Twelve Years Later: What Do I Miss?
John N. Gardner
In a few days it will be June 30, the anniversary of my “retirement” date from full-time active service from the University of South Carolina. Each year I use this as a marker to reflect on what life is like away from a daily existence on a University campus, what I have learned, what (and who) I miss, what I have gained.
Admittedly, my “retirement” was “early” and after thirty-two and a half years. And it has not led to retirement at all. I still have an appointment with duties at the University as “Senior Fellow” (translate: elder statesman). And I have a full-time appointment as a CEO of a non-profit higher education organization that does planning with colleges and universities.
My annual reminiscences (not ruminations, not regrets) usually go like this:
I am glad I left at the top of my game and before I was at the point when people wanted me to go
I am glad I agreed to a retirement party extravaganza which we turned into a celebration of all that my work had stood for in the First-Year Experience. It was a wonderful ritual for closure.
I am glad I held a personal, one-on-one closed door conversation with every person who reported to me so I could share what they had meant to me
I am thankful that the leaders I worked for and with wanted me to have some continuing involvement and hence my appointment as Senior Fellow
I am proud of the job that has been done by my successors in making our first-year campus programs and our national and international work stronger than ever
I am grateful to my University for being more invested in our work than ever
I am thankful I spent my entire campus-based career in one place and never even flirted for a second about cheating on USC and forsaking her for another
I am thankful for all the outstanding leaders I worked for, all of whom I learned from and grew as a result of.
But my most recurrent thoughts are about what I miss the most:
I miss the students
I miss the faculty
I miss the staff
I miss the collegiality, the camaraderie, the partnerships
I miss the sanity, the good will, the servant leader ethos, the oasis of liberalism in a true wasteland of reactionary politics at the state level
I miss the gracious, generous, appreciative people of South Carolina who have always deserved better leaders than they have received
I miss the sense of contributing each day to an institution that has been here before me and will long outlive me
I miss the opportunity each day to contribute to the ongoing contribution of a great public university towards achieving social justice for all the citizens of the state
I miss more specifically about the students: their energy; their intellectual curiosity; their risk taking; their open mindedness; their courage; their great work ethic; their civility and politeness; their deference to their elders; their passion for serving fellow students; their youth; their liminal state between adolescence and adulthood; their radiant sexuality; their searching for meaning and desire to make a difference; their beauty; their wholesomeness; their ability to learn so rapidly and so well.
Truly, the students are what I miss the most. My wife would tell you if you, she and I were together, that I miss them so much that when I encounter them as servers in restaurants, I immediately interview them like a first meeting between academic advisor and student advisee.
I have heard it said that being a full professor at a research university is the best job in America. Who would ever want to leave it? I understand that question and some of the answers. What a great life.
What do you love about your life in higher education? What will you miss when you retire? How can you make the most of it before then? It’s all up to you.