63. Retirement Reflection, June 15, 2012

It’s been a year since I walked out of my office at San Diego State for the last time, and I feel a philosopher’s tug toward reflection.

The first thought is what a privilege it was to be associated with San Diego State and my colleagues there. There were challenges to be sure, but they were met and mastered with good spirits and mutual respect — but most of all with a conviction that we were building something of importance. SDSU was responsive to leadership — as many universities are not. The responsiveness was not servile, but the product of a mutual respect for governance and a concern for what was best for our students, our university and our society.

Second, Susan and I were allowed to leave under the best possible circumstances. Too many of my presidential colleagues have been ridden out of town on a rail, or overstayed their welcome, or left feeling unappreciated. SDSU was very kind in giving us a sendoff that continues to be a pleasant memory.

So, what’s happened since? Well, first and foremost, SDSU continues its progress in spite of horrid budgetary conditions. It’s new President, Elliot Hirshman has picked up the mantel, intuitively grasped the potential of SDSU and has set off making it better. I could not have hoped for a better replacement.

Susan and I started our professional lives about 50 miles from here at the University of Maine in Orono. In the 42 years since then I never had a sabbatical. Susan used to accuse me of “sabbatical avoidance”. It would not be right to call this past year a “sabbatical” — since I will not take these lessons back to enrich my research or my students. But the year has enriched me in numerous ways.

First of all, it has given me some quality time with Susan. One thing about a university presidency is that it provides the opportunity, if you want it, for a spouse to be deeply involved in your work. Fortunately for SDSU, and for SUNY Oswego, and for St Cloud State, for Fairfield University and for the University of Maine, Susan was always willing (if not always eager) to be involved and to provide a sounding board — so much so that I few if any people knew as much about SDSU or SUNY Oswego as Susan. Most important, when our responsibilities became campus-wide, she was an extraordinary asset both for me and for the campuses we served. But, though our work often brought us together, (even living “above the store”), it rarely provided time to simply enjoy one another. The past year has given us an opportunity to renew our acquaintance and the pleasure of finding out that we still enjoy one another’s company.

Second, this “sabbatical” has given me time to get to know myself again. When I first went to the philosophy department at the UofM, it’s Chair said, “Steve, we look on you as a blank check.” That meant, in effect, that as the junior member of a department I would fit in and do what needed to be done. Actually, I have been a “blank check” ever since. Moving from place to place not only doing what needed to be done, but becoming (chameleon-like) what I needed to be, reinventing myself as I went along.

Now I have had some time to be alone in our garden or in my shop, or kayaking and I find that there actually is a person under all that history. One of the many “in jokes” that Susan and I share (that is not to be spoken of beyond the “bosom” of the family) is her teasing me about my being “so glad to be me”. What that really means is that I have been pleased to play the roles that life has presented to me. But now I actually am actually pleased to be (not the dean, or the V.P. or the President, but just) me.

Which brings me to another small pleasure — anonymity. No one knows me at the barber shop except as the old guy that stops in after working out at the “Y”; no one notices or cares what I pick up at the grocery store or what abomination I happen to be wearing as I emerge from the garden.

This year has given me a lovely chance to get to know more of our neighbors here on the Point. There are some fascinating/accomplished/well-traveled people here.

Digression: I once had a colleague named Erling Skorpen when I was a faculty member at UofM. He was a great teacher (“Teacher of the Year” at the University of Maine) and a good mentor. Erling had the ability to know, befriend, and be comfortable with everyone, by which I mean non-academics. I always envied him that ability, being too stiff and formal to accomplish it myself. So now, at last, I am getting to have time with non-academics and finding I like them just fine.

A little bit sabbatical-like: I have been working on a report all year about San Diego State’s best-in-the-nation improvement in graduation rates. It is a story worth telling. But truth to tell, it is also a story accomplished mostly by others about which I have been pleased and impressed to learn. That is not untypical of a university president’s work. As with an orchestra leader, it is other people who actually make the music.

I have time to read: Kissinger’s “Diplomacy” is excellent/edifying; I am now reading Caro’s, “The Passage of Power”; I had read the previous three volumes; this one is equally fascinating and wise.

We have time (and still the health) to travel: the high Arctic last summer, Boston in the fall including the John and Abigail Adam residence in Quincy (worth seeing), New Zealand and San Diego in the winter, Prince Edward Island this spring.

One final reflection, about which I hope to write more later. One can ask little more of life than to be surrounded by beauty. Susan and I have enjoyed that pleasure almost since the beginning of our lives together, but never more so than now. As I type this reflection I look out on an overcast, calm bay, across to Mt. Desert Island and Cadillac Mountain. The trail into our woods bends to the left revealing just-blooming Siberian irises; precocious rhododendron blooms surround us;

our poppies are outrageous.

Our bird feeders are visited daily by goldfinches, chickadees, and purple finches.

On the ground below blue jays, mourning doves and juncos scavenge. This morning a wild turkey stopped by for a snack.

In short, life is good for us; we hope it is for you as well.