Osgood ends presidency at Grinnell, returns to teaching

Wed, 2010-09-08 02:34 pm

 

Russell Osgood’s term as 12th President of Grinnell College concludes this Wednesday, Aug. 18. He sat down with the Herald-Register in July to look back over his years in Grinnell, touching on a wide range of topics including changes at the college, trends in education, experiences that readied him for the presidency and dogs.

Osgood loves teaching. Though he has held administrative positions for the past 20 years as dean of the Cornell University law school and president at Grinnell, each for 10 years, he has continued to teach and to write a biography every year. He will teach a course on the history of the English common law during the fall semester in the Grinnell in London program and a course in constitutional law during the spring semester at Washington University in St. Louis. He has no firm plans after that, noting he has many offers to teach and mentioning Scotland and Boston as likely locations.

Osgood spent most of his early life in and around Essex County, Mass., going to school in Winchester — where he met his wife Paula in junior high — and summering in Rockport. Anticipating retirement some day, the Osgoods bought a house 30 years ago in Rockport, and Paula Osgood moved there in July. Osgood’s Grinnell College office was mostly furnished with his own furniture and paintings, and a room in Rockport will soon house an office for Osgood similar to the Grinnell College office so familiar to Grinnellians.

"I believe the former president owes it to the new president to be out of town for a significant period of time," Osgood says. "You’re so powerful when you’re president. It’s good for a place to have someone different, to have different perspectives and to get new ideas from a new person. I still have a million ideas, but they’re my ideas, and it’s time for a change."

Osgood was attracted by the Grinnell presidency because the college is a strong, successful liberal arts college. His goal was to insure that, when he left, it was an even stronger liberal arts college, a goal he believes has been achieved.

Osgood enjoyed interacting with law students as a teacher and dean, but he says he enjoys undergraduates more. "I like law students," he says, "but they’re much more developed and formed. Undergraduates are still making fundamental choices in their life. It’s more interesting to interact with them. Also as president you interact with them across the range of their life. When they’re in trouble, about to be expelled, you’re the one who’s dealing with them. When they win the great award, you’re the one who deals with them. When they’re out there playing a game on the sports field, you’re out there watching. And then I teach them in class. So you’re with them across the whole range of their life."

Rounding out the picture, Osgood adds that parents call to discuss their children, and faculty and staff sometimes encounter problems they need to discuss with the president. Noting that he viewed his job as helping students, parents, faculty and staff, Osgood sums up, "That’s the terrific part of my job."

Thinking back over his time at Grinnell, Osgood picks out the Expanding Knowledge Initiative as the academic enhancement most important to the college. "The Expanding Knowledge Initiative which is the umbrella whereby we added faculty positions under the strategic plan was the most successful," he says. "The reason was that, rather than the president deciding we’re going to do this or do that, in effect the faculty had to go back and think about what do we need that’s in a new area of knowledge that we’re missing here, that fits in logically. They did a wonderful job. They added a bunch of really terrific things — including earth systems science, Arabic, Islamic civilization, neuroscience, human geography."

Osgood points to the college’s success in the hard sciences, noting that the institution’s success pre-dates him and matured while he was at Grinnell. He interviewed for the presidential position on the day Grant Gale passed away and attributes the college’s success in the sciences partly to Gale’s influence.

"He was a wonderful personality," says Osgood of Gale about whom he is writing a biography. "He built the physics department, and he also built a sense of cohesion in the science faculty. So that set of faculties works well together. He was also on the cutting edge in guessing at new areas of knowledge, of technology and integrated circuits. He was not the only figure, and he would have refused to take any credit. I think Charlie Duke was an important figure in that, too, and we’ve landed a lot of other good people."

Osgood explains that many young science PhD graduates seek research jobs, essentially getting on a treadmill requiring constant focus on applications for grants, travel to acquire those grants and administration of large labs. Other fine scientists, he continues, do not want to live that life and genuinely want to teach. Many Grinnell science faculty have the sense, he concludes, that they chose the liberal arts rather than focusing on research, and he points particularly to women scientists who want to teach, do science and have families. "You can be a good research scientist, a good teacher at a liberal arts college and have that rest of your life in the same town," he says of the choice Grinnell College science faculty make.

Osgood observes that finishing off the science building was important in cementing the quality of the science faculties. "The building itself is part of the story, and that is a story where a lot of the credit goes to Jim Swartz," Osgood adds. "The theory of that building was to put all the sciences together because the disciplinary lines between the sciences have been dissolving for 20 to 30 years. Having a chemistry building which a lot of our peers do or an environmental sciences building doesn’t make sense." He groups Grinnell with Carleton and Swarthmore as schools with find facilities that are attracting the best science faculty members who choose to focus on teaching.

"The students are creative and, I say this lovingly, nerdy, and they love the individualized attention they get," Osgood adds of science undergraduates. "And all those things become true in the humanities and the social sciences. Maybe initially the faculty members didn’t self-select so much, but they come, they become skilled, and the students respond."

"What am I grateful for?" muses Osgood. "It was wonderful to come and be president of a place and have four other presidents in town." He names Charlie Duke, Pam Ferguson, George Drake and Glenn Leggett. "Everyone said ‘That’s trouble, Russell.’ Not true. They were all terrific." He remembers going to Ferguson to describe a difficult situation only to have her reply that she was glad she was no longer president. "But the act of describing the problem to her was always helpful," he recalls.

"One of my first visitors was Glenn Leggett who gave me this book he wrote which was advice to a new college president," Osgood recalls with a laugh. "The first sentence is ‘You are now a college president.’ The second sentence is ‘You no longer have any friends.’ And the third sentence is ‘Get a dog.’"

Osgoods had two Cairn terriers, the friendly little dogs famous for running with the president, when they came. Taking Leggett’s advice, they got another. Osgood relates that the family had had Airedales and decided to downsize to Welsh terriers. Osgood misread an ad, and the Osgoods visited a family with Cairn terriers instead. He recalls trying to tell his children, who immediately fell in love with the puppies, that this was the wrong breed. The kids prevailed, and the family has had and loved Cairn terriers ever since. "They’re great dogs," he says. "They’re fabulous with kids." Osgood says the breed is very common in Iowa on farms as they are too small to bother cattle, do not chase chickens and are ferocious ratters.

Turning to city-college relations, Osgood says that he worked as president to find ways the college could be helpful to the community. "You want the community to thrive," he notes. "I think that, during my period in part because of our help but mostly because of the community’s own ambitions, the community has thrived, done well, built a lot of things."

In a presidency marked by building, Osgood points to the Macy House renovation as his favorite success story among older buildings, to the Joe Rosenfield Center as optimally functional and to the new Bear athletic center as the most beautiful. He reserves a special place for the Old Glove Factory renovation.

"It was not terribly expensive, and it was wildly successful" he recalls. "People think when you buy an old building you’re going to lose your shirt. Architecturally it turned out we could save a lot more of that building than we thought we could, so it turned out to be a hugely cost-effective thing.

"I wanted to have a facility downtown. We had terrible space for PR, for development and for the treasurer. They were all crammed in those two old buildings. We started off thinking we could renovate those buildings, but they were in terrible shape, and nothing could be done. We heard the glove factory was on the market. I love the outside, and I liked that the people who worked there would have to walk through the town to get to the college. We also looked at part of the old Spaulding building, but that seemed maybe just a bit too far away. And there was nothing available in downtown at that moment."

Osgood adds that he thinks the town needs to add population and jobs in order to have a healthy hospital and an economically vibrant downtown. He also thinks the school system should merge with a nearby system to achieve a bigger high school, a result he knows is unlikely due to distance and to local community pride. He points to shrinking enrollments, guessing more mergers will happen to keep systems large enough to offer strong education and suggests a legislative financial incentive to schools that merge.

The country has reached the end of the economic boom period for post-secondary education, Osgood believes, leading to more painful choices for those administering institutions at the collegiate level. He is pleased that the proportion of Iowans in the upcoming freshman class is 13 percent, and he hopes the percentage will continue to rise. The number of students at liberal arts colleges has grown over the past 30 years, he says, while the number of schools has fallen, leading to larger student bodies at the remaining schools.

He predicts public higher education will have to shrink, commenting that those institutions are now overspending on capital programs and underspending on programs. He adds that Iowa has been one of the most restrained and cautious so it will not face the same kind of contraction he foresees for state systems like New York and Illinois. He warns that the graduation rate from community colleges is low, adding that some are thriving and providing valuable re-training for workers.

Osgood’s path to the Grinnell presidency began at Yale College where he took English history, math and economics, laying the groundwork for his later legal career and administrative duties. He says he was not an athlete beyond running and playing intramural hockey because of his love of skating.

Eligible for the draft in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam war, he joined the navy and spent two years as an officer responsible for 30 sailors and helping to handle the problems they encountered in their lives. He refers to this as the most important growing-up experience in his life and one he loved, adding, "That’s probably why I ended up a college president."

Afloat for most of his two years of service in the Mediterranean and Caribbean, Osgood then entered Yale Law School and says he had "significant re-entry problems," beginning with the bell at the end of the first class which was the exact same bell as those used to signal sailors to abandon ship. His wife Paula encouraged him to stay long enough to become acclimatized, and he followed law school graduation with four years as a tax lawyer at a Boston law firm, teaching at law schools for two years at Boston University and eight at Cornell University before embarking on his administrative career as dean.

Osgood says he has liked all six states he has lived in, adding he loves Grinnell for having lots of unpaved places to run.

Grinnell College’s 13th President, Raynard S. Kington, will begin his tenure Monday, Aug. 21.