Wesleyan Selects 16th President

Michael S. Roth, a historian and president of California College of the Arts, will become the 16th president of Wesleyan at the beginning of the 2007-08 academic year.

Roth, a member of Wesleyan’s Class of 1978, has been a professor in history and the humanities since 1983 and is recognized both as a curator and author. He is noted for founding the Scripps College Humanities Institute in Claremont, Calif., as a center for intellectual exchange across disciplines, for his scholarly leadership in the arts community as associate director of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, and for enhancing the academic excellence, national reputation and financial strength of California College of the Arts (CCA).

“Michael Roth embodies the qualities of leadership that Wesleyan strives to instill in its students,” says Wesleyan Board of Trustees Chair James van B. Dresser ’63, P’93. “His broad intellectual curiosity and his great personal energy have enabled him to drive innovation across a range of disciplines and in a variety of institutional settings. I can think of no one better suited to lead Wesleyan as we continue to build and promote its academic strengths and to enhance students’ experiences.”

Roth traces his scholarly and administrative successes back to his undergraduate experience. “I discovered my intellectual passions at Wesleyan,” he notes. “Over time I came to appreciate more fully that the gifted teachers I had were consistently advancing knowledge through both their classroom work and their scholarship. This experience shaped how I have approached my own historical work, as well as the values I have brought to academic leadership throughout my career. The bridging of disciplines, the efforts to foster intellectual community, the pursuit of problem-oriented research, and the combination of art and public culture have been expressions of the intellectual principles I first encountered at Wesleyan. I look forward to connecting to my roots while helping to build the future of the institution.”

Roth describes his scholarly interests as centered on “how people make sense of the past.” He has authored four books: Psycho-Analysis as History: Negation and Freedom in Freud (Cornell University Press, 1987, 1995); Knowing and History: Appropriations of Hegel in Twentieth-Century France (Cornell, 1988); The Ironist’s Cage: Trauma, Memory and the Construction of History (Columbia University Press, 1995), and Irresistible Decay: Ruins Reclaimed, with Clare Lyons and Charles Merewether (Getty Research Institute, 1997). Roth curated an exhibition titled Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture for the Library of Congress, which attracted praise for its balanced and wide-ranging view of Freud’s intellectual and cultural heritage when it opened in 1998. The exhibit traveled internationally in subsequent years. Roth’s most recent co-edited volumes are Looking for Los Angeles: Architecture, Film, Photography and the Urban Landscape and Disturbing Remains: Memory, History, and Crisis in the Twentieth Century (both Getty Research Institute, 2001). In recent years, Roth has published essays and book reviews in such publications as the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, Book Forum, Rethinking History, and Wesleyan’s History and Theory.

“Michael Roth certainly has the cast of mind of a public intellectual,” observes Professor of Russian Language and Literature Susanne Fusso, who served on the presidential search committee. “He is always trying to make connections to the personal, the political, the world that surrounds us every day. Yet his work is on a high level of intellectual sophistication. He is a masterly writer, very clear without being simplistic. To me his writing is a model of what academics should strive for.”

A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., and in the first generation of his family to attend college, Roth entered Wesleyan in the fall of 1975 from the Alfred G. Berner High School in Massapequa, N.Y. He designed a university major in “history of psychological theory” and wrote a thesis titled Freud and Revolution, which began the exploration that would become his first book and the basis of the Library of Congress exhibition. His undergraduate studies earned him both the Robins Prize from the History Department and the Wise Prize from the Philosophy Department. Outside class, he served as president of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity and volunteered at the Middlesex Hospital psychiatric ward. He completed his undergraduate studies in three years, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and went on to earn his doctorate in history at Princeton University in 1984. His dissertation, on how French philosophy in the first half of the 20th century dealt with history, was supervised by Carl E. Schorske, with whom Roth had studied as a freshman at Wesleyan. Victor Gourevitch of the Wesleyan philosophy department served on his committee and would later co-edit with Roth an edition of the correspondence of Alexandre Kojeve and Leo Strauss that grew of out this dissertation research. Roth’s second book, Knowing and History, also is based on this work.

“Michael Roth genuinely appreciates Wesleyan’s distinctive qualities, both academically and in terms of campus life and culture,” says Brittany Mitchell ’07, vice chair of the Wesleyan Student Assembly and a member of the presidential search committee. “His career has embodied a Wesleyan education: he has pursued interdisciplinary academic work, and he has been courageously innovative at his prior institutions. He has a great vision of Wesleyan’s potential and the qualities necessary to lead it to become even greater.”

Roth began his teaching career at Scripps College and Claremont Graduate School in 1983, where he earned tenure in 1986 and promotion to full professor in 1990. He became Hartley Burr Alexander Professor of the Humanities at Scripps in 1989. His work garnered grants from the Sloan and Mellon foundations, and he received Scripps faculty achievement awards for both his scholarship and his teaching.

In 1987, Roth became founding director of the Scripps College Humanities Institute, which he says was modeled on Wesleyan’s Center for the Humanities: an institutional structure to foster “a culture of inquiry, exchange and productivity that would connect to the classroom as well as the professional communities.” The institute sponsored conferences and talks designed to appeal to faculty from across the disciplines.

In 1994, Roth was invited to participate as a visiting scholar in the Getty Research Institute’s year on memory. Two years later, he was asked to lead the scholars and seminars program at the Getty. Roth saw an opportunity to reshape the program, and particularly to strengthen its public outreach. He focused research around such topics as the history, architecture and arts of Los Angeles and built partnerships with cultural organizations in the East and South Central sections of the city, as well as with international centers of research. In 1997, Roth became associate director of the Getty Research Institute and focused his energies on making the institute a producer and disseminator of scholarship and to fostering the sort of intellectual community he had experienced at Wesleyan and helped to build at Scripps College. While at the Getty, Roth curated the Library of Congress exhibition on Freud, as well as another on ruins, Irresistible Decay, as part of the opening of the Getty Museum.

When asked to be a candidate for the presidency at CCA, Roth again saw an opportunity to build an institution in support of both academic and civic purposes.

“I have been deeply attracted to the arts and crafts movement, which was at the roots of CCA,” Roth says. “The college offers a first-rate education through the arts, and we believe in connecting that education to social and political issues.”

At CCA – a San Francisco Bay Area institution devoted to fine arts, architecture, design and writing – Roth led an effort to revise the school’s curriculum to emphasize interdisciplinary work and liberal learning. The school added new academic programs, including undergraduate degrees in community arts, creative writing, visual studies and animation, as well as masters programs in curatorial practice, visual criticism, design, writing and architecture. Roth developed and raised funds to support a Center for Art and Public Life, which fosters community partnerships in the San Francisco Bay area and models ways art can benefit underserved urban neighborhoods and their schools. Similarly, he strengthened the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, which has developed an international reputation for its exhibitions and public programs. Roth led fundraising efforts for new facilities, programs, and endowment that tripled the institution’s fundraising record from a similar period in the 1990s. The number of alumni donors grew threefold during his tenure. In the seven years under his leadership, the institution has become “one of the most progressive arts education institutions in the country,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

CCA trustee and former board chair Simon Blattner described Roth as a “consensus-builder who has worked effectively with faculty, students, staff, as well as the board, to achieve the college’s strategic goals.” Roth is a “quick learner” in academic and business settings in which he has no prior expertise. Blattner also noted that Roth “connects with students by teaching what has been the most popular course on campus for the past four years.”

Roth’s wife, Kari Weil, is chair of the Critical Studies Program and associate professor of writing and literature at CCA. Weil’s interests include 19th and 20th century French and comparative literature, cultural studies, literary theory and criticism, feminist theory, women’s studies and, more recently, animal studies. She is the author of Androgyny and the Denial of Difference (University Press of Virginia, 1992) and is at work on a manuscript titled “La Plus Belle Conquête de l’Homme: Horses, Gender and the Conquest of Animal Nature in Nineteenth-Century France.” Weil earned her Ph.D in comparative literature from Princeton University in 1985. She joined the faculty at Wake Forest University that year and earned tenure in 1992. After 1997, she taught at UCLA and the University of California at Berkeley before joining the faculty at CCA in 2001.

Roth and Weil have a 9-year-old daughter, Sophie Weil-Roth, who will accompany them to Middletown. Roth also has two sons from a previous marriage: Jeremy Neil Roth, 22, a senior at CCA who hopes to pursue graduate studies in film, and Max Benjamin Roth, 19, a freshman at CCA.

Roth and his family will visit campus on Friday, April 27, to be formally introduced to the campus community. The 4:15 p.m. introduction will be broadcast on the Wesleyan Web site.