After Administration

This is what you may find once you lose your academic affiliation

April 28, 2014

It was a seductively sunny June day in the spring of 2012, but I was not the least bit tempted to go outside. These were my final hours in my commodious office as president of Drew University, concluding a seven-year stint. I read over some of the columns I had written for The Chronicle on the life of a college president, noting their general tone had moved from "Surprised by Joy" to "Reality Bites." In the background, I had that wonderful anthem of the Traveling Wilburys playing: "Well, it’s all right, remember to live and let live."

It’s a great song, and I played it over and over that day, but it had a half-melancholy effect. Its title, after all, is "End of the Line." As the lunch hour passed, I had little reason to remain in my office, but I didn’t quite know how to leave.

Nearly two years later, the perspective from a remove is my motive for writing. In this new series of occasional essays, I want to talk about life after administration, in the sense of how higher education looks after one steps away.

In a terrific recent article on turning 65, published in New York magazine, Mark Jacobson quotes his friend Carl Gettleman
to the effect that at that age, truth becomes available because "the world no longer belongs to us." And Jacobson wrote, "it was only by being on the outside looking in that a clearer picture could be seen."

I suppose that’s why I have the hubris to think that what I write here in the coming months may assist private colleges and small universities not just to survive but to prosper—to increase both revenue and the quality of learning, to use every inch of the campus to the advantage of all, and to improve the curriculum without changing it drastically. In general, I hope to persuade academics to stow the defeatist talk that dominates current discussions of higher education and instead be surprised by joy themselves.

In this introductory column, though, I want to tell you about the stepping-away experience. Almost every Ph.D. will experience, at some point, the little death of leaving academe. I have no insights on the afterlife, but I can report on the after-administration life. The good news is, there is a lot of good news.

During my final months at Drew, I kept recalling a photo from my youth, of the CEO of Montgomery Ward being carried out in his office chair after a labor dispute with government officials. That didn’t happen to me. But I did stay in my lovely office on that final day right up until the provost’s administrative assistant knocked on the door and said softly, "Bob, it’s time for you to go—the cleaning people are here."

The Cleaning People became my code for the next year, because I determined that, after 30 years in administration, my spirit required cleansing. Perhaps because I had no siblings, I had always given much of myself to groups and, probably for no better reason, had often become their leader—of a high-school fraternity (don’t ask), of the University of Michigan’s English department, of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, of Drew University. Now there would be no mission, no leadership identity. In fact, I would have no official identity whatsoever, and that occasioned a mild anxiety. Well, OK, panic.

And yet the fear coexisted with an unanticipated reaction: Enough already. And my next thought was that I had been involved with academic institutions (or academic-oriented ones) since the age of 4. More than enough already.

Even so, what would it be like not to be Professor this or President that? A few years after I accepted the foundation presidency, I gave up tenure at Michigan, believing that I should not retain a position that could go to a new Ph.D. in my job-scarce discipline. The week of nightmares that followed did not stem from economic anxieties but from a loss of identity.

I knew the loss would be much more radical in leaving academe altogether. We academics, after tenure time, live in a world of extreme job security; whatever our gripes, we must like our world because, while people in most professions can’t wait to retire, many academics postpone their leave-taking or neglect it entirely.

In the weeks that followed my departure 
from Drew, I decided to embrace the spring-cleaning process. I didn’t throw out quite every aspect of my academic persona. I worked with a friend who had developed a better means for colleges to afford new dormitories. I wrote a literary essay just to see if I could, after a long winter, still ride the bike. I couldn’t resist advising the American Historical Association on its excellent career-diversity effort for history Ph.D.’s. But I mostly opted out.

Four things happened. The first was that I found life. There is something freeing about anonymity. Being just a person leads to just Being. It aids self-forgetfulness, and that makes everything around you—the butcher, the weather, the house for sale down the street—far more interesting. That may be a trivial version of Emerson’s transparent eyeball, but I experienced nonleadership, nonanything, as transcendently good. It’s not Zen, but it does have to do with not worrying about transfer-credit policy or that nasty but necessary donor who wants to start a program on heterosexual rights.

I began living in the moment, as they say. I would think, "I am walking the spaniel in a field," and it was good. It was enough.

On one of those walks, though, I did have an extraneous thought about an Emily Dickinson poem. It begins, "I’m Nobody! Who are you?/ Are you—Nobody—too?," and concludes: "How dreary—to be—Somebody!/ How public—like a Frog/ To tell one’s name—the livelong June/ To an admiring Bog!"

Even as a Nobody, Dickinson celebrates meeting another such nobody. And that was the second thing that happened to me—friendship. I had expected to have more time with my wife and children after leaving academe, and I did. But I hadn’t anticipated the new heft to some already steady friendships, and our sudden mutual awareness of how much we had shared in experience and still shared in attitude.

And there was a different set of friendships, ones I had lost over the years but now managed to rediscover, including some formed as far back as high school. That clued me in to the possibility of recovering at least some aspects of the past, not just neglected friendships but forgotten parts of myself.

And that brings me to the third thing that happened: I rediscovered my youthful passion for radio, but in a different way. In third grade, I had been president of my school’s 
Elvis Presley Fan Club, and my wonderful teacher, Miss Benoit, had let me bring in a portable record player on Tuesdays to announce and play the hits for half an hour. I was already not just into rock ’n’ roll but a radio nut, and later, as a teenager, I would walk around parking lots peering into locked autos to see where the radio dials were set, conducting my own Nielsen ratings and sometimes having to show my notebook to police officers to prove that I was not a car thief.

At 16, I did become a thief, when I used office stationery from my dad’s jewelry store and wrote to radio stations all over the country, claiming to be interested in advertising the store’s bracelets—all so that they would send me free promotional materials.

My final column for The Chronicle as president of Drew was not about the presidency at all. It was about my love of Top 40 radio, and Lee (Baby) Simms, who is, in my view and that of many radio insiders, the greatest Top 40 DJ ever. I already had decided to write a book on Top 40. When I found Lee Baby, as he once told me to call him, living out in California, and then found his great program director and friend Woody Roberts living in Austin, Tex., the book became about them. My heroes became my friends, which is roughly like a fashionista being befriended by Chanel and Versace.

I gave myself over to writing that microcosmic history, Hitbound, and it felt like a yearlong reunion, not just with my hobby but also with the forever-young part of each of us. As Mark Jacobson writes in his article about turning 65, "I was at the beginning again, … a Magellan of me."

That was the fourth thing that happened to me—a pleasurable sense of risk, of exploring the unknown. I do not know what will happen next. What I had feared about getting older and losing my academic identity had transformed itself into a gift.

So that’s what I’ve been doing on my two-year summer vacation. I have found more of life, of friendship, of self, of risk, but I am convinced that none of that would have taken place without the Nobody state I went through first. In music that negative state often gets associated with watering the soul, with lakes and oceans, rivers and streams, in songs like Otis Redding’s "(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay" and Bob Dylan’s "Watching the River Flow."

I’m nobody, but I’ve learned some lessons, and I want to hand them off for the love of colleagues and of the liberal arts. As the Traveling Wilburys affirm in "End of the Line": "Well it’s all right, even if you’re old and gray. Well it’s all right, you still got something to say."

Robert Weisbuch is a professor emeritus of English literature at the University of Michigan and a project adviser to the American Historical Association. He is a former president of Drew University and a former president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.