required his own wits and the gullibility of investors to succeed, the forex scandal was a conspiracy—or rather a series of conspiracies. [...]

Finally, the forex scandal is especially troubling because it persisted for more than two years after the Libor scandal was exposed.

Roth: College Should Prepare You for Life

As college admissions season heats up, President Michael Roth makes a case in The New Republic for a broad pragmatic liberal education. College should be seen not as a path to get their first jobs, he advises prospective students, but rather “as a remarkable opportunity to explore their individual and social lives in connection with the world in which they will live and work.”

Tucker on Facial Recognition Technology

Associate Professor of History Jennifer Tucker writes in The Boston Globe about the FBI’s new Next Generation Identification System, a “billion-dollar project to replace the bureau’s old fingerprinting system with the world’s biggest biometric database….Perhaps most controversially, it will use state-of-the-art facial recognition technology, allowing the government to identify suspects across a gigantic database of images collected from mug shots, surveillance cameras, employment background checks, and digital devices seized with a search warrant. The technology itself is still evolving rapidly; for example, the National Institute of Justice is developing 3-D binoculars and cameras that allow facial recognition and capture in real time,” she writes.

While some find this development unsettling, Tucker reminds readers that it is “actually just the latest outgrowth of an art and science that has been under development for more than 150 years.” The development of techniques for recognizing human faces dates all the way back to the introduction of prison photography in England in 1852, Tucker writes, taking readers through a brief tour of technology updates since then. And while these developments often have been met with hesitation from a skeptical public, they have nevertheless forged ahead.

Tucker is also associate professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies, associate professor in the environmental studies program, associate professor of science in society, and faculty fellow in the College of the Environment.

Three Wesleyan Authors Have “Notable” Books

The Washington Post selected President Michael Roth’s book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, on its list of top 50 notable works of nonfiction this year. A brief summary of the review states:

The president of Wesleyan University describes two distinct traditions of a liberal education–one philosophical and “skeptical,” the other rhetorical and “reverential”–and argues that both are necessary for educating autonomous individuals who can also participate with others.

Beyond the University was originally reviewed in the Post on May 23 by Christopher B. Nelson, president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md. In that review, Nelson calls the book “a substantial and lively discussion” as well as “an economical and nearly jargon-free account of liberal education in America.”

Two other members of the Wesleyan community were honored in the Post’s “Top 50 Fiction Books for 2014.” The list included Lucky Us by Amy Bloom, distinguished university writer-in-residence and director of the Shapiro Center for Creative Writing, and Love and Treasure by Ayelet Waldman ’86

Roth Discusses the Value of a College Education

President Michael Roth appeared on CNN’s “Legal View with Ashleigh Banfield” to discuss the cost and value of higher education. The interview comes ahead of CNN’s premier Thursday, Nov. 20 at 9 p.m. EST of The Ivory Tower, a new documentary that asks, “Is college worth the cost?” Roth appears prominently in the film defending the importance of higher education. His appearance on Legal View began with a clip from the film in which he argues:

“Many intellectuals are saying it would be better if some people don’t go to college at all. I think that’s an assault on democracy and it’s an attempt to keep people in their place, and reinforce social inequality. Education should foster social mobility and the possibility of equality. You’ve got to be crazy to intentionally not get a college degree if you have a choice today. And if the college education is really a college education, and not just training in one particular little field, you learn how to learn, and that can actually open up new things in your life long after college.”

Asked by Banfield about the spiraling cost of higher education, Roth explained, “Costs have risen because people want the education, and there aren’t enough spots for those students. And it’s got to change.”

“The high sticker price is not what most people pay at the schools that have the highest tuition. At a place like Wesleyan, almost half of our students are on financial aid, and the average grant is over $30,000. But I think the problem that you point to, the increasing burden of student debt, is a national disgrace because it inhibits the ability of students to choose the careers after they leave college.”