Finding Balance

I was driving between malls on Lucille Ball’s 100th birthday (August 6th), listening to WNYC, and caught a bit of the discussion of I Love Lucy and its impact on television and on our culture.  I Love Lucy set the bar for television situation comedies and broke ground in a lot of ways, not the least of which was that All-American Lucy was married to Desi Arnaz, a Cuban, in both real life and on the television show, at a time when several US states still had miscegenation laws on their books.  I learned this while listening to the discussion on Studio 360, which has been running a series on American Icons, of which Lucille Ball is unequivocally one.  (

I went into the supermarket in the middle of the show, and came out again just as it was ending.  I felt a moment of regret that I had missed most of the discussion, and then the announcer said, “And that is it for this episode of Studio 360’s American Icons. . . . Don’t worry, you can hear it all again at Studio 360 dot org slash American Icons.” 

For a moment, while driving home, I toyed with the idea of listening to the entire show once I was back on my computer.  In a way it was liberating, knowing that I had control and could schedule listening at my convenience—I didn’t have to feel I had missed anything: the entire show was out there in the ether, waiting for me.  Very different from when I was growing up and if you missed a show on radio or tv, it was gone . . . at least until it showed up 6 months later in a rerun.  In those days, you had to learn to let go, to fill your time up with other activities and hope you didn’t miss anything essential, especially if you were watching a serial. 

I can remember feeling a real sense of loss at missing a favorite show, then moving on to do something else.  And I had the time to do the something else, because the shows weren’t “out there,” with their siren song calling to me to watch or listen now

My family was among the last to get a vcr (“For what?  To watch TV?!”  I can hear my parents’ incredulity across the decades! ).  When my husband and I finally got one, I used to record everything I liked.  The tapes piled up on every empty shelf in my study.  They were reassuring, in the same way the ether is: they meant I could watch my favorite shows at any time.

A side effect of this constant, ready availability of entertainment is how much less vivid it is than the shows I could only see once or maybe twice a year, growing up.  Those shows live in my memory, perhaps embellished the way childhood memories seem to be—always more vivid and alive than the reality. Perhaps more vivid because they were so ephemeral, an experience you had to have at one time, in one place and then, perhaps, never again.  Somehow, knowing that I can watch, or rewatch, a favorite show at any time makes it less compelling, to the point where once something is recorded, I often feel I have done my duty and can go on without ever watching it!

A positive consequence of this is that I have time to do other things, time to learn, read, write, even think! 

Now that I am a dean, I find that entertainment is not as high on my agenda: instead, I find myself working all the time, not just in the office, but often at home.  One of my dad’s favorite comments to me has always been, “You’re doing too much!  You should be thinking more and doing less.”  I never quite fully believed him, but nowadays, with the constant pressure of things to do, I have come to understand the extent to which doing is as much the enemy of thinking as entertainment!  And sometimes doing even becomes a refuge from having to think.  It is much easier to perceive of oneself as occupied with great tasks, of taking on serious responsibilities that must be handled today, and to put off the truly hard work: thinking about what one is doing, why one is doing it and whether there are other, better ways to be doing things.  

The ability to walk away from the constant lure of entertainment or excessive work is critical to being able to do important activities, to be “in the moment” with other people, and to improving your concentration and focus.  More than that, it may lie at the root of creativity:  As I was writing this blog, a colleague posted a link to an August 6th Wall Street Journal article by Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip, entitled, “The Heady Thrill of Having Nothing to Do:  Is constant stimulation hurting our creativity—and the economy? Scott Adams pays tribute to tedium” 

For academics, summer is often a time set aside for thinking and for taking a break from the intense schedule of the school year.  For many faculty, it is a time for scholarly work while their students travel, work at summer jobs, take on internships or research projects, or take one or two courses.  This break in our normal schedule makes it easier to set aside time to think, evaluate and make plans about what we are doing and what we want to do in the new academic year.  The challenge to us all is to maintain that balance once school starts again, with the deadlines of work and distractions from constant online entertainment.  That is when remembering to set aside a time for thought and reflection is harder but all the more crucial!

Like all good ideas about leading a balanced life, this is easier said than done, but I’ll promise to work on it this coming year if you will.

Rise to the Challenge Every Day

Earlier this month I was invited to give opening remarks at the Plenary Session of The Left Forum held on Pace University’s New York City campus. Since Dyson College is a broad-based liberal arts college whose goal is to transform the lives of our students by providing them with access to a top-notch education, engaging them with the community, raising their awareness of global issues and ways to address them, and preparing them to go out into the world as leaders and change agents, it was fitting that we hosted this major conference. I’m pleased that our faculty and students have become engaged with the intellectual discourse and broad perspectives represented at the conference each year. You can watch the video here (fast forward to 7:20 to get to my part) or read my remarks below.

We live in challenging times, times that require resilience, ingenuity, patience, unflagging fortitude and a strong belief in the ultimate ability of the human race to overcome obstacles and strive for good. Around us we see events of apocalyptic proportions: earthquakes in China, Haiti, New Zealand and Chile; storms, floods and major droughts; global warming and unusually bitter cold winters; wars and threats of major pandemics.

More than this we see the world order changing, with major clash of cultures underway and rapid changes in the global power struggles that leave us breathless.

Closer to home, we see the gridlock of our national political institutions, a greater interest in partisanship than in solving problems that benefit the nation as a whole, and the loss of hard-earned rights.

On a more personal level, recently scholars have reported that many college students show no improvement in the higher level thinking skills after two years of college. While liberal arts students as a group do better than students in the professional schools, this is scant comfort when our society needs the best the next generation can offer!

How can we respond? How do we balance between hope and despair?

Paradoxically, I find myself turning to the Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus, you may recall, was the founder and the first king of Corinth. According to Greek mythology, he was punished by the gods for revealing their secrets and condemned to roll a large rock up a mountain every day, only to have to watch it roll back down to the bottom of the slope just before he reaches the mountaintop.

When people ask me what is the most critical characteristic for a university administrator, I always answer, “You have to have a Sisyphus Complex!”

By this I mean that you have to rise to the challenge every day, with enough hope and optimism to take on the challenge of rolling the rock up the hill again; you have to be able to take satisfaction in the task itself and enjoy the view from halfway up the mountain; you have to understand that much gets accomplished during these daily trips to the top, more than you might imagine(!), even when the rock goes back to the bottom at the end of the day. And despite the odds, you have to have the faith that maybe the gods will be merciful and generous, and THIS TIME, you might just make it to the top.

Increasingly, I find myself applying these precepts no just to my professional life, but to my world view as well. So I wish you all a Sisyphus Complex to carry you through life’s challenges.


When I first became a dean, one of my colleagues said to me, “So, what kind of dean do you want to be?”

It was pretty clear to me that the expected answer was not the glib, “An Arts and Sciences dean, of course.” But it was less clear what she was really asking.  She then clarified by saying, “You know that no matter what decision you make, you will please some people, maybe even most people, but not everyone.  So what is it that you want people to think about you, whether your decisions please them or not?”

This was really a question about values—about the principles that would guide the way I make decisions.  And my colleague wasn’t talking just about the big decisions, as I have learned.  It is the small decisions that you make almost without thinking about them that really reveal who you are and what you value:

Do you think of others or expect them to think about you?  Do you treat everyone as an equal or expect perks because of your position?  Can you be gracious when the people are angry, understand others’ perspectives even when you disagree with them, find ways to build consensus and foster an atmosphere of mutual respect?  Do you see compromise, tolerance, and empathy as strengths or weaknesses?

As the recent election has shown, the US has deep political divisions.  Candidates on the right and the left have vowed to uphold their principles and never compromise.  This seems to me to be an antithetical stance for a democracy and for a society that values learning.  If you are not open to new ideas, if you do not see the humanity in people you disagree with and refuse to reach out to them, then the glue that holds our society together will not hold and you will not learn new, and often better ways of thinking.  This is the essence of a liberal arts education, the heart of what we mean when we talk about critical thinking.

Critical thinking does not mean being critical of others.  It means examining what you are doing, why you are doing it, and whether you should be doing it or making a change.  It is about looking at what you value, considering its impact on others, and deciding how to move forward—sometimes it is also about changing what you think because you have a deeper understanding of the world.  It includes in its scope the fundamental value that if you conclude that something is not fair, that it is discriminatory or harmful, that it privileges some at the expense of others, then you must take action to change it.  Sometimes the best you can do is painfully incremental, but you still have to stay engaged and work for the change.

We have seen this in action this past week on the NY campus.  Some of you may have seen the video put together by some Pace students discussing a poster that appeared on the Homer screens.   The poster used language and appeared to endorse ideas that disparaged women and the LGBTQ communities.  The video provided a forum for Pace students to address our community through social media and create a dialogue that would serve as a learning experience. In this instance it is students who took the lead, pointing out the harm that language can inflict when it is used without fully understanding its impact on others. 

The follow-up  events have involved numerous groups on campus coming together to discuss the issues raised in the poster, which, parenthetically, was trying to generate a conversation about language and discrimination but in a way that did not take into account the impact of the slogans used to advertize the discussion. 

This is where tolerance and empathy have come in.  Our campus is responding by coming together, by seeing our words and actions from the perspectives of a diverse community and engaging each other in discussions that will lead to change.  This discussion has been facilitated by student, faculty and administrative leaders working together to create an environment where people feel safe in discussing their ideas, grappling with their misperceptions and mistakes, and coming together to create something better: moving forward in accord with the highest tenets of a liberal arts education.

So maybe thinking I wanted to be “An Arts and Sciences dean” wasn’t so glib, after all.

Discussion on privacy, hate crimes, respect for each other and the pursuit of societal change

The past couple of weeks have been sad and contemplative at my house:  My husband is on the faculty at Rutgers and on September 29th, we learned that we had each lost a student from our respective universities.  At Pace, Max Moreno was fatally shot in his off-campus apartment; at Rutgers, we learned that after a shocking violation of his privacy, Tyler Clementi had committed suicide. 

The Center for Disease Control (CD) lists homicide and suicide as the second and third leading causes of death among males between the ages of 15 and 24, responsible for nearly one third of all deaths in these ages. []  These statistics are of little solace to those of us trying to make sense of these terrible losses, but they are certainly a call to arms as we try to untangle the specific facts that led to each loss in the hope that we will learn how to prevent these situations from recurring. 

It is encouraging to see so many people discussing issues of privacy, tolerance, and respect for each other and seeking ways to reinforce these ideas at a societal level.  But these are not easy areas to affect change—history and the arts are replete with stories that carry a similar theme. 

I had the opportunity to see Verdi’s Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera House a few nights ago (my husband signs us up for the ticket lottery, and every so often we win a pair of tickets!).  Though I love Verdi’s music, I managed to avoid hearing Rigoletto until now and was not familiar with the story. 

The opera opens in the courtyard of a womanizing duke who has a court jester (Rigoletto) with a hunchback.  The courtiers feel that this difference makes the jester fair play for their pranks and contempt.   One night they decide it would be a great prank to kidnap the hunchback’s mistress, not realizing that the young woman in the jester’s home is his daughter.  They invade his house, kidnap his daughter, and turn her over to the womanizing duke who, as they would have said in more genteel times, takes advantage of her, leaving her feeling publicly shamed and abused. 

It was chilling to come face to face with a “timeless” story in this way: a story that resonates strongly because, even though it premiered nearly 160 years ago, it bears so many touch points with a current situation.  In this case, I kept seeing echoes of what had played out with Tyler Clementi: the isolation of someone viewed as an “other”, the invasion of a private place with inappropriate behavior for the amusement of the majority culture, and in the end, when Rigoletto’s daughter sets herself up to be murdered by the hired assassins, the destruction of a young life. 

Verdi wrote his opera to influence public opinion and change a culture.  To some extent he succeeded, but the lesson is still there to be learned, so many generations later.   As we organize our responses to bullying, invasions of privacy and hate crimes, it reminds me of the need for “Eternal vigilance” in the pursuit of any societal change.  Clearly more needs to be done to ensure our campus and society are safe and inclusive.  As we emerge from these events, I welcome your suggestions for ways to work together, as these types of changes can only be made and maintained if we, as a collective community, take action.

Welcome back to a new year, Convocation, and Dyson College…

Welcome back to campus to all returning students, faculty and staff.  Welcome as well to the new students coming to our campuses for the first time!  The start of the school year always fills me with the urge to do better than last year, to assess what did and didn’t work and to keep improving.  But most of all, the new school year cries out for doing something new, challenging and hopefully rewarding.  Hence, this blog.

Dyson College has grown substantially in the last decade and touching base with everyone on an individual basis has become harder.  Blogging is a way to share ideas about Dyson quickly and to get feedback from you as well.  I look forward to starting a conversation with the diverse and dispersed Dyson community.  I would like to share with you the work that is going on in the College and at Pace: the initiatives we are pursuing, the activities and accomplishments of Dyson’s students, faculty and staff, and the ideas and issues we are discussing. 

I also welcome your suggestions.  If there are topics related to Pace, Dyson College, or some aspect of Higher Education that you would find interesting, please let me know at

To welcome our new students, Pace opened the 2010-11 school year with a wonderful Convocation on the Pleasantville campus, gathering together students and faculty from both the New York and Pleasantville campuses.  Our invited speaker was Temple Grandin, Ph.D., a highly successful and renowned professional with a deep understanding of animal science and autism, who is herself autistic.  If you missed her talk, or would like to hear it again, you can find it at

As part of the celebration with Dr. Grandin, she graciously signed copies of her books, including the one I bought: Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism.  This book is remarkable because it simultaneously illustrates the essential humanity we all share while exploring the differences that make us unique.  Sometimes these differences work to our advantage and sometimes to our detriment…and often some of both.  These themes are echoed in our common reading, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a novel by Mark Haddon ( 

In order to reach their goals, both Dr. Grandin and Christopher John Francis Boone have to confront the ways they interact with the world, focus on the positive and struggle to make sense of how others think. Thus, in real life and in fiction, we get to witness profoundly transformative experiences.

This type of transformative experience, the “Aha! moment,” is also what a college education is about: learning about ourselves and each other, finding ways to communicate and overcome our limitations, and celebrating all the different ways we can each contribute to the common good. 

Dr. Grandin and Christopher also share another important characteristic for success: persistence!  They do not let obstacles or setbacks stand in their way.  They constantly try to make sense of the world and learn the skills they need to move forward.  They rely on themselves, but they seek out others who can help them succeed.  They each move at their own speed, aware that others may do things differently, but never give  up on themselves.

As such, they are excellent role models for getting everything you want and need out of your Pace experience:  Take advantage of your time here to learn about yourself; figure out your strengths and weaknesses, whether they are academic or personal; and reach out to the Pace support systems (advisors, faculty, staff, counselors and peers) whenever you need help to guide you past a setback and get you back on track.  Set your own path and then follow it to your goal!

With best wishes for a wonderful new academic year,