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  • Prose and Purpose

    After 25 years on the job, a former provost examines the world on campus and in higher ed.

Leaving the comfort zone
February 6, 2011 - 7:38pm

Last Saturday, I took my older daughter and her best friend to a performance of Nearly Lear at New York’s New Victory Theater. The show stars Susanna Hamnett as the Fool. She also plays every other role in this adaptation of the Shakespeare tragedy and she and Edith Tankus wrote the play besides. I am a major fan of the work done by the New Victory and have been taking my kids to shows there regularly for the last ten years, but I really hesitated to buy tickets to this show. I first read King Lear in high school and have seen it performed multiple times. Tragedies are not my favorite form of entertainment even when the story is brilliantly developed as it is in King Lear. And for a Saturday excursion with my daughter and her friend, something upbeat tends to create a more upbeat mood and a more fun day. I was going to the show but clearly this was outside of my comfort zone.

Susanna Hamnett was terrific. The show was terrific and with good humor and great talent Ms. Hamnett told the tale from beginning to end playing the Fool, King Lear, Cordelia, Regan, Goneril, and various other parts. Everyone died on schedule but we all laughed throughout. And this adaptation served to remind me of the mastery present throughout Shakespeare’s work.

Unrelated to Shakespeare, King Lear, or Nearly Lear, I was at a lunch at the beginning this week where one of the participants was a very sophisticated high tech person. During the conversation, she mentioned that when she found software or hardware that she liked or was helpful to her, she stayed with that product. And she completed the thought by saying she preferred to stay in her comfort zone. And to some extent we all do. I took my time to make the switch from a blackboard/whiteboard with overhead slides to PowerPoint. Now I couldn’t even tell you why I hesitated other than I was in my comfort zone. Human nature prevails.

Higher education is being challenged as never before. In a weakened economy, there are fewer family resources as well as less government and philanthropic support. But economies improve and we will in time weather that challenge. More serious, on-line delivery of education and/or for-profit companies providing education plus more international competition have turned our industry upside down and their presence will not diminish over time. Business as usual may be our comfort zone but it isn’t our future. As I have said for a number of years, we need to change, maintaining our quality and our integrity and responding assertively and expeditiously to these changing times. The last thing we want is to have our industry described the same way we describe the King Lear story.


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