Published in Macalester Today
After ten years in my office, I decided recently that it was time to do a bit of housecleaning.
The drawers and cabinets yielded some mildly interesting pieces of accumulated flotsam: something called a “musical can kilt,” for those occasions when one wants to hear “Scotland the Brave” while downing a cold one; a Charles Dickens action figure, probably in anticipation of The Avengers II; and two Karl Egge bobblehead dolls, because, really, just one Karl Egge isn’t enough. I discovered, too, that I could wear a different Macalester–themed item of clothing every day for the rest of my life without ever doing laundry.
I have the paint bucket trophy claimed annually by the winner of the Macalester–Hamline football game, a tartan deerstalker cap given to me by John B. Davis, and a vuvuzela, or plastic horn, presented to me by our “Afrika!” student organization and which I am forbidden to play, either at home or at work.
My years at Macalester are exhaustively documented in photographs: in a nightcap, a headband, and a football jersey; with Kofi Annan, Paul Farmer, Chris Kluwe, and a cow; smiling, eating, and staring into the distance as if contemplating the mysteries of the cosmos. Truly, I have done it all.
More interesting than any physical memorabilia I encountered were the virtual treasures in my email inbox. Searching for the word appalled, I found 54 items; outraged yielded 137; furious turned up 186. I confess that I did not check to see how many times these words appeared multiple times in the same message, so my count might include some repeats. Surprisingly, fulminating appeared only twice. Four syllables are a lot to spit out when one is apoplectic.
I had forgotten—or chosen to erase from my memory—the pithy message that skipped all niceties and simply began with this forceful greeting: “You politically correct #%!!*#&%!” This particular gentleman, so far as I can tell, had no previous relationship with Macalester, though I seem to have given him a reason to establish one.
I don’t mean to make light of anyone’s fury—well, maybe I do—but the truth is that after a decade in a college presidency one becomes surprisingly inured to these sorts of fusillades. Presidents get both credit and blame for many things with which they had little to do, and the key to maintaining one’s sanity and humility is to remain relatively unaffected by either praise or criticism: to separate the president from the person and to focus not on the response to what one did yesterday but on the opportunities to do better today and the day after that. That has always been and remains the way I approach my work at Macalester.
It is also important to recognize what an enormous privilege it is to be part of an institution with the history and mission of a great liberal arts college. For nearly a century and a half, skilled and dedicated people have educated students from around the world to become successful and make a positive difference in the lives of others. Generous donors and volunteers have supported that work with gifts of resources and time. We live in an age when cynicism and even despair come too easily, but to fail to be inspired by this is to fail to appreciate the best of which human beings are capable.
Three items in particular, all visible as I sit at my desk in Weyerhaeuser Hall, speak powerfully to me of my good fortune. One is a photo of the members of my senior staff. Granted, in this particular image their heads are photoshopped onto the bodies of the Starship Enterprise bridge crew, but still, there they are, reminding me how much I have benefited from the talents of my coworkers.
The second is a black-and-white photograph, probably taken around 1940, of Charles Turck at work at his desk in Old Main. He is smiling, and pressed to his ear is the handset of a black rotary telephone. Absent President Turck’s principled and visionary leadership for nearly two decades, Macalester would be a different and lesser place and my job much less rewarding.
And the third is a handwritten letter from Vice President Walter and Joan Adams Mondale, thanking me for my service to the college. With apologies to our archivist, the original of that one will always stay with me.
To the Mondales, my colleagues, and all in the community at whose pleasure I serve Macalester College: thanks for the chance.