President Dale T. Knobel: A farewell in retrospect and prospect

By Dale T. Knobel
President

The boxes are beginning to pile up in a spare bedroom at Monomoy Place, and whenever the Knobels have a free evening (not many of those this time of year!), we’re sorting through another closet.

At the office, I’m culling my large library of books in American history and thinning out files.  Must mean that moving day’s getting close.  In fact, in just nine or ten weeks, I suspect that the moving van taking all of our possessions to our new home in Austin, Texas will pull away from the big house on Broadway. Fifteen years in the Denison presidency, thirty-seven years as a college history professor, and forty-six straight years on college campuses since I left high school will come to an end, and Tina and I will begin the adventure of retirement!

I’m talking about taking a break here, not slipping off into old geezerhood, mind you!  We’re relocating to Austin to be near to our small grandsons and, well, because we like Austin: barbecue, the South by Southwest music festival, Willie Nelson, and all that.  But we’re also looking forward to having time to travel (Italy is our favorite), to enjoy being anonymous rather than public figures, and to pursuing our avocations.

For me, that includes returning to my roots as a historian and writing at least a couple of more books in my specialty area, the history of race and ethnic relations in nineteenth century America.  It also includes trying to improve my mediocre golf game and spending more quality time as a grandpa to our two little boys.  And I’ve joined the board of a large national foundation that supports projects in higher education and in the arts so that I get to help give money away rather than spend so much of my time trying to raise it.  For Mrs. Knobel, new-found time may create an opportunity to get back into the game of tennis, a sport in which she once excelled, to decorate and landscape a new house, and to become involved in the life of a new community much as she has been involved in the life of Granville.

Saying Farewell

I’m finding many occasions to say “farewell” this spring.  We’ve visited gatherings of alumni in many cities, from Boston to Denver to south Florida, and at the beginning of June we’ll welcome 1,000 or so Denison graduates back for our last Reunion Weekend.

Just this past weekend, we said good-bye to the men and women of the Denison Board of Trustees, who have been my partners in setting a direction for the college these past fifteen years.  I’ve still got one Faculty Meeting to go and an opportunity to offer one last set of reflections with colleagues.

And then there’s Commencement, which is always a leave-taking with our graduating seniors, and which this year will be a double farewell.  But there really isn’t a good occasion to wish the whole Denison student body well, and so I was happy when the editors of The Denisonian suggested that I write a column for the last issue of the academic year.

Part of any farewell is taking stock, and it’s been interesting and useful for me to spend some time looking back over the last fifteen years at Denison.  Personally, I’ve had a great “tour” of American higher education, learning much along the way.

I know Denison, of course, but I also was the Provost and Dean of the Faculty at another selective, residential undergraduate liberal arts college: Southwestern, in Texas.  I was a student at two well-regarded private research universities, Yale and Northwestern.  Then I began my teaching career as a young professor at Northwestern.

And, along the way, I spent nineteen years on the faculty and in the academic administration of one of the nation’s largest public research universities, Texas A&M.  So, I’ve been around.  And, having been around, I’d have to say this about Denison: we have a pretty great place here, a great place that we really don’t celebrate enough.

What makes us great

What makes it great is, first, the people.  You’re lucky.  You get to learn and live with a really interesting community of fellow students, a community that has become even more diverse and interesting in recent years.  You’re all academically able.  But you also bring to the table a rich array of personal experiences and perspectives.

We’ve worked on promoting that at Denison.   The Denison student body is far more representative of the young people of our nation and our world today than it was thirty years ago—or even fifteen.

This is not just a matter of social equity, of giving students of ability whatever their background the opportunity to enroll here.  It’s about education.  You can LEARN from one another. I hope you do.  Nothing will prepare you better for life after college than discovering how to live with, work with, and appreciate a wide variety of people.

But this mutual learning doesn’t happen automatically.  We can set the stage by seeking a representative student body.  But you’ve got to figure out how to take advantage of it.

Denison’s great people include the men and women of the faculty and staff, too.  As you’ve probably noticed, people tend to come to Denison and stay here for long careers—whether it’s on the teaching faculty, in the library, or on the housekeeping team.

That’s a sign of their commitment to their work—and, through their varied work, to students.  It’s also evidence that they appreciate and enjoy one another.  These folks—for all of the differences among them—form a special community, too.  I come to work each morning not only because I have a job to do but because I like being reunited with people I respect and enjoy.

In fifteen years, this community has grown, especially the teaching faculty.  We set as a goal early in my presidency that we would grow the teaching faculty relative to the size of the student body, and we’ve done it.  Maintaining a low student/faculty ratio has helped set the conditions that sustain the rich interaction between students and professors that characterizes a Denison education.

A lot changes in fifteen years, though.  Between growing the faculty with new hires and replacing colleagues who have retired or taken other positions, about 2/3 of the faculty has come to Denison just in my time here.  Old or new, they’re great!

We have a special place

Denison is also about “place.” We have a special place. The personality of our campus is shaped by historic Granville, by the greater Columbus area of which Granville is a part,  and by our location in this part of the nation—an interesting part, a little Eastern and a little Midwestern all at the same time.

It’s also about “the hill” which shapes so much of our comings and goings and where we do things on the campus.  Doubtless, it’s about the buildings, too.  Many of you have heard that I made a big pronouncement when I came to Denison that I didn’t expect to be the “building president.”

A quarter of a billion dollars later in new and renovated buildings (funded primarily by Denison alumni and friends, abetted by gifts from a few generous foundations) later, it’s clear that this has been a building presidency.  We’re lucky.  We’ve been able to build new academic buildings and renovate older ones, keeping teaching and learning facilities fresh.

We’ve been able to invest in a residence hall system that is nearly unique in higher education, providing a progression of living situations from double rooms through suites and singles to apartments.

And the College has been in a position to make significant investments in recreation and athletics facilities, like what’s happening down at the “new” Mitchell Center (If you haven’t been down in a week, you should check out the progress!).  Huffman Dining Hall’s renewal will set the stage for the arrival of new food service provider Bon Appetit, and in a couple of years, Curtis will get the same treatment.  Is there more to do?  Always!

We’ve set the stage (though still need the money!) to address facilities needs in student life (Slayter and, perhaps, other social and gathering spaces), performing arts, and Doane Library.  You may have noticed that in recent years, we aren’t just knocking down things and starting new; we’re “recycling” older and sometimes historic buildings, another kind of contribution to sustainability.  Most undergraduate colleges in our land wish they had facilities and a “place” like ours.

Looking forward

But no farewell ought to be only about looking back.  It ought to have a prospective element, too; it should look forward.  And so I will.  You know, I have a special occasion to do this with the Class of 2013 that will be graduating in just a few weeks.  I get to give them a “charge” as they leave our campus, something to think about as they exchange college for what lies beyond, just as I get to “charge” incoming classes each fall at the Induction Ceremony, right when their members are making the transition from high school to college.

But I don’t get to give a final charge from the commencement stage to the Classes of 2014, 2015, and 2016.  President-elect Weinberg will have to do that!  So here’s my chance to offer just a few parting thoughts to those of you continuing at Denison:

[dropcap]1[/dropcap]I sneaked this in already, but I’ll say in again slightly differently.  Denison is a place where you can and should engage in “lateral” learning.  That’s another way of saying learn from one another.  This kind of learning is not fully understood in the higher education environments of some other educational cultures.  University education even in Western Europe is very much about learning “from” a master—the professor—not learning “with” fellow students in an environment that encourages the exchange of perspectives.  Take advantage of learning “with”—in and out of the classroom—at Denison.

[dropcap]2[/dropcap]The liberal education you have the opportunity to participate in here is very much about discovering who you are and who you want to be as opposed to being “tracked” by a choice of coursework and major into a narrow professional channel.  Your professors want to help you become resourceful and be able to master many things that you will be exposed to long after college.  They can work with you to help you do that in almost any set of courses and experiences on campus.  In our rapidly changing world, we rarely know about the ultimate “destination” of our lives, so a Denison education is all about preparing for the “journey.” This journey, of course, will not be defined entirely—or even primarily– by what you do for a living.  Judith Shapiro, the former president of Barnard College, once said something like “You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to live for the rest of your life.”  Good point.

[dropcap]3[/dropcap]A college campus is a great rehearsal space for living in a democratic society.  Civility, respectful listening, persuasive articulation of points of view, discernment of unsupported opinion versus positions based on evidence, and discovering that you can change your mind are all skills that can and ought to be honed in college.  Are you taking the time and opportunity to do it?

College is not a “finishing school.”  It’s not a time out between childhood and adulthood.  It’s the beginning of adulthood itself. It’s the time to discover that decisions and actions have consequences, not to be sheltered from the results of ones actions.  Yes, you are able to escape some of the cares of daily living by residing on a college campus and that is by design so that you may focus more completely on study and engagement with one another.  But don’t expect to have privileges on a college campus that you will not have in the years after you graduate.  That’s not a bad thing; it’s a good thing.  It’s an education. It’s life.

[dropcap]4[/dropcap]Banish from your vocabulary that college has to be “the best four years of your life.”  I truly hope they are great years; they were for me.  But I’d be hard-pressed to say they were the “best” years.  How would I compare them to the first four years of my marriage, the first four years of parenthood, the years in which I earned my first big career promotion, or the later years when I felt personally and professionally fulfilled?  You will, I hope, have many “best four years.” Life isn’t terrible after college; in fact, it gets better!  Don’t be caught in the trap of desperately (and, consequently, joylessly) pursuing pleasures to ensure that these four years are “the best.”  Make them good, but remember that there are many good years ahead that you want to prepare for now.

[dropcap]5[/dropcap]Remember that the College—Denison—was here long before you arrived and it will be here long after you are gone.  That’s a good thing since a Denison diploma will be on your wall or bookshelf and a Denison education in your head (I hope!) for a long time.  Denison’s a place with a mission; it was literally founded by “missionaries” who sought to bring learning and culture to “the west.”  It’s defiantly non-profit; in fact it knowingly loses thousands of dollars on each student it enrolls, the gap filled up by the philanthropy of alumni and others who love it.  On the one hand, this longevity means that the College is not all about you.  The decisions that faculty, administrative leaders, or trustees make about the college are not decisions about these four years but about the next ten or the next fifty.  On the other hand, this long-term thinking ensures that your college will continue to evolve with the times and that, if Denison is well-managed, the reputation of your degree will increase over time.  Good deal.

 

Last week, we conducted the annual Academic Awards Convocation.  Each year, this event reminds me what we’re all doing here.  Yes, we pull out a few—students and faculty alike—for special recognition.  But the event is really a celebration of what we all do, of accomplishments in teaching and scholarship among our faculty as well in care and leadership among our staff and in learning and, well, growing among our student body.  When the crowd at Swasey cheers as honors are announced, the chorus is not just about the few but about the many, about the nobility of education itself.

I said Tina and I were moving to Austin, but that’s not quite true.  We’re moving to a community right outside of Austin where there’s a liberal arts college, a college where we can attend student concerts and plays, go to student and faculty art openings, experience student poster sessions and scholarly presentations, and where I can watch ball games and swim meets.  We chose that location specifically because nothing at Denison has given us more pleasure than witnessing the academic, artistic, leadership, athletic, and service accomplishments of Denison students.  In these young people in another place, we will continue to see you, Denisonians.  And from afar, we’ll watch you evolve as Denison graduates and as world citizens.  Our hearts will always be with you.

Dale Knobel,
President and Professor of History

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