President Roth to Class of 2009: Don’t Accept the Status Quo

Olivia DrakeMay 24, 200910min
Wesleyan President Michael S. Roth '78 speaks during the Wesleyan University Commencement Ceremony May 24.
Wesleyan President Michael S. Roth ’78 speaks during the Wesleyan University Commencement Ceremony May 24.

Members of the board of trustees, members of the faculty and staff, distinguished guests, new recipients of graduate degrees and Class of 2009, I am honored to present some brief remarks to our graduates on the occasion of their commencement.

This year I’ve continued my “second Wesleyan education,” but I am still very much an underclassman. You seniors often asked me: “Roth, what are you going to major in? What are you focused on?” My focus as an undergraduate was on how people make sense of the past. My focus as your president is on how to link our sense of Wesleyan’s past to our ambitions for the future so as to make our university the best school in America for students who value freedom, diversity, intellectual adventure and creative effectiveness. My “major” now is to help Wesleyan live up to its best self, its highest aspirations, more consistently and more fully. I have no interest in copying the sophisticated, wealthier schools to the North. I believe Wesleyan represents something admirable and vital in American higher education, and it is my responsibility to make this even more visible and compelling.

Most of you began your careers at Wesleyan in the fall of 2005. Do you remember your first meetings with teachers and friends that you see around you today? When you arrived on campus, Hurricane Katrina had recently wrecked havoc along the Gulf Coast. I’m sure you recall the images of flooded streets and frightened residents of New Orleans. Issues of race and class were brought to the fore so as we watched the spectacle of governmental failure in the 9th Ward and at the Superdome. We were staggered by the lack of competence and accountability but also impressed by private acts of compassion and generosity. In your four years at Wesleyan, you have also seen that even on campus efforts to create a more just community with regards to race and class are far from complete. The status quo here at Wesleyan is unacceptable. Much remains to be done, and I count on you as alumni to hold me accountable for making improvements in the coming years.

In the fall of your senior year many of you participated in political campaigns with either a local or national focus. There were vigorous debates on campus, and many students joined in efforts to organize voters. Apart from any partisan perspective, I was encouraged to see Wesleyan students using their skills in the context of concrete decision making and organizing. I was encouraged to know that Wesleyan students now as in the past were using their talents and energy to work on problems of public import so as to serve not only their own ambitions, but also the goals of our society. I am still encouraged.

I am encouraged, but I am not naïve. I know how difficult the struggles in the public arena will be. During my two years as your president I have often spoken of the importance of public service. Over the last few weeks that importance was brought home to me, brought home to all of us, by the killing of Johanna Justin-Jinich, whose short life was full of exuberance and study – and public service. In remembrance of Johanna, and with visions of the future, I’d like to mention three of the areas of public concern that her life and her death have brought to mind.

The first arena is health care, an area in which Johanna worked to improve pre-natal services for poor women. There is a great battle brewing in Washington concerning how we will pay for and distribute health care in the future. The status quo is unacceptable. Too many of our neighbors are deprived of reasonable health services because of their inability to pay. Our current path promises excellent care for a shrinking percentage of the population, and no care at all for larger and larger numbers of people. We must change, and we will need your ideas and your energy to ensure that this is change for the better.

The second area where we need your help is gun control. I know many regard this as a lost cause because of the passionate effectiveness of the NRA. But it is only a lost cause if we give up. Johanna’s murder should remind us all of the idiocy of our hand gun regulations. The status quo is unacceptable. With more than 30,000 people dying annually from gun violence in this country, and with more than 12,000 murders committed with guns, we need you to help us enter the world of nations governed by laws not by violence. Debates about the 2nd Amendment and about the glories of hunting need not stifle reasonable law aimed at reducing violent deaths.

The third area of public import brought to mind by Johanna’s life and death concerns violence against women. When I was an undergrad at Wesleyan 30 some odd years ago sexual harassment of students and of young women on the faculty was as common as parties. But women fought against these practices, and, sometimes aligned with men and transgendered people, made enormous strides toward greater equality. Around the country, however, violence against women remains a sad and frightening fact of life. The status quo is unacceptable. Too often rape goes unpunished; too often stalking is belittled until it explodes as it did last here a few weeks ago. These are crimes of violence, and we need you to help us find ways of giving women the protection of law still too often used to preserve male privilege.

The status quo is unacceptable – that is a sentence that would generate enthusiastic assent from generations of Wesleyan graduates. Wes alumni used our education to shape our culture because we have known that otherwise it might be shaped by people for whom creativity and change, freedom and equality, diversity and tolerance, were much too threatening. Now we alumni are counting on you to join us in helping to shape our culture, so that it will not be shaped by forces of oppression and violence.

You have already begun that shaping this culture with your research and your performances, with your studies and with your contributions to the communities around us. At the Green Street Art Center or at Traverse Square, at MacDonough School or the state prisons, Wesleyan students have been making a positive difference. You have refused to accept permanent inequality as you refused to give in to anti-Semitism when it raised its ugly head. As scholars and artists, as scientists and as writers, you set an example – you take a stand against complacency, against the acceptance of the way things are as if that is the way they have to be.

I have no doubt that over the years you will often find that the status quo is unacceptable, and that you will then join with others to do something about it. When this happens, you will feel the power and promise of your education. And we, your Wesleyan family, are proud of how you keep your education alive by making it effective in the world.

My dear friends and colleagues, thank you and good luck!