Talking leadership: Michael S. Roth on handling campus conflict

President of ‘leftist hotbed’ Wesleyan University reflects on run-ins with students and controversial efforts to increase intellectual diversity

March 27, 2023
Wesleyan University president Michael S. Roth
Source: Tom Kates

“There is a lot of dispute and dissent on campus and students always have very good reasons to protest, though sometimes they’ll cross the line,” reflected Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, on the Connecticut liberal arts college’s “protest culture”.

Some university leaders might view a lengthy occupation of their offices as going too far, but Professor Roth found he could hardly object to this course of action when climate-change activists held a two-day sit-in at his offices in May 2015.

“When the students told me they were going to occupy my office the following day, I asked why they didn’t just do it straight away,” recalled the Brooklyn-born humanities professor, who has led his own alma mater since 2007. “They reminded me that I’d been involved in a similar protest and tomorrow was the anniversary,” said Professor Roth on his own involvement in a 1978 occupation about Wesleyan investments in apartheid South Africa.

Eventually, students withdrew after Professor Roth agreed to sever any endowment links to America’s industrial prison complex and discuss divestment from fossil fuels.

Such stand-offs at Wesleyan haven’t always ended so amicably, with a 10-day sit-in in 1988, again over South Africa, leading to the arrest of more than 100 students. That cemented its reputation as a hotbed of leftist political activism, after famous anti-nuclear and anti-war protests throughout the 1970s, with a Janis Joplin and Grateful Dead concert kicking off a 1970 student strike. More recently, protests have focused on abortion rights, staff working conditions and the end of need-blind admissions.

On occasion, Professor Roth has been jostled by protesters on campus, but said the trigger for disciplinary action was generally only when students sought to shut down debate. “I’ve had people try to stop me from speaking, usually because they disagree with my policy – when you cannot speak, that’s when someone has crossed the line. If it happens once, then there is a warning, and if it happens multiple times then there is a procedure [for disciplinary action].”

The invitation of right-wing speakers to campus had led to some hostility from staff and students, explained Professor Roth, who recalled how a professor told him the platform given to a hardline Trump supporter was “obscene”.

“We started a guest speaker series for those with conservative views and I did wonder if anyone would come along – our first speaker was pretty extreme, but the auditorium was packed,” he recalled. “No one tried to stop him speaking but, thanks to question after question, the crowd was able to see he was wrong,” Professor Roth added.

“We had the same when Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court justice, came to campus not long before his death – he’s someone who I think has done more harm to the American constitution than anyone since the 1800s, but I had to introduce him,” he said.

“My colleagues stood outside banging pots and pans when he arrived, and people stood up in orange jumpsuits, but overall the event went well – he was as fiery as you’d expect and, although I don’t think he changed anyone’s mind, we did show that you can have a good argument with anyone rather than trying to deprive someone of their views.”

The Scalia visit might also highlight what many see as a distinct lack of conservative voices within academia more generally – with so-called liberal bias being cited in a number of recent state laws targeting higher education, most notably the DeSantis ban on critical race theory being taught in public colleges in Florida. For Professor Roth, “intellectual diversity is not the biggest issue faced by higher education”, but one that universities should confront.

In 2017, Professor Roth courted controversy for unveiling plans for “affirmative action for conservatives”, which involved creating teaching posts for more right-leaning scholars. “My colleagues from the left thought I’d sullied the very idea of affirmative actions, but I was clear that faculty has a bias to the left and we had to look at this,” he said.

Familiar arguments that academia’s left-wing bias arises mainly because scholars are, by nature, sceptical, iconoclastic and motivated to challenge injustice did not wash either, argued Professor Roth.

“When we say that we simply hire the best person for the job, that sounds suspiciously like those bastards that I used to fight against who would claim the reason we don’t hire women is that they’re not the best candidates,” said Professor Roth.

Navigating the tricky task of diligently listening to student complaints while ignoring the shriller voices seeking to shut down debate remains a tricky task at an institution that celebrates its protest culture. Ensuring all voices are heard involves keeping “the borders of what is acceptable speech as wide as possible without ever letting it descend into hate speech”, said Professor Roth.

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.


Print headline: Michael S. Roth on campus conflict

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