Former University of Rochester President Joel Seligman wrote a book.
It’s called 12 Great Years.
Those years were largely defined by growth: a tremendous amount of money raised and spent on new facilities.
The student body also grew and the medical center expanded.
But Seligman used 12 years in the title not 13 because his last year was defined by accusations of sexual harassment against UR Professor Florian Jaeger and the firestorm that accompanied those accusations.
Seligman and Adam Chodak sat down to talk about the book and its ending.
Adam Chodak: What inspired you to write this book?
Joel Seligman: I wanted to write a celebration of the University of Rochester, the progress it made during 12 consequential years I was honored by being president and really to emphasize the role the university took in the community in those years which something all of us who were involved are very proud. It’s also a celebration of an extraordinarily broad team of people who worked together including the board, faculty, students, alumni, often community leaders. And I knew that as university president you can’t do anything alone, but the one thing I could do alone was share my memories and because I was involved in a lot of projects, I could put them down. I am also sometimes a part-time historian and I learned long ago that history is what is recorded and this was my opportunity to preserve memories frankly while I still had them.
AC: Around a billion dollars worth of building investment, an incredible amount of fundraising – notable across the country, growth in class sizes, growth in representation in those classes. Was there an overarching method that accomplished that or did you approach each aspect in a different way?
JS: Of course you have approach each aspect in a different way, but the most important thing about the University of Rochester when I arrived in 2005 was it was hungry. The school was still a very, very strong university, but in some respects it didn’t have the right trajectory anymore and there was a desire on the part of the board and the faculty, the students – to a lesser degree, but still real, and the alumni especially to see the school make substantial progress. This was the opportunity. I realized as I reviewed the university, it had to be done symphonically. It wasn’t one thing that needed to be done, there were dozens and whether it was focusing on development or communication or helping the medical center with very meaningful expansion or dramatically increasing the number of students and faculty in number of schools or the facilities needs, they were all real and at the same time was real was to a greater extent than other universities I’ve been associated with, we were isolated. Here we are, an urban campus, there was a bridge across the Genesee and in effect we never crossed it. And this was a chance to proceed symphonically with a comprehensive strategic plan, that was the magic phrase, which involved everybody, which had to have buy-in from major donors, from the faculty, from the students in order to succeed and the key to what we were doing was team. Nothing was possible if you said the university president did it, that’s never true. My role was to help inspire, help coordinate, but most of all turn lose the amazing talents of so many wonderful people with whom I worked.
AC: Out of all the accomplishments and developments is there one that you find yourself the most proud of?
JS: There were a lot of things we did on campus I was so proud to be a part of, but off campus, in the community, we really had a role that was somewhat path breaking for the university. It wasn’t as if Mt. Hope Family Center wasn’t there before and programs weren’t there before, but it was Brooks Crossing or it was East High School or it was involvement as co-chair with Danny Wegman of the Finger Lakes Region Economic Development Council, which was very successful in bringing $800 million to the region. I was particularly proud of the community role and the reason I was proud of it was that I strongly believe universities can’t be sanctuaries, alone and apart from society. They’re part of society and it’s a role they should welcome and it’s a role they should embrace. To take this another step, there were great university presidents during my day who would say certain schools should be closed because they’re not at the same level of academic achievement as others. These are often schools most involved in the community and if anything, we strengthened every school in every way we could.
AC: Do you think you’d still be in the role if not for the controversy (surrounding sexual harassment allegations against UR Professor Florian Jaeger) that followed in 2017?
JS: Oh, no way. It’s a 24/7 kind of job, you got at it full tilt. I threw my whole heart and soul into this. At a certain time, it’s time for a fresh start and when I left people went around saying did you fall on the sword and that’s absolutely wrong. I left because it was in the best interest of the university. I was going to leave within a reasonable period of time in any event. You get to a point where you’ve been doing this as intensely as I was where you realize someone else could do it better and at that point it was time to pass the mantle.
AC: Is this book in part your way of correcting the record?
JS: Not really. There are about 6 pages of 320 pages or whatever it is devoted to the end of the presidency. It’s really more a way to celebrate what was accomplished during the 12 productive years. And I think this is something that not just I, but everybody involved should feel proud of.
AC: Hindsight being what it is, anything you would have done differently? Lessons learned?
JS: Of course. A lot of them along the way and nobody bats a thousand when you’re in this kind of job and hindsight is 20/20. People have sometimes asked me, if you knew how it was going to end would you have accepted the job? Absolutely. The 12 consequential years, the opportunity to help build an institution, to make it even stronger with this wonderful team, it was worth it. The end was not as pleasant as it might have been, but let’s face facts. Of the 62 presidents in the American Association of Universities, the leading research universities in the country, I was ranked 7th in seniority when I stepped down, which means only 6 had been in office longer than I had. I had a great run, and for that I’m very grateful. I wrote in the very last page of the book that the Desiderata is a favorite poem and it concludes with the line, With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. And I believe that. It was a beautiful experience and I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to serve.
Statement form UR in response to Seligman’s book:
Joel Seligman led the University of Rochester for 12 years during a time of tremendous growth and expansion. He stepped down from his position as President of the University of Rochester in early 2018. He has resigned his role as a professor in our School of Arts & Sciences having taught his last class here in the fall of 2021. He currently has no affiliation with the University. We have not reviewed the published memoir so are unable to comment on it at this time. It will reflect his personal recollections and opinions and not those of the University.