In the Media

Roth Disputes Narrative of ‘Coddled’ College Students in Op-Ed

Michael Roth

Michael Roth

Writing in the The Washington PostPresident Michael Roth questions the predominant media narrative painting college students as “pampered with coddled minds.”

Roth argues that such denigration of young people by older generations is an age old tradition, dating back to the founding fathers shaking “their heads about dueling and drinking on campus.”

He writes:

When I look around my campus and visit others, I don’t find pampered students with coddled minds. I find math majors in the gym every day preparing for a soccer match or a swim meet. I find writers pulling all-nighters to finish a project working side by side with computer science students developing new software. There are more double majors than ever, and on every campus I visit there are impressive percentages of students doing volunteer work or creating organizations that will have a positive impact locally, even globally – be it making their campuses more sustainable or improving the education of girls in Africa. These hard-working, dedicated students fill the ranks of those now protesting for more equitable and inclusive educational institutions.

And just like older alumni, not all student activists see things the same way, Roth writes. “We are an educational institution: It is a good thing when we can articulate why and how we disagree.”

The image of students concerned only with the micro frustrations of everyday life as opposed to “real” issues bears no relation to the real students I encounter at colleges and universities. These students are well aware, for example, that climate change may significantly alter their lives, and that it will surely disrupt the lives of people around the world. They are learning about this accelerating catastrophe in STEM classes and political science seminars, and they are striving to find ways of mitigating its effects through sophisticated science and through policy analysis.

Our students are also well aware that they will graduate into an economy and society with greater inequalities and less social mobility than in any time since early industrialization. American college students recognize that powerful forces are dynamically increasing the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few.  They are studying how one can create robust economic growth without just reinforcing this inequitable trend, while grappling with a political arena ever more responsive to money. […]

Today, campuses are more diverse because some Americans fought for educational opportunities to be more equitably distributed. Thanks to their achievements, todays students have higher awareness and higher expectations, so we can expect continued tensions on our campuses. Racism and inequality are still powerful beyond the borders of the university, and campuses themselves are not immune.

These are not “minor” or “micro” issues, and our students know it. They are faced with a world beyond the university that is threatened ecologically, economically and culturally, and they are doing their best to prepare themselves for these challenges. They are studying physics and religion, design and economics, and sometimes they stand up and make themselves heard.  Sometimes they are filled with rage, sometimes with fear. They will make mistakes, but they don’t need columnists to tell them that the main problem isn’t Halloween. If only it were.


Matesan Writes About Strategic Response to ISIS Attacks on Paris

Ioana Emy Matesan

Ioana Emy Matesan

In an op-ed written for Inside Sources (and appearing in Las Vegas Sun and other newspapers), Assistant Professor of Government Ioana Emy Matesan questions whether the swift French military response to the recent ISIS attacks on Paris will be effective in preventing future attacks and improving security for civilians.

Matesan, who studies contentious politics and political violence in the Middle East, considers different opinions on ISIS’s strategic logic and what each would mean for the repercussions of a military response. She concludes that the most likely logic is one of provocation.

She writes:

[Provocation] is a strategy beloved by al-Qaida and many other extremist groups, who count on the emotional response of their opponents, and who know that the use of indiscriminate violence against them will turn them into martyrs and heroes, boosting their ranks and recruitment potential. And if this is the case, then the escalation in military strikes, the resurgent sectarian rhetoric and the bubbling xenophobia in the West in response to the attacks is precisely what ISIS was counting on, and hoping for.

That is not to say that the military strikes might not be effective in destroying the military capabilities or even much of the leadership of the Islamic State. The fact that the group has a very clear geographic concentration in Syria makes this quite possible. But would such a destruction of capabilities count as “success”?

Over the last decade the United States has recognized that destroying the military capabilities of a group does not equate to winning “the war on terror,” it does not necessarily undermine the sources of violent extremism, and it does not always make civilians at home or abroad any safer. Furthermore, if we’ve learned anything over the last decade of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency, it’s that clandestine organizations learn and adapt, quite often much faster than military organizations and state governments.

Matesan writes that it’s critical to recognize that much of ISIS’s recruiting has been fueled by a refrain of social justice and opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

We would be remiss if we condemn the violence perpetrated by ISIS and remain silent about the unthinkable violence that Assad has inflicted on his country’s population over the past five years. Improving domestic security can work, but it can also become counterproductive if it results in profiling, and if it doesn’t prioritize human security.

Unlike what some governors in the United States might have us believe, showing hospitality toward Syrian refugees might in some ways be the best way to undermine radical groups, and to show that the United States is indeed committed to social justice and to the protection of human life.

This is particularly important because there is growing evidence that individuals who engage in terrorist groups can and do renounce violence and leave the organization if they become disillusioned with the group and with the cause. This is an incredibly important silver lining and opportunity that liberal democracies should be able to take advantage of, and which might hold more promise than a solely military approach, which we have seen fail time and again.

A student group also invited Matesan to discuss the recent attacks on Paris, Beirut, Baghdad and the Sinai and alternative policy responses at 4 p.m. Nov. 23 in PAC 002.

‘Where We Live’ Features Wesleyan CPE, Doula Project

Two members of the Wesleyan community participated in a discussion on WNPR’s Where We Live focused on “Confronting Social Injustice.”

Bashaun Brown, a former student at Wesleyan’s Center for Prison Education who spent more than six years incarcerated at Cheshire Correctional Institution, is now pursuing an entrepreneurial venture called TRAP House.

“All prison experience is pretty bad, but thanks to Wesleyan, I was able to transform my prison space. My prison experience was one of educating myself, and trying to get better and make sure I never make the types of mistakes that I made to get into that situation in the first place. Wesleyan Center for Prison Education allowed me to imagine I was in a college setting throughout four years of my prison sentence,” he said.

There are not many programs available to help inmates work through the issues that got them incarcerated, Brown explained, and the time is wasted for many people. People who run prisons are primarily concerned with safety and security.

“In reality, if you really want to change the people in prison, you focus more on bringing more programming to prison. I think everybody should be able to get the opportunity that I had to take part in a quality, in this case liberal arts, education. If anyone wants to make the case for liberal arts, it should be in the prison,” he said. “Getting a liberal arts education allowed me to really evaluate where I’m at politically, socially, economically on the spectrum. Exactly where do I stand as a black man in America, now as a felon in America? How did we get here, and what can I do to change the situation? There’s something valuable to learning psychology, literature, and mixing and matching all types of education to custom make your experience.”

Later in the show, Hannah Sokoloff-Rubin ’16 discussed the Wesleyan Doula Project, a social entrepreneurship venture that she co-leads.

“The Wesleyan Doula Project is an organization that trains students and a few community members to work as non-medical support people for women receiving abortions,” she explained. There’s a common misperception that doulas only support women going through birth, but the Wesleyan Doula Project is part of a new movement to support women across the “full spectrum” of pregnancy outcomes, from miscarriage to stillbirth to adoption.

“One of the reasons I’ve devoted all of my time as a student to this project is become I think it both hits a level of social justice that’s really important…and helps fix a broken healthcare system, especially around reproductive healthcare, in that we have a problem where the care that is being provided really isn’t meeting the needs of the people who are receiving it.” The Wesleyan Doula Project helps to increase patient safety, open lines of communication, and make the process go more smoothly, she said.

Kennedy Odede ’12 Tells His Story in David Brooks Column

Pictured in center, Kennedy Odede '12 and Jessica Posner '09 operate the non-profit organization Shining Hope for Communities in Kibera, Kenya.

Pictured in center, Kennedy Odede ’12 and Jessica Posner ’09 operate the non-profit organization Shining Hope for Communities in Kibera, Kenya.

“Kennedy Odede is one of the most joy-filled people I’ve met,” begins David Brooks in his regular New York Times column.

On November 10, Brooks turned his column over to Odede ’12, who grew up in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya and attended Wesleyan. Together with his wife Jessica Posner Odede ’09, Odede created the community organization Shining Hope for Communities (Shofco) and a school for girls in Kibera. Together, they’ve authored the new book, Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss and Hope in an African Slum.

In the column, Odede tells his story in his own words. He describes a tumultuous childhood filled with hunger, violence, and the death of many loved ones. Brooks asks, “How did this delightful man emerge from this horrific childhood?”

“While I didn’t have food, couldn’t go to school, or when I was the victim or witness of violence, I tried to appreciate things like the sunrise — something that everyone in the world shares and can find joy in no matter if you are rich or poor. Seeing the sunrise was always healing for me, it was a new day, and it was a beauty to behold,” Odede writes.

He learned to replace negative addictions with a positive one—to books—and to learn that no situation, no matter how dire, lasts forever. He writes:

For every bad person I encountered who hurt me and caused me suffering and pain, I also met a lot of good people. For the priest that abused me, I met a man of God who saved my life on the day I stole a mango and was almost beaten to death (he paid back the mango’s price and more).

“My mom taught me that while there is a God, that one God might be very busy, so we have to rely on the people we encounter in our life who become what she called ‘small gods.’

Elizabeth McAlister on the State of Vodou in Haiti Today

Elizabeth McAlister

Elizabeth McAlister

Professor of Religion Elizabeth McAlister spoke to The Guardian about the state of the Vodou religion in Haiti today.

“Most Americans don’t know that they don’t know what Vodou really is,” said McAlister, who specializes in Haitian Vodou.

The article describes the actual practice of Vodou, and discusses its critical place in Haiti’s history as the first black republic. And turning to McAlister for her expertise, it addresses Vodou’s stance on homosexuality.

“Many, many gays and lesbians are valued members of Vodou societies,” explains McAlister, who has devoted years to researching LGBT in Haitian religion. “There is an idea that Vodou spirits that are thought to be gay ‘adopt’ and protect young adults who then become gay.”

“Vodou ‘does gender’ totally differently than the Christian tradition,” McAlister explains. After all, Vodou has gender fluidity at the core: men might become mediums for female spirits, women for male spirits. “But Christians, especially evangelicals, have zero flexibility for this; they see homosexuality as a sin, period.”

Stigmatized as a primitive, or even wicked religion, Vodou is inherently progressive and inclusive, McAlister continues.

“Vodou tends to be radically unjudgmental,” she explains. “The alcoholic, the thief, the homeless, the mentally ill, all of these people are welcomed into a Vodou temple and given respect.”

In reality, McAlister emphasizes, Vodou is far more similar to a close-knit church community than most Americans could ever imagine.

McAlister is also professor of African American studies, professor of American studies, professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies, and professor of Latin American studies.

Courant, Monitor Feature Wesleyan’s ‘Posse’ of Veterans

Dennis White '19 is one of 20 Posse Veteran Scholars at Wesleyan. (Photo by Mark Mirko/ The Hartford Courant).

Dennis White ’19 is one of 20 Posse Veteran Scholars at Wesleyan. (Photo by Mark Mirko/ The Hartford Courant).

Just ahead of Veteran’s Day, The Hartford Courant has published an in-depth feature on Wesleyan’s Posse veteran scholars. According to the story:

For more than two decades, Posse has run a program on the principle that high school students from diverse backgrounds will have a better chance of becoming successful students and leaders on campus if they come in a tight-knit group and with a network that helps to support them.

Two years ago, Posse expanded that concept to teams of veterans, starting at Vassar College. Wesleyan had its first posse of 10 veterans enter last year, and a second posse of 10 more this fall and will add 20 more over the next two years. Next year, Dartmouth College plans to become part of the program. As part of the arrangement, the schools agree to pick up whatever costs the federal veterans programs don’t cover.

In 2013, Wesleyan decided to partner with Posse because the university was having a hard time attracting veterans on its own.

“Wesleyan is known as a school pretty much on the left …” President Michael Roth told the Courant, “but a school that’s only on the left and seems hostile to anything that’s not stereotypically on the left is a school that would be weak, I think. It would be an echo chamber, rather than a place of real conversation and debate.

“I thought it would be good for Wesleyan because these young men and women — their life experience has been different from most of our students.”

The article leads with Army veteran Ryan “Doc” Polk ’19, who admits he was elated but “terrified” to start at Wesleyan.

But Polk, who is 32, says his experience in a “posse” of 10 veterans at Wesleyan has allayed his reservations. He has found the students open and easy to talk to, and he’s taking every class he can cram into his schedule. His career plan to drive a truck has given way to plans to become a writer.

Polk described his experience at Wesleyan:

When he got into Wesleyan, he said, beyond his questions about the cultural atmosphere on campus, his first thought was, “OK, I have a future. That was my reaction. I have a future now.”

Polk didn’t know how he would relate to younger students fresh out of high school, but he said he’s been pleasantly surprised. “They actually want to know what’s happening,” Polk said. “They don’t try and understand it, they just want to listen and they are like, ‘wow, that’s different.'”

Polk left the Army in 2014 after he was wounded in Afghanistan. He was in and out of the hospital for eight months with various medical issues. His marriage dissolved. “You’ll hear this story from a lot of vets. You’re just not the same afterward, so it’s kind of like learning who you are.”

It’s part of the reason “Doc” doesn’t go by his old name — Ryan — anymore. “I don’t even know that guy anymore,” he said.

From that point of view, Polk said he is very much like the freshmen around him. “They are trying to figure out who they are, so even though I’m 120 years older, I can still relate to where they are at.”

The article also describes the role of faculty mentors for the Posse veteran scholars.

As part of the Posse program, Wesleyan faculty mentors provide close advising to Posse students, meeting with them one-on-one and in groups. In addition, Posse Foundation staff visit the campus several times a year.

Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, a professor of Greek and Classical Studies and a faculty mentor, said that one of the biggest issues veterans face is the “impostor syndrome,” which was discussed in the ’70s and ’80s.

Many of the veterans had unsuccessful high school careers or attended community colleges, where they were “racking up A’s,” Szegedy-Maszak said.

But the work at Wesleyan is much harder, and they may be finding it “a shock to the system.”

“There’s still this anxiety about whether they should really be here,” he said. “Whether they can really cut it here, and they absolutely can.”

While having a posse of older students with shared military experience is helpful, Antonio Farias, Wesleyan’s vice president for equity and inclusion, said the students are expected to get out of their “comfort zones,” become leaders on campus and participate in extracurricular activities.

The Christian Science Monitor also interviewed Polk for a story about the challenges veterans face when entering college after military service, and programs designed to help them.

Despite his anxiety about being at Wesleyan, he said, “Everyone I’ve talked to has been very open, not just asking questions because it’s fun, but because they just want the raw information of what happened.” In the process he’s found that the first time he’s been able to talk openly about his experiences in combat, “It’s been with 18-year-olds.”

President Michael Roth told the Monitor about why Wesleyan brought the Posse veterans program to campus.

“We’ve been engaged in a series of wars that haven’t even been labeled wars, and they demand an enormous sacrifice from a very small percentage of the population, and the rest of us depend on that sacrifice whether we like it or not, but never really have to talk to somebody who patrolled the streets of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan,” he said.

“I thought this was a great thing – we’d both help deserving student veterans with financial assistance, and it would also be good for the campus because they would have a very different life experience from most of our other students,” he adds. “They’re a little bit older, more mature, and they are intensely curious about the world and about themselves. I think they want to make the most of their education, and they don’t take it for granted. There’s a kind of intensity to that that’s just great.”

Robinson Tells CNN About Addictive Foods

Mike Robinson

Mike Robinson

Breaking news: You may be a pizza-holic.

Mike Robinson, professor of psychology, professor of neuroscience and behavior, was called on by CNN to comment on a new study examining which foods can be the most addictive. Topping the list: pizza, French fries, chocolate, chips, cookies, ice cream, cake, soda, bacon and cheese.

Although not all foods have the potential to be addictive, “it is critical to understand which ones do,” said Robinson, who was not involved in the study, told CNN.

“We are all pressed for time, and food is becoming more and more available,” but we need to think about what we are grabbing on the go, he said. Although a handful of almonds and a milkshake might have the same number of calories, they will have a different effects on your brain and your reward system, and you will be much more likely to go back to get more of the milkshake, he added.

Many of the symptoms of food addiction look like drug addiction, including that people need more and more of the food item to get the same effect. They also accept negative consequences to obtain it and feel the anxiety or agitation of withdrawal when they can’t have it. Although food withdrawal is not as intense as heroin withdrawal, neither is cocaine withdrawal. “It varies by the drug,” Robinson said.

Just like any addiction, the first step to recovery is to acknowledge there is a problem, Robinson said. “I think in the majority of cases when we have a problem with a substance, whether it’s a food or drug…we will ignore it,” he said.

Robinson suggests avoiding foods if you have trouble controlling how much of them you eat. “We are not in a situation where we will have dietary deficiencies (and) whenever possible we should be aiming to cook foods for ourselves,” he said.

Michael Roth Writes About Argus Controversy in Hartford Courant

Michael Roth

Michael Roth

President Michael Roth is the author of an op-ed in The Hartford Courant about the debate raging at Wesleyan over questions of race, oppression and free speech. The controversy was sparked by an op-ed written by a sophomore and published in The Wesleyan Argus in September, which raised questions critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. Many students were upset by the op-ed and called for boycotting the Argus. Roth writes:

They made the important point that opinion pieces like these facilitate the ongoing marginalization of a sector of our student population; and they angrily accused the Argus of contributing to that marginalization.

I’m very glad these important issues were made public — sometimes quite forcefully. Those who think they favor free speech but call for civility in all discussions should remember that battles for freedom of expression are seldom conducted in a privileged atmosphere of upper-class decorum.

Unfortunately, in addition to sparking conversation, the op-ed also generated calls to punish the newspaper. Protests against newspapers, of course, are also part of free speech. But punishment, if successful, can have a chilling effect on future expression.

Many students (I think the great majority) quickly realized this and, contrary to what has been reported in the press, the student newspaper has not been defunded. Students are trying to figure out how to bring more perspectives to the public with digital platforms, and I am confident they can do this without undermining the Argus.

Debates like this illustrate how the “imperatives of freedom and safety [on campus] are sometimes in conflict,” Roth writes.

A campus free from violence is an absolute necessity for a true education, but a campus free from challenge and confrontation would be anathema to it. We must not protect ourselves from disagreement; we must be open to being offended for the sake of learning, and we must be ready to give offense so as to create new opportunities for thinking.

Education worthy of the name is risky — not safe. Education worthy of the name does not hide behind a veneer of civility or political correctness, but instead calls into question our beliefs.

We learn most when we are ready to recognize how many of our ideas are just conventional, no matter how “radical” we think those ideas might be. We learn most when we are ready to consider challenges to our values from outside our comfort zones of political affiliation and personal ties.

The op-ed was cross-posted on The Huffington PostRoth also discussed these issues on WBUR’s Radio Boston.

Grossman, Imai Write About Boehner’s Next Move

Richard Grossman, professor of economics, and Masami Imai, professor and chair of economics, professor of East Asian studies, are the authors of an op-ed published in The Guardian about House Speaker John Boehner’s likely next move when he retires from Congress. The op-ed is titled “Whoever hires John Boehner post-Congress will make a terrible investment.”

They anticipate that, like most former members of Congress and high ranking members of the executive branch, Boehner is likely to have his pick of lucrative job offers—to become an investment banker, lobbyist or corporate adviser. “But for any of these companies, John Boehner would be a terrible investment,” they write.

They cite their own research looking at the hiring of politically connected directors from British government in the three decades before World War I, which found that these appointments tended to have a negative effect on bank equity returns.

Elvin Lim Talks to Globe About Presidential Candidate Rhetoric

Elvin Lim

Elvin Lim

This election cycle, those presidential candidates who use the simplest language are performing best in the polls, an analysis by The Boston Globe found.

“There’s no time to explain in modern politics,” Elvin Lim, associate professor of government, told the Globe.

On the Republican side, front-runner Donald Trump’s speeches, with short, simple words and sentence, could be understood by a fourth grader, according to the Flesch-Kincaid readability test. In comparison, Mike Huckabee and Jim Gilmore, who are struggling in the polls, communicate with voters at a 10th grade level. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton’s speeches are “just right for eighth graders,” while Bernie Sanders comes in at a 10th grade level.

Lim, who is the author of,“The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush,” said the current media environment benefits those who can speak in pithy soundbites.

“If you think about the tweet, the tweet is short,” he said. “The candidate who shows they can punch as much as they can in that short time form gets their message out.”

But is that a good thing?

“At some point enough is enough,’’ Lim said. “If you continue drawing these lines, you’re going to hit comic strip levels…There are real costs to oversimplification.”

Plous and the Science of Compassion Featured on NPR

Professor of Psychology Scott Plous and anthropologist Jane Goodall presented Qian Zhang of China with a Day of Compassion Award from the Jane Goodall Institute. Zhang was a student in Plous's Social Psychology MOOC last summer and received the honor for intervening when she heard a boy being beaten in a neighboring apartment. 

Professor of Psychology Scott Plous and anthropologist Jane Goodall presented Qian Zhang of China with a Day of Compassion Award from the Jane Goodall Institute. Zhang was a student in Plous’s Social Psychology MOOC last summer and received the honor for intervening when she heard a boy being beaten in a neighboring apartment.

NPR’s “Hidden Brain” program took a look at the science of compassion in a program featuring Professor of Psychology Scott Plous and the “Day of Compassion” exercise that he leads in his social psychology courses at Wesleyan and in his Social Psychology MOOC on Coursera.

“Scott radiates kindness,” said host and science correspondent Shankar Vedantam in introducing Plous. More than 250,000 students from around the world signed up for the first run of Plous’ MOOC. The course capstone was the Day of Compassion exercise in which “students had to spend one day being deliberately kind and generous toward others. Scott asked them to notice how these actions changed the way they felt about themselves.”

“Students often report that it’s transformative—that they’re really surprised at the reaction, that people are so overwhelmingly positive that it starts to feed on itself,” said Plous. “And by the end of the day, they report, ‘This is a different side of me that I didn’t recognize was there.'” What’s driving this? “Oftentimes, it seems that compassion is contagious. We talk about paying it forward: The idea that if you do something good for another person, that give that person a kind of lift, and that person in turn will do something good for someone else, and it sets off a chain reaction,” Plous explained.

Students in the course are asked to “think deeply about their life choices,” down to what they eat for breakfast and how they commute to work, and how those choices affect other people.

Vendantam also interviewed Kellie, a participant in Plous’ MOOC who lives in London. She used some of the psychological principles taught on the course—including the “norm of reciprocity” and the power of empathy—to form a relationship with a homeless man she met on the street. She ended up inviting him for a cup of coffee, where she talked about her own life and encouraged him to open up about his. She eventually learned that he had left home because of tension with his father, but badly missed his mother. Though he was resistant, Kellie convinced the man to allow her to call his mother.

“It was quite beautiful to watch because he started out not knowing what to say and being quite guarded and defensive. That all broke down within five minutes.” After that, she convinced him to return to his family, and bought him a bus ticket home.

“I think that day in the course with Professor Plous most definitely opened my eyes to the reasons why people don’t do something to help. […] It’s easy to say ‘I can’t make a difference,’ but everyone can make a difference,” no matter how small, she said.


Grossman Has Optimistic Outlook for “Abenomics”

Richard Grossman

Richard Grossman

Professor of Economics Richard Grossman provided an “expert view” on the question “Will Japan’s economy rebound under Abenomics and resume its growth?” in an issue of SAGE Business Researcher on “Doing Business With Japan.”

Japan’s economy has performed poorly during the past two decades, and many wonder if it will ever “recover its former glory.” Grossman took the affirmative view, arguing “there is good reason to believe that Japan will emerge from its funk and achieve growth rates similar to those of its counterparts in the developed world.” He writes that the prospects for success depend on the effectiveness of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “three arrows”: expansionary monetary policy, expansionary fiscal policy, and structural reforms. Grossman goes on to describes Abe’s strategy and progress in these three areas.