A College President, Drawn to Uncertainties

SUSAN HENKING is president and C.E.O of Shimer College in Chicago.

I GREW up literally on the wrong side of the tracks in Paoli, Pa. My father was a printer — he fed paper into big presses; my mother sold Avon products and held various secretarial jobs. Because Paoli is adjacent to the more affluent Main Line of Philadelphia, I became sensitive at an early age to class differences and racial dissonance.

My parents were in a mixed marriage: Dad was Irish Catholic; Mom was Irish Protestant. My mother was a voracious and indiscriminate reader and loved the tiny library in Paoli. My dad washed the dishes, ran the vacuum, played baseball and taught Sunday school; my mother earned more money than he did and balanced the checkbook. So rigid gender roles have always seemed a mere convention to me.

I graduated third in my high school class, yet the guidance counselors, who knew my family background, told us that we could only afford community college. I got into Duke on scholarships and loans. Both my parents’ places of work provided added funding.

When I decided to major in religious studies, my mother worried that I was trying to make her happy. I told her that I wasn’t sure I believed in religion but that I wanted to understand why others did. While envious of the certainty that some of my more religious friends experienced, I’ve been drawn to the greater challenge that uncertainty presents.

I came out as a lesbian in college. When Anita Bryant, who was known for her views against homosexuality, came to the South to speak, a group I was involved with staged a protest. When she said the word “homosexual,” our group got up and walked out in silence. People in the audience spat on us. These were middle- and working-class people whom I could have known from my own neighborhood. They were beyond rational discourse. This moment politicized me.

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I also learned that universities are not immune to sexism or homophobia. In my first teaching job after earning a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago Divinity School, a student told me that a female teacher of biblical materials was “the devil incarnate.” Later, at another college where I taught, a colleague told me that I wouldn’t have been hired had it been known I was a lesbian.

At Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., which I joined in 1988 as assistant professor in the religious studies department, the attitudes were somewhat different. I designed and taught a course on AIDS and H.I.V. with David Craig, a chemistry professor. Our course won an award from the American Association of Colleges and Universities.

I worked at Hobart and William Smith as an educator and administrative leader for almost 25 years. I’m often asked why I left a secure position there a year ago to head up Shimer College, a relatively unknown school with 125 undergraduates. I suppose I liked its unofficial tagline: “Dangerously Optimistic Since 1853.”

More important, Shimer is based on the Great Books Program. We read texts in the natural and social sciences and the humanities that have enduring historical significance. By remaining intentionally small, we can model how to live in a participatory democracy.

The hardest part of my job is the commute. My partner, Betty Bayer, remains in Geneva as professor of women’s studies at Hobart and William Smith. We own a house there built in 1806; I take the train back East when I can.

Over the course of a lifetime, I have come to understand that I cannot pursue ideas alone. Nor can I strive to change the world unless I engage others, whether those who spit on me or those with whom I share my life. I still wrestle with the tensions of differences and uncertainty. As Shimerians say, we steer between reality and utopia.

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