by Ben Verde
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What ultimately lead you to make the decision to retire?
Do you know Chuck Close’s work at all? Chuck Close’s work is basically little dots, right, and when you step back from it, it’s a picture. That’s what pointillism is, first done years ago by a very famous painter. There were little points that began to paint a picture. One of them was, as odd as it sounds, I didn’t think I was pissed off about something that I should’ve really been pissed off about.
What was it?
It doesn’t matter, I’m not gonna go into it. But I should’ve been. It was that kind of thing. There is a recognition that this a perpetual institution, it’s never finished, so you can’t finish it and then go on. Things that I should’ve been able to put up with were beginning to bother me more than they should, the obverse. I don’t know, it was sort of just the same decision you have when you go to Purchase as opposed to New Paltz. It was in your gut. Would it have made a difference if it was next year or the year after? Not particularly. But as a president, you never want to stay to the point where they say you were a good president but you stayed too long. You know you wanna leave when people aren’t necessarily clamoring for you to leave, I think the place is stable, you know one of the professors said to me a week or so ago, who’s been here a long long time, that I had brought a period of stability to the college that I had never seen. It’s just a whole bunch of factors, then you get into the personal and — you know I have a house on Fire Island and I’ve always been out there since I was a child. September’s my favorite month, what the natives call the day after Labor Day is “Tumbleweed Tuesday.” I go out during the weekend if I’m not here but, you know it was a little harder than it was the year before. There’s no clear answer, I mean sure over time I’ve had inquiries. Would I like to put my name in another place, sure. Go back and practice law, but you know there wasn’t any clear answer to the question. Other than just the picture that began to emerge.
What are some things you wish you’d done differently as president?
I would say, been more insistent earlier on alumni development. I would say use the bully pulpit more to speak out on issues. In a public institution, you can’t get crosswise with your governor. I don’t think anybody particularly cares what I think about the Iraq war, you know, do you wanna know? I’ll tell you. I think the ability to speak out more about public education is something that I should’ve done more with. I wish I could say to you that our alumni program was at a B, I hope before I leave I could say it’s at a C-. That doesn’t mean there aren’t days where I wish I hadn’t done this hadn’t said that, I mean there are but you know we all make mistakes, the question is do we acknowledge them, or do we try and cover them up.
Another thing I wish I had done is teach a course. Every time I tried to plan it something got in my way, but I knew the course I was going to teach. We were going to start Monday with the Sunday paper, The Sunday Times. I was going to assign two teams of two, pick an article. It could be in the business section the sports section, the arts I don’t care, And you needed to critique it and defend it, you needed to critique the writing, you needed to critique the substance and you were going to come to class on Friday, you didn’t know who was going to be called on and you didn’t know which side you were going to be asked. But you had to either defend it or critique it.
You’ve overseen a time of great change at Purchase, what do you think is the most important physical project you’ve overseen?
The mall. Because it was so depressing and so broken, that I just think it made everybody depressed. And sure, the humanities building was very important, but not if you’re a dance major. The mall is important to everybody. This building (student services) was under design when I took over and I almost killed it because what it’s original purpose was to put all the officers in this building and their staffs. And I thought, well how the hell can you put all the officers in the fancy building when the classroom buildings are for shit and the mall is falling apart? But then they convinced me that they couldn’t do the humanities building if they didn’t build this building because we wouldn’t have enough swing space, so we redesigned this building to put all of the things students need other than the classroom.
It used to be something was in one building and it was called the Purchase shuffle you’d go from building A to building B to building C one had the registrar one had this one had that. And then that allowed us to when we gutted the humanities building to move people in here as well as other places. Humanities, of course, is important as well and you know we do have other buildings that need to be gutted like Art and Design should be redesigned, science building needs to have an addition added to it. It’s easier to rebuild a humanities building than a science building because with humanities you can just take people and put them in other spaces, you can’t do that with science cause of the chemicals and the hoods, and all that stuff. So we have to do that, it’s on the list of the construction, as is art and design but frankly it’s probably easier to get money for science these days.
What non-infrastructure related project do you think was the most important?
Paying attention to student retention which we were not paying attention to. And turning something from a faculty-centered institution to a student-centered institution is not an easy thing. We’ve accomplished that with the support of the faculty. But I remember once an art history faculty member sitting in my office telling me that it wasn’t his problem if the senior didn’t show up to work with him on his senior project, he just wouldn’t graduate. And I said well don’t you think you should contact him or find out if there’s an issue or, no, that’s his problem. That was a pervasive attitude and I don’t think it exists anymore; if it does it’s in the pocket somewhere. We started, for example, turning our attention to start the advising center. And I remember to this day Linda Bastone who’s a terrific teacher, very dedicated to her students, terrific advisor, said to me somewhat angrily “Well why don’t you just get the faculty to do what they’re supposed to do and then you won’t have spend the money on an advising center?” and I said you know “I’m not used to going up down escalators.” I mean how long do you keep doing the same thing and keep getting the same result and I think that was a critical piece of focusing the place on students, and now we have all sorts of bells and whistles going on if somebody’s not showing up to class, we can tell if you take a particular course or you don’t do well in that particular course and we know if you don’t do well in that particular course if may have some long term impact on you we can you know deal with that, none of that extra stuff.
What are you looking for in your successor?
Somebody who understands that this is not just a typical 4200 student college. You have to understand who we are, and if you understand who we are, that will lead, I hope, to a successful presidency. You have to be willing to say no, you can’t be conflict-averse, you have to have a thick skin. You can’t stay up at night because somebody called you a son-of-a-bitch or whatever. But I think the most important thing is to be appreciative of who we are as an institution, and who our students are, to be able to sit comfortably with them and also tell them when they’re wrong, or at least you think they are.
I think somebody who was conflict-averse, who came here when I came here, would have failed miserably because of the problems that we had. And so I had to be a different president than I am now. And I think somebody who’s coming in now, we’re a resolvent institution, we’re successful, we’ve become more successful, we’re on an up slope in everything, every category, needs to be a good orchestra leader. You know you’ve got to let the violin be heard and the trumpet be heard. You can’t just come here and have a different worldview you have to really let the view come from your students, and you all know who you are and who you were in high school and you know who you weren’t in high school. We don’t get the quarterback here. We get a lot of kids who were often on the periphery of their classes in high school and they come here and they see themselves and they feel comfortable and it allows them to flourish. And if you don’t understand that, you won’t succeed. I’ll never forget the other wonderful moment was when I got here, the place also looked like a shithole because every piece of glass had a poster on it. And I basically said to the students, look, no more posting on the glass, you need bulletin boards I’ll give you as many bulletin boards as you want. And then one spring soon thereafter it was looking kind of crummy, and I got off after the chief custodian I said, “Clean this place up.” And so I’m coming out Campus Center North with my lunch, and you know there’s the glass wall and then the other glass wall, and I see this big poster that’s facing the other way and I work myself up with ‘what the fuck is this!’ and I just got over there, and I go and what does the poster say? It says “DO NOT POST ANYTHING ON GLASS.” If you can’t laugh at that, then you don’t belong here.