His joy and motivation is ‘an eagerness to discover what’s next’
By Felicia Kitzmiller
Published: Friday, February 15, 2013
Wofford College President Benjamin “Bernie” Dunlap is resigning June 30, but will return after a year to teach at the college. Photo by Michael Justus/Herald-Journal
The Latin phrase meaning “wonderful year” or “year of miracles” was coined by British poet John Dryden to describe late 1665 and early 1666 when England overcame a host of near devastating trials and Isaac Newton made scientific discoveries that changed the world.
It is also the phrase Wofford College President Benjamin “Bernie” Dunlap uses to explain his decision to resign the presidency in 2013.
This year, Dunlap is marking his own annus mirabilis. In 2013, Dunlap will turn 75 years old. He will celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary to his wife, Anne, and his 50th anniversary of teaching. It will also mark his 20th year at Wofford College.
“Such a planetary alignment should be celebrated,” he said.
On the day he will step down as president of the college, June 30, Dunlap has booked a plane ticket. He will spend the summer moderating seminars in Aspen. When he returns, he and his wife will depart for an “undisclosed location.” During his year of miracles, the outgoing president said he plans to finish two books he’s writing, study music and language and continue to learn and grow in the way he said fills his life with joy.
“My default position is happiness. I’m optimistic. I feel joyous every morning when I wake up. I love waking up. I love being alive,” he said. “What motivates me is an eagerness to discover what’s next. There’s so much music to hear, there’s so much knowledge to gain, there’s so many places to visit, there’s so many people to meet, and at my age, so little time, so that’s incentive enough.”
At the end of his annus mirabilis, Dunlap will return to Wofford to devote himself to one of his life’s greatest passions, teaching.
A Renaissance man
Dunlap has lived a storied life. By every account, he is the definition of a renaissance man. He is a decorated academic, having studied at Sewanee: University of the South and received degrees from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and Harvard University where he was also a professor. He also taught at the University of South Carolina for 25 years where he earned honors including USC Teacher of the Year and the Russell Award for Distinguished Scholarship.
Mingled throughout his life are impressive non-academic pursuits. Dunlap was an Emmy Award finalist for work in public broadcasting. He was a dancer with the Columbia City Ballet for five years and has also been a boxer, hurdler, and football and rugby player. He lived in Thailand for three years. He was a two-time Fulbright lecturer in Thailand and participated in the U.S.-Japan Leadership program. He still moderates for the Aspen Institute, an organization that promotes open dialogue of crucial issues through international seminars and leadership conferences.
In 2007, Dunlap was invited to lecture at the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference as one of 50 Remarkable People.
Humble, friendly personality
The first time Christine Dinkins met Dunlap, she was interviewing for a job at the college teaching humanities classes.
“During the interview he started talking to me about very specific details of my dissertation,” Dinkins said.
Impressed with Dunlap’s deep knowledge of Plato’s Socratic dialogues and the current debate about their interpretation, she later commented to a faculty member she didn’t know Dunlap’s PhD was in philosophy. She said the person laughed and told her it wasn’t.
“I right away realized this isn’t your typical college professor,” she said.
Dunlap is universally and affectionately known as “Bernie” to faculty, staff and students. He only goes by the shortened form of his middle name, Bernard, within 90 miles of his Columbia birthplace. In all other circles he’s known as Ben. To promote dialogue, only first names are used in his seminar class, but he said he has no idea why the Wofford community took to using his less than formal alias.
To Sally Hitchmough, an English professor, the name suits his humble and friendly personality.
“He loves life and he loves people. He’s kind. He makes you feel like he wants to talk to you, and I think he genuinely does want to talk to you,” she said.
Whether it’s one-on-one conversations or group lectures, Hitchmough said that she always comes away from hearing Dunlap speak feeling enriched, motivated and uplifted.
“There never seems to be anything he doesn’t know about,” she said.
Dunlap, however, says that’s simply not true.
“I’ve never seen a single episode of Seinfeld,” he countered. “My wife thinks that’s a grotesque omission in my life.”
He doesn’t know everything, but there are very few things Dunlap said he isn’t interested in knowing more about.
“My interests are as varied as my experiences in my life. I’m constantly developing new ones. I happen to be obsessed at the moment with the Vikings.”
He denies being a musician, but Dunlap draws energy from music. He has written opera libretti — text, including stage directions, for opera performances — and said he plays a little piano. He has a piano of his own, but one of the things he said he will miss most about the President’s House on campus is the Steinway piano.
He also speaks several languages, but wants to learn more. Despite speaking quite a bit of Japanese, Dunlap said he knows very little Chinese. He speaks Italian, but his medieval Italian is far better than his contemporary Italian.
“I dabble more often than I master anything,” he said.
An athlete through much of his life, Dunlap said he makes fitness a priority, rising at 5:30 a.m. to hit the treadmill while listening to NPR podcasts. He also likes to hike on his property in North Carolina, when he can find time to get away.
“I don’t think my brain would work if I was not physically active,” he said.
His best decision
The best decision Dunlap says he ever made was marrying his wife, Anne, 50 years ago. It was an easy decision for him.
“We were fianced in the cradle, really,” he said.
Their parents were good friends and even before he was born, Dunlap said their mothers conspired for them to marry.
Dunlap proposed to Anne when he was 14.
Apparently the decision wasn’t so easy for Anne, who is a little more than a year older. He had to ask three more times before she finally said yes.
“She was very bright, very creative, and very beautiful,” he said of his persistence.
His second best decision
He says his second best decision was joining the faculty of Wofford College in 1993 as the Chapman Family Professor in the Humanities.
On his first visit to Wofford in the late 1980s as a convocation speaker, Dunlap said he was struck by the small college.
“I was so impressed by the community of authenticity and collegiality,” he remembered.
He jumped at an invitation in the early 1990s to return as a commencement speaker, but then-president Joe Lesesne had bigger designs for Dunlap’s role at Wofford.
“When they came to offer me a job, it seemed like not a foolhardy move, but an unlikely one,” Dunlap said.
Mulling the position, Dunlap said he remembered his impetus for leaving Harvard University in favor of a much less prestigious post at the University of South Carolina. Dunlap called Harvard “an intellectual hothouse.”
“I wanted to make a difference as a teacher, and I felt I had a potential to make more of a difference in South Carolina,” he said. “To be a positive agent for change, I felt I had greater potential in my native state than in Cambridge, Mass.”
The ethos of the school and a similar compulsion to do good drew him into the small liberal arts college. At Wofford, Dunlap said he found a community of passionately curious minds like his own, all dedicated to living and teaching the doctrine of liberal arts education.
“It was a fabulous era in many ways. It took almost no time to realize it was a great decision,” he said.
Seven years into Dunlap’s tenure, Lesesne announced he was retiring at the end of the year. Dunlap was co-teaching the presidential seminar with Lesesne at the time and he said the outgoing president encouraged him to apply for the post.
“I would go so far as to say Joe Lesesne brought me here under false pretenses,” Dunlap joked. “I got even. It was my idea to make him assistant tight ends coach.”
Wofford College has grown under Dunlap’s leadership.
During his time as president, the student body increased nearly 50 percent, faculty by 73 percent and the 190-acre campus nearly doubled in size. The school has been rated a top value in education.
“By every metric it’s gotten vastly better and more attractive,” Dunlap said.
The growth was closely regulated to maintain Wofford’s character and community, he said. The next president will face a daunting task of deciding if the school can continue to expand while maintaining its unique niche, he said.
Many of higher education’s greatest advances have been brought to life by small colleges that were adopted and adapted by larger institutions, he said. By maintaining its character, Wofford also maintains the flexibility to design and test such programs.
“I really think the big universities would find it catastrophic if the small, liberal arts colleges were to go away,”
At the same time, the pressure for institutions to take on more students is intense because of the declining percent of Americans with an advanced education.
“If the mission is to get a greater percentage of Americans with degrees, obviously small institutions with 1,600 to 2,000 students can’t begin to absorb that,” he said.
Despite being a great thinker of his time, Dunlap said he doesn’t have an answer to America’s education crisis, but he knows one thing for sure.
“The upward spiral of costs has got to stop. We cannot remain competitive if we’re writing off a huge percent of our population. For reasons of national security, we cannot let that continue,” he said.
A vision for the future
The sojourn into administration has been rewarding, but Dunlap said he is ready to focus his attention back in the classroom.
“I really have enjoyed teaching more than anything I’ve ever done,” he said.
Dunlap has taught a wide array of classes including film criticism and Asian studies, but said by far his favorite classes are interdisciplinary studies where he and students can make connections and think critically.
After teaching beside Dunlap, Dinkins said she’s impressed by his passion.
“A president has to do and be many things and that’s just draining,” she said. “He comes alive in the classroom.”
Part of Dunlap’s daily routine is to pause in the hallway of the President’s House before a photo of former president Henry Nelson Snyder who led the college from 1902 to 1942. Dunlap wrote in his February 2012 Vision Statement for Wofford College that when he comes to the picture he wonders what the school’s longest serving president would think of Wofford today, and what plans he had for the school then.
Dunlap’s own visage will soon hang on some wall in honor of his service to Wofford College. Someday, some future president might pass before him searching for wisdom and vision. If they do, Dunlap said he hopes he will be remembered as “having been a part of an adventure in which everyone worked together to create something they believe in that was ultimately designed to make the world a better place.”
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