Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan, public intellectual

Today in the Chronicle of Higher Education I have a profile of Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University. I’m interested in his work as a public intellectual and defender of the traditions of liberal learning. There are lots of other people who make similar arguments (which is not a criticism. They are GOOD arguments!). But few have the kind of influence over one of the elite institutions of American higher education.

Since I wrote my profile, Roth wrote this for The New Republic (before it imploded):

In the nineteenth century, Emerson urged students to “resist the
vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever to barbarism.” He emphasized
that a true education would help one find one’s own way by expanding
one’s world, not narrowing it: notice everything but imitate nothing, he
urged. The goal of this cultivated attentiveness is not to discover
some ultimate Truth, but neither is it just to prepare for the worst job
one is likely to ever have, one’s first job after graduation.
the goal of liberal education is, in John Dewey’s words, “to free
experience from routine and caprice.” This goal will make one more
effective in the world, and it will help one continue to grow as a whole
person beyond the university. This project, like learning itself,
should never end.

The criticism of Roth will be that this is all easy for him to say, but that first-generation college students need jobs! College is too expensive! Also jobs! All of which is absolutely true, and Roth acknowledges these issues in his other work. But he does seem to want to get us to agree on what the ideal should look like, and then we can work on cost issues.

Roth is also working at Wesleyan to encourage his faculty to do more public work. When I interviewed him, I asked about how this worked (in the context of my piece, But Does it Count?) I believe that if we want academics to engage, and I think we do, we have to make it count. In a followup email, Roth wrote:

established a faculty task force to examine how to
evaluate “non-traditional scholarship.” The impetus came from wanting to
acknowledge public and engaged scholarly work. There was genuine buy-in
by the tenured faculty,
though we still have not determined genuine formulae for quality. There
probably aren’t such formulae, in my view, and we will have to proceed
with evaluators and metrics on a case-by-case basis.

This seems right to me. That you establish the principle to valorize public work, you deal with it case by case, and then those cases provide precedents for going forward. I think, as I’ve said elsewhere, that senior faculty members have to go first. They apply for promotions, sabbaticals, and grants based on public work, then those can serve as precedents for junior faculty to do the same.

Finally, Roth is still very much a faculty member in some ways, especially intellectually. I think this runs generally against the grain of university presidencies. For example, Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester, wrote for Inside Higher Education that, “The days of faculty participating as a matter of course in admissions decisions or of presidents being drawn regularly from the ranks of the faculty at their own institutions are over.” That’s a pretty bold statement from Rosenberg, and I believe Roth serves as a counter-example.

So I asked Roth about what he thinks about faculty becoming presidents. He said:

It is probably important to have had some time in administration, just so one is informed about budgets, fundraising.. and the other systems of governance. Most faculty never have to deal with these things.

Most administrators never have to deal with teaching, and this can be a big problem in the presidential role. Presidents should see themselves as educators as well as administrators. Faculty members can surely do this. I suppose most wouldn’t want to, and many faculty leaders see themselves as antagonists vis a vis the administration. I certainly did. Perhaps this is why some boards of trustees are skeptical about faculty members as presidents.

But university leadership is educational leadership — and I wish that more professors would be interested in it. A friend said to me when I took my first job as president: “you’ve written books, how about trying to build a bookcase?” You don’t build a bookcase if you don’t love books.

And Roth, I am sure, loves books.

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