This article was published in the September-October 2009 issue.
By Edward Southerland
Photos by Jacki Lee Sanoja
“There is a passage in the Talmud that I think about a lot,” said Marjorie Hass. “It says that you should have a piece of paper that on one side says ‘I am but dust and ashes,’ and on the other side it says, ‘The whole world was created for my sake.’ The trick in life is to know when to turn the piece of paper over and look at the other side. Anytime you have a position that has this much responsibility and this much privilege, you have to live like that.”
This dichotomy, the delicate balance between humility and hubris, enables one to embrace new and otherwise daunting challenges with equanimity. So far in her career, Hass has turned the paper over at the appropriate times, but never before have the personal and professional stakes been quite so high or the expectations quite so looming.
Dr. Marjorie Hass is the fifteenth President of Austin College, the oldest college operating under its original charter in the state of Texas. At forty-four, she is young for the job and far more attractive than the image the words “college president” would conjure up in the minds of most people. She is Jewish, and some might find that unusual for a Presbyterian school in the Southern Bible Belt, but in an increasingly pluralistic society that may not matter so much anymore.
AC is betting that their new president has star power. A two-part ad in the September issue of Texas Monthly prominently features President Hass as the new face of Austin College. In an academic environment where colleges often vie for the qualified students the way football powers battle for Friday night heroes, associating the old school with the bright new look of a young academic might just tip the scales for a high-school senior trying to decide where to go next.
Two sides of the paper
As part of the hiring process, a potential college president is poked and probed, figuratively of course, wined and dined, flattered and put on the spot. It is a lot like a plebe’s first week at West Point or Annapolis. The process of choosing and being chosen is a fretful one. “You go; you have these ‘first dates.’ It’s all very formal,” Hass said. “The first interviews often take place at airport hotels. You walk in and there are fifteen people sitting around a table, and they start firing questions at you. You leave and think, ‘I’d go on a second date if they asked me.’
“Then you get the call that they want to bring you to the campus, and that’s really intensive. You come for a few days, and you bring your spouse. You’re rushed around from group to group. The next step is to make a wedding. You really have to make your mind up.”
The trip to Sherman was Hass’ first journey to Texas, and she and her husband were not sure what to expect. What? Trees, green trees? Wasn’t Texas one big brown patch on the map?
Then there was the question of life in a small town. Sherman may like to think of itself as a city, but it is not, not really. It reflects the positives and negatives of classic small-town America, and one of those positives made a deep impression.
“I had been to lunch with the college Deans, but because it was my only chance to talk with them, I hadn’t eaten anything,” Hass said. “I was taking a break, the only free fifteen minutes on the schedule, to go over some notes, when one of the people from the food service department walked up with a sandwich. She said she had noticed that I hadn’t eaten and thought that I might need something to tide me over until supper. That kindness showed me that Sherman was the kind of place where people took care of each other.”
The courtship between Marjorie Hass and Austin College was a success. But as is often the case with a marriage, after the honeymoon, reality set in. She took up her post on July 1, working on a borrowed desk in an office with bare walls. By the time you read this, her furniture will have arrived, school will have started, and she will no longer have to collar passing students and college employees to ask what is what and where is where to find her way around. These first three months have been the other side of the paper.
How to become a philosopher
Hass is a native of Illinois, born in Chicago’s Cook County Hospital. “My father was just finishing medical school, and my mother was teaching kindergarten. Shortly after I was born, my father was drafted into the army, and was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas for a couple of years.”
This was the mid 60s, when the conflict is Southeast Asia was building up, and Hass’ father, a psychiatrist, primarily worked with soldiers coming home from the war. “Those were my first memories,” she said. “When he finished his time there, we went back to Chicago where he set up his own practice. My mom stayed at home until my sisters and I were in school, and then she went back to school. Two sisters, I have two younger sisters, both of whom still live in Chicago.”
You can take the girl out of Chicago, but you… Well, you know the rest of it. “Chicago pizza, you can have Chicago pizza sent to you, and my mother arranges that for me wherever I go. It’s deep dish, with the tomatoes on top of the cheese where God intended the tomatoes to be.”
Hass’ childhood was of the “All-American” variety. “As a girl I was involved in dance. I took ballet lessons. That was important to me,” she recalled. “I was a huge reader. My second grade teacher told my mother that I had a reading obsession. I was one of those kids who got caught in school with a novel stuck inside a text book, and I was always begging, ‘Oh, just let me finish this chapter.’ I read all of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books. I read a series of books called All-of-a-Kind Family, which was about a family of Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side of New York, and because we were Jewish, that was very meaningful, and I went through a period where I read every Agatha Christie mystery.”
High school was different, and far more difficult, not so much on the learning side of the ledger as on the emotional side. “It was a very big high school, very competitive. I was a good student, but I was sort of finding myself at that time,” said Hass. “I don’t think of high school as a time when I excelled particularly, although I liked my classes, and I loved to read, and I loved ideas.”
Actually, the searching and probing, the testing of one’s self and one’s ideas as a teenager may be pretty much an all-American experience, too. So, too, is the chance to taste a little independence and freedom for the first time, and for Hass, this involved looking at a world far removed from the American heartland. She went to Israel for six weeks one summer
“We travelled throughout the Negev and did some camping there. We stayed with a Bedouin family, we stayed in cities, we went to look at all of the historical sites, and we spent several days on a kibbutz. We met with soldiers, and some of those soldiers were just a few years older than I was, and with people who lived in very religious communities. This was in the 80s when there was a lot of hope for peace.
“That was a really profound experience for me. It was the first time I had traveled outside the United States, and it was a deep and growing experience. It was spiritual; it was intellectually interesting; it was a chance to really learn more about myself and what mattered to me. I came back having grown up a lot and having changed a lot.”
When Hass enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she was considering a career in international relations. “I wanted to help people be in conversation with each other,” she said, “but when I got to college, I was very fortunate that I had parents who encouraged me to explore. They really thought it was a time to learn, so I didn’t go with a very vocational plan. I took some classes in classical philosophy and just fell in love with that way of thinking.
“People don’t think of philosophers as living. Many people have never met a philosopher in the flesh. All of us go through a period of our lives when we ask those ‘big’ questions. What matters? What is human nature? What is the relationship between mind and body and spirit? Many people are able to turn off the part of them that asks that and go on and do other things. Philosophers are people who can never quite hit the off button on those questions. They are interested in reading what other people have had to say about the questions and adding to that conversation.”
The University of Illinois was a big place, a far cry from the environment where Hass would spend her professional career. “I had a great experience at Illinois, and I was able carve out a smaller group of mentors and companions,” she said.
Even then, even with support from home and from friends and teachers, the choice to study philosophy as a life’s work was not reached quickly. She would need to think about thinking. For Hass the deciding card was another trip abroad. “I spent my junior year of college at the University of London, and that was tremendously affirming and growing and an intense experience. I came back from that thinking I would like to go to graduate school, to try and make a go of that.”
So philosophy it would be, but what do philosophers do? Engineers build, doctors heal, scientists discover, but what do philosophers do? “There are some philosophers, particularly in ethics, who consult and advise, helping hospitals and other organizations, but most people who would consider themselves professional philosophers are teaching. My husband said that if teaching didn’t work out for us, we’d open our own philosophy store.”
Yes, Hass’ husband, Dr. Lawrence Hass, is also a philosopher. The potential for jokes about the breakfast table conversations between philosophizing spouses over whether the toast should be rectangular or triangular and why is enormous. But then, Socrates probably thought of most of them a couple of thousand years ago, when Greek vaudeville was flourishing and ‘Who was that lady I saw you with last night?” was all the rage the next morning in the agora.
“When I started my senior year, I had to take a class that wasn’t very interesting,” said Hass. So I decided, ‘I think I’ll go sit next to that cute guy over there. I did everything I could to get his attention. It worked. He finally asked me out on a date, and we’re still on that date twenty-three years later.” In matters of the heart, human emotion often trumps all philosophies.
“My husband probably has been the most significant intellectual influence on me. He’s just a brilliant thinker. He has always pushed me, lovingly, to use my mind in more expanded ways. I’ve learned so much from him and the work he does.” Still, sometimes… “My children (Cameron, twenty, a student at Muhlenberg, and Jessica, fifteen, a sophomore at Sherman High School) have learned to stick their heads in the door and ask, ‘Is this an argument argument or a philosophy argument?’ They know that is an important distinction.”
And if the argument argument, or the philosophical argument, gets too heavy, Larry Hass can always pull a rabbit out of a hat. When not engaged in heavy thinking, he is a master of prestidigitation, a conjurer, a magician, whose skills enliven his teaching and must make the questions, “What is real and what is imagined?” all the more perplexing for his students.
Towering over all in the Hass family is a short little dog named Biscuit. “I never had a dog until two years ago. She’s half Shi Tzu and half Poodle, and we’re all so deeply in love with her that we can barely concentrate when she’s in our presence,” Hass said, calling up a picture of Biscuit on her cell phone
When not philosophizing, Hass and her family “play card games and board game. We read; we travel. Actually there are not many times when we’re not philosophizing,” Hass said. “My marriage has been one long conversation. It’s still ongoing, and the kids get into that too. Family meals are very important. I give kudos to Rachel Ray and her Thirty-Minute Meals cookbooks. My children think I’m a good cook, but then they don’t know any better.”
Hass claims to make a pretty good bowl of chili, but on further questioning, she admits to adding beans. The clock is ticking for her to take to heart the motto held dear by all true Texas chiliheads, “If you know beans about chili, you know chili ain’t got no beans.”
To some it may seem ironic that many academics, who spend much of their professional lives reading, spend much of their free time reading, also. Hass is no exception. “I like to read novels like I did when I was a little girl—straight through—so I usually save those for holidays. I like mysteries, and Jane Austen novels are my absolute favorites. I probably reread them all once a year. And I have a real passion for painting, so I read a lot of books about painters’ lives. I do yoga and Pilates.
“Yoga is about finding out where your resistances are and easing beyond them. Pilates, for me, is about learning to lead from your weakness, rather than your strengths. Pilates exercise is about relaxing those strong muscles or strong habits and doing the same movement in a way that leads from the internal core.”
Hass also takes inspiration from those closest to her. “My son has taught me how to play,” she said. “He knows that you have to have a passion for what you’re doing, so there has to be pleasure in it. I’ve learned that work can be play from him. From my daughter, I’ve learned how to be brave. My daughter is extremely courageous. She has taught me a lot about what good can come from being brave.”
From a historical perspective, Hass greatly admires Abraham Lincoln. “In part, it is his ability to use words to make change. His words were always up to the occasion. He could speak truths that were worthy of the occasion, and that’s a very profound leadership skill. I also admire figures in the Bible and the Torah. The story of Ruth is very meaningful to me and the story of Rebecca.”
Questions Big and Small
“I graduated from college, and in twenty-four months I had gotten married, had a baby, gotten my Masters Degree, and started a PhD program. That was a lot to take on. I really needed to spend my thirties recuperating from my twenties. For some people, their twenties are a time of wild freedom—I worked every day. I had a young child, a new marriage, my husband and I were both in graduate school—we just worked so hard. We loved it, we loved what we were doing, but those were difficult years.
Sometimes people work diligently at a task, concentrating so intently on the sought-after result that when it comes, they need to pause and try to recall why it was so important after all, and review what their efforts have gained. They may have focused so intensely on the trees that they lost sight of the forest. So it was with Marjorie Hass.
“I decided I needed to take some emotional and mental time off,” she said. “I really had to look inward. I had to learn a lot about myself. Philosophy was helpful; I learned that it couldn’t really answer the big questions, but it could help you answer the small questions about your own life.
“My husband and I became more religiously observant, making sure our family rituals were helping us remember what was really important. We decided we wanted to add to our family. It was a time to stop and say, ‘What do I really want out of life?’ In one sense I had it all, but in another, I hadn’t had the time to make it meaningful. It was an important time for me in preparing for the next phase of my life,” said Hass.
Out of this self searching came a decision that would strongly impact her professional life. “I heard a phrase that really stuck with me. ‘There are two kinds of work. There is work that feeds the world’s hunger, and work that creates more hunger.’ Some jobs exist to create a need. Other jobs are to fill that need.”
Eliminating the obvious activities that universally earn society’s disapprobation—dealing narcotics or trafficking in human misery, for example—Hass said that the differences between the positive and negative sides of the ledger are subtle and that each person must provide his own evaluation of the accounting procedure. That meant that she had to apply a new set of criteria to her choices, and in doing so, she changed the way she taught and changed the subjects that she taught. “Instead of teaching philosophy as a series of puzzles and puzzle solving, I used my classroom to help my students address not just the big questions but the small questions.”
Big questions? Small questions? “Descartes said, ‘How do I know the external world exists? How do I know I’m not just dreaming all of this experience?’ Or some philosophers ask, ‘How is the mind connected to the body?’ They ask these questions that sound to us very abstract, because that’s what philosophy does—it asks the big questions. But when you look at what those thinkers were doing, they were using tools of philosophy to answer the questions that were most deeply personal to them. These were not abstract questions for them.
“Descartes was living in a time when science and religion were seen in an incredible conflict, and he was torn apart by this question, ‘What is the source of knowledge?’ For him it was not just a big question but a small question, that is, the question in his heart. So my aim was to try and help my students think philosophically, not just about the kinds of questions that had engaged dead Greeks, but the kinds of questions that were passionately motivating them now. When you start to think about those questions, now you’re thinking like a philosopher.
“Plato said that you can really have only one student at a time, because teaching is the work of changing a soul. I began to see my teaching in a more holistic way, more a mentoring and coaching and engaging.”
Moving On, Moving Up
Things seemed to fall in place for Hass and her husband. When they received their doctorates, both were offered jobs at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. “It was my first introduction to a liberal arts college,” she said. “My husband’s undergraduate degree was from a Ripon College, a small liberal arts campus, and he always knew he wanted to teach in that environment. We were really lucky because many academic couples, particularly in the same field, have to choose between work or living apart. We didn’t have to.”
Hass’ career at Muhlenberg was dusted early with the magic of success. She taught, wrote, and gained the academic talisman that protects professors from the vagaries of fate, tenure. Shortly after that milestone, she made the move into administrative work. She directed the Muhlenberg Center for Ethics from 2000 to 2003 and then… “The college reached a point where they were between deans, and they needed someone to be an interim dean. They came to me and said it would just be for a year. I wasn’t sure I would like it. It would mean a very different relationship with my faculty colleagues.”
Hass said yes, and on July 1, 2003, she took a position which must have given the guy who had to paint her name on the door fits—Interim Dean of the College for Faculty and Vice-President for Academic Affairs. Just reciting the title took time, but Hass quickly found she loved the job. In less than a year, she was upgraded to Provost, the Chief Academic Officer of the College, same basic job with a different title.
Mr. Webster describes “provost” thusly:
“Provost” is an interesting word. It is Middle English from the Old English profost and the Anglo-French provost, both of which derive from Medieval Latin propositus, which is an alteration of praepositus, from Latin, one in charge, director, from past participle of praeponere to place at the head. (You might want to take notes in case there is test at the end of this piece.)
And defines it as:
1 : the chief dignitary of a collegiate or cathedral chapter
2 : the chief magistrate of a Scottish burgh
3 : the keeper of a prison
4 : a high-ranking university administrative officer
The juxtaposition of definitions 3 and 4 could be the basis for an intriguing philosophical discussion and may explain part of the concept of…
Moving to the Dark Side
In academic circles, moving away from teaching and into administration often is considered going over to the “dark side.” Darth Vader did it, and look how he turned out. “It’s the evil empire,” Hass said. “The real calling is to teach, and administration, at best, makes that possible and at worse just gets in the way and mucks it up.” But as Hass changed her ideas about teaching, so too did she see light on the dark side of administration.
“I found that being able to look holistically at a situation, to look at the structures that were influencing how teaching was happening, how learning was happening, was for me, at least, just another level of trying to make a positive difference.” And it seemed to fit well as an answer to her small questions. “My small questions at the time were on the order of ‘How can I discover what my calling is?” And it did feel like that to me. I really enjoyed the projects that I was able to do, and I learned that I was missing something in my life, and that was the opportunity to work on a team.
“As a philosopher, as a professor, and the writing I was doing was very individualistic work. As I started to do administrative work, I served as a leader on faculty committees; I directed a summit for ethics, and as I did those things, I found out how much I loved working in teams, and that was really inspiring to me. I had never played team sports; I’d never been in a lab group; I had never had that experience. It was a big deal for me to be part of a group with a common goal and to shape that goal and to try to harness all the skills and talents of a diverse group of people to achieve it. It was really invigorating.”
The more Hass took the lead, the less likely she would be able to return to the teaching side if things did not work out. Having been the captain, it is difficult to return to the crew. “When I became the provost at Muhlenberg, I knew there was no going back to that faculty, so I had the realization that I would have to move beyond that position at some point.”
Hass quickly began to attract the attention of the headhunters of the academic world, who saw her as first-round draft choice material for colleges looking for that star power Austin College seems to recognize. “I had a lot of folks calling about this position or that position, and my husband and I talked a lot about, if we make this move, what do we want it to be? And after some reflection, I knew that if I made this move it would only be to take on a presidency rather than just a parallel move to another institution.”
So Much Sky
Hass had seriously considered one opportunity. “It was a good school with a strong liberal arts tradition and many of the things I was looking for, but the chemistry wasn’t there.” Then Austin College came a courting. While GTT (Gone to Texas) was a slogan of success for many in the past, it was not on Hass’ radar. Hers was not a Lone Star state of mind.
“I would never have imagined I would be moving to Texas and loving it,” she said. “I will say we weren’t expecting Texas to be beautiful. When we first came out here to visit the college, we were saying, ‘It’s not going to be pretty. It’s going to be flat and dry and brown,’ so when we walked onto this campus we were stunned. It’s green, there are fountains, it’s beautiful.”
Another looming question in the Hasses’ decision to move to Sherman was a religious one. To mix metaphors, Texoma is not exactly a Jewish Mecca. “Judaism, more than many religions, is a very community-based religion. Many of the things you do, you do in community,” Hass said. “So that is something we thought about and talked about in moving here. There’s a congregation in Sherman with twenty-five Jewish families, and many of them have already reached out to us, and in addition to joining that synagogue, we’ll also look into synagogues in Plano and McKinney.
“We’re also really delighted with the way the Austin College community has reached out to us and embraced that very question and asked, ‘What can we do to assist you? How can we, as a Presbyterian community, help your religious life?’”
Moving to Texas, to the Cross Timbers and on the edge of the Great Plains, brought another revelation. “I have never lived anyplace where there is so much sky,” said Hass. “I marvel at that. It goes back to the questions about the big and the small. With that sense of the horizon, you feel both the vastness and your own smallness.” As so often in her life, Marjorie Hass sees both sides of the page.
That will be a useful talent as she moves to put her distinctive brand on Austin College. Because she is new to the job of college president and filled with the exuberance of possibilities, she will probably use a running iron rather than an iron forged into a fixed shape.
“Going back to what we said before, you want to find where your talents and the hunger meet,” she said. “It isn’t just a matter of ‘Who am I and what do I want to do?’ It’s more a matter of What does the college need at this moment, and how can I can best serve that need? And much of where the college is depends in many ways on where the wider world is. We are in an economic downturn, and colleges all over the county are struggling to make ends meet.
“My sense of what the college needs is that it needs a plan, a path for continuing to develop itself and what it offers for students, to refine that, while at the same time shoring up its infrastructure. The college has deferred maintenance issues that it has to address to keep all our beautiful buildings standing. We have challenges rising from the fact that our endowment has dropped precipitously, not from bad management, but because the stock market is down. I need to help our constituents understand how important it is for them to participate in keeping the college strong.”
As philosophy is often reflective, so does Hass believe reflection is part of her task. “I think the college needs a mirror held up to itself. A lot of the things that make this place distinctive and special are invisible to the people who are here every day. Coming in with a fresh perspective, I can see some of those things. A perfect example is the mentorship program.
“Every student at the college is matched up with a faculty member who serves as a mentor to that student over his four years here. That’s over and above the faculty advisor program. Each student has a faculty member who is setting aside time to work with that student at a much deeper level and much more holistic level. That’s an incredible program.
“Every liberal arts college prides itself on its faculty-student interaction, but I can’t think of another college that has that kind of mentor program. Those relationships last long after the student graduates. It’s just incredible to me, but it’s not the kind of thing that, if you poked an Austin College person and said, ‘What do you guys do that is special?’ would even be on the list.”
Another thing that well may change during Hass’ tenure in the President’s House is Austin College’s interaction with Sherman, with the community. “As the college’s reputation has grown, as its ability to draw students from a wider region has grown, does that mean we lose our connection to the local community and the people of Sherman? I’m very aware of the way the college is invested in the community and very aware of how students and faculty participate as volunteers in the community. And I’m very aware of the way people in the community take pride in Austin College and see it as an asset. People should see the college as a community resource. We provide cultural and intellectual opportunities, and we are also here to be good partners.”
Hass is three months in, but looking ahead. “This is my dream for the college,” she said. “So many people will have invested in this place and in our students that we will be able to make “need blind” admission decisions. That is, any talented student can come to this college without having to worry about how they pay for it. That is my dream, that we would be able to provide scholarship money to every talented student who could flourish at this institution.”
Four O’clock in the Morning
Leadership in difficult times often calls for “four o’clock in the morning” courage, a term documentarian Ken Burns ascribes to Civil War historian Shelby Foote. “He said Grant had that,” said Burns in an interview. “It meant you could wake him up at four in the morning and tell him that the enemy had turned his right flank, and he’d be as cool as a cucumber. I think we all, as filmmakers—but I know, especially myself—developed a kind of ‘four o’clock in the morning’ courage as each day you woke up with a gasp and a gulp. ‘What have I taken on?’”
After three months on the job, surely Marjorie Hass often echoes the same doubt as Ken Burns, “What have I taken on?” But then she turns the paper over, away from the side reading “I am but dust and ashes,” and reaffirms the idea that “The whole world was created for my sake.” She takes that ancient concept from the Talmud and lessons from a life devoted to giving due consideration to questions big and questions small and calls up her own version of “four o’clock in the morning” courage.