A President Becomes an Undergraduate

August 29, 2008

As a college president, Roger H. Martin always wanted to know what actually was going with students -- not just in class, but in their minds and in their informal talks with one another. But he quickly discovered that age and title are significant barriers to getting close to students.

Early in his new book, he recalls the first night he was president of Moravian College, in 1986. Just before midnight, he decided he wanted to get a better sense of what students were like, so he walked over to the amphitheater behind the president's home, and stood behind a large tree to watch students at a mixer for freshmen, and see how they related to one another and to their new environment. A security officer spotted him, "thinking that I was either a homeless person or, worse, some kind of pervert," and demanded ID. So much for watching from behind a tree.

The incident didn't deter Martin, who went on to serve 18 years as a college president, at Moravian and at Randolph-Macon College. If surviving 18 years as a president is an accomplishment, for Martin, literal survival was not a sure thing. In 2000, he was told that the melanoma he had hoped had been a mild case in 1998 was back, and was present in his lung. His chances of living very long were minimal, but he beat the odds, responding to treatment that tends to help only about 10 percent of patients. He finished his time at Randolph-Macon determined to learn more about higher education and himself.

A self-described "late bloomer" as a student, Martin said he didn't find his academic calling (he eventually became a British historian before turning to administration) in high school or as an undergraduate, so in some ways he wasn't interested in a return to the undergraduate experience so much as truly experiencing it. He decided to enroll at St. John's College, the Annapolis institution where the curriculum is based entirely on the great books, which are discussed in intense, small group seminars. Martin describes his semester in Racing Odysseus: A College President Becomes a Freshman Again, just published by the University of California Press.

The book is a mix of Martin's descriptions of class discussions and long talks with other students -- with many of his most important friendships formed when, at age 61, he joined the crew team. Students' first names are used with their permission or, in some cases, changed to protect their identities. Martin didn't live with his fellow students -- his wife insisted that they live in an apartment off campus. And he recognized the differences between his experience and those of other students. Given the importance of class participation for students, Martin said, he was afraid he would dominate or shift conversation, so he kept his comments largely to himself during the seminars, instead discussing his thoughts on Plato, Socrates and Homer in private meetings with his tutors (the St. John's name for instructors).

St. John's attracts students who are very bright -- and also willing to go against the grain. And several of the conversations Martin describes relate to how the traditional college search (not to mention many parents) may discourage non-traditional choices like St. John's. Students talk about discovering St. John's late in the process or rejecting their parents' preferred colleges. Martin can relate, as he disappointed his father by not going to Yale University as an undergraduate (although he did enroll later as a graduate student).

The semester Martin describes shows the students becoming comfortable not only with him, but with each other. He notes the gradual shift in seminars as students defer less to their tutors, and as more students join fully in the conversation. He writes with worry about a student having trouble keeping up with the reading, and with awe for the student who both encourages and instructs him on rowing.

While Martin asked the permission of Chris Nelson, the college's president, to enroll (and received it), he intentionally didn't meet with him during his semester as a student, and saw him only when Nelson attended functions attended by other students. While some students were confused by him, he earned trust by listening, by working hard on crew, and by trying to become -- as he and some students joked -- "some not too bright older guy," not an administrator. It was striking to him, Martin said in an interview, how students view administrators as having such power. Even though Nelson and other officials at St. John's "are much closer to students than administrators at most colleges," Martin said, students talk about the suite of offices near the president's as "power alley."

In an interview, Nelson said he thinks Martin's book was on target -- particularly in noting the importance of the non-academic experiences (in Martin's case, crew) to the growth of students. While St. John's will never be called a jock school, Nelson said that Martin's book captured -- in a way that much commentary about the college does not -- the interrelationship of non-academic activity and academic activity, the fact that they aren't entirely separate.

Martin said that, for him, the crew experience was crucial. After his run-in with cancer, "I was trying to prove to myself that I was alive."

While Martin is a huge fan of the St. John's approach, he said that the lessons it offers for the rest of higher education don't include its curriculum, which is not an approach likely to be adopted. But there are qualities about the curriculum and the way it is taught that should be models, he said.

"What I admire about them is that they have a connected general education curriculum," he said. "Most general education programs, even at the best liberal arts colleges, are a mélange of general distributional requirements and there isn't connection," he said. At St. John's, by contrast, "each of the books is clearly thought out and related." That's something that could be true at other colleges for their general education courses and requirements, he said.

This relates to another quality Martin said colleges should emulate: non-specialization. Tutors at St. John's don't just teach one subject or author. Seeing that in action reinforced for Martin concerns he has had about faculties generally. "I'm increasingly critical of faculty moving to overspecialization, even at the liberal arts colleges. I think faculty either need to be able to teach in another subject area or to team teach," he said. "Knowledge is connected."

Martin hasn't become a professional student. He's in good health and now engaged in activities more typical of those for retired presidents. He's working part time for Jon McRae and Associates, an executive search firm for colleges, and also serving as a consultant for British Commonwealth universities seeking to learn American fund raising techniques.

To Martin, his experience at St. John's not only gave him new insights into students and learning, but reminded him what really matters in academe. "I got a Ph.D. not to be an administrator but to be a teacher," he said, and that teaching process is the real success of higher education. "You sometimes need to reclaim why you became a college president."

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