On Retirement

I greatly enjoyed my 45 years at a professor of political science at KU.  I was happy to have “an office with a window,” in Blake Hall, atop Mount Oread.  I felt very  lucky to have had the opportunity and responsibility to teach political theory.  I sometimes proclaimed that I could not imagine a better job:  freedom to teach what I wanted; being able  to educate kids about political problems and possibilities; having students who were receptive to my concerns about the enduring  and fundamental issues of politics and who appreciated my approach.  And I had been paid – not handsomely but adequately – for this privilege.  Not only was I tenured but mandatory retirement was a thing of the past.  For most of my career, I imagined continuing in my job well into my 70s.  So why have I retired?

As I hit my mid-60s,  many friends and family members had quit working, begun to receive their social security checks, and increased their exposure to new experiences and places.  I realized that there were aspects of my job that I did want to ditch:  the felt responsibility to continuously update my courses, reading and grading bluebooks and term papers, and – of course – attending unproductive committee and departmental meetings!  I wanted to spend less time on such things and more time with my wife, others in my family, and my friends.  I wanted more time to travel, to read outside my areas of specialization, and to experience the many things that life has to offer that I had only glimpsed.  Most importantly, I wanted to stop obsessing about politics.

I  found that I could not escape the increasingly partisan nature of political discourse and the extensive polarization within our political institutions and in American society.  I had taken pride in providing and encouraging political analysis from diverse ideological perspectives, but my accounts of conservative Republican views had become dated, as Republicans moved away from pluralist norms and embraced an obstructive agenda of torpedoing every Obama initiative.  The  values of those “on the Right” had seemed to move from a focus on “the common good” to an emphasis on White nationalism.  Meanwhile, the values of those “on the Left” seemed to be moving from a focus on “social justice” to an embrace of “identity politics” which often meant (for my students) that any failure to satisfy their interests was an act of oppression.  I found it increasingly difficult to  provide sympathetic accounts of the more extreme perspectives that now populated our political and University landscapes or to generate sincere empathy for some of the ideas that I was hearing.   I began to doubt my ability to be unbiased.  Or I began to doubt that “objectivity” – or at least the pursuit of intersubjective agreement – was valued.

Such concerns prompted me to sign up at age 69 for a program of phased retirement.  Under this program, I could retain but reduce  my responsibilities (and salary) over a three-year period.   But two more developments prompted me to opt for full retirement after two years.

In 2012, a very conservative Kansas Legislature had eliminated most regulations on guns, but I had hoped that it would extend a provision that allowed KU to continue to prohibit firearms on campus.  But during my second year on phased retirement, this hope vanished.  Guns would no longer be prohibited on campus during my planned final year in the classroom.  For me, it was a matter of principle that classrooms had to be safe spaces where students could speak freely without fear of sparking violent responses.  I did not want to be a policeman monitoring the use of guns in my final year in the classroom.

And then Donald Trump ascended to the White House.  His election and his initial presidential acts defied my most basic understandings of politics.  I had no real answers to why Trump secured the number of votes he received and no real desire to claim that our electoral system was not broken.  I found that a Trump White House was more about personalities and political theater than about substantive governance and administration.  These were not the things I wanted to follow and talk about with students.  I’d rather my teaching memories be about Obama rather than Trump.

But beyond these specific concerns, I had become infected with a more general malaise about KU (and education generally).  My sense that I was “at home” at KU was receding.  Last weekend I returned to campus for the first time in several months, as my wife and I thought it would be interesting to visit some of the new facilities.  I could understand and appreciate the extensive investments made in business, science, engineering and other technical and professional fields.  And I understood (though I had less appreciation of) the many new investments in athletic facilities.   But it was clear that the priorities of the University had moved away from the sorts of liberal arts education in which I had participated and still valued.

Actually, we did not really get to visit these new facilities, as they were locked.  Throughout my career, the doors of the university were open to the curious, even on weekends.  I had expected that the norm of an open campus would endure, but that expectation was naïve.  Shutting buildings down for security and other such reasons was a vivid symbol of the changes that had taken place, especially since the introduction of guns on campus.  The distance I felt from  my former  “home on the hill” was profound.