I was intellectually awakened at the Athenaeum.
It all started when one of my professors spontaneously assigned an essay entitled “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” The author of the piece was speaking at the Athenaeum later that week, and my professor wanted each of us to read the essay to encourage us to attend the lecture. When one of my classmates asked who the author was, my professor could not pronounce his name. “William Der-SHOE-wits – Derez-EWE-wicks – Deer-SEW-wiz,” he stammered. After a few more attempts, he gave up, and we agreed simply to call him “Bill D.”
As I read Bill D.’s essay, I could feel myself changing. My heart beat rapidly, my eyes watered – it felt as if a fire had been lit in my chest. Each sentence seemed to pry my soul further and further out of the confines of my body. His words were tearing down the artificial armor that I had encased myself in over the years. I could feel the pressures of society and the market and the world begin to alleviate, as I began to see myself more clearly for who I was.
Later that week, I attended Bill D.’s lecture. That night, I bought his book. And over the next several weeks, I read everything that he had ever written. I have attended five of his lectures, sat-in on several writing workshops that he has hosted, and had lunch with him once. I still read one of his essays, “Solitude and Leadership,” which I consider his best work to date, at least once a month.
Of course, I now know Bill D. as William Deresiewicz (De-REZ-awits). Deresiewicz was the first non-fiction writer whose work made me feel as if I had just been benevolently pummeled. It’s an odd feeling, an almost indescribable amalgamation of joy and shame. Deresiewicz’s writing often made me embarrassed about the way that I had formerly seen myself and the world. But, at the same time, I was happy to see my failures for what they were before I had made any irreversible mistakes, and I was excited about the new opportunities that lay before me to live a life that truly gave me meaning. The feeling is almost spiritual – like the out-of-body sensation of realizing that there is something out there greater than oneself; like standing on the highest mountain top and staring out at the vastness of the world; like looking up at the stars, or at a piece of art that captures something profoundly unsayable about human nature.
Prior to Deresiewicz, I had only felt this sort of sensation reading the works of Jane Austen, whose characters made me ashamed of the lesser aspects of my own character, but who also served as guides to help me realize what my best possible self could look like. Although Austen was a major influence – and I have been similarly affected by the novels of Leo Tolstoy, Feodor Dostoevsky, and Henry James, in particular – something about the clarity with which Deresiewicz diagnosed my illness, undisguised by character and plot, struck me to the bone in a way that was different. Deresiewicz challenged, in plain diction, the unfounded assumptions I had made about who I was and who I wanted to be. He put in rational words the emotions that erupted within me when I read Austen, and he has helped me to recognize these feelings again and again in the works of Tolstoy and others.
I am grateful that I happened to stumble upon Deresiewicz and his wonderful essays. He has irrevocably changed my life. But I also realize that it was a complete accident. Had my professor never mentioned Deresiewicz’s essay, had I not attended his talk at the Athenaeum – had he never been invited to the Athenaeum in the first place – I am not sure who I would be today. That is why the Athenaeum is such an important – perhaps the most important – institution in forwarding (and reviving) the liberal arts tradition at CMC. The Athenaeum opens students up to a wide variety of ideas and perspectives that their often narrowly focused classes and specialized faculty do not. Several of my friends were not inspired by Deresiewicz like I was, and I have attended lectures that did not move me the way they moved others. You never know which speaker, which idea, is going to change your life forever. But the Athenaeum exponentially increases the chances that you will find that idea.
For this reason, the way that CMC has conducted the search for the next Athenaeum Director is troubling.
Former Athenaeum Director Bonnie Snortum stepped down from her post in 2014 after 25 years of dedicated service to the college. This past school year, the wife of CMC President Hiram Chodosh, Priya Junnar, has served as interim-director. Mrs. Junnar is now one of four finalists pursuing the full-time director position. This is not a problem in and of itself, but it requires the college to be painfully aware of the potential conflict of interest in the hiring process. The next Atheaeum Director should be chosen for her ability to perform the important duties of the position, not because of her connection to the school and its president. It is the college’s duty not only to ensure that a conflict of interest is not present when choosing the next director, but that even the appearance of a conflict of interest does not discredit the ultimate decision of the hiring committee.
CMC has clearly not done this. The six-person panel selected to choose the next director consists of two tenured faculty (Professors Esther Chung-Kim and Sven Arndt), two students (former ASCMC President Ben Tillotson ’15 and Athenaeum Student Manager Hester Lam ‘15), and two administrators who report directly to President Chodosh (Director of Academic Planning Diana Graves and Vice-President for Student Affairs Jefferson Huang). If Mrs. Junnar is a finalist for the position, then administrative personnel who work directly under her husband should not be on the committee tasked with selecting the eventual director.
Furthermore, at the candidate interviews (I attended three of four, including Mrs. Junnar’s), I was shocked by the apparent favoritism that several students showed Mrs. Junnar over the other candidates. Several students clarified Mrs. Junnar’s answers to difficult questions during her interview, and even answered the questions outright before Mrs. Junnar had the chance to answer them herself. Yet, in the other candidate interviews, these same students came across as uninterested, as if they had already made up their minds – if they even showed up at all. Even worse, during a lunch interview, one group of students spoke with the prospective candidate for about an hour, while another group of students sitting at a different table talked loudly and joked obnoxiously with each other to the point where it became difficult to hear the candidate’s answers to the first group’s questions. These students only came to the candidate’s table in the final minutes of the interview, yet each student’s evaluation of the candidate carried the same weight in the decision-making process.
The Athenaeum is too important to get this wrong. Even if Mrs. Junnar is the right candidate for the job, she has not been given the chance to demonstrate it in an impartial setting. Under these circumstances, if Mrs. Junnar is selected as the next director, then it is nothing short of a scandal – at a school that knows the word all too well.