Stepping Aside (Not Just Yet)

 

Most of us have observed, heard about, or read stories about excellent athletes who try to squeeze one or two more years out of their aging bodies. Back in the late 1960s Charlton Heston starred in a movie, Number One, about an aging pro football quarterback, with the final scene a fading image of him lying injured on the field. Some of us remember Willie Mays, in his early 40s, trying to play one last year for the New York Mets, watching the once sleek and graceful outfielder stumbling around the bases. There are countless examples of this in the sports world, and everyone has their favorite story or memory. Other examples can also be found in all other areas of life, from politics to academe. What we find in the university is, perhaps, not as exciting as what happens in athletics, but the fading academic can be just as poignant and compelling (the stuff of novels).

Although we don’t hear many such stories in academe (probably because few care about such matters outside of the university), we all have experienced some version of this. At conferences and other venues, one can hear the chatter about someone, now well into their seventies or older, still teaching from decades old notes or falling asleep at faculty meetings and during student advising hours. We forget about how cruel we were when we were younger. And, ultimately, we face these decisions about ourselves. This is the story I want to tell, but certainly not in a way that would ever suggest that I was anything like a superstar at what I do.

I am on the faculty of an information school, and I was recruited nearly thirty years ago to come as an untenured lecturer, start a program in archival studies, and pursue my own doctorate. It was a strange time. Then, in my late thirties, and with no real intention of staying there after I finished the degree, I alternated between faculty member and doctoral student, not always without some awkwardness. Full of energy and enthusiasm, I completed the degree while writing two other books, something that amazes me today. How did I do this? And should anyone else ever attempt such a foolhardy stunt? No, I don’t think so.

Because I was recruited in a field then with few individuals qualified to serve as faculty, I was invited into a tenure stream position and moved through the academic chutes and ladders game to become a tenured associate professor and then a full professor. From arrival in 1988 to full professor in 2000 now seems like a dream. No one called me a wunderkind, but there were times when I felt that way. However, somewhere along the way I crossed over the peak and began a downhill slide, not in mental acuity but certainly in physical stamina. Who knew what was ahead, however? Certainly not me.

What has happened between 1988 and today? Without question, the major change has been in the university itself. During this period we passed into the corporate university stage where revenue emerged as the priority. Everything — teaching, research, and even service — began to become increasingly measured by the dollars brought in. Given the nature of the up and down economy, the costs of technology, and the issue of assessment and compliance at every turn we take, none of this was a real surprise. However, it seemed to happen much faster than any of us expected. I imagined I was feeling like the laboratory frog being slowly put to sleep, then death in a beaker of water slowing rising in temperature. This prompted me to write a book, The Demise of the Library School: Reflections on Professional Education in the Corporate University, that few seemed to read or, if they did, didn’t want to talk about.

Physically, and in other ways, I have changed. A few years ago I was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes, and as I adjusted my lifestyle, this has involved bouts of fatigue and other issues that I was unaccustomed to dealing with. Accompanying this, but not in a cause-and-effect relationship, was deteriorating vision caused by developing cataracts (correctible, but not yet to the point where this should be done). So, I walk more slowly, take naps more often, and more deliberately pace myself in my teaching and research projects. Through this, I seemed to be productive to others, but I felt like I was accomplishing less than I used to in the past. As I completed my annual reviews, at our school a fair and comprehensive process that we all like t whine about, I witnessed a decline in productivity as compared to other faculty members, now all of whom were much younger and more energetic than myself.

All of this is quite natural, of course, but it has had an effect on how I view myself. For a long time I assumed I would work until I turn seventy, mainly because I love what I do. I enjoy the research process, and the extended bouts of reading and reflecting required to do this. I also love the interaction with the increasingly younger students, leading them in discussion and their research, learning as much from them as I imparted to them. And working with bright new and younger faculty colleagues also brought riches with it, always stretching me intellectually. But other things have started to happen that have caused me to sometimes question my own plans at the end of the career.

Recently, our new Chancellor challenged the various schools and other academic units to envision the grand challenges we wanted to engage. However he may have articulated this I am unsure about, but the conversation seemed to quickly evolve into the prospects of wealth and other treasures and riches. Soon we seemed not to be thinking about education or learning but about ways we could stimulate new revenue streams, all with a kind of Wall Street cache about it. This was, I believe, not the result of anything our Dean did (I have great confidence in him), but it was probably the result of the corporate-think and -speak that had been slowly emerging over the past decade and more. Whatever its cause, I found the conversation dispiriting and upsetting, and I faced a weekend (the meeting was on Friday) of soul-searching.

The intent of the grand challenges approach was to get us to grapple with the future, something I had focused on quite a bit in my own field and was, in fact, just putting the finishing touches on such a paper for a conference then looming just ahead. And this is where things got interesting. Sandwiched in between this faculty meeting and my travel to the conference was my birthday, my sixty-fifth one, a milestone by any means of contemporary social measure. What I realized was that my sense of the future was a considerably truncated version of the ones being dreamt by the much younger faculty I most closely worked with (now ranging from thirty to forty years old). Any discussion about grand strategic objectives that set our future seemed irrelevant to me. My future, at least as a faculty member, seemed to be no longer than five tears; that of my colleagues ranged from 25 to 40 years. Why would want to divert attention to my views that were so shorter?

Upon considering this, I relaxed quite a bit. I conferred with one of my younger colleagues about her taking over my administrative responsibilities, something she then seemed quite eager to do. Following a few short meetings to make sure this was acceptable to the program chair (and, presumably, the Dean), it was announced to the faculty. The faculty warmly greeted the new program leader, but not a word was said regarding me. So much for almost three decades of work in building the specialization, including both masters and doctoral students. I was not surprised by any of this, but it was, nevertheless, a bit disappointing (although it reinforced my decision to hand over the responsibility to another faculty member).

 

While I was at the conference, I commented on the change in leadership and this caused some comments. Some figured I had been deposed. Some believed this because they could not imagine a senior faculty member just handing over such a responsibility. Others wondered if the younger faculty member had different plans for the specialization, to which I replied, probably. This prompted me to explain that at my school we liked to have faculty teaching from different perspectives, believing that it shaped a better educational experience for the students. This seemed to cause more concern and questions, making me wonder if what I had just done was more unusual than I thought.

 

However, in short order all this changed. My younger colleague decided she was not interested in being the lead faculty member and, fairly soon after that, announced she was leaving, for reasons mostly known only to her. I wish her well. While all this was transpiring I found myself elected to be the chair of a new department, something that only a few months before I had no inkling of or would have dreamed that I would do.

 

I do not know what the near future holds. If my health stays good and I continue to enjoy my teaching and research, along with my new administrative responsibilities, I fully expect that these years will be positive and a good transition into retirement. Of course, in retirement, I envision having more time to read, write, and paint, and hope that some of my most successful writing, by which I mean meaningful to me even if not published anywhere, will occur. I am up, I believe, to the new challenge, even if I wish I had treated my elders better in the early part of my academic career and had become a better mentor to both younger colleagues and my students. However, one of the joys of the academy is having the time to reflect, learn, and apply new lessons learned. I hope I can do this in a caring and empathetic way; at least, I am going to try to do so. A substantial part of my activity will be in refocusing transition planning for future leadership. I want to leave knowing that the department is in better hands and shape than when I took over.

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