The University of Toledo


for Faculty, Classified Staff and Administrators
9 December 1998, 3 pm, Student Union Ingman Room

Reflections of a Faculty Member

Larry Curtis

I'm here celebrating 35 years on the faculty, but since I was also an undergraduate at UT, I go back even further. Dr. Richard Perry recruited me to UT in a visit to Libbey High School in 1953. Dick was then Director of Admissions and recognized me in line at the Registrar's Office, and welcomed me in person to the Campus. Since some of my undergraduate professors are still on campus as superannuates, I don't feel as old as these numbers suggest.

At this point you may be wondering how I could spend so many years in one place. Am I simply in a rut? No, I don't think I am, and I'd like to explain to you why. UT has been very good to me and for me, and many people who have helped me are here today. I'm grateful for a chance to express my appreciation today.

But first, let me take you back to 1963. I had just received my PhD from the University of Michigan, and was trying to decide my future. Times were good - we were in the post-sputnik era and there were more jobs in science than scientists (a situation that later changed). I had already interviewed both at universities and in industry, and was considering the options. I stopped off in Toledo to visit relatives before taking a vacation in Europe. I dropped in at UT to say hello to my undergraduate department chairman, John Turin. John invited me to join him for dinner at Van's Steak House, and it was an interesting evening. We discussed our mutual interests in sailing, skiing, music, and science. Around three martinis into the appetizers, John mentioned some interesting changes at UT. He described how: Toledo was changing from a Municipal to a State University; the Physics Master's graduate program was being expanded to a PhD program; and the size of the faculty would grow dramatically, doubling in size. He said that the first group of PhD students was already in place, completing their MS degrees, and needed advice in directing their research toward PhD projects. I told him about my uncertainty concerning academics and industry, and he complemented me on my introspection. He advised me: "Don't rush into it, buy some time. It is easier to get a job when you've got a job. Join us on a temporary basis and we can give you time off any time you want to take interviews." At that point the waitress brought another round of martinis and my memory of that evening fails, but the next day when I woke up I discovered that I was now an Assistant Professor at the University of Toledo. I felt like a sailor who wakes up after night on the town to find himself covered with Tattoos. So, as you can see, I am still at Toledo only temporarily.

Shortly thereafter I discovered that there were some things that John hadn't told me. For example, he had not mentioned that the move into the State University system contained a mandated conversion from the Semester System (which we had followed since time immemorial) to the Quarter System favored by Ohio State University. This required us to rebuild all of our programs, doing 1.5 times as much in 2/3 the time and (if you aren't careful) getting 2/3 as much funding for doing it. The institution was paralyzed for years, but we were consoled by the fact that, once the task was completed, we would never need to do it again. After 35 years on the job you learn that "never" isn't nearly as long a time as you thought it was.

Thus I began as an Assistant Professor, with a well-defined plan based on a 1950's mentality. After 2 months on job, you all know what happened. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and everything changed. We were propelled headlong from the idealistic 50's into the cynical 60's. Historians have pointed out that, at least in this country, every century has its 60's. The 1760's created the conditions that spawned the American Revolution. The 1860's brought the Civil War. The 1960's brought - I'm not quite sure. Paul McCartney has said "If you can remember the 60's then you weren't there!" The UT campus was like many other universities. We had sit-ins, stand-ins, teach-ins, and love-ins. In the Physics Department some of our courses turned into heated discussions of politics - others moved outdoors and became a frolic on the lawn. However these times did cause us to rethink what is important and what is not. In my case, I concluded that it was time to stop looking for greener pastures, and to notice the wonderful opportunities I had right here. If I took this as a temporary job, how did I wind up staying 35 years? The answer is that I couldn't have found another place that would give me the opportunities that I've been given here. John Turin told me that I could use Toledo as a home base to do whatever I wanted. He was right.

At UT my Colleagues and Coworkers given me: 3 full year Sabbatical Leaves; 3 full year Unpaid Leaves of Absence; 35 summers (almost 9 years) during which I could travel anywhere I wanted (which sandwiched my leaves into 15 month periods); the freedom to shift my teaching into heavy and light terms so I could be away for extended periods; faculty colleagues who have traded responsibilities with me; and staff members have helped me put it all together and make it all work. With all of this included, I have computed that of my total 35 years, during 15 of the years I prescribed my own activities completely, with no constraints from the University whatsoever. This has allowed me to accept Visiting Professorships and Postdoctoral Fellowships at: the University of Mexico; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod (including one month out to sea on an oceanographic expedition); the Nobel Research Institute in Stockholm Sweden; the University of Lyon in France; the University of Aarhus in Denmark; the Free University of Berlin Germany, Princeton University, the University of Arizona; Argonne National Laboratory; and Brookhaven National Laboratory. I was even allowed to accept a concurrent position as a member of the faculty of the University of Lund in Sweden. This joint faculty appointment still continues, with a rotation of personnel (including our students) between our two universities. Thus the kid from Libbey High School not only became a Professor at the University of Toledo, but also became a member of the faculty of a 300 year old European Renaissance University that was the birthplace of his field of research, and is able to periodically work and live in a 12th Century Medieval walled city.

There are things about Toledo that could be better. I wish that it had big mountain that I could ski down. But Toledo has given me a place to stand that has been high enough to reach everything I wanted, and the security to reach far without the fear of falling off. I've received a lot of external financial support, but Fellowships and Visiting Scientist Stipends are like grandchildren. You are always welcome because your hosts know that when the fun is over, you will go home!

UT has been very good to me, and I urge the Administration and the Board of Trustees to extend to our younger Staff and Faculty members the types of opportunities that I was given. Give them the ability to grow professionally and intellectually on the job, so that they too will want to stay 35 years. It is a small cost to the University, but provides resources in the form of a knowledgeable and contented workforce that it could not buy on the open market.

I've already mentioned some of the help I've received from other faculty members, but I'd particularly like to thank the Staff. Procedures are straightforward when they usual, but they become difficult when you try to do something unusual. I've done a lot of unusual things, and a lot of people have helped me make things work. As just one example: despite all of those Leaves-of-Absence, I have recovered every single year of my 35 years of STRS Retirement Credit, and have bought extra years from my graduate school days. Sometimes the problems I've encountered have been frustrating, and when they are finally solved, I may not have properly thanked the people who solved it. Thus I'm very glad for this opportunity to thank the many Staff Members who have worked so hard on my behalf. If sometimes I've succeeded it's because there have been many dedicated Staff Members who have worked so hard to make me look good.

Personally, I'm having too much fun to even consider retirement, so keep up the good work. I'm not finished yet and will need your help again in the future. I want to thank you all for a great 35 years and counting!