Is this a trend?

I first noticed it at Denison. I’d seen several presidents come and go at Denison and OWU; I’d met Gordon Gee at OSU; but not till Dale Knobel did I notice a President who was equally, it seemed, a scholar, a historian, with a life of his own aside from being President of a university. I noticed this because when he gave speeches, they were infectious and interesting, not the “of course he has to say that” sort of blah-blah blather that, frankly, most Presidents seem sentenced to as part of their punishment for accepting the job. Dale was always exciting to listen to, and a big reason was he was sharing some interesting historic nugget. At commencement, at building dedications, even on the radio during a very tense time of conflict at the college, he was always putting things into context for me, keeping me in the moment as I listened… because of his personal engagement with the issues at hand.

I just assumed it was a Dale Knobel thing. Then I thought about Bill Brown at Cedarville, and the fact I had observed that he played the guitar with the students, he does his own World View videos aside from his office as President. Hmmm. Another President who was a person with an identity apart from his job.

And then I bumped into Amy Gutmann on BigThink, the new YouTube of the college scene. (Her comments on diversity, by the way, are excellent.) Now it really got me thinking.

Her title on the site: “President, UPenn; Political Theorist.” Wow. One would think President, UPenn was enough of a title; but no, Political Theorist was right next to it. As if I gave my title as “President of Ztories, and Father of 4 Daughters and Three Grandsons.” Or better yet, “President, Ztories, and Essayist on Epistemology”. Unrelated fields, one’s a job, one’s a passion. One’s a place of power, the other’s a personal zone of interest. Part of the identity of the person, which does not need any affirmation by others to make it important.

I can’t be the President of UPenn or Denison because I decide to be. Others have to give me that title; and for most of the Presidents I’ve seen, that appeared to be the pinnacle of achievement, to be so recognized.

But I can be a Political Theorist whether I’m the President of UPenn or of Cellblock 59. It is a title I confer upon myself, because of my interest in Politics or History or How we Know Things.

So my hats off to Amy Gutmann and Dale Knobel and Bill Brown, for teaching me something important about leadership. And now I ask all you folks out there in the college cave. Is this sort of personal identity trumping corporate identity a trend? Is something changing? Or has it always existed and I just happened to wake up?

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