Byron Haskins ’76

In 1976, I took the late Dr. Benjamin Braginsky's Experimental Social Psychology class. The class was a senior seminar of only six students. We met in Braginsky’s office but used the campus libraries as our classroom and laboratory. We tested how the seemingly passive context of an institutional setting, such as a library, could dynamically restrain students from acting to prevent crime and injustice. In amazement, we watched the majority of our peers explain away inaction in the face of robbery and witnessed robbery perpetrated upon others. We gave away so much to keep the peace of the library setting. This was a most moving educational experience – to see, to participate in, and to debrief contextual immobility. Braginsky helped me discovered a way in which we all learn to fit into boxes and to peer out, not seeing all, but filling in the corners of the picture with our cultured views. 

Braginsky required that one-third of the resultant term paper be observational, one-third analytic, and one-third creative. I titled my paper, "Money, Power, Ghosts". I wrote it discerning triumph of tyrants, cowering ersatz leaders, and their emboldened tormentors turned inside out; about Stanley Milgram 's work long before Dar Williams wrote her most eloquent first-personal portrayal song. (Did she take that seminar, too?)

I lost the paper during one of my numerous post-Wesleyan moves. I am sure it was as sophomoric as a Wes senior might write in a cramming haze, but Braginsky was such a supportive professor that an incident around the paper haunts me along with the lesson of the seminar. While sitting in Downey House, a few days before commencement, having celebrated way too much, I was barely lucid enough to appreciate a meet and greet between myself, Braginsky, and whom I believe was Warren Bennis. He liked my paper and the poetic style with which I secured my psychological thesis. It was an unusual and unexpected event. Over the years, I have come to appreciate better these events as I have appreciated much of my Wesleyan experience.

I have examined the thesis of the discomfort of conformity in every part of my public service career. Though disagreeing with mantles taken up by my alma mater’s leaders over the years, such as ending need-blind admissions while paring back on offering student loans and grants, I believe that the essence of non-conformity in our post-industrializing culture still glows at Wesleyan. It glows in the Occupy Wesleyan Movement, in the best West African drumming and dance curriculum anywhere, and a willingness to risk bringing brilliant, creative, but non-academic talent to the campus to encourage non-conformity. These things carry much more weight than sushi bars and condo-like dorms.

Wesleyan will continue to evidence the oxymoronic notion of tradition in non-conformity as long as the bead moves along the avant-garde rather than with the inertia of peer institution conformity. Contextual immobility will force Wesleyan’s leaders down the path of no choice but look like everyone else. For me, if there is any reason for wealthy Wes Alums to give to the future that gave them their presents, and for those who are not wealthy to give to Wesleyan in some meaningful non-traditional way, this is why.