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February 26, 2009

A Few Late Nights at Wabash

As colleges and universities all over the country respond to the financial crisis facing our nation and affecting our institutions in various ways, presidents have stepped up their communication with students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends. There are a lot of good reasons for doing this blog, but the financial turmoil has been one clear impetus for doing this blog at this time. Yet as vital as letters and frequent communication from the leaders of our colleges and universities can be, Wabash thrives on face-to-face communication. 

When we were new to Wabash in the fall of 2006, Dean Gary Phillips and I led off the fall semester with two chapel talks emphasizing our commitment to the grand conversation that marks a great liberal arts education, noting “Wabash Always Talks.” Everyone can get impatient with conversation; we can all feel talked out at times. But no other method of communication can have such power. As we work through our response to our current situations, the conversations on campus continue to be many and varied, with faculty, staff, in departments and divisions, and in working groups in every area of college life.

Last Monday, February 23, I invited all students who were interested to meet with me for a presentation and conversation about “Wabash College and the Current Financial Situation.” It is one of the interesting wrinkles of college life that when you want to talk to students, you need to do that at their time. So we met at 9:00 p.m. Monday evening.

I was helped in organizing this by the advice and counsel of Dean of Students Mike Raters and conversations with Mark Thomas and Craig Cochran, president and vice president of the student body, respectively. I had, of course, the advice of Chief Financial Officer Larry Griffith. The rest of the President’s Staff — Dean Gary Phillips, Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Steve Klein and Dean of Advancement Joe Emmick — were present to hear the students’ questions and ideas, and to respond to questions if needed.

For about a half an hour, I laid out my view of the challenges and opportunities facing Wabash at this moment, offering a kind of primer on how our revenues and expenditures work and the key importance of the endowment and its decline with some context to the national situation and the relative positions of other colleges. I described how we as a college are responding to these challenges. Then I took questions.

I think what I said was useful, but what was more important is that there were almost 150 students there to listen, to ask questions, and to respond; Wabash men taking their role in the life of college seriously, taking their lives as citizens of Wabash and citizens o the country seriously. 

These Wabash men knew of the crisis and their questions ranged from how decisions are made, issues that we are thinking of, how the endowment is invested and managed, and the effect of the crisis on financial aid, foreign study, programs, and opportunities. But throughout the questions a steady note was sounded: how can we help? Here were Wabash men offering ideas, asking questions, and wanting to help the College they love.  We went long and some conversations continued after the meeting was over. As I walked back to my office at 10:45, I was filled with pride in our students, doing exactly what we urge, want, and demand, taking their role in the College seriously, taking their responsibilities seriously as Wabash gentlemen, as responsible citizens of this and the larger world.

On Tuesday night, the Wabash basketball team upset the number three seed, Hiram College, in the NCAC tournament. The basketball team has had a choppy year, plagued by injuries, but they rose to the challenge with great skill and determination and the commonplace courage of Wabash men.

The account of the game on the website can do more justice to that achievement, but I want to mention just one thing. I know the basketball team arrived from the triumph at Hiram at 4:00 a.m. Wednesday morning after a seven-hour bus ride. Wednesday night, Chris and I joined a packed house at the performance of the challenging Tony-award winning play, Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, in the Experimental Theatre. Behind me sat basketball players Rich Kavalauskas and Aaron Brock. I said hello and congratulated them on the win, and we watched the play. I don’t know why they were there; maybe they had friends in the play, maybe they were supporting theatre, maybe they are taking theatre courses, maybe they are theatre fans. But they were there, present, showing up when they could have said, “I am too tired.”

The play was astounding in all ways. Billed as a black comedy, the language and events of the play are violent and terrifying. With a less able director than Michael Abbott the evening could have become a broad assault on the sensibilities of the audience. But it was instead a moving, intellectually challenging, and thoughtful exploration of the complexities of human spirit, artistic creativity and the horror that humans can do to one another. The cast Spencer Elliott, Matthew Goodrich, Dan Masterman, Luke Robbins, Clay Zook, Professor Stephen Morillo, Lynne Miles-Morillo, and their daughter Dione were extraordinary, incredible even, performing at a level of excellence that made the play alive. Few college theatre departments at institutions way larger would have the guts to try this play or the talent to pull it off. I was amazed. 

Chris dropped me off at my office because I had to finish up some paper work on a grant report, and I came out to my car after 11:00 to find a note stuck to my door handle. It read: “I noticed it was 11:15 at night and your car was still here. I hope you are not too busy and working late. I also hope your job is not too stressful right now. We are all praying for you and we want you and Wabash to succeed.” It was signed with no individual’s name, simply YWabash College.

It was late. In the dark parking lot by Center Hall, in a misty foggy rain, I was tired but reading that note and thinking back over the last three nights at Wabash, I was pumped by the energy, commitment, talent, generosity, and fundamental good spirits of Wabash men, the students who are not only at the heart of what we do but also provide the heart for all we do at Wabash. I drove home feeling very lucky indeed.

February 11, 2009

Culture, Anarchy, College Life, and MTV

Last Sunday night I spent a half-hour watching MTV. Not my usual fare, but this was the premiere of a comedy series entitled The College Humor Show, and I was curious. The show, as it turns out, has less to do with college life than the name might imply. It is a scripted comedy series that has the feel and look of “reality” television and springs from the highly successful website CollegeHumor.com.

CollegeHumor.com was founded in 1999 by two friends, Ricky Van Veen and Josh Abramson, when they were still in their teens. The website began with films of late night fraternity pranks and “college” humor generated by participants in the site. According to Nielsen Online, the website has garnered over six million viewers. In 2008, Van Veen and Abramson sold the website to InterActiveCorp, though they remain active in the company and are guiding this new venture into television.

The College Humor Show is set in the offices of the website and features, in this first episode anyway, the workplace of a fictional rival comedy website. Hi-jinks ensue as workers pull pranks on one another, intimidate the new guy, try to outdo one another in the amenities of their offices (a ball pit out of Chuck E. Cheese is constructed in a cubicle), culminating in a beer pong tournament between the rival comedy shops. Throughout we see the fast pace and seemingly amateurish visual look of reality TV and website sketch comedy. In one such sketch the lone female staffer is “soup’d,” i.e. has her face pushed in her soup bowl during lunch; and this is repeated several times with other foods.

I watched this with dismay. Animal House, that baneful model of fraternity life from over 30 years ago is a complex narrative of characterization and social comedy compared to this. Now, I understand that my comments could sound very fussy and out-of -touch. After all, MTV or this particular show is not exactly targeting college presidents or males in the first weeks of their sixties as their key demographic. And as a guy who grew up loving Jerry Lewis films, the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, and laughing at Mr. Ed, a talking horse, I probably don’t have a judgmental leg to stand on regarding high-toned comedy.

And though long a student and teacher of film and popular culture, I have missed key trends before. In 1971 after seeing a terrific performance by a young actor in the movie Panic in Needle Park, I commented that this guy was great but he will have no future because he looks too much like Dustin Hoffman. That actor, a certain Al Pacino, has done okay for himself. So maybe The College Humor Show will be this generation’s I Love Lucy or Laugh In or M*A*S*H. I doubt it, but I have been wrong before.

But what really sinks my spirit about this show is the depiction of young people here, and particularly the view of young men. These guys make the slacker stereotypes of ’90s film look like existential heroes. The men of The College Humor Show are full of furious intensity in inconsequential competition and humorless pranks, which are not only not funny to this viewer, but bring little delight to the participants. The characteristic mood and presentation is of a tired and world-weary depression even in the midst of pranks. These men seem old and tired and sad to this much older viewer. In this comedy, no one seems to be having any fun.

And the notion that work is a continuation of a college experience bounded by “fraternity” pranks, beer pong, vulgarity of language, and gross physical humor demeans college and work, and makes them both inconsequential experiences to be endured. Now, I can hear you saying, “Lighten up, dude. It’s a comedy show.” And the world does not need to be bounded always by what the 19th century critic and poet Matthew Arnold called, in his vital book Culture and Anarchy, “high seriousness.” This I acknowledge. I have written comedy and even worked as a gag writer for some time and like to think of myself as a pretty funny guy.

Still, out there somewhere guys are watching this show and are having once again a message conveyed to them that says there is no real work worth doing, having fun means being mindless and curiously humorless, boys will be boys, and a lack of responsibility, initiative, ambition, and purpose is cool.

Maybe I am too grumpy. But I would feel better if there were more alternative images of young men in our culture. I would like to see out there images of young men that call forth from them joy in their lives and their prospects, delight in what Jim Amidon called in his Chapel Talk last week “the swagger” of Wabash men, and the delight that comes with good work done well among good friends, the kind of experience at the heart of Wabash.

I continue to talk about the ways in which Wabash is distinctive in that we call out of young men their capacity for greatness, their appetite for a mature relationship with one another, their teachers, and with the larger world. I think that is true and a great marker of this great college. But what we do is maybe even less startling and seemingly less ambitious. We call young men to a mature imagination of themselves and what it means to have a good life, with appropriate measures of Arnoldian high seriousness but also with a generous quantity of good laughter, delight in one another, kind humor, and sharp-eyed joy in life. The laughter and genuine amusement I see all around at Wabash is a college humor worthy of a website, a TV show, and even more than six million viewers.