In our last couple of episodes, we look at fraud in academic publishing — fraud by researchers themselves; by some journals that aren’t what they seem; and universities who hush-hush their investigations of misconduct. When you add it all up, it’s a scandal. Today, we’re talking about another scandal in higher ed. No, it’s not the fact that more and more Americans have decided that college just isn’t worth the trouble. We already covered that, in a four-part series called “Freakonomics Radio Goes Back to School.” We’re also not talking today about the exorbitant cost of college; we’ve covered that too. Today we’re talking about the fact that right now seems to be an absolutely terrible time to be a college president. If you’ve been keeping up with the news, you already know this:
NBC NEWS: University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill has resigned. This follows Magill’s controversial testimony on Capitol Hill earlier this week.
CBS NEWS: The President of Harvard, Claudine Gay, resigned today following accusations of plagiarism, and the university’s alleged mishandling of anti-semitism on campus.
And just like that, two Ivy League presidents — gone. You probably also know about that “controversial testimony on Capitol Hill.” The part that got everyone’s attention was a line of questioning put forth by Elise Stefanik, a Republican Congresswoman from upstate New York — a Harvard graduate herself — who has been mentioned lately as a possible running mate for Donald Trump. This was at a hearing called “Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism.” It was held in response to some of the demonstrations on college campuses after Hamas attacked Israel, and Israel was in the early stages of retaliating. Besides the Harvard and UPenn presidents, the hearing included MIT president Sally Kornbluth. The president of Columbia University, Minouche Shafik, was also asked to testify, but she had already committed to attending a United Nations climate summit in Dubai. Good timing for her! One other person who did testify in Congress that day was Pamela Nadell, director of the Jewish Studies Program at American University. “Anti-Israel invective has been flaring on campus well before this fall,” Nadell said. “But the barbarity of the Hamas terror of October 7th adds a terrible new chapter to Jewish history.” Nadell then noted that, while free speech is “the core of the liberal arts education … free speech does not permit harassment, discrimination, bias, threats or violence in any form.” There was nothing groundbreaking in Nadell’s testimony; nothing that would seem to be even mildly controversial — until Representative Stefanik went to work on the college presidents. Here’s Stefanik with Harvard’s Claudine Gay.
Elise STEFANIK: Calling for the genocide of Jews violates Harvard code of conduct, correct?
Claudine GAY: Again, it depends on the context.
STEFANIK: It does not depend on the context. The answer is yes, and this is why you should resign. These are unacceptable answers across the board.
Was Representative Stefanik’s line of questioning a political stunt by a conservative Republican trying to make the most visible institutions of liberal elitism look bad? For sure. Was it also, however, a perfect example for all those Americans who think the modern university is desperately out-of-touch with reality? Also yes. We asked another college president to tell us what he thought about that Congressional testimony.
Michael ROTH: As a Jew, I was appalled. As a president, I was embarrassed.
That’s Michael Roth, from Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Connecticut. Wesleyan has around 3,500 students; its alumni include Bill Belichick, the legendary football coach; Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the musical Hamilton; and the economist Lael Brainard, who runs the National Economic Council. Like Penn and Harvard, Wesleyan is a highly selective liberal-arts school. But Michael Roth sounds a bit different when he talks about what’s been happening on college campuses.
ROTH: A kind of contempt for the ordinary, and an embrace of elitism in the mantle of progressivism.
Today, on Freakonomics Radio: a conversation about college and courage.
ROTH: You can’t please everyone, but I don’t think that’s an excuse to say nothing.
Michael Roth almost never says nothing. You’ll hear it for yourself, starting now.
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DUBNER: So, Daniel Drezner, a political scientist at Tufts, recently published a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Ed. that was titled, “You Could Not Pay Me Enough to be a College President.” I’m curious if you read or heard about that piece?
ROTH: I did read it, yes.
DUBNER: And your thoughts? I assume you disagree with the premise.
ROTH: You know, college presidents — I think it’s a great job. I love my job and I’ve been doing it a long time. I think it’s a great job if you love education, and you want to help preserve or improve the institution through which education is experienced by students, and research is done by faculty and students, it’s a fantastic job. If you think your job as a college president is to, like, win an election, or keep everybody happy, then of course, it’s a terrible job. But I think that whining about how hard a college presidency is, is a bad look. You know, it’s a challenging job. But gosh, I see people working outside here today in the snow. That seems a lot more challenging than — I’m doing my job now, talking to you. I mean, it’s not that hard.
Michael Roth was born in Brooklyn, grew up on Long Island, and he went to Wesleyan himself as an undergrad. He designed his own major: “the history of psychological theory.” His thesis was called Freud and Revolution, and he turned that into his first book. He has since published seven more books, including one called Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness.
ROTH: When I was in college, I had this realization that I really liked being a student and that I wanted to continue my education. And it was shocking to me because I really didn’t know any people who went to college, except for my teachers. My parents hadn’t gone to college, and their friends hadn’t gone to college.
Roth’s father, Joe, sold used fur coats. Michael Roth, after Wesleyan, got a Ph.D. from Princeton, taught college for a good long while, and then moved into administration. He was president of the California College of the Arts and then, in 2007, he came back to Wesleyan, as its president. If you look at Roth from the hard right side of the political spectrum, he looks like a lefty. But if you look at him from the hard left side, he’s looks like — well, it’s not always clear. His Wesleyan contract runs until at least 2026 — by which time he will have been in his job for two decades. So what’s his secret for such a long tenure?
ROTH: I’ve tried to be very frank with the faculty and with the students. Sometimes that’s gotten me in trouble, and sometimes it’s given me, I guess, a kind of credibility. I have a lot of people at Wesleyan who disagree with me, but they’re able to talk to me about their disagreements, and I with them, and sometimes I discover they’re right.
DUBNER: What’s the closest you ever came to getting fired by your board?
ROTH: I hope I haven’t gotten that close. I made some dumb mistakes. I once grabbed a reporter’s microphone, who stuck it in my face.
DUBNER: I read about that.
ROTH: I guess early on, I inadvertently, I suppose, insulted a board member at a meeting. They were appalled that we didn’t have as much training at Wesleyan around sexual assault as this board member was accustomed to seeing in their industry. And I said, “Well, I’m sorry we don’t rise to the ethical levels of Goldman Sachs.” And everyone laughed, I laughed. I thought it was funny. It was funny, right? And this board member did not laugh. And afterwards, I was given some coaching. But I, from the beginning, thought my job is not to please everybody. My job is to be very clear about how the work I do is supporting the mission of the school, and how I can bring resources to the school so that other creative people could do their work as well as possible.
It’s good that Roth isn’t concerned with pleasing everyone, because that has become even more impossible lately, since the Hamas attack and the war in Gaza. Here are pro-Palestinian demonstrators at Rutgers University:
RUTGERS STUDENTS: From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!
And at Columbia:
COLUMBIA STUDENTS: Shame on Columbia! Shame on Columbia. Free, free Palestine.
ROTH: Wesleyan demonstrations, I think they were respectful for the most part. I think when the trustees were in town, they got a little bit more intense because, you know, trustees are a target. And I think in ways that were distressing.
DUBNER: What were some things that were said that were distressing?
ROTH: You know, the rhetoric that somehow the university’s trustees were responsible for the war in Gaza because we don’t divest from companies that do business with Israel. That seemed to be the tenor. But I think part of this is just an expression of outrage of what’s going on in the world.
DUBNER: After the congressional testimony of the three college presidents that we all know about, you published a piece in the L.A. Times called “College Presidents Are Supposed to Be Moral Leaders, Not Evasive Bureaucrats.’ First of all, I’m going to assume that you didn’t write the actual headline. Is that true?
ROTH: That’s true.
DUBNER: Okay. So, just for people who don’t know journalism, when you publish a piece, even if you’re a staff writer, you often don’t have anything to do with the headline. But in terms of the “evasive bureaucrat” characterization by the L.A. Times headline writers, let’s start with that congressional testimony. Did you watch it live? If not, when did you watch it, and what was your initial response?
ROTH: So, I had gotten a call that afternoon from MSNBC asking if I would do a late-night interview with them, and I had to tell them I don’t stay up late. So we recorded it. So I turned it on on C-Span in my office, I turned it on five minutes before that big gotcha moment, just by happenstance. I watched with horror, I have to say. As a Jew, I was appalled. As a president, I was embarrassed. But as a Jew in America, I was appalled. I was appalled by their inability just to say, “Of course, calling for the mass murder of people on campus would be actionable.” And I was appalled that Congresswoman Stefanik would be able to wrap herself in the mantle of “I’m staying with the Jews” after her own extraordinary flirtation with white nationalism over the years. So, I found it extremely distressing. The answer is, “Of course it’s wrong and actionable to call for mass murder on your campus.” Now, it’s also not incorrect to say, “It depends on the context.” Because if you talk about mass murder in a play, it’s not actionable. You know, that would be a different context. But she wasn’t asking that, and any reasonable person knew what she was asking. It was a low moment in higher education.
DUBNER: So in this piece you wrote, “Their response” — meaning the college presidents’ “failed the test of good sense and decency.” But you also wrote, “I don’t like the ritual use of words like ‘genocidal’ or ‘settler colonial,’ nor do I want to hear the slogan ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine must be free,’ but calls for freedom are not calls for murder.” So you’re walking, you know, that’s a very nuanced argument there. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
ROTH: I can. I don’t want to condone those responses at the hearing, and even, of course, the presidents themselves afterwards, apologized for them, as they should have. But that doesn’t mean that I support some of the protests on college campuses that target Jews. Of course, I don’t support those. Or the kind of sloganeering that uses the word “genocide” as a substitute for “war,” and specifically that slogan, “From the river to the sea, Palestine must be free.” At some schools, there have been calls to ban that expression because it could mean “judenrein,” right, get rid of the Jews there, which would be the call for genocide. But most people using that expression want the land of Palestine to be free; that doesn’t mean necessarily free of Jews. So as a person who believes in the right of Israel to defend itself and to exist as a nation, I don’t like to hear that expression. But the fact that I don’t like it doesn’t mean that they don’t get to say it. There are a lot of things I don’t like. And so that’s why I have said you don’t have a right not to be offended. I’m offended by that talk. But at the same time, I take a deep breath and realize that’s — you know, there are Israelis who use that kind of expression, too.
DUBNER: Were you surprised that the presidents of Harvard and Penn were essentially fired? They resigned, but they were forced to resign. Were you surprised by that, knowing what you know about the role of the presidency, and how college boards work?
ROTH: I was not surprised, I guess, about the Penn president. There was such dissension before the hearing by donors and by the board. And then I think the way the information about President Gay’s scholarship came out over time, I wasn’t surprised. I think the part of this story that I find most concerning — because I don’t think it matters that much to the institutions if they have that particular president or another president — but I do think it will matter if donors get in their heads that they can actually dictate educational policy or hire and fire presidents over specific issues. I think that would be a perilous thing.
DUBNER: One phrase that got thrown around after the college presidents’ congressional testimony was that this was “rule by H.R. department,” that they were overlawyered and that they didn’t speak with any kind of any moral sense or really even an intellectual sense. What about you, is your speech or writing policed at all by Wesleyan, by the board — I’m guessing that’s a no?
ROTH: No. It’s very interesting. I wrote a piece years ago in the L.A. Times. And people kept coming up to me, and said, “Did the board approve that op-ed?” One person actually said she would never have published it unless she had run it by the faculty or the students. I thought this was insane.
DUBNER: So I assume you didn’t have to clear anything for this interview today, Michael?
ROTH: I hope not. I didn’t. My view of the general counsel, who I work closely with, is that he should defend what I do, not tell me what to do.
DUBNER: Now, does that — do you feel like you’re in the minority among college presidents?
ROTH: Yes, I do, and I think that’s a shame. It’s a very distinguished group of people. They’re very smart and capable. They don’t need policing. It tends to backfire. Boards are full of smart people. They realize when they’re getting writing by committee. When I wrote about the terrorist attacks on October 7th, I wrote it in my sweat pants at home that afternoon. I didn’t know the extent of it at the time, but it seemed egregious enough that I wanted to say something on my blog about it. I posted it, and then told the communications people. Other presidents, I don’t know why they would send it to someone first.
DUBNER: So that blog post that you published on October 7th, the day of the Hamas attack on southern Israel, you called the blog post “Sickening Violence.” You wrote, “The kidnapping and slaughter of civilians, and the celebration of vicious murder by armed fighters, recalls the worst dimensions of human violence. The war that Hamas unleashed this morning will be devastating.” How was that blog post received by the community?
ROTH: Variously. You can see on the comments. I mean, there were some people who thought I should have said more about how bad it was. You know, I just should have gone on more about it. Or I should have said I loved Israel, or something. There are other people who said, “Why didn’t you say anything about the occupation? Why didn’t you say anything about what led up to those attacks?”
DUBNER: And so if you had a chance to respond to all of those — here, I’ll read you a couple of the particular critiques. One said “Very lame, sanitized statement that didn’t even mention the words Israel or Jews. Pathetic.” On the other hand: “There is a level of misinformation and hypocrisy in this writing. Hamas did not launch a war. Palestinians have already been in war for 75 years under Israeli regime.” So let’s pretend that you could follow up with all that feedback, what would you say, 100-plus days later?
ROTH: Well, I have said things subsequently. And then the next day or two I wrote again, about a vigil on campus, and then it had been brought to my attention that some of the Muslim students at Wesleyan felt that I was neglecting their well-being and I wrote something else in that regard. I have been asked to condemn Israel’s military response, and I have not spoken about that response except in more general terms of hoping for an end to hostilities as quickly as possible, and a post around Thanksgiving about the desire for peace. And those were my responses. I think the reason some people don’t issue statements like that is that they’ll have responses like the ones you read. And on the other hand, you know, there were a lot of responses in the press and on social media praising my October 7th post as one of the very few in the country that called the attack what it was immediately. I realize that you can’t please everyone, but I don’t think that that’s an excuse for trying to say nothing. And the fact that you can’t speak about everything doesn’t mean you should stay silent all the time.
DUBNER: I see that Wesleyan has what looks to be a pretty active chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, which is on a number of campuses. Tell me about them, and your relationship with them.
ROTH: I don’t have, I guess, a direct relationship with the group. I asked to meet with a group of Jewish students, and then a group of Muslim students. We met separately. At the Jewish students meeting, we had a good discussion for 90 minutes. They thought I wasn’t doing enough for the Jews — some of them. But it was a good airing of what they were feeling on campus. At one point someone said, “Well, can you just publish a basic fact sheet that everyone would agree to, whether they’re for Palestine or for Israel?” And I said, “You know, there is no such list of facts right now.” And I said, “Don’t expect dialogue to be possible during the heat of war. Sometimes you have to wait until you’re able to talk across differences.” But I said, “If you feel specific threats, I want you to be able to come and tell me.” Some of them expressed feelings of a lack of safety. When I met with the Muslim students, they expressed, I have to say, similar views about feeling marginalized or targeted by Islamophobia. When I pointed that out, that did not go well, because some of those students felt like Jews were the oppressors and part of a white-supremacist system. And I let that person give me that line of thinking. And then I said, “I want you to know I disagree totally with everything you just said.”
DUBNER: You disagree on what grounds with that argument?
ROTH: Well, that Jews should be lumped together with white supremacists and that they’re the oppressor group because they’re white. I mean, half of Israelis are from Arabic countries. And to think of it as just a colonial state seems to me a terrible mistake.
DUBNER: I’m curious, as a historian, when you’re trying to have discussions with someone about a heated topic of the moment that sits atop history, that goes back not just 50 or 100 years, but a couple thousand years, what do you do? How do you try to steer that conversation differently? In other words, instead of the sloganeering that comes naturally to people, especially young people — which is not their fault, they don’t know as much history — what do you try to do in that case?
ROTH: Well, this is a particularly complicated case because there are lots of ways to use history here. I mean, if you go back a couple thousand years, you have one picture. If you go back to 1948, you have a different picture. If you emphasize the history of occupation, that’s one dimension. If you emphasize the presence of Jews in the Mideast over the centuries, that’s a different view. So I don’t know if history is going to solve the problem. This is a political problem, and this is not an original thought, that: there are two peoples with historic claims to the same land; they’re going to have to find a way to live together and not just try to kill each other. That seems to me where we are. But they’re not ready to do that yet. Too many people on both sides are invested in killing the people on the other side, or displacing them permanently. And I think that leads to tragedy, and that’s where we are now. So I try to make sure we have people who are looking at history from different perspectives. It’s not just the Students for Justice in Palestine bringing speakers, there are other groups that can bring speakers, and have different visions of history, and different ways of thinking about the past.
So, that’s the best I can do. I try to just encourage historical reflection. Bruce Masters, who is one of the great historians of the Middle East, retired from Wesleyan a few years ago, and he has a particular point of view, he is an historian of Syria, and he’s an Arabist. And he gave a talk to a packed house at Wesleyan, I think it was called “Seventy Years of Misunderstanding in the Middle East.” And there were parts of it that I didn’t quite agree with, but I’m probably wrong. I mean, he knows a lot more than I, but it was an interesting historical account that was not about sloganeering. I think giving people more of that. Judith Butler, an old friend of mine with whom I disagree about these matters, she talked to a packed house that that not all anti-Zionism is antithetical to Judaism. And I’ve invited her to give this talk at Wesleyan before, when she was canceled elsewhere, even though I disagree with the conclusions she reaches. But I think modeling that you can have reasonable conversations with people you disagree with, that’s the key.
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DUBNER: Let me ask you about the demand for a college education generally. It’s probably at a modern low right now. Applications have fallen, public opinion of a college education has fallen. It started on the right, but now the left has caught up. Walk me through that from your perspective, and what you think it means for this country, for this culture.
ROTH: It’s a problem for me as a citizen of this country, because no one in the world has ever complained about Americans being over-educated. And our public sphere does not exemplify an overeducated group of voters. So I think the dissing of education in the popular imagination these days will only lead to the further degradation of the way we talk about politics, the way we talk about leadership, the way we talk about refugees and immigrants and one another. We’re recording this the morning that the Iowa caucus results have been announced, right? So, I think there’s political hay to be made by attacking established institutions.
DUBNER: Not just education, you’re saying — institutions, generally.
ROTH: Well, I wasn’t going to pick on the media, but could you think of an easier target? The decline in trust in the media, the decline in trust in the Supreme Court, even Congress, which one didn’t think you could go lower in trust. Part of what’s happened in the United States is that there’s been a war on trust and that people seem to enjoy displaying their lack of trust in institutions and in their fellow citizens. And this has hurt higher education. There are some reasons for the decline in trust, and I do think cost is one of them. The fact that it’s so expensive, and that the pricing is confusing to many people.
DUBNER: Now, a lot of people have written about why college tuition inflation has outpaced almost every other type of inflation in the U.S. in the past 30 years or so. Healthcare is one other rival. Tell me what you think are the primary drivers of that.
ROTH: One is that if you are in a small-ish college or university like Wesleyan is, one of the great things you are giving students is the ability to work with very distinguished faculty in small classes. And so, you just can’t get the economies of scale that help you keep costs down. The vernacular expression of this is — and it was told to me by a great economist of education, and former president of Vassar, Cappy Hill — she said to me, “Michael, the reason you’re not going to keep costs down is because people come to the college and say, ‘I don’t care how much it costs, I want my Sophie to have the very best education possible.’” In wealthy families, especially, they want us to do more for their kids — more and more and more — and that drives up the cost because they want us to spend more money per student.
DUBNER: Right, so that drives up the sticker price. But then, as we all know, there’s a kind of bifurcated or maybe trifurcated price system where some people pay sticker price and some will pay much, much less. How do you feel about having that sliding scale?
ROTH: Oh, it’s a great thing. So at Wesleyan, more than 40 percent of our students are on very significant financial aid. But for a family where you’re, let’s say, your father is a nurse and your and your mother’s a cop, it’s still very expensive. You might get $50 or $60,000 of aid a year, but you’re expected to pay $25 to $30,000 out of pocket a year. I mean, the core cost is still very high per student. I’ve introduced a three-year degree at Wesleyan, which I thought was a work of great economic genius on my part. You can finish school in three years and save 20 to 25 percent off your total cost.
DUBNER: You’re not paying more per year, I assume.
ROTH: Exactly, because we don’t charge people if they take extra classes. So you take a couple extra classes, maybe you do one summer, and you can graduate in three years. This is what I did when I was a kid, to save money. Very few people want to do it. So many parents say to me, “I would never ask my little Charlie to take it.” And that’s why it’s so expensive. Because you don’t ask people to actually try to save money.
DUBNER: So you sound like the parents of little Charlie and little Sophie are kind of a pain in the ass for you — are they?
ROTH: I mean, in a way they’re your best customers, right? They’re saying, “I will pay, I want to pay more.” So, the three-year program we have, when I started it 10, 12 years ago, we had maybe three or four people doing it on their own each year. And now we have 20 people, so it’s grown. But I thought by now we’d have a few hundred people.
As daunting as the cost of college can be, Michael Roth knows that’s not the only thing keeping people away.
ROTH: Many people believe that a college education does not set you up for success in the workplace, which it in fact does, but they believe it doesn’t. And so that also leads to a decline in trust. And then at many campuses, the display of a kind of contempt for the ordinary and an embrace of elitism in the mantle of progressivism has led to many Americans feeling that these campuses are not places where their children, or they themselves, could thrive.
DUBNER: So, you nicely articulated the criticism, but what about blame? What have colleges done to deserve that kind of disdain?
ROTH: I mean, there is some truth in all that. There’s often a contempt for the uneducated, right? You know, when Donald Trump said, “I love the uneducated” in his previous run for president, it was taken not as an express of condescension, but as a willingness to rub shoulders with and embrace ordinary people, however one feels about the genuineness of that. And the comment that’s repeated again and again to me by people on the right is Obama’s discussion of the people with their guns and their Bibles, you know, that was many years ago. That still is under the skin of people who think that elites at colleges and universities have contempt for ordinary Americans. And I think that there’s good reason for that. And part of the reason for that is the insularity of campus politics.
DUBNER: There’s research that shows consistently that the overwhelming share of university professors are Democrats. I’m curious the degree to which you see that as a problem and how the problem reinforces itself. Because you do read that a lot of schools would like to diversify their political orientation of their professors. But it’s really hard, because if a school like Wesleyan is known to be overwhelmingly, let’s call it Democratic or progressive or whatnot, what kind of conservative scholar — or student, for that matter — wants to come there?
ROTH: Yeah, it’s a great question. And I do think, as a background to the question, you have to remember that in most colleges, universities, around the country these days, most people who are majoring in STEM fields and economics, not known for really progressive firebrands when you’re in mathematics or computer science.
DUBNER: But the progressive people tend to be a little bit noisier, don’t they?
ROTH: Well, and reporters tend to focus on things they understand, like anthropology and history, rather than on computer science and molecular biology.
DUBNER: And we should say, those same reporters probably studied those humanities at the very schools that they’re covering.
ROTH: Yes, it is a self-reinforcing prejudice. When I was a graduate student, we told the faculty, “You know, you don’t have any women on the faculty.” And they said, “Oh, well, we’d love to, but we only hire the best.” And we looked at them like, are you guys sick? You’re just so prejudiced that you think only men could be the best. And now I tell that story to my friends on the faculty, who say to me they would love to hire conservatives but they only hire the best. And my hope is — I actually believe there’s reasons for this hope — that they’re professionals and they’ll think, maybe I should take another look at my prejudice. I teach Aquinas, I teach Kant. I’m not a Pietist, as Kant’s family was. I’m not a Catholic. I think that it is totally possible to teach a range of ideas outside of one’s own personal beliefs. And that should happen on college campuses. We do have students who love actually being contrarian. And being a contrarian at our schools often means being a libertarian or being a conservative. And I think they tend to do pretty well at these schools. That said, I called for an affirmative action program for conservatives in the Wall Street Journal, and I still beat on that drum.
DUBNER: So, Michael, how much time do you spend with other college presidents or communicating with them?
ROTH: I don’t spend a lot of time with them. I’m going to some meetings this weekend, because I am trying to get a whole group of college presidents to create incentives for their students to participate in the elections this year. I would love to see many, many more students practicing democracy and then learning about American civic culture. Otherwise, I tend to avoid the meetings with college presidents. They’re nice-enough people and all, but, most of the time away from campus, I spend trying to raise money to bring back to campus.
DUBNER: Yeah. So, one big difference in the presidency job I’ve heard about over the past 20, 30 years is that so much of the time now is about fundraising. Is that the case for you? What do you spend your time on, and how much of it is fundraising?
ROTH: Well, I teach every semester, so I have a couple of mornings a week where I’m either in class or preparing for class. And I have found that if I just take that offline, so to speak, they can’t touch that time. It’s a great experience for me to have that contact with the students as a teacher, not as the boss. Apart from that, I try to spend as much time as possible on fundraising because I do think, although I love to participate in the intellectual life of the institution, and write books and essays, what I can do that nobody else can do but the president is to bring back large gifts to the campus that will fund scholarships or research or facilities for research and teaching. And I would like to spend at least half of my time on fundraising. Now, I have a team that tells me where I can most productively spend my time. And so they don’t want to send me off to a donor — I once met with a donor who told me at the end of a luncheon, which I was asking her for money to honor another professor, she said, “I wouldn’t give a f***ing penny for that b****.” So I was not well prepared for that meeting.
DUBNER: Tell me the name of that professor, I want to look her up on Rate My Professor.
ROTH: No, this is someone who is now deceased. But now when I go to raise money, my team makes sure that this is a person likely to want to give money.
DUBNER: Now, what about your grades on Rate My Professor, do you ever look at them?
ROTH: I don’t, I mean — I get course evaluations every semester.
DUBNER: I’ll look for you. It looks like you do pretty well. You’ve got almost a four out of five overall rating, which is pretty good on Rate My Professor, because, you know, let’s be honest, I think people with something negative to say have a stronger incentive to rate, probably. But here is a five out of five: “Roth is a very engaging lecturer and makes complex philosophy feel accessible.” So that’s nice. Here’s a three out of five. “Very dynamic professor, but his course content sometimes feels random and disorganized. He can also turn very rude in class.” That’s you?
ROTH: That’s me. Yeah. I tell the students they can’t use the bathroom in class. If they leave to go to use the bathroom, they have to come back next time. And they’re also not allowed to use a phone or a computer in my class. And so there are people who find this fascistic. And I think I’m giving them a chance to actually escape from their technology and study philosophy or literature and, you know, I tell them that in the first class, so if they don’t like that kind of thing, they can go elsewhere. I don’t try to please everybody. I’ll start teaching a course in the next week or so, which I’ve taught for the last 30 years. And on the first night, I will tell them, “Tonight, you’re going to watch a film about the Holocaust. Next week, you’re going to watch a film about childhood sexual abuse. The following week, about mass murder. These are very upsetting films. And if this is too much for you, we’re going to take a break after I’ve introduced the course, and just don’t come back, go to find another class. And then I say, “And if you really love this kind of stuff, please get some help,” you know, and they laugh. And then I show them Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog on the first night in class. And then I dismiss them. I don’t talk about it afterwards. It’s a brutal, brutal short film about the Holocaust. I’ve had students tell me how destroyed they were by the film. And one said to me, “I went into the field and wept.” And I said, “Well, that’s great.” And she said, “No, it wasn’t great.” But I think actually, if you’re studying these extraordinarily challenging things, it should feel extraordinarily challenging. And the students who stick with it, or stick with me, that’s what they expect. And I don’t think you need to coddle them. My classes are still the largest, among the largest, in the humanities at Wesleyan. And my grades are among the lowest. So I think, you know, they sometimes gravitate towards challenges, and not away from them. So when presidents complain about, like, working with the board and they don’t know how to do that, they’re in the wrong job. It’s like when teachers complain about young people. There’s a whole group of authors these days who talk about the American mind and canceling and closing and blah, blah, blah. Those people should get out of the education field, it seems to me. If they don’t like young people, let someone else work with young people. It’s really interesting to work with young people. If you don’t like them, you should work in another field.
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DUBNER: So, Michael, I’ve read that some of the Gulf states, Qatar especially, have been donating billions of dollars to U.S. universities over the past few decades. It seems like it went under the radar for quite a while. It’s still mostly under the radar, but more people are writing about it. Tell me what you know about that, and I’m curious about Wesleyan as well.
ROTH: I know very little about it, I’ve really missed the boat on this one. One of my daughters asked me about it, said, “Have we been getting significant donations like that?” And I said, “Alas, no.”
DUBNER: You’re doing something wrong?
ROTH: Yeah. I missed the gravy train, and I have no idea whether these donations, were inflected of a field of study in any particular way. You know, Qatar has played not just both sides of the streets, they play multi-dimensional streets, so I, I don’t know enough to comment on whether there’s anything nefarious there.
According to an analysis done by Mitchell Bard, a political scientist with the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, Qatar donated an estimated $5-plus billion to American universities between 2012 and 2019. Saudi Arabia gave nearly $3 billion. Robert Jordan, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia under President George W. Bush, described these contributions as “a way of spreading soft power in the same way the U.S. has done for years around the world.” Has this soft power translated into anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses? Michael Roth doesn’t think so.
ROTH: Young people tend to be suspicious of Israel because they’ve grown up with Israel under Netanyahu. And they are suspicious of Israel as a major military power and a wealthy country in the region that has occupied these lands for as long as these young people have been alive. I grew up with Israel, as you know, “I can’t believe it exists,” you know, “will it disappear?” My daughter, who’s very Jewish in her presentation and her self-understanding, she’s very critical of my view of Israel. And it’s not because Qatar gave her any money. It’s because she’s grown up with Israel as a power, and she’s suspicious of people who exercise their power in ways that seem to be at the expense of others.
DUBNER: How old is your daughter, and what does she do?
ROTH: She is 26, and she is a second-grade public-school teacher.
DUBNER: And what is the dinner conversation like then, between you and her, when it comes to Israel?
ROTH: Well, lately we try not to talk about it too much. I think that the war in Gaza has made her think that the, what President Biden called “indiscriminate bombing,” and what she would probably call “massacres of people” by a country that could choose not to do that, shows the illegitimacy of that country. And my view is that Israel has a right to defend itself, and I despair of the way it’s doing so.
DUBNER: Would you say that your conversation with her has the same tenor as a conversation that you might have with a student or a professor at your university who disagrees with you, or is it very different just because of the personal relationship?
ROTH: It’s very different.
DUBNER: Because I have to say, it sounds as though the joy that I’ve been hearing throughout this entire conversation kind of drained out of your voice.
ROTH: Well, I just find it so tragic, what’s happening in Gaza today. And, you know, reading this morning about the tunnel network in Gaza. Qatar and other countries have pumped I don’t know how many hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars, the hijacking of aid by Hamas, all of which is an aberration, and a horrible affront to the humanity of the Palestinians who live there. But there’s no excuse for the bombardment of civilian areas. So I just find it extraordinarily sad. And I don’t underestimate the evil and the murderousness of Hamas. And at the same time, I find the human tragedy just so appalling there. I don’t have an educational point of view about this except that on campus, I want people to feel safe enough to have conversation. Even if I don’t have an answer to this question, other people think they have an answer. I’d like them to be able to talk about it with their fellow students or faculty.
DUBNER: So, Michael, you sound like someone who’s got a lot of strong opinions, but because of the position you’re in, you don’t always get your way. But it also sounds like you don’t hold a grudge. I like that combo. I’m curious if you have any advice for how I can get a little bit more of that?
ROTH: One of my mentors was a woman named Debra Marrow. When I worked at the Getty Center, she was my boss. And she said the first rule of being an administrator is to take nothing personally. You’re going to get a lot of credit for stuff; you deserve none of the credit. And you’re going to get a lot of blame for stuff that’s not your fault. And you’ve got to try to say, “It’s really not about me.” It’s hard sometimes, because sometimes it feels very personal. But I try to remember that and think, you know, what matters is the mission of the university, and not so much how well Michael Roth is doing. Colleges and universities are full of people who know how to get in the way. What we need are people who are good at helping things happen. Sometimes getting out of the way, sometimes facilitating, sometimes finding resources. And I am of the mind: try things, do things, make it better, don’t worry about making it perfect the first time. Try it now, then improve it. And I’ve tried to encourage that with my colleagues and then it’s, you know — you fail, it’s not personal. You get up and do it again.
That, again, was Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University. Let us know what you thought. Our email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Most of our episodes feature several guests, in order to surround a topic. But sometimes it’s nice to go deep with just one guest. Again, let us know what you think — and please tell your friends and family about Freakonomics Radio.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Zack Lapinski. Our staff also includes Alina Kulman, Eleanor Osborne, Elsa Hernandez, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Jasmin Klinger, Jeremy Johnston, Julie Kanfer, Lyric Bowditch, Morgan Levey, Neal Carruth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Ryan Kelley, and Sarah Lilley. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra.
- Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University.
- “Opinion: College Presidents Are Supposed to Be Moral Leaders, Not Evasive Bureaucrats,” by Michael S. Roth (Los Angeles Times, 2023).
- “Transcript: What Harvard, MIT and Penn Presidents Said at Antisemitism Hearing,” by CQ Roll Call Staff (Roll Call, 2023).
- “To Testify or Not to Testify in Congress? Your Job Could Hang in the Balance,” by Annie Karni (The New York Times, 2023).
- “You Could Not Pay Me Enough to Be a College President,” by Daniel W. Drezner (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2023).
- “The Case for College: Promising Solutions to Reverse College Enrollment Declines,” by Katharine Meyer (Brookings, 2023).
- “Arab Funding of American Universities: Donors, Recipients, and Impact,” by Mitchell G. Bard (American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, 2023).
- “Racist Attack Spotlights Stefanik’s Echo of Replacement Theory,” by Annie Karni (The New York Times, 2022).
- “Why Is There So Much Saudi Money in American Universities?” by Michael Sokolove (The New York Times Magazine, 2019).
- Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses, by Michael S. Roth (2019).
- “The Opening of the Liberal Mind,” by Michael S. Roth (The Wall Street Journal, 2017).