Monday, May 5, 2008

Last Lecture

(Comments made at last college graduation which coincided with my retirement.) As I reminisce about my 34 years at the College, I would be lying if I said that it was all fun--I believe it is the first sign of senility to say things like, "I've enjoyed every minute of it." Besides, it is difficult to be nostalgic when you can't remember anything. But all in all it has been a good run. As I tell my colleagues, the work was all indoors and required no heavy lifting. But just as it is a truism that all good things must come to an end, so is it true that all pretty good things likewise must end. Now it is time to move on--to be repotted if you will. There were several clues that told me that it was time to do so. In fact, I have compiled the top 10 reasons that signify when it is time to retire from academia. 1. When the University will pay you to do. 2. When you spend more time reading the newspaper obituaries than the editorials. 3. When you start spelling your e-mail address as drool rather than droll. 4. When colleagues tell you it won't be the same around here without you, which is a code for saying that it won't be the same, but that doesn't mean it won't be better. 5. When you find out that the student who referred to you as a "model" teacher really meant that she considered you to be a "miniature of the real thing." 6. When it finally comes to you after 34 years that a substantial number of students will never understand acid-base theory or the Henderson-Hasselbach equation. 7. When the University initiates a seemingly unending string of mandated, feel-good initiatives that engender monumental expectations, while at the same time providing no allocation of resources to achieve the goals of the initiatives. 8.When you have recurring nightmares that manage to weave in aspects of all of the following: People Soft, mission-based management, sensitivity training, affirmative action and strategic planning, the latter complete with Mission, Vision and Values statements. 9.When daily activities have become more reminiscent of herding cats than of productive work. Another way of saying this is that, when you start to attribute to malice that which can just as easily be explained by incompetence, it is time to fold your tent. 10. And finally, when the thought of doing one more accreditation self-study evokes a physiologic response not unlike that achieved by breathing deeply while downwind of an incinerator accident at Dugway Proving Ground. I cannot end without expressing my appreciation to all those who are responsible for my award as Professor Emeritus. When I first learned that I would receive it, I threw myself into the task of preparing what I thought were appropriate remarks with great enthusiasm. Perhaps I did so with too much self-congratulatory zeal, for when I showed them to one of the more irreverent members of our faculty he suggested that my ego was showing and that I should instead open with the following: "I can clearly recall awaking to the sound of crunching straw and looking up from my cradle to see three magnificently attired gentlemen. They informed my mother that the star they had been following had settled over our stable." Another of my colleagues who was clearly envious suggested that awards are like the curl in a pig's tail--nice to look at, but they add nothing to the weight of the hog! Seriously, I feel not unlike the turtle who went to sleep and awoke to find himself atop a six foot fence post. He didn't know how he got there, but he knew he had a lot of help. I am not at all sure that I have accomplished anything particularly remarkable in my tenure here other than to display tenacity. I believe it was Woody Allen who said it best when he noted that, "80% of success is just showing up." On this graduation day, our primary focus should be on the graduates, their sacrifices and hard work and the sacrifices and hard work of their loved ones. The graduates and I share a common bond in that we are all moving on to other endeavors, where we will be repotted into a different milieu. Although it might seem counter-intuitive, I am struck more by the similarities of our mutual departures than I am by the differences. Given there is an obvious difference in our ages. Nonetheless, we all face an unknown future with both trepidation and anticipation. I am not particularly looking forward to the transition to the less halcyon days of the so-called golden years. However, I know that for all of us for every door that closes, another opens--given the new door may be a little narrower and we might need to go through it sideways, or it may be a little shorter requiring that we duck as we pass. Whatever opportunities and responsibilities do await our graduates, they will most certainly be accompanied with challenges. In meeting these challenges my gratuitous advice to them is to strive to maintain a modest ego, a healthy sense of perspective and a powerful sense of humor. I have already commented upon the dangers of an overactive ego. In regard to keeping a sense of perspective, you all have the opportunity to leave, as Longfellow said, "footprints in the sands of time." But time is limited and time is a thief, for though it it a great teacher it unfortunately kills all its pupils. It is a great leveler that favors no one--I take some comfort in the fact that not only does time heal all wounds, it ultimately also wounds all heels. As for humor, I always turn to Dave Berry who pointed out in his book Dave Berry Turns 50, "You should not confuse your career with your life." In closing, I am reminded of the short poem with which Aaron Lemonick, who served for 13 years as Princeton's Dean of Faculty, concluded his retirement swan song. It goes like this: "The tusks that clashed in might brawls Of mastodons, are billiard balls. The sword of Charlemagne the Just Is ferric oxide, know as rust. The grizzly bear whose potent hug Was feared by all, is now a rug Great Caesar's bust is on the shelf, And I don't feel so well myself!" Thank you for your attention.

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