My Personal Hall of Fame—and Shame

Guest post by Marguerite M (Maggie) Culp

I spent some time recently chatting with doctoral students about the evolution of student affairs in the community college. The conversations reminded me of the profound impact that our profession has had on America’s community colleges since the 1960s. They also helped me realize that, in many respects, I owe my career in student affairs to an army of colleagues in colleges and universities throughout the country who served as guides, sounding boards, and—occasionally—rescuers. On the flip side, there were a few people along the way who did their best to make me feel inadequate or powerless.  Spoiler alert: their efforts failed. When I read your blog last week, I thought it might be fun to share my list of the first five people in my personal hall of fame. As you can imagine, it was challenging to settle on just five; but I met these people early in my career, and each had a profound and lasting impact on me as a person and as a professional. They deserve to go first.   

Hall of Fame: The first member of my hall of fame is the vice-chancellor of the Virginia Community College System who sat next to me in a graduate class at the University of Virginia in 1966, convinced me to consider a career in community colleges, and cheered me on when I obtained a counseling position at a large community college near Washington D.C. When my best friend was killed in Vietnam, he checked on me weekly, helped me to continue to function professionally, and set an example of courage and friendship that I will never forget. The entire time the man was helping me, he was battling cancer—and never said a word. When he finally told me, I was furious: the man was only thirty-five years of age and just beginning to make a difference in the world. When I voiced my thoughts, he looked me in the eye and said something I will never forget, “It’s not the time you have, but how you use the time that matters. I will continue to make a difference because you and many others like you will carry on the work I started. Make your life count, Maggie.”  

Ten months after I started work, the college hired a new president: a young, innovative educator from the Florida Community College System. After the president assembled his leadership team, he asked me to orient the team to the programs and services provided by student affairs professionals. He also gave me four pieces of advice that I never have forgotten.  Educate your colleagues: most community college leaders are familiar with academic affairs because they are former faculty members, but they know very little about student affairs. Focus on teaching and learning: help the leadership team understand how partnerships with student affairs have the potential to increase every student’s ability to learn and every faculty member’s teaching effectiveness. Speak with confidence: student affairs professionals may be junior partners, but they are essential junior partners.  Keep it real: use facts and figures to introduce the team to their students and to remind them to pay attention to the whole student.  That conversation alone would have earned the president a spot in my Hall of Fame; but he sealed his selection by nominating me for an NDEA Fellowship and providing numerous opportunities for me to grow professionally, acquire new skills, build positive relationships with faculty, and try out new ideas.       

While attending a series of national conventions, I kept running into an interesting guy whose brain seemed to generate an idea a minute. When I first met the man, he was a dean of students in Florida. The next year, he was a higher education professor at the University of Illinois. Seven years later, he became the executive director of the League for Innovation. Every time I met the man—whether at a formal presentation or over drinks and dinner—I left with dozens of new ideas. My commitment to educating the whole person, student-centered learning, helping students understand who they were and providing them with the tools to lead a good life and earn a good living grew out of our early conversations. Our paths continued to cross over the years. We recently collaborated on a book, and—over fifty years after our first meeting—he still managed to teach me a few things. 

At another convention in St. Louis, I suspected that the speaker was drawing conclusions not supported by data and raised my hand to ask a question. When the presenter skillfully evaded the core of my question, I raised my hand again and asked how he planned to reconcile the inconsistencies between recently published research and the conclusions he was drawing. As I finished my question and started to sit down, the gentleman seated in front of me turned around, extended his hand, and said, “I do not know who you are, but I love you.” And that is how I met the dean of students at a large community college in Texas who, over the years, offered me sage advice—even when I was not sure I needed it. He taught me how to deal with difficult people and effectively read—and navigate—complex political landscapes.   He also introduced me to dozens of student affairs professionals in colleges and universities across the country who played starring roles in my professional life.

There is no better way to close out the list of my first five hall of fame candidates than by including my trusted friend, frequent collaborator, and valued writing partner.  We rarely worked in the same time zone: Virginia, Florida, and Texas for me; Illinois, California, and Arizona for him.  But we always stayed in touch, celebrated the good times and offered support when times got tough. For over forty years, my friend never was more than a phone call away, elevated every book we wrote with his keen insights and finely-tuned prose, motivated me to look for innovative solutions to some challenging problems, and had a knack for seeing through bull****. Whenever I found myself in a professional hole—as I did in 2020 when Covid  prevented a writing team from submitting  a chapter on time for a book I was co-editing—he handed me a shovel and helped me dig my way out. In 2020, the “shovel” was agreeing to work with me to research and write a replacement chapter in three weeks.     

Hall of Shame:  The only thing I can say about the following list is that I rarely think about these people. Remembering them occasionally, however, reminds me what life was like for many women of my generation and how some of our time and talents were squandered dealing with Neanderthals, opportunists, and saboteurs—and the negative force fields that seemed to surround them.   

Neanderthals proudly lived in the past.  My first run in with a Neanderthal occurred when a university professor told me to “get laid, get married, and have children” because no reputable university would waste a seat in a doctoral program on a young, attractive female.  Then there was the dean who, when the president decided that the college would remain open four nights a week until 7:30 p.m., ordered the single women to cover the extended hours because the men had family responsibilities.  My favorite Neanderthals, however, were the deans of three institutions who interviewed me—in different years and in different states—for counseling or leadership positions. One asked if my husband approved of my working. Another wanted to know if I planned to become pregnant in the next few years. The third asked where I worshipped each Sunday, if any of my ancestors had fought for the Union, and if my hair color was natural or came from a bottle. The Neanderthal who left me speechless, however, was the female faculty member who, when I gently reminded her that Jesus would have said that slavery was immoral, cheerfully replied, “Yes, he would have said that. But Jesus would have been wrong.”

Opportunists had no principles except “me first,” liked to build their reputation at someone else’s expense, and saw work as a zero sum game where only one person could win.  Charter members of this group include every administrator, faculty member, or student affairs professional who took credit for programs that worked and publically blamed others when something went wrong as well as those who took credit for another person’s ideas or accomplishments.  Card-carrying members also included staff members who “butted” ideas to death, made supportive statements in meetings and derogatory comments in private, and were absolute artists at denigrating colleagues while insisting they were only trying to help.       

Saboteurs appeared to be honest and above board on the surface, but they had their own agendas. I will never forget the reporter for a weekly newspaper who interviewed me about a new program the college was launching for mature women. He was pleasant, asked solid questions, and then wrote a front-page article that focused almost exclusively on the fact that I wore a pants suit, came from Boston, and probably was trying to bring women’s lib to the county. There also was the seasoned counselor who casually would chat with me about a class I was teaching, or a project I was coordinating, and then go straight to the dean to outline what “the new girl” was doing wrong.  I will never forget the vice-president who, when he saw me working every day in my office during spring break, seized the opportunity to criticize my boss and my colleagues before offering me a position in academic affairs where my talents would not be exploited.

Why the Stroll Down Memory Lane? The surface explanation is that I am trying to stay sane in a world that increasingly resembles the holiday fruitcakes I receive every year: wherever you cut them, there are too many nuts! Remembering all the wonderful people I met during my career and how I managed to educate or isolate the Neanderthals, inactivate the saboteurs, and neuter the opportunists motivates me to continue to fight the good fight; to make a difference every day no matter where I am; and to trust that, in the end, the views of people who are thoughtful, kind, and decent will prevail over the views of the negative and nasty, the power-hungry egotists, the conspiracy theorists, and the data-deniers who seem determined to destroy this country.

The slightly less flattering explanation is that I was disappointed in myself last week.  Workers repairing my sprinkler system started to spout “truisms” like a college degree is worthless because the curriculum has been watered down to allow women, Latinos, and Blacks to graduate; the events of January 6th never happened;  and Putin has the right idea—take what you want. I patiently tried to help them rethink their “truisms.”  When they doubled down, I verbally eviscerated them and fired the company. Later than day, I could hear my dad telling his nineteen year old daughter that “The toughest battle you will fight in your life is not the battle to change the world, but the battle to make sure the world does not change you.”  Creating a personal hall of fame was an attempt to remember who I was, work harder to prevent the world from changing me, and not disappoint my dad.          

Marguerite M (Maggie) Culp is a higher education consultant and former faculty member, counselor, dean, and senior student affairs officer. She is co-Editor of six books including the recently published Student Success in the Community College: What Really Works?

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