Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Reveling in Retirement

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Reveling in Retirement

Article excerpt

After two college presidencies, Dr. James Hefner is taking time to pursue his avocations, while still in demand within academia.

The average college president's tenure lasts around five years. In 2005, Dr. James Hefner had served more than four times that long in the position: seven years as the president of Jackson State University and 14 years as the president of Tennessee State University. He accomplished a great deal in those years.

"I loved the challenge of moving my institution from one point to another. I had always put a premium on recruiting the best and the brightest students because I always felt it was important to serve all students but to also have that critical mass of exceptional students for the others to look up to and aspire to - and I had been successful at that," Hefner recalls.

Over his 14-year tenure at Tennessee, Hefner also oversaw a complex and ambitious building program: eight new buildings and the renovation of all the old buildings on the main and downtown campuses. He raised millions of dollars for these projects and pushed for the establishment of new Ph.D. programs, too, all the while managing to eat lunch with the students in the campus cafeteria at least twice a month.

And the university and the Nashville community seemed to appreciate his efforts. After the retirement announcement, a Nashville city coundhvoman, Carole Baldwin, threw the search process a curve ball by declaring her intention to nominate Hefner to succeed himself.

But, while no doubt flattered by the "save Hefner" campaign, the president remained resolute on the challenge that lay before him: after a decades-long tenure at the pinnacle of university leadership, he needed to create a second act What was the life he really wanted now?

Hefner was clear that he didn't want that life to revolve around politics. "When you are a public college president and an African-American college president, there's going to be politics associated with that Pursuing new programs and new academic degrees is going to take you to the state legislature, and you're going to have to get out there and be an advocate," he explains.

At the same time, he adds, "what you have to advocate may not be congruent with what others would like," so over time some of those relationships may become more frayed and difficult Though he considered those among the "normalities" of the job, Hefner was looking forward to laying that particular burden down.

Hefner was equally clear about his passions, though - and they remained students and research.

"Students matter most and that was my philosophy at Jackson State, and I took that with me to Tennessee State," Hefner says.

Not surprisingly, those are the poles around which the "working" portion of retirement revolves. After his retirement in May of 2005, Tennessee State named him president emeritus and appointed him to the highly prestigious and richly endowed Frist Chair for Excellence in the business school.

"While I was president, I always wanted to teach just one class, but there was never time," Heftier says. Now he revels in the opportunity to teach "Principles of Economics" to sophomores at TSU.

At the same time, he says, "Skip Gates called" - using the nickname by which the director of Harvard's celebrated DuBois Institute is universally known. Gates wanted Hefner to become a Sheila Biddle Ford Foundation fellow, an honor shared by the likes of Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka; Dr. Karla Holloway, the Kenan Professor of English at Duke University; and many other scholars of national and international repute. Hefner happily agreed, and he's hard at work on a book project titled The Black College in the Making of America. …

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