November 10, 2011
Host: Charlie Wallace, University Chaplain
Thursday, November 10
As you all know, I’m still new here, and I haven’t even attended a Convocation yet. My instructions from Charlie were to come prepared to speak informally for 15 minutes or so about my vocational journey, and he promised that we could spend the rest of the time in lively conversation. That seemed like a relatively straightforward assignment. My vocational journey is, after all, one thing that I know pretty intimately, and I’m always up for lively conversation.
I was invited to speak, of course, because I’m the president of this university, and presidents are rather exotic creatures. Exotic isn’t always the word people choose. Upton Sinclair once said that the university president is “the most universal faker and most variegated prevaricator that has yet appeared in the civilized world.” It is great to be the best at something.
But I don’t want to focus entirely on the presidency, because I think that this four months that I’ve had here at Willamette is better seen as a particular phase in a much longer career pathway. When talking about a vocation, or calling, I think it is much less accurate to suggest that I have been called to the presidency, then that I have been called by academia, by the life of teaching and learning, in which the roles of student and professor, dean and president, are all just different aspects.
As you all know by now, I was raised here in Salem, the son of a Willamette professor.
I was a good student at South Salem High, passionate about reading from an early age. I got my library card at the old Carnegie Library across Winter Street from here, and read pretty indiscriminately. My first sense of vocational calling was really to writing, imagining myself as a novelist. But while I was a good enough student in English, my early math skills were really exceptional. I won the Oregon state math contest three years running, and was an alternate on the U.S. Math Olympiad team, spending a big chunk of a summer being trained in Annapolis, Maryland. While I remember telling people late in high school that I intended one day to be a professor in a small liberal arts college, subject undetermined, there was a lot of external expectation that I would be a mathematician. So I entered college saying I was a math/English double major, but math was the direction lots of forces were pushing me, including internal pressure to focus in an area where I had distinctive talents.
That wasn’t the way things turned out. I didn’t love math, or the life of a mathematician. I was a nerd in high school, but I was a social nerd: I was on the debate team, and the marching band, and student government, and I liked working on projects with people. There is a really important social aspect to mathematicians, who tend to travel the world talking with colleagues, but at its heart research in math is still a solitary effort, and I didn’t love it.
In some ways, a pivotal point for me was junior year of college, where I realized that I didn’t need to do something just because the world and I both believed I was good at it. I had two great study abroad opportunities. There was a really selective and intense math program in Budapest, and a more open year at Worcester College, Oxford. I chose the second, and spent an entire year reshaping myself into a physicist, taking all of the theory courses that I ought to have had as a freshman or sophomore, though I didn’t have any lab courses. And when I got back senior year, I applied to graduate programs in physics, deciding to go to Princeton to study string theory. It was the hottest school with the most famous professors in the hottest subfield of physics. It was also a huge mistake. I had a miserable first semester, isolated from faculty who wouldn’t talk to me until I had completed two years of coursework. That December, I went and took my language exam, so that I would feel like I accomplished something, and then went home for the holidays.
When I came back in January, I forced myself to start visiting the offices of experimental physicists. They needed students in their labs, and were eager to talk to me. I signed on to do a project with Joe Taylor, a professor I had never hear of, on pulsars, a kind of star I had never heard of, and by the beginning of March I was in Puerto Rico, at the world’s largest radio telescope, taking data. It was a blast. I knew nothing about experimental physics. Joe sat me down and taught me how to solder and use an oscilloscope, and I never looked back. I’ve been a pulsar astronomer ever since. There was never any big plan. I hadn’t ever used a telescope, or even thought of astronomy as either a hobby or career. But at that moment in my life where I was deeply unhappy with my direction, I walked into a stranger’s office, asked him what he was passionate about, and how I could get involved. The fact that he was the nicest man in radio astronomy, and a future godparent to my daughter, was much more important to my future than the fact that he would soon win the Nobel Prize. Who knew?
Over much of the next twenty years, my vocational identity was largely as a research scientist. I had the chance to use the world’s great telescopes, and became a member of a close-knit international community of perhaps a hundred scientists working in related areas, doing a lot of collaborative work that took me in some directions I didn’t really expect. In addition to the planet discovery that you have all heard about, I’ve worked on ancient Chinese supernova records, and on the search for gravitational waves, and on a fully automated telescope that could slew to look at any point in the sky in ten or twenty seconds, to try to catch transient flashes. I had a parallel career as a teacher, first of physics and later of astronomy, which, if you are keeping track, you will realize is a field in which I’ve never had a course myself. I became something of a specialist in teaching courses for non-majors, and at Princeton spent a number of years as the go-to faculty member for the big showy demonstration lectures—doing stunts like lying on a bed of nails and having a brick sledge-hammered on my chest. I could have been a teacher and researcher forever.
That isn’t the way life went. Eventually, after getting involved in the organization of several large NASA space missions, and rising in seniority as a faculty member, I found myself as a department chair, mostly because nobody else would agree to do it, and then out of the blue came a request that I step in as Acting Dean. I had literally never considered the idea before, but I had become known as a persuasive and relatively articulate advocate for my department and faculty, mostly because of the writing skills I had developed in college. I agreed to be dean for a limited time, and had a great time, and then became dean for real, overseeing a division at UC Santa Cruz that was about the same size as all of Willamette.
There were three things about the job that I loved. First, it was a team sport. I was working every day with incredibly dedicated staff and department chairs toward common goals. Second, it was different every day. Sometimes I was worrying about how to build modern science buildings, sometimes about how to teach premedical students more effectively and efficiently, sometimes about how to care for and protect an endangered monk seal or a golden eagle that had fallen into our possession. I got to learn a huge amount of biology, which I hadn’t studied since high school, and working with the other deans I began to reconnect with issues in the humanities, arts, and social sciences. And the third thing I loved about the job was how rewarding I found it to work with young faculty. As a scientist, I had some success myself. I’ve published somewhere over a hundred papers, and have made contributions and had some influence, and as a teacher I’ve reached somewhere over a thousand students. But what I could do on my own was nothing like what I could do by helping a hundred and fifty passionate people succeed. I began to understand the power of a university, as an institution, to make positive change in the world.
A year or so ago, when President Pelton stepped down, several people asked me to consider applying for the presidency here at Willamette. For me, it was a chance to come home, to a place I care about, and a position where I became convinced I would be able to have even more scope to work with passionate people—faculty, staff, and students—who were doing exciting work. And for me, the small size and the great complexity of this university were both really attractive: the work that I have loved, throughout my career, has been work done in communities strengthened by personal connection as well as by shared mission. I think that our great public research universities, with their primary mission of scholarship and knowledge creation, are remarkable places. But I can’t personally imagine enjoying leading a institution where the 30,000 students and 10,000 employees are all just faces in the crowd. On the other hand, I’ve always been intellectually a fox, interested in many things, rather than a hedgehog, interested in one big thing. And there is almost no job as complex in its responsibilities as a university presidency.
Now, I’ve been talking about me for far too long, and about the position of the presidency. I think there is a sense in which my particular experiential pathway has led me, at this point in my life, into a college presidency. But people who study leadership in higher education like to emphasize that perhaps more than in the corporate world universities and their leaders thrive when there is a deeper, bidirectional sense of connection between the institution and the president. I think for both me and Willamette the deeper sense of historical rootedness and personal connection is important.
One of the most interesting of my many experiences over the first 100-plus days of my presidency has been meeting alumni, particularly those from the 1940s and 50s, whose deep affection for Willamette and their commitment to its future I found truly inspiring.
These individuals see Willamette’s rich and impressive history is one of its strongest assets, rooted in tradition, an established institution constantly evolving and reinventing itself, rising to meet the challenges of modern society as well as new ways of knowing and discovering what is good and useful.
They know what you may or may not yet know: We walk in the shade of trees planted long ago. Over our 170-year history, Willamette’s many alumni and friends demonstrated their faith in Willamette by investing in its future – confident that our work is worthy of our best efforts and our highest aspirations, and cognizant of the many ways in which our students give back to their communities and to the world.
I can think of few endeavors more worthy of my time and attention than advancing the mission and aspirations of this fine university that has shaped so many good and productive lives – including my own.
I have now been a part of a number of great colleges and universities, with a broad range of missions and programs, and even more than I did when I chose a liberal arts college for myself, I believe in a liberal arts education as the best possible preparation for a meaningful life. The core of a liberal arts education is citizenship; women and men who have developed the virtues of historical perspective, rational thinking, moral compass, scientific inquiry, aesthetic competency and speaking and writing well.
You are the engaged citizens who will shape our nation’s culture, lead institutions and organizations and help make ours a better world in which to live.