Monday, June 6, 2011

Robert L. Payton

Earlier today, I received a phone call from an emeritus faculty member telling me that she had just heard about the passing of Robert Payton, a major figure in the study of philanthropy.  I had known and worked with Bob earlier in his career and this phone call immediately made me think back to a phone call I had received from him in 1975.

The call came on a Friday afternoon toward the end of August.  I was an untenured assistant professor of economics standing for tenure at Hofstra and Robert L. Payton was the President.  I had also just been appointed as the Associate Dean of University Advisement. My record was strong but Hofstra’s enrollment was declining at that time and the granting of tenure to me meant 100% tenure in the economics department at a time when all the enrollment indicators suggested that more fixed costs were not a great idea.  I was home at the time, actually vacuuming my living room, and trying not to think about my tenure candidacy.  But that wasn’t easy.  Vacuuming for me is not a fascinating activity.  And, as far as I knew everyone else standing for tenure that year had already been informed and I also knew that the Hofstra Board of Trustees had met earlier that week.
I answered the phone on the second or third ring.  It was President Payton’s assistant indicating that he wanted to talk with me on the phone for a few minutes, and was this a convenient time to have that conversation.  What can you say other than yes?  Bob got on the phone and immediately stated that the Board of Trustees had agreed with his recommendation that I be awarded tenure and that he knew this was in the best interests of the University.  I have always appreciated his willingness and the University’s willingness to take that chance in difficult economic times.  And what a class act he was to call and personally inform me.

At the beginning of that academic year, Bob Payton and I team taught a course on the economics of higher education.  I had been scheduled to teach this course and when he found out about it, he indicated he wanted to participate.  Scary to some extent to have a President as a teaching partner but I give him enormous credit.  He was exceptionally well read in all areas of higher education and I loved teaching this course.  It was team teaching at its best—the academic rigor and the practical experience, all in one course.  But it is important to note that Bob was not just informed regarding higher education, he was extraordinarily well read and extraordinarily worldly. Earlier in his career he had been the ambassador to Cameroon and he had a global orientation long before global was on most people’s radar.  He also very much had that sense of style and polish that one associates with an ambassador. Bob had the highest regard for the liberal arts, a keen understanding of what constitutes a good education and the importance of good teaching in making that happen.

Bob was only President for 3 years and they were difficult years enrollment wise for Hofstra.  After he left Hofstra he first headed the Exxon Education Foundation and later was a key figure in the founding of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.  In his leadership role at both Exxon and at Indiana he made enormous contributions.  I greatly respect these contributions and Bob’s legacy is inextricably interwoven in this good work.  But for me it was Bob Payton the person that made an indelible impression at a critical stage in my career.  And I am a better educator, a better provost and a better person because of the example he set.

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