The Presidential Exit Interview

Do you have a favorite spot on campus?

It would have to be plural! Every time I walk this campus something is revealed to me about the sense of place here. I don’t know that I can put it in terms of just one place, or even a top 10. When I walk by the Barret Library at certain times of the evening and see the glow from the beautiful windows, or when I see students gathered around the Diehl statue, engaged in conversation—that itself is a thing of beauty.

I can’t single out one spot. But the real joy here is being out of the office, on the campus. If you gave me a list of spots and asked me to rate them on a scale of zero to 10, there would be so many 10s!

Sometimes your life exceeds your dreams.

What do you consider your legacy to be?

That is a word that is hard for me to get my head around. I don’t really think in those terms. I think about what an opportunity it has been to be a steward and hopefully a servant of the institution. We’ve lifted the human spirit here in ways that I hope have been helpful. We’ve given people here an opportunity to soar in their own ways across campus. 

Some would put it in tangible terms, I suppose. In my time here, we’ve invested a little over $200 million in the physical plant. Hopefully it was well spent! Most of it has come from philanthropy, which we are so humbled and honored by. The Campaign for Rhodes itself has been a source of satisfaction—not just because of the $314.5 million raised, but because of what we’ve been able to accomplish to support students and faculty and to make the campus not only more beautiful but more aligned with the needs of our students. 

Hopefully we have continued to focus on what matters most. We’ve tried to lift the college up. We’ve tried to be a good place for people to come to work—both our students and our staff and faculty. We’ve been able to connect the college with amazing assets beyond the campus; the partnerships here in the city and around the world have brought opportunities to many students. Certainly that is a theme that means a lot to me. The opportunities that have presented themselves beyond the gates have made our college distinctive among national liberal arts colleges. The increase in student opportunities probably means more to me than anything.

We’ve expanded student opportunity in the classroom as well. I’m very proud of the faculty who have joined us over the years, and I’m very proud of all they have accomplished. I’m pleased with how the campus has been enhanced, both physically and in terms of how students are supported. 

The eye really can’t see itself, so I’m probably the worst person at Rhodes College to answer that question. But has it been satisfying? Absolutely. Has it been joyful? Absolutely. Can I imagine a place I would rather have been for the last 18 years? I cannot imagine what that place would be.

Do you think you will continue to wear bowties after you leave Rhodes?

I’m not sure. I did not come here wearing bow ties—or even knowing how to tie one. In 2005 one of our senators appointed me to the Commission on the Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Fellowship Program, designed to fulfill the late Illinois Senator Paul Simon’s vision of a million students a year funded to study abroad. I wound up being a connecting point between my fellow Lincoln Commission members and the Simon family. At the end of our time together, Senator Simon’s son, Martin, asked me for my street address so he could send me something. Two days later via FedEx came one of Paul Simon’s ties. He was a man I admired very much and I thought, “I’ve got to learn how to tie this tie!” Bud Richey, our resident expert on bow ties, was kind enough to patiently teach me. Once I learned and started sporting one every now and then, it just seemed to feel right to me. That’s been a few years now, and I’ve enjoyed wearing them. We’ll see what the future holds!

You began your tenure at Rhodes with a listening tour, and you spent a lot of the fall semester on a gratitude tour. Could you talk a little about this last tour and what you learned?

First of all, it was indescribably wonderful. At every tour stop, we had a nice collection of young alumni, older alums, parents, and trustees. Connecting especially with the younger alums—people I’d handed a diploma a few years earlier—and hearing again how this college literally changed their lives is the perfect last chapter of my memory book here. We are featured in Loren Pope’s great book, Colleges That Change Lives, and we really do. To hear from our alumni and their parents that four years at this college changed them, fashioned them, and inspired them is so meaningful to me.

What is the message you would like most to leave behind for the Rhodes community?

I want people to know what a privilege it has been for me to serve, and what a precious privilege it is for all of us—students, faculty, staff, alumni, and trustees—to be a part of a great institution like Rhodes. Sometimes your life exceeds your dreams. That has been my experience here, and I hope it will be for everyone who is a part of this community. 

— Gaye Swan