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Belonging: A Memoir – The Oberlin Years

I recently published Belonging: A Memoir, which can be downloaded for free at Smashwords. This memoir is a companion piece to my novel The Rowan Tree, which is also now available for free through Christmas as a Kindle ebook. The memoir covers the experiences that inspired The Rowan Tree, while the novel imagines those experiences playing out in different ways. Both the memoir and the novel explore the universal importance of preserving human dignity. The Rowan Tree recently cracked the Amazon Top 20 Best Seller list for Literary Fiction ebooks.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 12 of Belonging, which discusses my years as president of Oberlin College, when the stage was being set for social and political battles that are still being fought today.

Rowan Tree

Rowan Tree

A Smiling Public Man

During my first week in office at Oberlin, a professor, twenty years my senior, had dropped by my office to wish me well. As he left he said, “Good-bye, Dad”—those very words! I thought it was a joke until I saw the expression on his face: it was that of a little boy. The words that had escaped his lips had nothing to do with me as an individual, everything to do with my office and title. It was an example of the same transference that had made it so hard for me to call Professor Wheeler by his first name. Transference is defined by psychologists as the redirection of feelings and desires, especially those from childhood, to a new object, often an authority figure.

Psychologists see the awe that people have for the rich, famous, and powerful as examples of transference. VIPs who are insecure in their status, can even have transference on their idea of themselves, revealing their self-doubt in their touchiness over how they’re treated by subordinates.

Ruth Gruber, an Oberlin student, was either free of transference or determined not to be intimidated by the trappings of authority. She approached me one day as I walked across the Oberlin campus and declared “Unless you learn to dance your growth will be blocked. If you like, I’ll teach you.” She explained that she had noticed me at a party enviously watching students dancing to rock and roll. I showed up at her dorm room at the appointed hour and, with her coaxing and musical accompaniment from the Four Tops, I self-consciously danced my way out of a strait-jacket of inhibitions.

It was as if Ruth had finally given me that private singing lesson promised by my seventh grade teacher. The same self-consciousness that had prevented me from singing, had kept me from dancing. I think it stems from a propensity to stand outside myself as a witness from which remove I experience existential embarrassment. The feeling is one of sticking out into the universe and, like a tortoise under attack, I want to tuck my head into my shell.

Ten years after she coaxed me into dancing, I ran into Ruth in Warsaw, where she was reporting for United Press International on the Solidarity-led revolution in Poland, and we danced all night.

The flip side of undue deference is gratuitous defiance. To compensate for feelings of transference some make a habit of resisting anything that issues from authorities. Subservience to rank and habitual rebellion against it are both manifestations of transference. Dependency and counter-dependency constitute a double-barreled threat to mature rational governance.

My presidency at Oberlin coincided with Nixon’s abuse of presidential power so people were even more inclined than usual to view officialdom with suspicion—a predisposition that I shared. But Oberlin’s problems stemmed from the monopoly on power held by the faculty. When power is in the hands of one constituency, it tends to interpret institutional goals in ways that perpetuate its own status and privilege, and can be late to address the grievances of stakeholders whose views are unrepresented.

Even more aggravating than the climate of distrust that pervaded campuses during the Vietnam era, was that, as president, I had to repeat the same arguments and speeches, again and again, to different audiences. I should have foreseen that administration would not be exempt from my gold-silver-mud progression. Burnout was a constant threat. Staying alive, the supreme challenge.

Staying Alive

The object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country….

– G. K. Chesterton

One thing I did to stave off administrative rigor mortis was travel. While at Trinity, I’d made two trips around South America and one around the world, all at the behest of Battelle Memorial Institute. Battelle was considering establishing a research laboratory in Brazil, and my mission was to check out the Korean and Indian Institutes of Technology for purposes of comparison with the proposed institute in Brazil.

In 1968 Brazil was under military dictatorship. When I got to the University in Rio, I was told that the students had been sent home and it was closed indefinitely. This certainly didn’t auger well for a research institute, and Battelle decided against it.

When India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi learned that an American had been inspecting the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur, she wanted to know what he thought of her “baby.” Mrs. Gandhi had championed graduate science education in India, so when my Wesleyan colleague, the English poet Stephen Spender, who knew her personally, let her know what I was up to, she invited me and Ann to her office for a briefing. A limo was sent to pick us up, and for two hours I did my best to field her probing questions.

Her interrogation led up to one big question: How did IIT stacked up against MIT? Happily, I was able to tell her that I thought IIT belonged in the ranks of institutions such as MIT. Mrs. Gandhi had arranged for a whole generation of Indian scientists to receive graduate training at top American universities—I’d had several of them as students at Columbia and they were outstanding. So, I could honestly report that with these young doctorates in leadership roles, Indian science was rapidly becoming world class.

Time has confirmed this forecast. Indian science and technology has played a central role in the country’s development, and is now emulated the world over. Mrs. Gandhi’s vision has been vindicated. It’s hard to imagine more than a few world leaders, then or since, with either her grasp of science and technology or her passion for education.

At Oberlin, my travels continued. In the summer of 1971, I stopped putting off something I’d wanted to do since the war in Vietnam began: go there and see for myself.

I knew that Pierre in War and Peace had been changed by wandering the battlefield at Borodino, and I fancied that experiencing Vietnam in person would do the same for me. Ambassador Bunker, who got wind of the fact that an American college president was poking around, invited me to dinner at the Embassy and offered me the use of a helicopter to see the country. My daredevil pilot amused himself by swooping down to buzz water buffalo—while I turned white.

At a dinner in the Ambassador’s residence, I quizzed many young foreign service officers and CIA agents, and not one of them thought America’s war aims could be realized. A few years later, as the North Vietnamese occupied Saigon, I pictured my helicopter pilot evacuating our Ambassador from the Embassy roof to the safety of aircraft carriers offshore.

When I returned to campus, the students assumed I was an expert on the war. Their credulity enabled me to focus the righteous indignation of the Oberlin community into a constructive protest. Oberlin sent fourteen busloads of students, faculty, administrators, and trustees to Washington to meet with virtually every Senator and Congressman and express opposition to the bombing of Cambodia. While those students descended on the Capitol, others back on campus erected a mock Vietnamese village. A helicopter was hired to napalm it as singers from the Conservatory of Music chanted a Greek chorus. The spectacle was broadcast to the nation that evening on the CBS News with Walter Cronkite.

Travel can jolt us awake and cause us to see anew. When it does, it’s a vaccine against dogmatism and an antidote for chauvinism. As we struggle to reconcile what we’re experiencing with what we take for granted, we strip away what’s arbitrary in cultural practice and edge a bit closer to the universal.

Non-travelers are more apt to slip into habitual seeing and thinking. Even to cross the street in a foreign city, we must cease sleepwalking…or risk death. It must be admitted, however, that travel may also confirm some in the superiority of their ways. As Thomas Fuller observed in 1732, “Travel makes a wise man better, but a fool worse.”

Travel not only invites us to see­ the world with new eyes, it gives us an unaccustomed look at who is doing the seeing. None of the benefits of travel compares to the oblique glance it allows us of ourselves.

So, we do not travel to get away from it all. The bumper sticker— Wherever you go, there you are—has it right. Travel fails as escape, but it succeeds as confrontation—confrontation with our habitual selves that, deprived of confirmatory surroundings, may first stumble, but then find new footing.

In my youth, I traveled to grow up; at mid-life, to wake up; and in age, to stay on my toes.

Wild Times

My years at Trinity and Oberlin—the late sixties and early seventies—coincided with one of the most transgressive periods in America’s cultural history—the Age of Aquarius, of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Love affairs were as yet unconstrained by fear of HIV-AIDS, and, thanks to the pill, sex had at last been freed of the inhibiting specter of unwanted pregnancy. For a brief shining moment, it seemed as if the strictures of American Puritanism had been repealed.

As president, I would hear rumors of intimate relationships between teachers and students, but so long as they were between consenting adults, I did not regard them as the proper business of the College. In those heady, heedless times, it seemed as if students felt shortchanged if their education did not include an affair with a professor.

The creative arts flourished during those years. Against the backdrop of Oberlin’s world class Conservatory of Music, a continual parade of artists passed through the campus. One such was Twyla Tharp who, nine months pregnant, performed a solo dance.

The Oberlin Dance Collective, under the direction of Brenda Way, gathered enough momentum during its formative years to take off and establish itself in San Francisco as a dance company and center known worldwide as ODC.

I recruited Herbert Blau, formerly a director at Lincoln Center, to head up a new Inter-Arts program. Among others, Blau mentored Bill Irwin, who became a distinguished actor, and Julie Taymor (stage and film director, known widely for The Lion King).

There were also early stirrings of what would become the movement for gay and lesbian rights. Two incidents stand out:

First, a phone call from a wealthy trustee and major donor, ordering me to fire an administrator who’d been detained by Cleveland police for engaging in a homosexual act. Here the bylaws protected me from the trustee’s attempt to impose his views. I told him that before the administrator could be fired, he would first need to produce a majority of the Board to remove me from office.

Second, a contingent of gay and lesbian students, inviting me to attend what they billed as the first gay dance on an American campus. After trying in vain to concoct an excuse for not attending, my wife and I dutifully showed the flag. Afterwards, a professor who’d also attended let me know that seeing us there was the first time he’d ever felt that he belonged at Oberlin.

On a lighter note, I will never forget the recent graduate who stopped by my office and announced that she would like to perform a dance for me. To my blushing astonishment, she proceeded to strip naked and dance to the beat of the boom box she’d brought along. I’ve always regretted not thanking her properly.

Free Download: Belonging: A Memoir

Free Download: The Rowan Tree: A Novel

Photo from Tim Green licensed under Creative Commons

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Robert W Fuller

Robert W Fuller

Robert Fuller is the author of "Somebodies & Nobodies", the book that identified the malady of rankism and "All Rise", which describes a dignitarian society committed to overcoming it. His most recent books are "Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship" and "The Rowan Tree: A Novel".

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