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‘Difference teaches you humility’

April 3, 2019
Donald Hall makes remarks after his investiture as the Robert L. and Mary L. Sproull Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Sciences & Engineering. (University photo by J. Adam Fenster)

Donald Hall was formally installed as the Robert L. and Mary L. Sproull Dean of the Faculty of the Arts, Sciences & Engineering during an investiture ceremony Wednesday, April 3, in the Feldman Ballroom, Douglass Commons.

University Trustee Francis Price opened the program, followed by remarks from Provost Rob Clark. Eugene Tobin, senior program officer for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, was a guest speaker.

During the ceremony, Hall talked about how his past experiences inspire him to address the needs of students and faculty who are facing challenges. He also spoke about the importance of welcoming and enjoying the differences among members of the University community.

A prepared version of his remarks appears below.

 


 

Good afternoon and thank you for being here today. And thank you to The Tune Platoon for the wonderful music you have provided today. This is truly a special and memorable occasion for me and I appreciate everyone taking the time to join me on this lovely spring afternoon. While I have already been here in Rochester and at the U of R for 8 months, it feels like I am still exploring and learning how remarkable this university is. This event makes me feel truly at home now.

I want to offer a special thanks to Trustee Francis Price. His commitment to issues of equity and community stand as inspirational to me. He has had an extraordinary business career—from Xerox to serving as CEO of several major corporations, including Q3 Industries and Hybrid Manufacturing and Engineering Technologies. Mr. Price has been a trustee of the University since 1995 and has been a generous donor supporting African-American students and others from African cultures to make sure they are fully poised for success here at UR. He has been equally generous with his time, as a charter member of the George Eastman Circle and as the inaugural chair of the Public Safety Review Board. I thank him for taking time out of his busy schedule to come to this event.

I also want to thank Rob Clark, our university’s provost, for his kind remarks and for leading the efforts to recruit me here in the spring of last year. He has been a mentor, a supporter, and an excellent source of advice as I have settled in and learned about a new university with all of its special attributes and unique challenges.

Thank you also to Gene Tobin, from the Mellon Foundation, whom I have known and with whom I have worked for almost eight years now. Gene’s national advocacy for the humanities has made him a valued mentor and colleague. His storied career as an historian and in academic leadership, including the presidency of Hamilton College, is truly impressive. Gene, I greatly appreciate that you took the time to come to Rochester, attend this investiture and spend the afternoon talking with faculty and administrators.  It is always a pleasure to work with you and with the Mellon Foundation.

About Donald Hall

Hall, a respected scholar and experienced administrator, became dean of the faculty on July 1, 2018. In this leadership role, he is responsible for AS&E, one of the University’s core academic units.

Previously, Hall held the endowed position of Herbert and Ann Siegel Dean of Arts and Sciences, administering Lehigh University’s largest college.

His research and teaching focus on British studies, queer theory, cultural studies, and professional studies.

A first-generation student, Hall earned a bachelor’s degree in German and political science from the University of Alabama, a master’s degree in comparative literature from the University of Illinois, and a PhD in English from the University of Maryland.

And finally, I thank President Rich Feldman, who has been a great leader for this fine university over the time I have been here. He has been a role model on how to be a compassionate administrator and will be someone whose counsel I will continue to seek after he passes the baton on to our incoming president, Sarah Mangelsdorf, in just a few months. Thank you, Rich.

And before I offer a few personal remarks, I want to honor the support of the Sproull family whose generosity led to the naming of the Robert L. and Mary L. Sproull Dean of Faculty position.

The occasion of an event like this gives me the opportunity to reflect on my own path, and what a university experience meant to me, as well as look forward to the work that I hope to contribute to here at the University of Rochester. This position is one that I could not have dreamed of as a child growing up in rural Alabama. My small high school, which graduated around 50 or so students a year, was not one that regularly prepared students for college. From my own graduating class, only two of us went on to a university the following year. No one in my direct family line had pursued higher education; my grandparents didn’t even graduate from high school.  We were only a generation or two away from subsistence farming. In fact, some of my relatives only got indoor toilets during my childhood and one great uncle’s only source of income throughout his life until he passed away when I was a young adult was through selling moonshine from his illegal still out in the woods behind his one-room house. My high school “counselor” and I put that in air quotes counseled me to learn a trade rather than pursue college, even though I had not made anything other than A’s in classes from age 12 onwards and tested as reading at the college level when I was in 7th grade.  It simply wasn’t what “was done” in the context of my school and my family.

But. And this is a big but. I, by whatever luck of the draw, when it comes to personality or psychological hard wiring or because I was reading widely in world literature, knew that I had to get out. I needed to escape in order to survive. I needed it because I was hungry for encountering different cultures, different ways of seeing the world, and simple difference from what I saw around me. I needed it as a self-aware gay kid who hated the intolerance he saw around him in approaches to racial difference, religious difference, sexual difference, and linguistic difference. In fact, early on I came to see such differences as the primary source of joy and learning in my life, even though most of those around me saw them as threats to the assumed superiority of their own basis of identity. This schism between loving and hating diversity—different ways of being—is a rift plaguing our nation to this day. It is the dividing line between what we now term red states and blue states. It is what our current president panders to and inflames for his own gain. And we all suffer for it.

I made it to the University of Alabama by paying my way to go to it, and then, over my family’s continuing objections, I left the south forever. First to NYC, then to an MA program at the University of Illinois, then to Africa with the Peace Corps, then to a PhD program at the University of Maryland, and after that commenced the academic work that I have done since that time—at Cal State Northridge in Los Angeles, at West Virginia University, at Lehigh, and now at Rochester. Incidentally, my three very talented younger brothers followed me out and are spread across the country and world, leading incredibly successful professional lives. Two are multimillionaires now, far outstripping my financial success that is for sure. One doesn’t get into academics to become wealthy.

But in spite of the happy trajectory that this seems to encapsulate, the memories and the difficulties of much of my own early life have forged in me commitments that remain steadfast to this day. And this is why administration has called to me as a worthwhile pursuit even though I have had a fulfilling career as a teacher and as a scholar. In being a program director, a department chair, and now a dean at two universities, I have found ways of addressing the needs of students and faculty who are themselves facing profound challenges. First generation to college students.  Students from queer, ethnic minority, working class, and similar backgrounds who too often feel out of place on a college campus. Faculty who, like me, see difference as the basis for all learning, for all creativity, and as a requisite for vibrant and healthy campus life. As we know all too well, there are no panaceas here. Students sometimes struggle and leave college because, whatever our best intentions are, we cannot save them from their own families, their finances, their peers, and their own demons. Faculty sometimes leave because we in bureaucratic institutions cannot move fast enough to change culture on campus, to hire others like them, to address the inequities that they encounter and make our campuses as welcoming as they should be.

But it is my job—I see it as my job—to make those losses very rare.  To make them the exception rather than the rule. I see it as my job to tell truth to power, to bring the same honesty and energy that I brought to my work in queer activism and community organizing in Washington DC, Los Angeles, and West Virginia, to the institutions that hire me. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t have all or even most of the answers. I have made many mistakes in my life, personal and administrative, and I can only try to learn from them.  Of course, I have always been most fortunate to have colleagues who have been quite eager to point out those mistakes to me. All in the name of learning, of course! And I am sure that will continue here at the University of Rochester—I count on it. But this goes back to the point I am making about welcoming and truly enjoying difference, there is great joy and intellectual profit in working with and around smart people who have different opinions. They see what you cannot. Difference teaches you humility.

I am indeed lucky today to work with and lead a strong and committed group of deans in AS&E. Deans Culver, Heinzelman, Runner, Olivares, Williams, and Sturge-Apple share my deep commitment to ensuring that UR is a welcoming and inclusive campus where students, faculty, and staff can all thrive. We are all committed to raising the research profile of the university so that it is nationally and internationally known as a research engine powered by the diversity of its population. We are all committed to making sure that our students graduate in a timely way and are poised and well prepared for successful vocational and civic lives. We are all committed to making sure that we have the financial resources to support our students, faculty, and staff in their pursuits. I could not ask for a better team with whom to collaborate.  And our staff in the dean’s office—my deputy and chief of staff Jess Foster, and our assistants Tamara Evans, Denise Logory, Zoe Adams Gutzmer, and Kim LeBeau—couldn’t be more skilled and helpful.

But I also have to mention that my professional work would be impossible without the support of a long-term personal relationship. Bill Maruyama, my partner of nearly 20 years, is here at this event and I want to thank him for supporting me through tough and easy times. Much like what Eddie Albert did to poor Eva Gabor in the old TV show Green Acres, in 2004 I pulled him out of a high rise in Beverly Hills CA, where Lou Rawls was his neighbor and Stevie Wonder a friend and employer, to take him on an adventure in the woods and wilds of West Virginia—goodbye city life! After those seven years of Appalachian isolation, we have found a happy medium in PA and now western New York where good restaurants are available and an active cultural scene is at hand. Bill, whose mother was a successful actress from Tokyo, has taught me much also about cultural difference and the true delights of our now globalized existence. Bill, I love you and thank you for that.

In closing, I want to make a promise to all of you who have entrusted me with this important and high-profile position. I will try to do my work with as much honesty, humor, and respect for others as possible. I know that the University of Rochester has exceptionally talented researchers, staff, faculty, and students. I hope to live up to their expectations and those of the Board of Trustees and our senior leadership. I honor my predecessors, most recently Peter Lennie and interim Rick Waugh, and thank them for stewarding AS&E with creativity and dedication. As I have indicated throughout this brief message, I bring my own priorities and passions to this job and hope to offer my own contribution to its success. Together we will all continue to live the spirit of Meliora.

Many thanks to you all!

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Category: University News