Part 3 of the Interview by Nicolaus Mills
You've talked about racial and economic diversity at the College. But often we seem remarkably similar politically and aesthetically. That is, we do not seem to be intellectually a diverse faculty. How does a president deal with that? That's a very good question. It's difficult to deal with that. We are far too homogenous in our political views. And I added to that problem-my values are liberal, too. When I was on sabbatical, during the summer of 2004, I worked for John Kerry's presidential campaign. But I tried hard to help the folks who wanted to bring more conservative speakers on campus. I fought with the students who came to me saying, "How dare you bring so-and-so on campus!" I wanted faculty and students to have political choices. These events need to happen. There isn't enough discussion of opposing views.
Henry Kissinger once said that when he was secretary of state, he always depended on what he knew before he got to the office, because once he was there, he didn't have time to learn. Was that true for you? No, not for me. I learned all the time I was here-and not just about people and academic problems. I had to learn about air-conditioning and heating systems. I had to read engineering reports. I'm now learning about what flooding can do to a building, because the basement of Marshall Field flooded during a heavy rain last fall. I'm not going to be expert on these issues, but I always learn things along the way. That's what makes the job interesting.
When you look back on your time at Sarah Lawrence, what do you see as your most important achievement? I think the changing of the financial strategy was important. We have moved from fear to a hopeful investment in the future. I'm also very proud of the Mellon gift, because Mellon is an outstanding foundation. They would not support a project unless it met their very high standards.
What are the biggest challenges that you have left your successor? The same ones I faced. We need more resources. We need to do two things at once: we need to raise money to support a yearly budget of more than $50 million, and we need to build our endowment. Without a large endowment we're forever going to be chasing our tail.
Do you think there is an ideal time of service for a college president? I think nine to twelve years is good. Beyond that is too long, I think. You become too entrenched in the institution itself. You can't see it anew. You tend to see problems the way you saw them before.
What was your biggest surprise at Sarah Lawrence? How much I liked it. It became more than a job- I really care about this place.
And what will you do after you leave? I want to write. I'd love to take some writing courses at the College.
What will you miss most when you are gone? I'm going to miss the faculty. I spent lots of time here with people I admire, whom I thought were really special. I loved the discussions we had. I even loved the committees I sat on. They're wonderful people, and I will miss their company. I will miss my colleagues on senior staff-I've been privileged to work with them! And I will miss my friends on the Board-they support this College with their hearts and their heads, and, importantly, with their resources.
Nicolaus Mills has been a literature faculty member since 1972. His newest book, Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower, will be published this fall by John Wiley.