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    Photo by Mickie Winters

    The president of Spalding University slash trans-Atlantic rower on solitude, the path ahead for higher ed, and shooting a bow and arrow in her basement.

     

    MCN: What has quarantine been like for you?

    TMM: “Spalding is in kind of an enviable position at the moment. We’re on a block schedule, so our students start classes every six weeks, so we are able to be more nimble than most institutions who are on a semester system. Our nurses are out nursing or our teachers are helping local school teachers figure out how to get their coursework online. Our artists are 3D-printing masks and face shields and getting them out to the community. I’ve sent about a hundred masks myself.”

     

    What is your routine been like?

    “At first I was working really very, very long hours. And I’ve dialed that back. I’ve been sending videos to our marketing team Sunday mornings and feeling guilty about that, and I’ll try to dial that back because just the sense of being at home, there’s no division between work and your other life. The folks who work with me, they’ve got families and children and pets and obligations and they have to watch out for the president sending a text. It’s really bad form.

    “And there aren’t those little breaks where you can go down the hall and shoot the breeze with corporate counsel or go check in on somebody and just talk about, I don’t know, mindless things. Not that small talk has ever been my strong suit, but there isn’t small talk in the video/virtual world. And so that sense of rejuvenation isn’t really happening.

    “I’m extraordinarily fortunate because I row in a single scull on the river. There’s nobody on the river, so I can still get out and exercise. And I roller skate in the park. My husband, he is here at the house and he’s about 20 years my senior. So he’s in that category of folks who need to take this very, very serious. Not that I’m cavalier about it.”

     

    You mentioned you have been making masks. Any other side projects?

    “I’ve always had a couple of projects going on. I don’t think my friends at Spalding put anything past me. If you told them I was building ventilators in the basement, they would believe you. If I was working on improving my chainsaw art, they would believe you. But it feels like poor citizenship not to use my spare time to figure out what more I can be doing. And so the mask-making is the most straightforward and easiest. A couple of years ago I bought some ENO hammocks for the university, and over time they blow out. And for some — my husband (Mac McClure) ran Bernheim Forest for 25 years and he throws nothing away. So this bad habit of hoarding random stuff has come to me in 20 years of marriage. I had these old hammocks and so I sewed masks out of them and put interfacing in them so that they have a pocket you can put coffee filters, or whatever you want, as extra filtration on the inside. Most of campus safety is wearing old hammocks for masks.”

     

    You’ve been regularly communicating with students and campus folks. I saw a post on Spalding’s website early on in quarantine about your thoughts on isolation that you’ve learned from numerous expeditions and your time on the Atlantic (in 1999 when she became the first woman and first American to row solo across the ocean). What kinds of advice are you giving to students?

    “I was thinking about it just yesterday that this is typically the time of year where I’m racking my brain for the, you know, what’s the commencement address going to be this year? I’ve been president for a decade, so I have a system now. I have a theme. I tell a story or two related to that team theme and I typically end with a top 10 things I think I know, all of which are smart aleck. One that I put in just to test out that people really seem to like is: Do not burn bridges, just loosen the bolts a little each day. And that sense of making sure we keep this in perspective. All of us have been through something like this, whether it was a broken arm or a family member in the hospital or taking care of somebody or being responsible for somebody or being sick. We’ve all experienced elements of this. What makes it interesting is we’re all kind of going through it at the same time. So there isn’t the give and take of caretaking. Everyone’s feeling a little needy and everyone’s trying to figure out how to be helpful.”

     

    When do you think you’ll be able to resume in-person classes and what does that look like?

    “Well, we’ve said we’re going to remain online for the summer, and I’m on the board of governors for the NCAA. So it was my first opportunity to be part of a decision where an institution lost a billion dollars. So I’m party to all kinds of conversations about whether there’s going to be college football in the fall. The NCAA doesn’t govern football, but we’re certainly very much in touch with the conferences and things like that. It’s probably a billion-dollar question and it’s wide open. And I have no idea if we’ll be online or in the classroom in the fall. I expect what will happen first is we’ll start bringing some of our laboratory, sort of hands-on experiences back before we bring the classroom experience back to face to face. It’s pretty hard to teach someone how to properly apply a splint (virtually). Those clinical rotations for our health science folks, those are gonna start coming back as hospitals and facilities reopen.”

     

    You and University of Kentucky president Eli Capilouto are both on the NCAA board of governors. (Neither is involved in infractions or enforcement and cannot comment on the violation allegations at U of L.) What was that like having to make the decision to cancel the NCAA tournament?

    “There was a conversation, I think it was a Wednesday. There was an emergency call for the board of governors. We’ve got the former surgeon general for President Obama (Vivek Murthy) as an independent member on the board, and he and (NCAA chief medical officer) Brian Hainline explained that this is a serious deal and we weren’t going to be able to just do business as usual, and that’s how we came to the decision that we would have the tournament but we just wouldn’t have any spectators. And then I think it was that evening the NBA called off their games. The next day we decided we weren’t gonna have the tournament. Everyone was in agreement. Everyone was slightly appalled, but recognized that it’s just what had to happen. At that same time, we were talking about whether we would stop having face-to-face classes. When you look at a group of faculty and go, ‘We just called off the NCAA tournament,’ everybody kind of went, Ooohhhh. It put a level of gravitas into the mix. People don’t make decisions like that lightly.”

     

    You mentioned Spalding’s block schedule and the practical studies such as nursing and teaching that are keeping students active, and the fact that Spalding offers much of its studies online. Have you noticed a decline in enrollment in the coming sessions?

    “No, we’ve actually seen a little bit of a pickup. Only one grad student wants to stop until they can do clinical trials in person, but that’s even starting to open up as healthcare facilities open. I’ve been invited by high schools to talk to classes, and a number of students have asked me, ‘What would you do in my position?’ I tell them, ‘I’d come! What else are you going to be doing?’ Travel? Work? Sit in the basement and play video games? Instead of doing a gap year, you can do your general studies (online) and then focus on your major when face-to-face classes open up. Yesterday I sent out a video of me shooting archery in my basement. I shot a blown-up glove and said, ‘Stay on target!’”

     

    Why a glove?

    “That was the only thing I had to simulate a balloon.”

     

    Do you see permanent changes to higher education from all of this?

    “I do. I think there has been a reluctance among, I’m going to call them the old guard. They’re not all, but the, the prestigious institutions have been sort of anti-online. Spalding’s been doing hybrid for a long time. We do a lot of online stuff. We have entire disciplines that are online. The other benefit is our classes are small enough that a faculty member can reach out to every single student and make sure they’re able to access the technology. We’ve got students who are literally sitting in the parking lot at McDonald’s to get on the Wi-Fi, sitting in their car, doing (schoolwork) on their smartphone or taking a bus to sit outside, and they’re just making it work. We serve a segment of the population that tends to be a little more challenged financially. So we’re figuring it out.”

     

    Have you noticed any funding challenges from this economic fallout yet?

    “When I first became president, we were about $16 million in debt. We paid most of that off. Now we’ve doubled the size of campus, but we haven’t increased our debt footprint, so we can afford to keep our dining and custodial staff employed at least through mid-summer. And maybe through the fall. It just hurts my heart that the folks who are most at risk financially are the ones who are getting cut. I went to divinity school at Harvard. I was really unhappy when I heard that Harvard (had planned to cancel) their dining contracts, ’cause they can afford to keep those hourly people employed, whether they’re cutting carrots or not. I really can’t judge. But we’re financially strong enough to keep our most fragile people employed through it.”

     

    In your post on isolation, you mention a lot of the lessons that you’ve learned from being alone on the Atlantic for 85 days, 78, I think it was, without communication. (“I could cycle between soaring emotional highs and crawling emotional lows with a speed of a Derby winner,” McClure wrote.) Now you’re in the comfort of your home, you have your husband, but are there any parallels or any lessons you’re drawing from that time?

    “I’m so far from being a touchy-feely person, but I do miss that actual human interaction. And that was true on the Atlantic. I was surprised how much on the Atlantic, how much I missed people, because I’m a world-class introvert. I think we’re all feeling that sense of separation. It isn’t replaced by just being able to see and hear somebody.”

     

    What exactly is that? What do you feel like is missing from a video that you can’t replace?

    “You know, maybe it’s a sense of heart. Just the presence of someone. I remember when I was a student at Harvard — in grad school, I was invited to a dinner party at a faculty member’s house and the faculty member just happened to live with (psychologist) Erik Erikson. And my back was to the door when Erik Erikson came in. But I felt him come into the room. I didn’t hear him. I didn’t see him. I felt this presence come into the room. And I think we feel that with other people, that sense of life, that sense of vitality, that sense of something more.”

     

    In your post, you mention humor’s role in deep survival. What is something that has made you laugh really hard lately through all of this?

    “Well, you know, people send you funny videos and funny things, but it’s just the simple ones. There was a cartoon with a man kneeling on the couch, looking out the window, the dog is sitting beside him looking out the window and the man says, ‘Now I understand why you get so excited when somebody walks by.’”

     

    Do you see any silver linings to all of this?

    “Yeah, I think it’s up to us to chase those and grab those and hold onto those. The only thing that gives meaning to suffering is the transformation that can happen from it if it’s a positive transformation. A faculty member was talking about wanting things to get back to normal, and a graduate student observed that normal is bad. Like, normal is people being oppressed. Normal is the economic divide really hurting some individuals more than others. We don’t want to get back to normal. We want to get back to something better than normal. Again, that’s going to require work and thought and care.”

     

    Looking back since you started at Spalding as president 10 years ago, what have you learned and how have you changed?

    “I often joke that I became president 10 years ago and I’ve been working on my social skills this whole time. Small talk is not my forte. I have taken on more responsibility for my social sense of leadership — that leadership isn’t just about making decisions, it’s about a caring presence. It’s the ability to express that, and I think that’ll be a challenge for all of us going forward, finding ways to give care, still honoring the dignity of other people. Spalding is working really hard to keep everyone on our books employed, and we will for as long as we can. As aggressively as we can. But I know that there are family members who have lost jobs, and before this ends there will be folks at Spalding who are going hungry. And how do we make sure they have what they need, but we’re still honoring their dignity? It’s going to be tricky and it’s going to be hard, and we’ll do it.”

     

    Has your leadership style change at all during this time?

    “A venue for me is allowing a good deal of my own personality to enter my writing. In most academic leadership you don’t see a lot of that. I mean, you see our personalities, but we don’t put a lot of personal stuff in messages and it’s not sensitive information. People are just hungry for thought and opinion and, yeah, and I’ve given myself permission to hand out my thoughts and opinions.

    “Folks are looking for an end to this. There was a message where I was talking about the folks protesting in Frankfort and that if we were on an expedition together, I would see that as a form of hopelessness, that they’re longing for something that they had. It’s not going to come back. The governor could pull off all restrictions today and their world will not return to normal. So it’s not about going back to a former time. It’s about imagining what’s in front of us and making that as good as we can possibly make it and as fair as we can possibly make it. Yesterday I was talking about having it as an ambition, fundamental fairness, and that it’s not perfect fairness. We can’t make it equitable as we come out of this, but we can do our best to make it as fair as possible.”

     

    In your post, you also talk about the essential and the non-essential, stuff being non-essential, people being essential. But do you have any possessions that are important to you?

    “Well, I’m going to get in trouble for saying this, but my husband. I possess him! He belongs to me. No… And I really do think that’s it. I’m embarrassed; I’m married into the house we live in (in the Cherokee Triangle). It’s a huge house and it’s embarrassing at this juncture because it is a house that is meant for people to come into. It is a house built for people to visit. This is not a house for two people to occupy. I mean, we live in two rooms and it’s a huge house. And the only thing good about the huge house is we can hide all our hoarding.”

     

    Thank you so much. I appreciate you talking with me.

    “Well, good luck, and I hope your quarantine goes OK.”

     

    I really can’t complain. I get to wear sweatpants every day, so…

    “I was on a call yesterday with trustees and like most people I’m wearing a, you know, a proper jacket and a proper suit shirt. But I’m wearing comfy shoes...”

    (She takes off one of her athletic shoes and holds it up.)

    “The trustee said, ‘But you wear your comfy shoes all the time.’ We value liberty and freedom, but if a woman wears the wrong shoes, everyone takes note.

    “In one of my posts, I was commenting on expeditions. Groups that are living together in close quarters develop their own language for things. I had a couple of examples. One was a ‘cotton factor.’ If you’re in the mountains and someone wears a lot of cotton, it’s a sign that they’re a novice. So if you have a cotton factor of 10, you’re real novice. If you have a cotton factor of one, you’re an expert. And the next one is ‘crampon factor’ — crampons are the spikes that go on the bottom of your boots. Somebody has a crampon factor of 10, you’d want to walk across their face wearing your crampons. But then I was unwise enough to include what in the wilderness circles is called the ‘Dorito factor.’ After about four days without a bath, everything starts to smell like Doritos. I said, you know, please don’t let PepsiCo hear this. I don’t want to get a cease-and-desist order from PepsiCo. But the point I was saying, if you’re on a video chat with someone and you see they’ve been wearing the same shirt for a week, you might want to check in with them offline. It’s really that sense of, there’s gonna be people who end up hungry at the end of this, and we need to look out for them.”

     

    Mary Chellis Nelson's picture

    About Mary Chellis Nelson

    Mary Chellis Nelson is the managing editor of Louisville Magazine.

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