This is a message I sent yesterday to Wesleyan University students.
Early Wednesday morning when it became clear that Donald Trump would become our president-elect, my thoughts shifted back and forth from the good of the country to the good of the University. An international student here, and a friend, texted my wife to ask if the University would be alright. Yes, we will. This election has heightened feelings of alienation and vulnerability. The pain of targeted groups is real, and we must acknowledge it and work to mitigate its effects. But we will be alright because we will continue to strive to build the inclusive community that rejects white supremacy, bigotry and fear; we will be alright because we will express our care for one another in a context of fairness.
It just so happens that in my class on Virtue and Vice this week, we are focusing on how some artists retreated from the public realm after the crushing failures of the revolutions of 1848 in Europe. Around that time, Karl Marx wrote: "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves." But many great poets, novelists and painters grew bitterly ironic about making history and the possibilities of progress. Recognizing that there are no guarantees about who was going to end up on the "right side of history," they became cynical about change, detaching themselves from any possibility for a meaningful work in the public sphere.
My friends, we must resist any temptation to abandon the public sphere to those who would return to a past in which people of color, women and queer folk were even more systematically excluded from access to basic rights. As engaged participants in the polity, we have to remain vigilant to protect the people and values we care about. This is not the time to close one's eyes or to stop listening. We need more conversation across political and cultural differences - and we need new modes of engagement. Faculty, staff and students will be thinking hard about this in the coming days and weeks. We must continue to work to defend those who are disenfranchised and oppressed, and to create opportunities for greater numbers of people.
Cynicism and irony are too easy a response to disappointment. Regardless of political affiliation, we can work together--beyond the university--to solve specific problems and create opportunities. And here on campus, we will create a community that offers opportunities to all our students, staff and faculty to thrive, to be challenged, to be at home.
Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent books are Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters and Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living With the Past.