From the Goucher Quarterly, Spring 2014
Writing this column, as I prepare to step down after 13 years as president of Goucher, has proven remarkably difficult. Over the years I have used this space to share news of a successful capital campaign, to join other college presidents in calling for a national dialogue about alcohol abuse, to talk about the importance of universal study abroad, and to tout our Prison Education Partnership. I have also used it to boast about our extraordinary students and their commitment to environmentalism and social justice, and to extoll the scholarship and dedication of our faculty members. This time, a glimpse inside my mental scrapbook …
My most indelible memory—as for so many people in various walks of life everywhere in this country—comes from 9/11. I had been in my job for all of 73 days when our lives were shattered on that beautiful, clear, and crisp fall morning in 2001. At the time, I was participating in my first meeting of the Executive Committee of the college’s Board of Trustees—I would eventually take part in at least 80 of them—and we had also just convened the search committee to find a new occupant of a position then known as academic dean. I was very green (in the quaint, old-fashioned meaning of that term) and full of enthusiasm and idealism.
My memories of the day are punctuated with images of impromptu prayers and drumming circles, canceled classes, and hastily convened discussions about American foreign policy reminiscent of the teach-ins of the Vietnam war era. It was then that I first had the sense, which would come back to me often over the years, of being personally responsible not only for buildings and finances and operations, but also for the well-being of more than a thousand of other people’s children. An unusual, self-imposed challenge, I suppose, but a real and concrete one, then and since.
What I remember best about 9/11 is being approached that afternoon by a young woman from upstate New York, a brand-new first-year student interested in dance and math, with trepidation in her eyes, who asked if we could have dinner together in Stimson Hall. I no longer know exactly what we discussed, but I do recall that others joined us and we all felt just a little bit better after talking things through—fortified, perhaps, to wander campus through the night, along with several faculty and staff members, checking up on each other. That young woman is now a poised and articulate professional mathematician, and she— like others who were freshmen at Goucher with me—is just a year away from celebrating her tenth reunion. I see her back on campus surprisingly often, and always we exchange smiles and recollections of the intense experience we shared. (But I’ll tell you what: When I’m looking to take the pulse of the community, I still head for the Stimson dining hall.)
I also recall the sweltering August evening in 2007 when I returned from a week away and found that the Loop Road had actually been moved to make room for the Athenaeum. I drove around and around and couldn’t help but pinch myself. Then I thought about where the speed bumps had to go, in order to slow down this new rapid-transit route through campus.
Indeed, beyond any single moment, I remember planning the Athenaeum, breaking ground for it, building it, and opening it. It was a momentous task, one that could not have been completed successfully without the hard work and support of many generous donors, alumnae/i, staff, faculty members, and friends. There’s a beam up there somewhere that we all signed; probably no one will ever actually look at it again, but we know it’s there. For me, it symbolizes our team effort—and the amazement we felt when the final green (in the newest sense) structure turned out to look exactly as it was supposed to. I remember when Nancy Magnuson, our dedicated librarian and my great co-conspirator on the Athenaeum project, relented and went along with what she surely regarded as a hare-brained scheme: saving several hundred of the grungiest books in the Goucher collection to be passed in a human chain from the old library in Julia Rogers to the new.
Then there is the thrill of encountering Goucher students overseas, in the act of transcending boundaries, and sharing adventures with them—in Paris and Berlin; in St. Petersburg and Oslo; in Dharamsala and Bangalore, India; in Beersheba, Israel; and in Roatan, Honduras (where they took their marine biology quizzes underwater). And the delight in welcoming them back— from Brazil, from South Korea, from Rwanda and Ghana and South Africa, from Australia and Serbia and Peru and China—as they tell each other what they have learned and how their lives have been transformed.
What else am I proud of? Taking steps to diversify this community, hiring inspired young faculty members who infuse the college with new ideas and energy, adding new graduate programs, and growing the undergraduate student body to be the largest in Goucher’s history.
I’m happy about bringing important and interesting people to campus so we could bat around their ideas—from Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to my old public radio colleague Ira Glass; from Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof; and from primatologist Jane Goodall, who, just by the way, required that everyone at a dinner in her honor eat a vegetarian meal, to recently retired General Stanley McChrystal, who related his dream of establishing a culture of national service in America. Of course, I cherish the fact that virtually every prominent visitor asked me where we find these students who ask such amazing, probing questions.
We have lived and honored the liberal arts tradition in these years, as Goucher has always done. To the English major who became a bond trader and the classics major who became a psychoanalyst and a painter, we have now added the history and writing majors who make fine wine in California and the biology major who helps run the admissions program of a nearby university—not to mention the sociologists, anthropologists, and environmentalists who founded the Baltimore Rock Opera Society, or the French major who is now a graduate student in journalism.
That is the essence of what we do at Goucher: surprise ourselves and others. We prepare people for lives full of the unexpected, in which there is always something new to learn and examine. And Goucher has done the same for me. Thank you for joining me in this splendid enterprise.