My Year Away. And Back.

The Joys of Getting Back into Academic Life after a Year-Long Sabbatical.


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We Could All Learn from Professor Woodrow Wilson.

As part of My Year Away, I’ve been reading biographies about presidents. I wrote what William Taft taught me about administration after reading The Bully Pulpit. Right now, I’m reading A. Scott Berg’s new biography on Woodrow Wilson.

The largest chunk of Berg’s book is about Wilson and his presidency. But the part of the book that has really intrigued me was reading about Wilson the Academic and his years at Princeton—both as a professor and ultimately as the president of the university.

Wilson’s research productivity would make him a shoo-in for tenure and promotion even in these publish or perish days. He was a professor who was a prolific writer, but also an amazing teacher. Without a doubt, Woodrow Wilson was the ultimate prof!

And the Princeton community recognized his abilities. As a result, Professor Wilson became Princeton President Wilson (rather quickly, too).

I wish we had more leaders like Woodrow Wilson running our academic ships. The trend, however, seems to be to select leaders outside the academy. The decision makers often argue that non-academic leaders are the only ones to fast track progress (or to “disrupt” education to use the current buzz word in academe). Often the implied assumption is that a “real” professor would be too “absent minded” to run a university.

In the decade that Woodrow Wilson held the reigns at Princeton, he challenged the culture of cheating and made academic integrity a priority; he enhanced the importance of the liberal arts; he set academic standards applicable to every college graduate; he raised millions of dollars. And he did all of this (and more!) while continuing to teach and to publish.

He was an academic through and through. I’d like to think that this is the norm for educators today, but sadly, I think it’s becoming the exception.

I want to believe in the ideals of education. I want to believe that embracing the liberal arts is a key for an enlightened society. I want to believe that die-hard academics are the ones running our academic communities.

Since I’m now on sabbatical, I’m removed from the day-to-day activities of university life. Being away is giving me time to think deeply about the life of a university professor—and the kind of professor I want to be when I return to the classroom. I’d like to be a bit like Wilson, I think. Someone who loves to teach, who loves to write, who loves a challenge. I’m obviously not going to become a university president, but I’m going to hold Wilson up as an academic example worth emulating.

I’m looking for more academic heroes. Any takers?