Upwardly Mobile Academic: Ralph J. Hexter

A Berkeley dean talks about taking Hampshire's top job, politically active campuses, and becoming one of the few openly gay college presidents.
April 15, 2005

Hampshire College recently announced that Ralph J. Hexter would become its president, starting in August. Hexter currently holds two deanships -- executive dean of letters and science and dean of arts and humanities -- at the University of California at Berkeley. He is also a professor of classics and comparative literature.

Hexter answered the questions below about his career and the transition ahead:

Q: In 2001, Berkeley's provost was named president of Smith College. Why do you think administrators at Berkeley -- a great large public university -- are ending up at private liberal arts colleges in Massachusetts?

A. I think there's more coincidence than anything else in this apparent Berkeley-to-Pioneer Valley emigration. (The coincidences do run deep, though: Carol Christ was the Berkeley executive vice chancellor and provost to whom I first reported and, since she was in English, I was officially her dean.) What  is probably not coincidental, however, is the fact that we are both from the humanities and Berkeley's College of Letters & Science.... As "big science" and the funding patterns that support it become ever more dominant on university campuses, the humanities are marginal in the eyes of many and the value of a liberal arts education for undergraduates less well understood....

I certainly look forward to being able to focus without defensiveness on a liberal arts program for undergraduates as well as seeing the humanities -- and the arts -- as equal partners at the table. Though I know they meant well, remarks of some of my science and engineering colleagues over the years to the effect that they love the arts -- they tell me how they like to go to the opera or take in a concert in the evening! -- are hardly encouraging to faculty in arts and humanities. Those of us for whom these are serious endeavors, involving research, scholarship and deep creativity, see ourselves doing something more than providing leisure-time entertainment for the captains of the academic industry.

Q: Your Web site conveys your excitement about both teaching and research projects. Given that, what made you seek a presidency?

A: You ask a question I ask myself sometimes! After deaning for seven years (and chairing various units both here and at Colorado for about six years before that), time for research and teaching has long been seriously curtailed. As I see it, I didn't so much start out to "seek a presidency" as ask myself where my career and life were headed now that I had crossed into my 50s. More years of my double-deaning duties at Berkeley? Back to full-time teaching and scholarship? A university provostship? A college presidency? I looked into a very few such roles beyond Berkeley, and the Hampshire presidency is the one that above all others attracted me.

I'm hopeful the opportunity to be in close contact with the much smaller student body of a college, and possibly occasionally teach, will give me the kind of satisfaction I had when I taught freshman seminars here while serving as dean. As for research, well, I know that my projects will only creep forward, but I intend to keep at them. Some of them are virtual team enterprises, and I can see collaboration becoming even more important to me over the next few years. As a scholar of comparative literature, I'm used to moving from one project to another; we comparatists are always trying to catch up with research my colleagues in narrower disciplines already have a grip on. And as a classicist, I take comfort that the subjects of some of my research, like Virgil's Aeneid, never grow dated.

Q: Both Berkeley and Hampshire have strong traditions of active faculty governance and politically active and vocal students. What's it like to be an administrator in that environment?

A: I think it's very healthy. You can't be under any illusion that you are doing things on your own, because it's a collective enterprise. I'm going to assume that there are both subtle and not-so-subtle differences between Berkeley (itself part of the UC system) and Hampshire, which means I will have much to learn. I am certainly accustomed to seeking input from faculty and students, and taking it seriously. On certain topics, conversations proceed in many phases,and I can't think of an instance where it hasn't been worthwhile waiting until everyone has had a chance to contribute.

There are some situations where a decision is required before every individual is entirely satisfied, but you do your best, and if you have consulted in good faith, even the resisters, while they may never officially come around, somehow do understand that the workings of the institution require you to make a choice and take a clear course of action.

Q: Hampshire is a relatively young and small institution -- and many such colleges have a tough time raising money, balancing the books and competing with other institutions. How do you see the financial outlook for the college?

A: Hampshire is a young institution that, at its inception, didn't have building an endowment as one of its top priorities. At age 35, our priorities have shifted, our alumni base has grown in size and capacity, and we have many non-alumni friends. The college has embarked on a truly ambitious two-phase campaign -- $125 million -- which I look forward to doing my best to advance. There are, of course, larger questions about the future of the economy, but I believe that unless there is some terrible event on the national or international level, the good will of very dedicated alumni and friends will help us achieve our goal. The momentum is there. I should also add that, since Hampshire is currently quite tuition-dependent, it's significant and encouraging that applications and yield both continue to rise. If there is any problem we face, it's that the college is bursting at the seams. But this is a good challenge to have, especially in light of the moderate decrease in the total number of high school seniors expected in about three years.

Q: What are your major goals for Hampshire?

A: Beyond taking up the baton from retiring President Greg Prince on the campaign and running as far and as fast as I can, I want to see how I can help to raise the public profile of Hampshire College. It's a very unusual college with lofty goals. The trustees and I would like more people to know about Hampshire and about its educational principles and successes. Of course, the first order of business will be to learn what the aspirations of faculty, students and staff are for Hampshire, and what they perceive as barriers to success, so that I can help the entire community achieve those goals.

Q: You will be joining a small group of openly gay college presidents. Was this discussed in your interviews? Hampshire is known for its progressive politics -- do you think there are many opportunities for gay administrators to become presidents? Will your partner be taking an active role in Hampshire life?

A: It's interesting that you should ask about "opportunities for gay administrators," since over the past few years, I've both organized and participated in panels at national conferences on the "glass ceiling" issue in this context. Everything depends on the institution and community, but it's still a rarity worthy of note -- hence your question -- when an out gay man is selected for a presidential role. Out and part of a couple, for as far as I can tell, it's close to unique for two men to be invited to move into the president's house. In this area women have a commanding lead.

As for the interviews, it was only mentioned when I introduced the topic in response to a  question about my involvement in community and other volunteer organizations. As far as I can tell, it had no specific impact on the search, at least no more than to suggest to the Hampshire search committee and trustees that I would probably be well aligned with their own progressive social positions. As for my partner, he won't, I think, have an active role of his own but he will join me in welcoming guests to events in the president's house as well as in attending on-campus events that interest him. It's gratifying to us both how Hampshire is welcoming us as a couple.


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