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“Negativity is embedded in your DNA!” my exasperated conversation partner told me following one of our frequent disagreements about politics. I instantly considered hiring Rudy Giuliani to represent me in a defamation suit, but he’s otherwise engaged, and besides, the source of the allegation was my wife, Elaine Maimon, an all-too credible witness. In the face of grimness, she always manages to perceive a brightening horizon. That tendency frustrates me.
For 24 years of our 53-year marriage, I’ve been with her as she headed Arizona State University West Campus, the University of Alaska Anchorage and Governors State University. Occupied with my own activities, I had little time as a presidential spouse to share with her my penetrating insights related to university governance. In retrospect, that was fortunate.
Still, always desiring to be helpful, I wasn’t reluctant to offer my views on less substantial matters at the university, like organization of public events and why the gym should never be closed. Often our exchanges of opinion were like ping-pong matches. I’d slam an idea at her, chalking up a sure winner, and somehow she’d counter with a deft and winning drop shot. Losing these discussions didn’t dampen my commitment always to be of service.
Sometimes, unavoidably, I learned of academic issues I’d have been wise to ignore. For example, partisan politics and higher education often co-exist uneasily. At a major university event, I was in a conversation group that included an elected official with a record of nonsupport for higher education. He had attended, of course, to be visible and press the flesh. I was irritated by his blatant self-misrepresentation, so I excused myself and left the group before I openly questioned his record. Later, still incensed, I suggested that Elaine publicly unmask the phony.
Years before, I had been president of our local school board at a particularly contentious time, when vituperation was the accepted style of communication. Since then, I’ve believed in sharing unambiguously what was on my mind. I favor unquestionable support for allies and the opposite for adversaries. Elaine has a different and firmly held view -- university presidents cannot and should not take partisan positions. In social gatherings and on other occasions, however, she thanks elected officials who have been genuinely helpful and unmistakably advocates for their pro-higher education positions.
But what are ideas for if not to be shared, even if nearly always mine tend toward the unsubtle “my way or my way” genre? Admittedly, I am contentious, a holdover from having grown up on the kid-packed streets of West Philadelphia, where I competed with restless peers for prestige and authenticity. We earned leadership status by being unequivocally forceful about personal views. So today, when I become a tad outspoken or conflict unaverse, I’m the adult product of the personality lab at 54th and Sansom Streets.
My real tests during my spouse’s roles heading campuses came when I, an instinctive information gleaner, picked up fragments about the various conflicts and disagreements without which an institution couldn’t claim to be a university. Long ago, when I was a rookie, I became interested in a particular tenure decision, which I found out from the grapevine, not from Elaine. I had become friendly with someone whose skills I respected. Occasionally, at his invitation, I sat in on a class and was impressed with his genuine concern for students. When I heard that his promotion had been denied, I reacted like a dedicated sports fan just informed that his team had released a star player. How could that happen? Why did it happen? Elaine, of course, had no intention of discussing the situation with me. She merely said that there were more complex, policy-driven factors involved in such decisions than I -- or the notorious grapevine -- could imagine. Someday I have to thank her for that lesson.
I understood, of course, that she would have preferred my ferreting skill to lie dormant. She always took pains to erect barriers to my access of information about truly important matters. I guess she reasoned that ignorance would be melatonin for my lurking irascibility. But campuses are big places where people talk a lot, and news, like fruit in season, is there for the harvesting. I simply sampled some of the juicier bits.
Another situation in Elaine’s career had, for me, no semblance of debatability. At a time of fiscal pressure on the university, her contract specified a modest pay raise, all of which she donated to the university for student scholarships. That was in addition to generous annual contributions over the years. Our commitment to a more enlightened society motivates us, not the desire to be thanked. Nonetheless, several faculty members publicly disputed her pay increase. I didn’t lack imaginative suggestions about dealing with those complainers. None was remotely temperate, so Elaine rejected each and every one.
As a presidential spouse, of course, I wanted everything to comply with my wife’s plans. When things didn’t and I had some inkling of vexation, my unsolicited counsel tended toward recommending confrontation. Solve problems quickly and decisively, with as little residue as possible. Diplomacy gets stale, a tool for the likes of Neville Chamberlain. We know the outcomes of his efforts.
Most colleges and universities contain their requisite number of malcontents, often people who feel thwarted in their quests for advancement. Some of them scheme and provoke and lie. Yes, Virginia, even in academe! On one campus, Elaine encountered an ultra-ambitious professor who had insinuated his way into the good graces of some colleagues. At the core of his pleasant exterior was a driven personal agenda, centered on achieving promotion to an administrative position. My initial contact with him had been agreeable enough, but subsequent close observations motivated by tactful warnings from faculty friends alerted me to his slithery nature.
Deciding the president wasn’t about to help further his personal ends, he gossiped and deliberately caused difficulty for her. Since my wife knew I was aware of the problem, we discussed it occasionally at home, and we adhered to our usual roles.
I was very unhappy, eager to develop strategies that would make him regret his behavior. The better part of me, wherever that dwelled, knew that I should stay out of it. But I’ve always believed tactics like his aren’t to be gotten over, they’re to be gotten even for. In short, I’m a world class grudge holder, something my wife does not consider one of my best attributes.
Elaine was considerably less West Philly in her reaction. Repeatedly in our discussions, she told me that brilliant as my ideas were, she’d be happier if I just listened and allowed her to vent. I doubted that talk could replace action, but I managed to rein myself in. It finally sank in that, as a university president, she believed deeply that holding grudges was not in the best interest of the institution. Dealing effectively with interminable budget crises and blindsiding pandemics meant ignoring misguided and vengeful personal behavior. That perspective was paramount and would always be an unshakable principle. Of course, she never would have thrived in my old neighborhood, but she certainly did for 24 years at the helm of three universities.
Now I have time to reminisce. The daily responsibilities of running a university have been replaced for Elaine by other gratifying work in her quest to improve higher education. Neither of us has changed much from who we were then. For me, “compromise” is still usually a euphemism for giving in, but, to my surprise, it’s acquired a thin veneer of legitimacy. That’s a confidence I share with you and isn’t to be repeated. She remains contemplative, always open to step-by-step solutions to major problems. Ever the optimist, she focuses persistently on recalibrations to make higher education more effective and works on reasonable ways to attain that improvement.
I never regarded myself as one of her projects, but under her subtle guidance, I’ve gained respect for that approach. Therefore, I’m trying to purge some of the negativity from my DNA. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen.