John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

In Memorium: John J. Duffy

September 4, 2014John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

On this Labor Day 2014 I received news that one of my most important mentors, John J. Duffy, passed away very early in the morning. John mercifully and finally came to rest after a long struggle with a terrible illness. I had last visited him over Thanksgiving 2013 when he was still able to have the kind of conversation that enabled me to tell him all that he had meant to me.

When I think of the reasons why I am thankful to have been in my profession of a higher educator and professor, one of my top reasons is the wonderful mentors I have had, most of them at the University of South Carolina, who have made me whatever it is that I am today. John J. Duffy was primus inter pares in that distinct group.

I first met John Duffy on Saturday, January 13, 1967. He was one of four senior University of South Carolina administrators who signed off on me to be an adjunct instructor for three of the University’s “Regional Campuses” for the period 1967-68 when I was on active duty with the United States Air Force in South Carolina. My Air Force squadron commander had ordered me to come over to the University to have my credentials approved so I could perform what the Air Force defined as “community service”, college teaching. It was that initial teaching experience that provided me an entrée to ultimate full-time employment, which I enjoyed from 1970-1999. During the period 1983-1996 I was John’s Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and he was my Chancellor.

My first day on the job with him we had a wide ranging conversation that set the tone for the next 13 years. It was a period of profound influence on my development as a University of South Carolina leader and a leader beyond the confines of our campus.

So the first thing John said to me was: “John, do you know the difference between a Vice Chancellor and the Chancellor?” I told him I did not. His answer: “John, a Vice Chancellor is a mouse trying to act like a rat; and the Chancellor is a rat trying to stay out of the trap!” I concluded that one of my roles was to keep him out of the trap. In reality, he helped keep me out of the trap—or traps.

He also asked me a question that no one had asked me since my father had when I was 9 years old. I had a little black book in which I had written a “friends” list and an “enemies” list (not like that compiled by the Nixon White House!). His question: “John, who are your enemies?” My answer: “I have two John: 1) the football coach; 2) the University Librarian.” And two long stories unfolded which told my boss much more about me than about the two characters I was describing.

On that first day on the job he also taught me this:

  1. “John, we are going to get many choices and decisions to make in this office. And we will be regularly given the opportunity to choose what is best for our units, office, positions, versus the larger university. Much as I might wish they would always be one and the same, they will not. And we will always chose what’s best for the University.”
  2. “John, as we make these decisions, we will always make those decisions as if we personally could live with the consequences of those decisions for the rest of our careers and lives at the University—and on the assumption that we will be spending the rest of our careers and lives at the University.” And we did.
  3. “John, every year we are going to have to make final decisions about the budgets for our five campuses. And we will sometimes be faced with tough cuts that we will have to make. And we will be offered proposals that will include a variety of options to take those cuts. Sometimes those options will include cutting money for student assistants and cutting money for libraries and books. John, there is no university without students so we never cut their jobs; and there can be no university without its libraries, we will never cut our libraries.”

John Duffy gave me many gifts, including:

  1. the freedom to make my job whatever I wanted to make of it. I chose as my areas of key emphasis those of faculty governance and faculty/staff development
  2. the freedom to take on other duties of even broader service to the University and the country, which made possible my establishment of the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition; our series of international conferences on The First-Year Experience;  our prolific series of publications and scholarship; our launching of work on the “senior year experience”; and the establishment of our University 401 course for seniors transitioning out of the University. With me, he walked his talk in allowing me to do what was best for the University, even though at times those works took time away from my duties for him.

John taught me so much, including:

  1. That while we always worked for the current President of the University, our real employer was the people of South Carolina; and we better never forget that our most important job was to do what was best for those people, no matter how often we thought we were smarter or better than those people.
  2. That what was the key to his success was the quality of his judgment
  3. And the fact that people trusted him. I learned what leaders do to gain the trust of others. For one thing, they keep their word.
  4. The importance as academic leaders of spending a tremendous amount of time with our faculty, talking to them, listening to them, learning about their work, sponsoring their advancement. In our cases, this meant visiting their campuses often, spending social time with them, and eating, drinking, and staying up late with them!
  5. That there were times I missed a tremendous opportunity to keep my mouth shut! He would point this out to me gently after the fact but never in advance to muzzle me.
  6. That we would go to any lengths to protect the academic freedom of our faculty even if it meant moving them from one campus to another to protect them from political interference and punishment.
  7. That for the greater good of the University it was worth it to overlook many of the eccentricities and idiosyncrasies of some of our most talented faculty and staff, some of whom could be very difficult to work with and who would try the patience of their administrative ostensible superiors. What mattered most was the quality of their teaching, scholarship, and service to the University. Society must create positions for some of its most talented and ingenious citizens who just wouldn’t make it in conventional organizations that would constantly constrain their personal freedoms of thought and expression.

There is just now way I can do justice to this mentor. But he will always be alive and well in my head as I make my own daily leadership decisions. He really made a difference for our institution and so many people. And I wanted to emulate him in exactly that respect. John, you really haven’t died at all.

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