John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Acknowledging One’s Mentor While You Both Still Have Time

November 15, 2013John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

There’s hardly a day that goes by that something doesn’t come to my attention that evokes a memory for me of one or more of my mentors from my 32 year career for the University of South Carolina. I was so fortunate in the mentors that adopted me. And I, and all the readers of my blog, know that one of our most important roles is to mentor others, and to especially see that our students get mentored while they are with us—both by us and by fellow outstanding students.

This particular posting is prompted by the fact that I was called by a USC colleague the day before I write this, to tell me that one of my mentors has been diagnosed with a very serious illness. This is the occasion of my thoughts about this so special mentor, friend, colleague, and former boss.

I will be making plans to see him soon, if his condition and family will permit. But even if I couldn’t, I know that this mentor knows what he did for me, what he means to me. For I have told him multiple times both verbally and in writing. One of the things that I have been most intentional about is affirming my respect and appreciation for my mentors directly to them.

This mentor, is John J. Duffy. I went to work for John in July of 1983 and served him and the University as Vice Chancellor/Associate Vice Provost for Academic Affairs for the University’s five Regional Campuses until 1996. John was the Chancellor and a Phi Betta Kappa historian, a true intellectual and academic administrator. But most of all a humanist who always put the University’s interests before his own. Oh, I learned so much from John. To this day I occasionally find myself in situations that remind me of ones I found myself in with him and I recall how he handled things and what I learned from observing him.

In the search process for this position he asked me a question no one had ever asked me before and one I had never heard asked in a search process: “John, who are your enemies?” It took me more than a short pause to answer this question but I finally answered him that I had two: the University Librarian and the Athletic Director. But those are two other memories.

I saw him about a week later at some event. And he pulled me aside and said: “John, I need you to sign this document accepting my offer.” I told him that I had not yet seen his offer and had no idea what it was.  He told me: “Don’t worry, you will be fine with it. If you don’t trust me in this, you shouldn’t come to work with me.” I had already decided to trust him.

And that really sums it up. I trusted him. I never in 13 years saw him do or say anything that was not totally honest, personally, intellectually, and professionally.

One of the reasons one University constituency, female academics, trusted him, was that he really stood out from other males in his willingness to sponsor and appoint women to positions of power and influence. He never talked about this in any manner to call attention to his views on this. He just did it.

The first day on the job he, the Chancellor, asked me, the Vice Chancellor, if I knew the difference between a Vice Chancellor and a Chancellor? I told him, honestly, that I had no idea. He told me that the difference was very simple: “the Vice Chancellor was a mouse trying to act like a rat, and the Chancellor was a rat trying to stay out of the trap!” The moral of this story was his telling me that a part of my job was to help keep him out of the trap.

One way to do that he taught me was to not put everything in writing, to not always spell things out in precise detail. More than anyone I ever worked for he taught me a tolerance for ambiguity in the administrative world. I learned from him, the less written down, the more flexibility for us, the administrative class.

Also on the first day on the job with him, he told me: “John, there will be times in this office when we will be faced with making a clear choice: doing what is best for our own units, or doing what is best for the University. We will always choose what is best for the University.” And we always did.

And still another thing he told me that first day was: “John, we are going to make decisions together as if we were going to spend our entire careers at the University and therefore as if we could live with the outcomes of our decisions for our entire careers here.” I was stunned with the realization that that frame for decision making was so totally opposite from all the short run decision making that I was seeing in our country—decisions for what will make the numbers spin the best for the next quarterly meeting of the stockholders. Well everyone knew he thought this way. People knew his values. And everyone trusted him.

I also learned from him that we academic administrators really were faculty on what I had learned in the Air Force was known as “TDY”—temporary duty. We at heart were professors on TDY to administration. And we always needed to have the kind of relationships with our faculty colleagues so that we could go back at any time to their ranks and happily rejoin them with full acceptance. I never knew another academic administrator who would spend so much of his free and social, discretionary, and professional time talking (and imbibing) with faculty—not so much about administrative matters, but about what they were thinking, doing, and reading. This was not a form of pandering for faculty support. He was genuinely interested in the faculty, and most of all, he liked and admired them. And not surprisingly, those sentiments were reciprocated.

As my years marched on with him, we had multiple ups and downs in the economy, which led to the need to review the budgets of our five campuses for the purposes of making reductions. There was the stock market plunge of 1987; the impact of Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and the first Bush recession of 1990-92. There were two core principals we went into each of these conversations with: 1) we would not cut money for student aid—no student aid, no students and no students, no university; 2) we would not cut money for the Library; the Library is the heart and soul of any great university.

Over the thirteen years that he mentored me the greatest gift he gave me was a virtually unlimited amount of professional freedom: freedom for me to pursue my professional interests, new ideas, new approaches, my passions, my wild hairs. He never told me “No, we/you can’t do that.” I knew that as long as I was doing good for the University, our state, our students, that I could do anything I wanted. And I did. And I never even had to ask. I knew he trusted me and he knew I trusted him.

Surely, you have equally powerful, and I hope equally positive memories of your mentor(s). I hope you have shared your appreciation for them with your mentor. If you haven’t, don’t wait any longer. Life can change on a dime and then life gets in the way. At the same time, you and I both need to be thinking about how we might want our mentees to describe us and what we have to do to make that square with the realities of our mentoring of others.

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