End Notes: At Its Best on the Edge
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—Excerpts from an interview with Mauri Ditzler
Faculty luncheons aren’t sentimental occasions, but there were tears at the June 17 gathering for Dean of the College Mauri Ditzler ’75, who was named President of Monmouth College in May and began his work there July 1.
As President Ford said, "Mauri’s unfailing optimism, good humor, wise judgment, and boundless energy have made a difference in everything we do."
WM sat down with the departing dean at the end of strawberry season during a warm, breezy June afternoon at the Parke County, Indiana, farm that he and his wife, Judy, are restoring—a farm he once worked as a young man.
"This is the first time I’ve sat down all day," the former dean/future president said, smiling like a man taking a break
WM: You look as though working this farm strikes a good balance with the "life of the mind" you’ve lived on campus.
Ditzler: It’s a project where you can make a plan and find out the very next day if it has worked. In academia, you try things, you think that they work, and assessment tells you they do; but it’s really a lifetime before you know for sure.
On the farm this year, we used a new herbicide on the pumpkins. I sprayed it on one section and the weeds are already dead. Within two days you can say, "I made a decision, and I can see it worked."
So aspiring college presidents should be farmers?
Actually, the outgoing president of Monmouth started as a basketball coach. There are four or five college presidents—including Rusty Nichols ’63 at Hanover—who started out as basketball coaches.
How are you at basketball?
The biggest disappointment of my life was not making the high school basketball team. I think back constantly on that. Hoosiers are supposed to be able to play basketball. Now mind you, the basketball team that I didn’t make lost all their games my last two years, so I’m agonizing over being cut from one of the weakest teams in Indiana!
Before becoming Dean at Wabash, you rarely returned to campus for visits or reunions.
That was intentional. I came through Crawfordsville, but not to campus. I wanted to leave that package wrapped up. My four years at Wabash [as a student] were a remarkable experience. I didn’t want to find that the College had changed; or that, as I suspected, the institution I held in my memory never existed.
What did you fear would be gone?
Wabash is at its best when it’s out there on the cutting edge of pushing students as hard as they can be pushed, but not harder. Wabash always exists on that edge.
Almost all graduating seniors will talk about a time when they almost left, but didn’t. And then they’re glad they didn’t.
I couldn’t imagine that Wabash would still be making that effort to keep it right on the edge. People don’t like to live on the edge; people like to pull back to safety.
But when I returned to become dean, I found the College still on that edge. People were still talking about "humane rigor." We push students remarkably hard, but we support them all the way.
That was the magic of my Wabash experience—you learn there’s more inside you than you thought there was. You can work harder than you ever imagined and accomplish more than anyone expected you would. That’s a powerful tool for meeting others and getting things accomplished. You come away believing you can think your way through just about any obstacle.
There does seem to have been more energy and imagination during your tenure here.
I’m delighted when I hear that, because colleges ought to be remarkably enjoyable places to work and learn. I’m not sure what parts I played in that.
For students, Wabash has always been an exciting, bustling place to work. There’s a certain excitement about thinking, I don’t know if I can handle this, and then discovering that you can. From the outside, faculty, administrators, faculty, even alumni aren’t always able to get a snapshot of that excitement that students have.
The immersion trips, the Celebration of Student Research, and increased internships have given more of us that snapshot.
It is invigorating to interact with students. If you get tired or discouraged, schedule a meeting with students, and it will bring you back.
We should never forget that college is a transforming experience for students, where a young man can say, "There’s a whole world out there I didn’t know existed, and now I know to look for it."
Was your trip to our program in Ecuador a moment like that?
I had my guard up, to make sure I wasn’t being sold a bill of goods. Even so, I was enamored with the program that was put together down there and the learning that occurs.
I have sent students on immersion trips and to study abroad. I haven’t done off-campus study myself, so I took it on faith that they were good things.
But I supported immersion trips not so much because of where they were going, but how. I believe it’s good for students to spend lots of time with faculty outside the classroom, and it’s good for students to spend time with groups of students they’re not normally with, and to share intensive learning experiences.
My week in Ecuador showed me this second, very positive part of these immersion trips—the importance of a place. I was in Ecuador for less than a week, but it changed the way I thought about a culture, it changed the way I thought about the people, it changed the way I view the world. The teachable moment for me was to see another reason why those immersion trips were working so well.
This program and our immersion trips have led to some remarkable connections that our students have made themselves in those countries.
Wabash works to give young men remarkable self-confidence so that wherever we take our guys, or wherever our guys go, they are comfortable talking to anyone they meet. So when a person tells them, "Give me a call, and we’ll talk about that more," they do it.
When they come to the College, students are surprised that faculty are genuinely interested in them as students—that they seriously mean it when they say, "Come by, we’ll talk about this." So when they hear that from someone else in the world, they take them at their word. That cynicism that we all have fades away.
That fading of cynicism seems to have spread across campus.
I was here at a good time with good faculty who wanted to do interesting things. As an administrator, one of the things I’ve always believed is that if good people think about a good idea long enough, they can make good things happen.
That belief in the faculty is something I’ve heard many say they appreciated about you. You’ve hired almost 40 percent of the current faculty.
Belief in the faculty is the unshakeable foundation of a successful dean. You might believe in your faculty and still fail as a dean, but if you don’t believe in your faculty, you’re bound to fail.
Every one of these people who are teaching, at some point in their lives said, "My life, my career, will be about the noble enterprise of educating young people." They could have done things that pay more, they could have done things with shorter hours, they could have done things that would have brought them more immediate accolades and more thanks than teaching often does.
So when you work with college faculty, or high school faculty, or elementary school faculty, you’re working with noble people who have sacrificed for a good cause.
The Campaign for Leadership and the building and renovation of the science buildings seemed to bring faculty together in some energizing ways.
They provided people a chance to bring out their best, to remember why they went into teaching. From time to time, all of us forget why we went into teaching; we get caught up in grading papers and giving lectures. But when you work on these transcendent projects, it reminds you of the big picture of what you do. These were people who certainly did noble work for the college these past five or six years.
Having made my career moving to different colleges several times, I have great admiration for people who put their whole life into a single institution—people like David Phillips, Vic Powell, and Paul McKinney.
There are parts of the Strategic Plan we still have yet to tackle. Any of those you’ll miss working on?
I wish I could work on this synergy between athletics and academics. We have remarkable coaches who are interested in the education of our young men. We have remarkable faculty interested in the education of our young people. I wish the faculty understood better the way our coaches are trying to educate students, and I wish our coaches better understood the ways our faculty are trying to educate students, and both could find ways to help each other in that process. We’re just beginning that project.
I also think that Wabash is uniquely positioned among all institutions of higher education to contribute to the education of young black men in this country. Our Center of Inquiry has found that minority students and students of lower incomes are the ones who benefit most from a liberal arts education. We know that in minority families, young men are much less likely to get an education than young women.
We’re a liberal arts College for men, we have all the experience of the Malcolm X Institute, and we ought to be addressing the fact that African-American men aren’t going to college. The College has always worked on this, but we’ve never said, "If not us, who? If not now, when?"
-I think that’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask of the College right now.
Any final words as Dean of Wabash College?
Wabash is a remarkable institution with a profound impact on its graduates, but there aren’t very many of us. If Wabash is to change the world, as the alumni seem to think it can, then each graduate has to have a profound impact on society, which means that every student who walks through the door of the College every August is remarkably important. We can’t waste any of them.
To me, retaining our students to graduation, not giving up on a single student, is so crucial. We’ve decided to change the world with a handful of young men; we can’t waste any opportunity.
Contact Mauri Ditzler at email@example.com