My View from South Hill
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Last week I had an opportunity be a time traveler to my own past. I was in southern California for a conference of private college presidents. On my way to the airport after the conference I found myself driving right past the freeway exit to the Claremont Colleges, where I was a professor and administrator for 13 years. With an abrupt swerve I crossed two lanes of traffic and took an off ramp to the 1990s.
It was Saturday afternoon, January 8, between semesters at Claremont Graduate University. The campus was locked and deserted, a fact that was at first disappointing but that I quickly realized made it easier for ghosts of the past to materialize. I walked pathways I had walked countless times before, such as the five minute stroll from my office building (locked) to the library (also locked). Every step was familiar. Could it have been only a decade ago that faculty logged countless hours physically present in the library, combing through journals to prepare syllabi and complete research projects? Retracing my steps to the office, I recalled the day in March or April one year when we had a freak hail storm lasting all of sixty seconds, and I had to run the last part of the trip to get away from the stinging pellets.
You never know what memories will stay with you with the greatest vividness. Some memories are composite images of actions repeated many times, like the place where I would stand and take in the evening air during a break in a graduate seminar. Other memories are of a single moment in space and time. I paused on the spot where I once initiated a little set-to with a senior faculty colleague about some long-forgotten slight, while one of his doctoral students looked on with wide eyes.
The greatest benefit of time travel, though, is not memories of people and events but rather the insight it gives to oneself. I was a different person as a faculty member in the 1990s. I lived in the service of my students, and my dominant preoccupation was how to be a better teacher and mentor. At the same time, though, the choices I made were inspired by what might be considered a selfish sense of adventure. I went to live in Japan for a year as a Fulbright Scholar, mainly for the adventure of it. My major research project that decade was an investigation of how social movements have changed American cultural values over a 150 year span – a topic whose adventurousness lay in the fact that I had only a vague idea about where the investigation would lead. I left Claremont at the end of the decade to become executive director of the GRE testing program. Though I told myself this was an extension of my commitment to access and success for graduate students, the adventure of leaving the academy and trying something requiring a different skill set was also a key motivation.
While gazing at the jacaranda tree that I used to look at from my office window, I realized that adventure is no longer central to my professional life or choices. The underlying ethic of service is still present – the day of a college president is fully structured around commitments that are hopefully of service to the college or its constituencies. But the driver that keeps my energies unflagging is no longer adventure. It is instead legacy. Before undertaking something I do not ask what I am likely to learn from it. Instead I ask how it will help move Ithaca College forward.
I wonder if the transition from adventure to legacy is a consequence of getting older. The landing strip of retirement is still beyond my planning horizon, but perhaps not by much. It is natural at this point in life to place less emphasis on what I can learn or experience, and more emphasis on what I will leave behind. A focus on legacy may also be characteristic of a college president, stimulated in my case by the fact that I live in a house whose residents over the last 70 years have been my five immediate predecessors as IC president. They have left an impressive legacy, and I hope to be their worthy successor.
As I took the freeway on ramp back into the year 2011, the contentment I felt was centered not on the work I am doing today but on the legacy created by teaching and mentoring several hundred graduate students over the span of 13 years in Claremont. Some of them have become friends, collaborators, or simply people whose careers I follow from afar. I am sure many others are doing wonderful work of which I am unaware. The legacy of the committed teacher is second to none.
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