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Magisterial Profiles: Princeton and USC

— What is it like being the master of a residential college? It’s like “half running a large seminar and half being the mayor of a small town” says the master of one of Princeton University’s residential colleges. Two popular articles, one about Stephen Toulmin, sometime Master of North College at the University of Southern California, and the other (below) about the masters of several Princeton colleges, provide windows into magisterial life.

Publication note: This article by Sophia Hollander and Daniel Stephens appeared in the 1 May 2000 issue of The Daily Princetonian, the student newspaper of Princeton University. The text is quoted here in full.

Master Minds

When a professor decides to take the helm of a residential college, it isn’t an easy choice

By Sophia Hollander and Daniel Stephens
Princetonian Senior Writers
Monday, May 1, 2000

Maria DiBattista was afraid of the silences. The professor of English and comparative literature was pondering the possibility last year of becoming a master of Rockefeller College—and the new kind of relationship with students it would entail.

She thought about the pauses and embarrassed smiles that would come when she sat down at a table and tried to begin a discussion with a stranger decades younger. She was intimidated by the inevitable awkwardness.

She accepted the job. The anxiety remained. But then she had days like the one at the beginning of the year, when she was standing in line at the cafeteria and a student asked what classes she was teaching next semester.

“An American in Paris,” DiBattista answered.

“Oh!” said the student. “Are you teaching Henry Miller?”

She wasn’t. Immediately, the student began explaining that this was a favorite book of hers, what it could offer, why it should be taught. DiBattista argued back.

“It was a vintage moment,” she said. “I don’t know in what other job I could hope to have that kind of encounter. It’s not earth-shaking, but it’s neat to make that little, sudden connection, even if it doesn’t go anywhere. It makes you feel like you’re in a community that cares about the same kinds of things that you do.”

Now she is finishing her first year, and is still trying to understand what the role of college master means. But it is a question she is eager to tackle.

“It’s been a hard year in a lot of ways, but it’s been a rewarding year.” she said. “I’m so glad I did it. I didn’t know at the beginning of the year whether I could have said that at the end.”

Serving as the head of a residential college can eat away a large portion of a professor’s time. College masters tend to be wary of the time commitment of the job and of interfering with their own private lives. In a way, masters take on a second family when they lead a college.

“I think of my job as half running a large seminar and half being the mayor of a small town,” Wilson college master Miguel Centeno said. “You always have to wonder if you would be reelected if people had a vote.”

For Andrea La Paugh—who will be assuming the position at Forbes college next year—the impact on her family was even more profound. Her 11-year old daughter is in a wheelchair and could not navigate the two-story master’s house. So Princeton offered to install ramps and an elevator. La Paugh was sold.

“To become a master you really have to be prepared to be really involved in the college life,” she said. “It’s a very strong tradition that the master entertain advisees, and that means that it’s not just something that I do on my own. It’s something that comes into my home and my family. If that doesn’t sound like a fun and a good thing, then that’s not something one should do.”

As evidenced by the extraordinary measures taken to accommodate La Paugh, the selection process for the college masters is personal and intensive. It is characterized by lunches, phone calls and conversations that take place years before appointments are made. Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel has the task of finding the right person for the job and making a recommendation to President Shapiro, who then makes the final appointment.

“Dean Malkiel is really the critical person in the selection of masters,” La Paugh said. “She is always working on this, planting the seed early.”

On a Friday morning six years ago, Ted Champlin stepped into his office and spotted a pink slip on his desk. Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel wanted to see him. He sat down and switched on his computer. There was an e-mail from the dean. He checked his voice-mail. She had left a message.

“I thought I’d either done something really, really bad or really, really good,” recalled Champlin this week, laughing.

He phoned Malkiel immediately, and she assured him he had not done anything wrong. It was quite the contrary: Would he be interested in the position of master at Butler College?

Champlin is now finishing his fifth year at Butler despite the drain on emotion and time required of college masters. “The rewards far outweigh the concerns,” he said.

Religion professor John Gager, who plans to take leave next year in Israel, will exit Forbes College July 1. Though his experience as master has been rewarding, Gager said he has one regret.

“Just before I began my term of office, my wife was diagnosed with cancer,” Gager said. “I regret that she wasn’t able to participate more fully in those first years and see me finish my time here. We both agreed that the right thing to do was to go ahead with our lives. I don’t regret the decision that we made, but the fact that she wasn’t able to see it through is a source of real regret for me.”

The position had interested La Paugh for a long time. She had enjoyed her experience working closely with undergraduates and on student-life issues, she said, noting that she served on several University committees and as a department representative. She has also been a member of the U-Council and a freshman adviser.

“First, I identified that this is something I’d like to do in the abstract,” she said. “When I thought about doing it, I got really excited.”

Still, she was not about to rush into the job. “It’s something one has to consider very carefully. I had to be very careful because it’s a big commitment for me and for the students in Forbes,” she said.

Germanic languages and literature department chair Michael Jennings, who ended his term as master of Rockefeller College last year, agreed that being a master is a major commitment for a professor.

“There are plenty of professors who enjoy contact with students, but it’s never a simple tradeoff between research and students,” he said. “Any time you become master, you have to give things up.”

La Paugh was concerned about just how much work the position might entail. “I had to be sure about what else happens [in the college],” she said. “As a fellow you see all the nice things that go on, but you don’t see all the bad things.”

The bad things include roommate disputes that can turn painful and sad, puncturing the experience of a fragile freshman who is trying to adapt to an alien environment. They also include students struggling under pressure to perform at an elite level and choosing between classes they want and those they feel they should take.

DiBattista said she has grown more aware of newspaper articles about the experiences and impressions of college students. Before she would see and skim the stories before skipping to another section. Now she studies surveys about drinking, depression and eating disorders, and associates them with students she knows.

“The culture of undergraduate life that I was seeing from the perspective of the classroom suddenly had a much wider perspective,” she said.

It can be a troubling expansion of awareness, but one that many professors ultimately welcome.

Champlin taught courses with colleagues before becoming a master, but at Butler he has interacted with engineers, molecular biologists and people in the housing office and public safety. A few days ago, he was talking with a physicist about the different relationships between teaching and research from the sciences to the humanities.

“There are some really good people out there,” he said. “You realize the University is a lot more than professors or students in the department. It still is just fun to see how other people see the universe—the universe of the University.”

Because of the importance of the position and the personal commitment it requires, the selection process is very personal, focused on the individual professor and the role that the job might play in his or her life.

“The process is a hand-crafted one that involves a match of faculty member and timing,” Malkiel said. “You begin a conversation with a faculty member years before an appointment is made.”

Malkiel also asks other faculty for some help in making her decision. “In framing that recommendation, we look for advice from sitting and former masters,” she said.

“It’s very humbling, despite the title ‘master,’ and that’s good,” DiBattista said, laughing. “That’s also good for me. You know, because you can get pretty set in your ways and your vision of things on one side of the desk. As master, some students feel more relaxed and more teasing so you can catch yourself in attitudes that may be a little more stiff than they need to be. And a little less responsive.”

She listens to students and notes whether they want to see an opera or “Stomp” or the Sixers play in Philadelphia, the books they read, the slang they speak out of class. Earlier in the year, her son pestered her to see “The Matrix.” She balked. Keanu Reeves, in an action movie? But when a student in the core group initiated a series of science-fiction and futuristic films DiBattista made a point of watching it. She was hooked. She finished watching and could not wait to talk about it.

“My impressions are that it is a job without a definite job description, which has the advantage of yielding itself to whatever you want to make it,” DiBattista said. “And I’m not sure I’ve decided what that should be.”

“It does reward you in reconnecting you to undergraduate life in a way you would never be otherwise able to experience,” she said. “The students are incredibly receptive and really sort of exciting and endearing to be around in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.”

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