Keith Richards, Role Model

Jim Hunt writes about his unlikely inspiration as a provost.

June 22, 2011

I had just turned 10 when I first saw the Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show." At that moment, I, like many others, knew that what I was witnessing was the most amazing thing in the world. Rock, long hair, screaming teen audience and parents who were completely shocked, dismayed and bewildered – what else could a young person ask for? That night, I decided that I had to play in a band, and my instrument of choice would be the drums. I could see myself in the back line, keeping the beat and holding it all together. My father, on the other hand, had a different opinion about me playing in a band – especially playing drums. My father is a classically trained choral director who found (at the time) the Beatles and others of that ilk to be a horrible blot on the word "music," and he was more than dismayed that I might take an interest in this sure-to-be-short-lived phenomenon.

The next school year, in the sixth-grade band, I would have my first opportunity to play an instrument – an opportunity, in my mind, to begin to learn drums. Unfortunately, my father said that if I were to play in the band I would need to play a "real instrument," and the drums (in his mind) did not qualify. So, what was I to do? There was only one other option. The sixth grade at my school also had a ukulele band. It looked like a little guitar and had strings, and was the closest I was going to get to something that could lead me down the path to rock and roll. So from that point on, I was a guitar player.

But if I couldn’t be Ringo, who would I be? Paul and John both played rhythm instruments, but they were both lead singers, too – definitely not "back-line" guys. George was almost in the back line, but he played lead, so that wouldn’t work. I was adrift in a Rock and Roll identity crisis until I found the answer: Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. There he was, the consummate rhythm guitarist – a drummer in the guise of a guitar player – holding down the back line with Charlie Watts while Mick did his thing out front. That was what I wanted – what I needed to do. You knew just from watching them that while Mick was getting most of the glory, the band needed Keith more than anyone else if they were going to succeed. He was cool, confident and essential. From that point on, Keith Richards was my hero and my idol and the blueprint for what I hoped would be my rock and roll future.

As was the case for many of us in the generation that was swept up in the British Invasion of the 60s, rock became (and remained) an avocation rather than a vocation. Over the years, I’ve played in my share of garage and cover bands, but my profession has been that of an educator. After finishing my undergraduate degree in education, I taught elementary and middle school for 12 years; after completing my graduate work, I taught in a teacher education program for 12 years. For the past 12 years, I have served as the provost and dean of the faculty for a small, residential liberal arts college.

Over my 36-year career as an educator, you would think that someone might have replaced Keith as my idol – as my aspiration and inspiration – especially after I became a provost. Provosts should idolize great academic figures and thinkers, not Keith Richards. But I still, nevertheless, idolize Keith.

For those of us who hold Keith in such high esteem, this past year provided numerous opportunities to indulge in our hero worship. With the release of Keith’s autobiography, Life, and all the interviews that surrounded its release, we were able to gain greater insights into Keith the person, not just Keith the musician. We learned about his philosophy toward music, bands and life in general in a way that gave us greater insights into what makes Keith be Keith.

After gaining these insights and reflecting on the work that I do, I have come to the conclusion that being a provost at small, residential liberal arts college is like being the "Keith" at your institution. What follows are a four brief observations about what provosts can learn about their work from Keith Richards.

Draw your satisfaction from "playing in the band." One of the things that becomes clear about Keith when you read his book is that he did not set out to be a star. That happened, but it was not his goal. What he wanted to do was play in a band. He wanted to be the foundation on which everything was built, but he didn’t need the spotlight. He could let Mick take the spotlight because that was what Mick and the Stones needed. But he also knew that without Keith there could be no Rolling Stones, and he drew his satisfaction (no pun intended – well, maybe a little) from knowing that. And although that relationship has had its ups and downs over the decades, it has worked for almost 50 years.

A successful provost understands how this works in the academy. As a "Keith," you have to be willing to commit to the behind-the-scenes work – the stage-managing, if you will – that is necessary for your institution to succeed. You don’t worry about getting the credit as much as you focus on getting it done. Keith’s attitude is that it is all about the music, and it doesn’t matter who plays the note as long as the note gets played. A successful provost should adopt this philosophy in all the work that she or he does. One of Keith’s great quotes about Mick goes like this: "Vanity will not carry a band. But, a band can carry vanity" – an important motto for success as a provost.

Make sure you have the right "Micks." At a small liberal arts college, the "Micks" will most likely be found within the faculty. In the same way that Keith and the Stones need Mick to front the band, a provost needs high-profile faculty members to front the academic program. That said, you need to make sure you have "Micks" who are congruent with and committed to the mission of the institution. Can you imagine Mick as a Beatle or in a band like Herman’s Hermits? It just wouldn’t work. Likewise, high-profile faculty members at a small liberal arts college who are not committed to teaching undergraduates won’t work either. It should also be acknowledged that, like Mick, high-profile faculty members will likely also possess a strong sense of self-importance. While this strong sense of self-importance may present problems from time to time (and it will), you can and should use it to the advantage of institution. These faculty members want the spotlight and you should give it to them. They are the "stars" of the institution and the reason that students want to attend. Let them be Mick.

Try "alternative tunings." If you have ever tried to play guitar like Keith Richards, you know that to play some of their most notable songs, you can’t play in standard tuning. While he uses open E and D tuning on some songs, it is the open G tuning that is necessary for the signature Keith Richards sound. Get in open G, and you’ll sound like Keith. In his book, Keith talks about the importance of playing in open G – about how it allows one note to harmonize with another, creating beautiful resonances without you even putting your finger on a string. As a provost, you likely have a governance structure that (if you’re still willing to indulge this metaphor) is your “standard tuning” and the way things are usually done. Usually the players in this governance structure are selected to be there by their faculty colleagues. But there will be times when the existing structure simply will not create the resonance that the institution needs to unleash its creative energies. In these cases, you should be willing to consider “alternative tunings” by selecting faculty members to work on projects based not on whether it might satisfy institutional protocols or political sensibilities, but rather on the interest and competence of the faculty members as they align with the project. These kinds of committees are more likely to yield the results the institution needs.

Don’t sweat the rumors. Over the years, there have been innumerable rumors and myths about Keith Richards – some based on fact and others not. In reading his book, I was struck by the fact that he has not spent much of his career trying to dispel the rumors and myths. I assume there are probably two reasons. First, he probably found many of them to be amusing and somewhat in keeping with his image, and second, because they simply were not true and were not worth the time and effort it would take to prove otherwise. The second reason is the one that holds a lesson for provosts. As you know, rumors abound on a college campus, particularly a small one. Rarely are they accurate, and they are always more interesting than the actual truth. Provosts will be tempted to try to address every little rumor, but be wary of taking too much time out of your day to do this. Let most of them just be noise in the channel and address only those that have real significance or importance to the functioning of the institution. Doing otherwise will simply leave you distracted, tired and wilted like a bouquet of dead flowers (O.K., another pun).

So there it is – the musings of a provost who would like to think that somehow he has been able to emulate his hero even in a profession that is typically far removed from rock and roll. I will leave you with one final thought: Does a successful provost have to be a Keith? Or, said another way, can a successful provost be a Mick? My experience tells me that Micks who become provosts don’t stay provosts very long – they usually become presidents (that’s not to say that all presidents are Micks…). But provosts who are fulfilled by their Keith roles can be highly effective and serve their institutions well for many years. They understand that while you can’t always get what you want, if you try sometimes….well, you know the rest.


Jim Hunt is provost and dean of the faculty and professor of education at Southwestern University, a liberal arts college in Georgetown, Texas.


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