Doug Bennett served as President of Earlham College from 1996-2011. He is a member of Durham Monthly Meeting (New England Yearly Meeting).
What faith did you grow up in?
Doug: I grew up in a Presbyterian Church, which my parents joined. They met up the Anderskoggen River at Bates College, both having grown up in good northern Baptist homes. They dutifully went off at the freshman mixer, and then married. After they moved to Rochester, New York and they couldn’t find a Baptist Church they liked, they found a nice family-friendly Presbyterian Church. I used to tease my dad that I became a Quaker because on Sunday afternoons after church I would listen to him about the unreconstructed Calvinism of the sermon.
At Haverford I mostly went to Fifth-day meeting, which was raucous-hardly reminiscent of a normal Quaker meeting. We were required to go four times a semester so a lot of people were there against their hope for Thursday morning. When I went to Temple University that’s when I start teaching and moved to Germantown, and I started going to Germantown Friends Meeting. I had no understanding of what I was walking into. I quickly came to understand that this is a big important old meeting full of Quaker families that were extremely powerful spiritually figures in that meeting. I started dating somebody from the meeting, and as we started getting serious, I wrote a letter to the meeting asking that I be considered for membership, but telling them that I didn’t know at all what I believed. I found the meeting a useful setting for my spiritual wanderings.
What is important to you now about Quakerism?
Doug: The assurance that I’m not alone in thinking that God speaks to us today. That in a nutshell is what Quakerism offers Christianity. We’re not alone in believing that, but we’re almost alone in lifting that up so centrally.
Have you stayed in this tradition?
Doug: I’ve had my moments of frustration with every Quaker meeting I’ve belonged to, but I’ve been a member now in a succession of meetings-unusually, both programmed and unprogrammed. In my travel I encounter a lot of evangelical friends, so my experience of Quakerism has been uncommonly broad.
What feeds your spiritual life?
Doug: Lots of reading, lots of prayer-waiting worship is important to me, too. But I also regularly am reading something. I do think that reading people and what they have to say is worthwhile.
Do you attend a worship service on a regular basis? What is powerful for you about that worship?
Doug: I’m now a member at Durham Monthly Meeting, to my surprise, having coming to Maine expecting to come back to unprogrammed Friends. I tried Brunswick Meeting, which is literally across the street-I could go in my pajamas-but there no kids and there is virtually no spoken ministry. Robbie and I became members at Durham Meeting about a year ago. My wife, Ellen meanwhile who has a lot of affection for Quakers, got her fill of Quakers at Earlham, she cheerfully joined First Parish Church at UCC Church in Brunswick, with its magnificent organ and choir, which she’s in. Some Sundays, especially when there’s singing we go to First Parish Church and enjoy it.
What struggles do you have with being faithful, generally? Where do you find renewal?
Doug: I have what seems like a profoundly deep well of selfishness. I suspect almost all of us do. There are days, thinking about myself and what I do, that I’m kind of overwhelmed by that selfishness and its ability to let me to do and say things I wish I hadn’t. I don’t know anything to do about that except to know it and to try to develop spiritual habits to curb it.
When you were 15, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Doug: A college professor or perhaps administrator. My senior year in high school we had to do a guidance project in which we did research on a future career, so that I wrote about those. My dad was a chemist for Eastman Kodak. He should have been a college professor; he was a natural born teacher. That was the image that I went off to Haverford with.
Where did you attend college? What was your major in college?
Doug: I went to Haverford, where I majored in Political Science.
If you did graduate work, what degree(s) did you pursue and what were their topics?
Doug: A Ph.D. in Political Science from Yale.
What was your Ph.D. dissertation on?
Doug: A deep mistake. I got drawn down a Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole of wandering. There are explanations in the social sciences that look at why human beings do what they do, and there are explanations that give reasons for why people do what they do. Those two are not easily bridged. Social scientists don’t like to talk about that, but it’s a profound problem. All this time I was aware that I was off on a pointed headed intellectual problem and not addressing issues of war or race or inequality that I was also interested in pursuing. As I left graduate school, I had a predicament of casting myself differently than my dissertation made me look, if I was going to stay in a college professor, to get tenure publishing things that were publishable in ways that are recognizable in my field.
How would you describe your career path?
Doug: I was deeply involved anti-war efforts right through graduate school. It was a bit of tension-it was hard to be a focused graduate student and involved in it. I went off to Temple-I wanted an urban, public place. It has just unionized and I was fascinated by the possibility of a unionized faculty to stand up for more faculty control of the university. I taught at Temple from 1973 to 1987, and was tenured there. For most of that time, I was hell on wheels towards people in positions of importance. I was trouble incarnate.
I spent a year at Swarthmore College working with the Provost as a part of a Fellows program for the American Council on Education, and doing intensives with the 30 fellows a couple times during the year. The fellows program requires you to go back to the sponsoring institution for at least a year, so I went back to Temple as an Associate Dean. Later that year, I was nominated to become Provost at Reed College, where I worked for four years. They were tumultuous years with a lot of learning-I wasn’t hired with tenure, and the president who hired me left after my second year. The new president came in and told me it would be my last year, he needed to do a clean sweep.
I’d helped build a library consortium in the Pacific Northwest, and I became its executive director for a short period of time. I moved on to the American Council of Learned Societies. The board wanted a 6-8 year commitment because they knew they had a lot to fix about their operating procedures, finances, and fundraising. I said yes, but with an odd caveat: there are a couple of Quaker colleges that if they were president looking I’d want your permission to apply for them. The president, Stan Katz, wanted me to name them so we had a clear deal, and I named three, and Earlham was one of them. When I came into his office three years later and said “Stan, there’s something I need to tell you,” he said, “I think I read the ad this morning.”
What was that process like for you, since it’s very clear that it was because they were Quaker that you made that exception. What did your faith have to do with that decision?
Doug: There is a divide that opened up in the liberal arts in the first part of the 20th century between a concept of liberal arts that talks about knowledge for knowledge’s sake, which became the dominant view and an older idea that knowledge and the pursuit of a liberal arts education is character shaping. Almost every liberal arts college, you read their material, and you will hear lots of talk about character shaping if you read the front matter of the catalog. But when you read their curriculum, you’ll find that drops out. I had a strong orientation to character shaping as the purpose of education. Oddly, the only places that really are comfortable with that kind of character shaping are three kinds of institutions: Roman Catholic, evangelical, and Quaker. So independent of my being Quaker, if I was going to be president of an institution, it would be one that had a taste for character shaping.
How would you describe your former position?
Doug: I’m not like Fred Calder, but Fred did leave me strongly inclined to think that if you’re not the chief strategist, no one will be. You need to be incredibly focused on what the biggest opportunities and the biggest challenges are. The only way you’re going to do that is to leave a lot of the rest of the doing to somebody else. It also seems apparent to me that you wouldn’t want to be a president who isn’t also present to the students and a member of the faculty. It was important to me to be a member of the faculty, so I insisted to the search committee that, especially following my Reed experience, they appoint me as a member of the political science faculty and tenure me, so I’d be seen right from the beginning as a professor of political science with the intention that I would teach a course at least every year. That was so I would be with that among students in a way that a faculty member was-so that the president was like a member of the teaching faculty serving in another capacity. What there was to know was probably not immediately knowable and only ultimately knowable by doing the job and committing to being part of it. I don’t know that much else was a surprise.
How did you come to apply for the job?
Doug: I knew I would apply I needed to clear it with Stan Katz, remind him of our deal be sure I don’t blow myself out of this job along the way. I also knew that somebody doing due diligence in a search would call people at Reed who would want to say terrible things about me. It helped reassure me that Earlham ended up hiring the same search firm as Reed had-Academic Search Consultation Service- and a woman named Christine Young was the lead on both of these searches, and so she knew what I had dealt with at Reed. I felt like I would at least get a sympathetic hearing about what had gone on. Also, by then I knew some members of the Earlham faculty, largely through Friends Association for Higher Education (FAHE). I’d gotten to know John Punshon and he’d become somebody of importance to me — he taught me a lot about Quakerism, and he heard me give a presentation at the FAHE conference. While I was at Reed they had one of the conferences at George Fox University, and I talked about the idea of character formation and why that was consistent with a Quaker understanding of higher education.
How much, if any, influence did your faith have in how you responded to applying for the job?
Doug: During the search I was living in New York, and I was a member of 15th Street Meeting in New York. I really didn’t have a circle of people there that I thought could be helpful to me. I thought a lot about what I wanted to say, and I talked a lot about Earlham’s Quakerness through the search.
What influences did your faith have in your job as president?
Doug: I don’t know how to answer that except, as a person of some spiritual seeking, I don’t know that I do anything that doesn’t have something to do with thinking about what’s the right thing to do. It’s not a question I can separate myself from. I don’t know how to think about that except in the context of myself as a spiritual seeking person who has a deep well of selfishness within him that is inescapable.
How would you describe your leadership style?
Doug: Early on in my presidency I wrote a two-page thing, which I used subsequently and then revised a little bit: a kind of outline to talk through with potential and current members of the senior staff what it’s like to work with me, what I expect, and how I do things. One of the things it says is there are big differences between three modes of work: planning, deciding, and operating. You always need to know which of those three you’re involved in. People tend to smush them together. Lots of times at Earlham, students and sometimes faculty would get upset that something wasn’t “done in a Quaker way,” by which they were saying something like “I didn’t know that this was going to be done and I don’t like it-so it must be wrong because we do everything by consensus.” Well, it’s in the middle layer of deciding, where we’re policy-making or direction setting that we need waiting worship to guide us, and we need to be careful to think through whose responsibility it is to gather in waiting worship to make that kind of decision. Planning is a much more playful open textured work. You don’t have to do that through Quaker meeting, you can do that lots of ways. I was both a planner and somebody who likes data. I needed to teach, and I needed to find lots of ways to be with students. Some of them worked better than others, but every year I was there I spent a lot of time thinking- what’s my approach, given that I’m not going to spend every minute of every day out among students. What are the ways I can plunge into the student body-write a column in the newspaper, perform in the air guitar competition? What am I going to do this year that gets me some sense of Earlham students?
How did you learn leadership skills – within the Quaker world? Outside of it? In either case, describe some of the ways you’ve learned these skills.
Doug: I learned a lot in the year I spent at Swarthmore College from David Frazier and Jim England who was the Provost. Jim would say with the exception of this one, you’re welcome to any of these meetings I’m going to be in. If you want we’ll talk about what I think is going to happen in this meeting, some of which are called, and some of which someone has asked to have with me. I’ll tell you what I think is going to happen for the meeting and then you can watch the meeting and then we’ll talk about what happened afterwards.
I realized that every morning he would walk from his office to a little coffee shop at Swarthmore and get a cup of coffee and stroll back. One day I was going by his office, I was on my way to the coffee shop and I stuck my head in his office and asked him if I could bring him a cup of coffee. He said nope but I’ll go with you. As we walked across campus, he said “I do this everyday because every member of the faculty knows I do this every day. So if you want to have a “by the way” conversation with me, everybody knows where and when to do it. Sometimes people just need to say something to you, or ask you things, and want to look like it was just off the top of their heads and I need to give him that opportunity.”
Do you feel your work brings you closer to or further away from your faith and faithfulness?
Doug: Probably closer. I used to say that I was the most fortunate person on earth because I was married to the best person I could be possibly be married to, I had the two most wonderful sons I could possibly have, and I had the best job I could have on the planet. Nobody could call me and up and offer me another job that I would want more than the one that I had. Aristotle says human happiness consists of doing well that which we have the capability to do well. When I read it as an 18 year old, I thought it was one of the stupidest things I had read in my life-it seems perfectly circular-but I’ve come to realize it is a profound piece of wisdom.
How well do you feel your work is understood and supported by your meeting?
Doug: For most of the time I was at Earlham I kept my membership at 15th Street. I talked to 15th Street early, and I said “I want this to go on for a while, I don’t know how long but it’s unclear to me which of the meetings in Richmond I should join.” It also allowed me to spend a lot of time at College Meeting for Worship, especially with a very young son-first one and then another. It was hard to go to two different worship services without putting a lot of torque on my family and my own ability to relax on a Sunday. But I want to go to College Meeting as many Sundays as I could. 15th Street, I think had no understanding and was of no support to me but I had never settled very well under that meeting. Towards the end after Robbie was born, Ellen and I began to think it would be good to start going regularly to a family centered meeting and I joined First Friends. I don’t know that it understood a lot of what I did, but there were a lot of people there who were warmly supportive of Earlham’s “Quaker-ness,” and very sympathetic to the ongoing struggles we had with the two Yearly Meetings in Indiana.
Did you have a support committee, elder, or other structure for support and accountability in your meeting?
Doug: I didn’t, and I think it would have been awkward to form one. There’s a lot you know as president that either takes too much time to explain sufficiently to other people to be comfortable hearing their advice and guidance, or that you can’t tell them. Paul and Margie Lacey let me know early on it in my time at Earlham that anytime the Bennetts needed a night when they could say anything they damn well please and not have it repeated, the Laceys were up for having dinner. I used to get killingly funny notes from Margie when something really egregious happened in the faculty meeting-in a couple of sentences she would just skewer whatever was going on and let me know “I’m paying attention, I know your job is hard.”
Who have your mentors been (generally, spiritually, work, all of the above)?
Doug: Somebody I never met but began to be aware of when I was at Haverford, was Rufus Jones. As I grew more interested in Quakerism I began reading a lot of Rufus Jones, and realized that if I had intellectual and spiritual forbearance for Rufus Jones, that he had thought through a lot of the difficulties in faith that I found myself confronting, and he had thought them through a lot better than I had. Douglas Steere is someone else who I’ve read a lot. I learned a lot as a fellow with the American Council on Education during the week-long seminars we attended. They’d bring in a smart person, and they’d say things to us, and we’d ask questions. As a professor, I thought my job was to be the smartest person in the room. At the end of that year, I realized I needed a complete transformation of the way that I approached what I did. I need to go into the room thinking: I am the person who knows the least. I am the perfection of ignorance, and my job is to ask questions and to draw as much out of everybody else in the room as I can, and try to see if we can distill that into something that makes sense.
What is something you wish you’d known at x, y, z points in your spiritual path and/or career?
Doug: One of the things that Rufus Jones taught me deeply was that final big answers are not available to human beings, and they are not going to fit together it into any deep intellectual package; that it was ok to be comfortable with not knowing. I don’t know how you teach somebody that, especially somebody who grows up smart, doing well in school, for whom knowing the answer comes easily: to learn that not knowing the answer is important.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve gotten about spiritual/ faith journeys? What is your favorite piece of advice you like to give others about spirituality/ faithfulness?
Doug: I don’t know that I can remember any piece of spiritual advice that has been directed at me. The advice I would tell people is: as long as they are honest and stay with it, they probably are on the right path.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received about your career/ work path?
Doug: The best advice I think is to try to get anybody I work with is to set things in context, to see the whole picture, to think about it in the hackneyed strategic planning language: strengths, weaknesses, opportunity, threats. Never lose sight of those questions, and understand there are a lot of things that are going to bedevil you, but there’s only one or two things that will kill you, and you better understand those and how to avoid them. There are probably a lot of good things that will happen that you must be aware of, but only a few really big possibilities, so if you ever had a glimmer of hope, you should grab them. Think about the bigger plan.