Blogs > HNN > Luther Spoehr: Review of William M. Chace's 100 Semesters: My Adventures as Student, Professor, and University President, and What I Learned Along the Way (Princeton, 2006)

Feb 10, 2007 2:25 pm

Luther Spoehr: Review of William M. Chace's 100 Semesters: My Adventures as Student, Professor, and University President, and What I Learned Along the Way (Princeton, 2006)

Bill Chace had only about 25 semesters under his belt when I first encountered him: I took one of his courses on American Literature at Stanford very early in the 1970s. The young professor was already a terrific teacher, energetic, precise, vivid, and funny. I didn’t know then that he had done his graduate work at Berkeley, passing through Clark Kerr’s “multiversity” just as Mario Savio was urging students to throw their bodies upon the wheels, or that he had spent a year in Alabama teaching black students at Stillman College (and spent some time in jail for his pains).

I did discover, however, that Chace was a Haverford College grad (Class of ’61), and his obvious enthusiasm for his subject and his penchant for connecting the present to the past made him seem to this Haverfordian (Class of ’69) an admirable product of that intense little crucible of the liberal arts. But I would never have guessed that this witty, ironic skeptic had an administrative career ahead of him.

From the way Chace’s chapter called “Why Join the Administration?” describes his gradual immersion and conversion—first through service on committees, then as an associate dean--he might not have guessed it either. But in 1982 he became an associate dean in the School of Humanities and Sciences and was promptly embroiled in a highly contentious (and very public) tenure case. Chace’s disillusionment with “the English Department in Disarray” and postmodernism’s “hermeneutics of suspicion” must have been deep indeed if administration continued to appeal to him after that experience.

In 1988 Chace went from what might have been a frying pan into what surely was a fire: he left Stanford and became president of Wesleyan University. There he dealt with a fractious debate over the appropriate balance between teaching and research, a racial crisis with a bizarre twist and tragic ending, and controversy over the University’s investment policies. All of that surely made another move seem attractive: from 1994 to 2003, he was president of Emory University, a more civil environment, and he turned Coca-Cola into educational gold as Emory continued its drive into national prominence.

Now, as he says, "None of the rooms where the work of a college or university occurs is now a secret to me. I have been inside them all." Whether publishers would have been interested in his memoir, engaging though it is, if he had not led these two high-profile institutions is an unanswerable question. But, overall, the best parts of his book depict his pre-presidential career: the writing is more focused and vivid, and the reader senses that there is less self-censorship or restraint at work in those earlier chapters than in the chapters on Wesleyan and Emory.

Still, although I didn’t know Chace well and haven’t seen or spoken with him in 35 years, his book is very much what I would have expected him to write: serious without being solemn, political without being heavy-handedly ideological, with larger arguments illustrated by striking anecdotes and evidence. And even in the latter part of the book, as he details the endless stream of issues—from real estate deals to endowment management to recreational “climbing walls” for students--that university presidents must deal with, the literary scholar is not quite submerged by the administrator.

Clearly Chace’s undergraduate semesters at Haverford ignited his intellect and shaped his thinking about education in the many semesters to come. With 450 men in its student body when Chace arrived in 1956, Haverford initiated freshmen into what Chace terms its “moral seriousness…[and] intensity of academic challenge” with a freshman English course called, forthrightly, “Reading and Writing on Human Values.” As Chace notes, “the nature of literary analysis has changed greatly over the last fifty years,” but the clarity of his memories of those sessions with a handful of students and Professor Alfred Satterthwaite, reading Emerson, Sherwood Anderson, and Yeats, tearing apart the weekly 500-word essays, shows the impact that the experience had on him.

Needless to say, times have changed. Chace’s alma mater now has 1,200 students (more than half of them women) and a more wide-ranging curriculum. Faculty-administration relations and the role of the president have also changed. Here’s Chace on salaries at Haverford: “In 1959-60, the highest paid professor, economist Howard Teaf, was paid $15,750. President [Hugh] Borton was paid exactly $250 more: $16,000….The Haverford president thought necessary and even important in his own way. But he was not exalted….Borton’s idea of the College was modest yet powerful: assemble a fine faculty and fill small classrooms with students as intelligent as the admissions staff could find.” Presidents as highly-paid CEOs, fund-raisers, or marketing experts, convoyed across campus by scurrying deans, were not yet on the horizon, much less the norm.

Chace’s graduate school career at Clark Kerr’s (and Mario Savio’s) “multiversity” in Berkeley was the antithesis of his Haverford experience. Being on a campus with tens of thousands of students, pursuing professional preparation in relative anonymity while political rallies echoed outside, was a far cry from reading Shakespeare in Professor Ralph Sargent’s Haverford seminar.

Nor was his next step an obvious one. To many of his Berkeley peers, Chace’s decision to take a job at Stanford might have seemed a retreat, because “the Farm” at the time seemed to be a far more placid place than Berkeley. Not for long. By the late 1960s, the Vietnam War and racial tensions had Stanford perpetually in upheaval. The ROTC building and the president’s office were firebombed, and the windows of Hoover Tower were “trashed” so regularly that the University gave up replacing the glass and just boarded them up.

Chace’s account of that time focuses on the tempest stirred up by Bruce Franklin, English professor and avowed Maoist revolutionary. Their first meeting was memorable and illustrative: “As part of the wooing process that brought [Chace and his wife] to Stanford in 1968,” they had dinner with Franklin and his wife. Franklin made sure to give them a copy of Liu Shao-chi’s “How To Be a Good Communist” (apparently a more personal gift than Mao’s Little Red Book). “Franklin’s wife, even more gleeful than he about the prospects of violent revolution, took us around their house and cheerfully pointed to their various firearms. They bragged about the time ‘just last week’ that they stood in the doorway of the house, rifles in hand, and ‘faced down’ the local Menlo Park police.”

When, four years later, a faculty committee stripped Franklin of tenure because he had urged crowds to use violence against the University’s computer center, Chace supported the decision—and still does. “The phenomenon of Bruce Franklin at Stanford was not without its moments of comic absurdity,” he says, but when confronted by the question of “whether an institution pledged to free and open discourse could afford someone whose entire being was pledged to the idea of violent overthrow of that institution,” the University did the right thing.

Vignettes such as this, embedded as they are in Chace’s clear delineation of his own educational and professional values and how they evolved during his professional career, place this memoir several cuts above the typical college president’s memoir. There is a minimum of pontification and little obvious score-settling. (If anything, his treatment of his time at Wesleyan--where on-campus discourse tended to start off loud and accusatory, then escalate--is gentler than I would have expected.)

The vignettes are less striking, however, and the story line becomes more diffuse when Chace moves to Wesleyan and then Emory. He uses these parts of his narrative to weigh in on the topics that dominate conversation about higher education today: the university is not a business in the same sense that IBM is, and the president is not merely a CEO; big-time intercollegiate athletics are poison; teaching matters.

All of that may sound old-fashioned, and it’s a long way from the leafy Philadelphia suburb to downtown Atlanta, but Chace is not merely waxing nostalgic. He cheerfully finds that a lot is right with higher education today. And if he has a strong sense of how limited the power of college presidents is, he still seems to believe that they can at least mitigate some of the more dispiriting current conditions on campus, even in undergraduate education. I’d like to think he’s right. But even if he’s not, his eminently readable book tells us a lot about the road we’ve been traveling.

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