Even if you didn’t go to this year’s Community Weekend at Gettysburg, many
of you will recognize our newest Lenfest Scholars Foundation board member,
Joseph Gordon. A long-standing member of the LSF selection committee,
Joe has interviewed and gotten to know many of our Scholars, acting as a
mentor to prepare them for college and beyond. In December 2018, we
were thrilled to add Joe to the board, and in doing so expand the deep
higher-education leadership on the committee that steers the LSF ship.
Recently retired from Yale University – or, perhaps more accurately, semi-retired,
as he continues to teach a class - Joe attended public schools in Illinois from
kindergarten to twelfth grade and started his journey in higher education
receiving English degrees from Amherst College, where he graduated
summa cum laude with a BA, and Yale University, where his Ph.D. was conferred, and where he started teaching English even before earning his doctorate. During his 40-year tenure at Yale, Joe held so many roles that presenting them all would make this article irresponsibly long, but a quick summary of the highlights would include:
Dean of undergraduate education
Deputy dean of Yale College
Founding member and multiple posts as chair of the Provost’s Committee on Lesbian and Gay Studies
Supervisor and member of the transfer admissions committee
Senior member of the Course of Study Committee
Chair of the Committee on Honors and Academic Standing
Coordinator of Yale special programs (Education Studies, Energy Studies, the Yale Journalism Initiative, Global Health Studies, and Human Rights Studies)
Member of the boards of university health, the Resource Office on Disabilities, and the faculty committee on athletics
Executive Committee superhero: the only person who has served as secretary, fact finder, chair, student adviser, and dean's designate on the Committee
Having gotten to know Joe over the last year, however, I knew there was even more to him than his extensive resume and history of service. To let you get to know Joe a little bit better, he and I sat down for a long phone conversation where we discussed his service at Yale, his love of literature and the first-year seminar he is currently teaching at Yale, the remarkable legacy of Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest, and his work with the Lenfest Scholars Foundation.
Rachel: When I was reading your bio, I was incredibly intrigued because at Yale you have held so many different roles and done all sorts of different things! What was your favorite role that you held at Yale?
Joe: There are so many [I could name]. But, if you ask me at this moment, I’d say teacher, actually, because now in retirement I am still privileged to teach one course a year. I am enjoying it, and I think I’m doing better at it than I’ve ever done before.
Rachel: Is [your seminar] related to your discipline, English?
Joe: Yes, the first-year seminars are all grounded in departments, they grow out of departments, and mine is co-sponsored by the English major and the Humanities major; it is a course on recent North American short fiction. It’s great working with first-year students. They are so eager to learn and to get to know one another, so it makes for a very lively classroom. [This past year] there were seventeen students, and there were people from all over the world, all over the country, people with different intentions about what their majors would be, and people of different races, ethnicities, nationalities, religions, genders. A lot of people from a lot of different places, and they all just came together to make a wonderful group, a wonderful class.
Rachel: I’m intrigued, as a former English major and English teacher. What does your class read?
Joe: ... We were interested in all kinds of people in different roles [in American society]. We read stories about the experience of being a veteran, being an LGBTQ person, about being an immigrant, about people with addictions and other psychological challenges, people of different ages and generations, [attempting to hear them] speak to one another. I tried to cover different regions of North America. We have a couple Canadians. It wasn’t just people from the [West and East] coasts. It was about 30 different authors that we read; in some cases we read whole books from one author and other cases just a single story. Poe wrote, back in the 19th century, that short stories are peculiarly American. He was saying that Americans, for the most part, have short attention spans, something that we still hear today, but also I think it is not just about length of attention span, but how do you start to make the big claim [for yourself and people like yourself]? You start to make the big claim by small steps, so I think that people who are marginalized often find the short story to be a way to start getting your voice into the marketplace of fiction. One of the things I tried to do, with the help of all the technology that we now have, is to give students access to the stories, where they were first published and how they were first published. So, the digitized version of The New Yorker, for example, or of any of a number of other spaces, like Tin House, and some of the little journals that are out there. You will see a story in, for example, The New Yorker and there is the context of the cartoons, of ads and other things . So, if you are reading a story and you look at the [accompanying] cartoon or the ad, it will suggest a certain attitude toward women or towards lawyers or something of that sort, that is actually quite different from that which the author is expressing. That helps [the student] see different baggage from different periods.
Rachel: Shifting to Lenfest, what do you think about your experience with LSF, both as a long-standing member of the selection committee and now on the board?
Joe: The selection committee is always just a tremendous [experience]; it’s just uplifting. It’s hard work, actually, sitting in those rooms for so long. When you actually start engaging these candidates in conversations, and seeing what they aspire to, what they’ve already accomplished…it’s just great. It’s inspiring. I’ve loved, also, getting to know the deans from other colleges and universities, some of whom I’d previously known, but others I’d only known their names. But to see the incredible resources that Roger [Lehecka] and Suzi [Nam] have recruited to this process in having these thoughtful questioners and people with extraordinary discernment…I’ve met some people along the way who I feel like are friends, even though we may only see each other a couple of days out of the year.
Rachel: The experience, also, because it is pretty intense, helps to forge a friendship through that shared experience.
Joe: And it is not always cheery and upbeat. There are tears. There are tears on our panel sometimes, and there are tears from our students sometimes because there are a lot of hard stories there. Processing them can be deeply moving.
But mostly, we have a good time.
The other thing to me that was just such a revelation, frankly, was Gerry Lenfest’s memorial service. I had met him a couple of times over the years at Community Weekend, but to sit there and hear from so many people, famous people and people with whom I was not previously acquainted or had heard of, to hear their tributes, to hear all that Gerry had done. It’s not just that he supported all these different things with his money, although that is pretty amazing, but that he really invested his values into it. He asked good questions, expected good answers, inspired loyalty, inspired other people to be better philanthropists. Inspired all of us, each in our own way, [to find] something that we can do to make the lives of other people better. I was totally overwhelmed by it. What I knew going into it was impressive, but what I knew after that day overwhelmed me. I have to say, I can’t think of anybody else who has done so much good in so many different ways than Gerry and Marguerite and their family.
Rachel: I, too, was struck at the memorial service – I never had the chance to meet Gerry, but I had, of course, an inkling of the many things that he had done and the ways he’d used his generosity for positive things, but I was deeply struck by how humble he seemed like he was. Other people saw all he had done and talked about what he had given, but he didn’t feel in his life like it was his role to talk about the things that he had done; I am struck in the same way about you, in terms of your humility, by how much you’d done to improve the lives of students at Yale in every way, and that’s before you get to Lenfest, or the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven, or Phi Beta Kappa or anything else. Just the things that you’d simply done at Yale to make the lives, the academic lives, the personal lives, the experience at Yale better for students.
Joe: You are very kind and very generous, but the truth is, no one does things alone. Just like Gerry and Marguerite give these kids from Pennsylvania a chance, I was given a chance too. I have been given many chances. And I have tried to do well with the chances that I’ve gotten, and I haven’t always succeeded in that, but it’s amazing to be given [the] opportunity. There are all kinds of people who don’t have those privileges and aren’t given the opportunities to try to see if they can accomplish what they dream of. I just am happy whenever I can help that happen with an individual, with a group or an organization. [Making] it possible for other people to be the best people they can possibly be, that’s a great goal.
It is one of the defining opportunities, defining challenges of our time, to try to spread opportunities to make them available, and to prepare people to make the most of them.
Rachel: How are you hoping to have an effect as a member of the LSF board?
Joe: The first thing is, as a new board member, I’m in learning mode, trying to understand how things are done, how they have been done, how they might be done. Some of the very important discussions that we have been having are about how today, in 2019, what does it mean to have sufficient resources to enter college? It’s not just tuition, room and board now. It’s what we are discovering about computers, discovering about internships and research opportunities. All these things have become part of the core of a college education, not just add-ons.
It’s interesting to see, to have the mix of people [on the board] who are educators but also business people, entrepreneurs, to get all those different points of view in the room. To me, one of the most exciting things is to have the Lenfest Scholar alumni on the board, to see this as ultimately a generational hand-off. To build a kind of cross-generational community of mentorship and leadership and stewardship among the Lenfest alumni. That’s the way they pay back the Lenfest family’s generosity, by extending it into the next generation by their own efforts.
In addition to his work with the Lenfest Scholars Foundation, Joe serves on the board of the Greater Community Foundation of New Haven, a charitable endowment that provides grants to varied organizations and causes for a twenty-town area of Connecticut. Additionally, Joe has been a giant in Phi Beta Kappa, holding roles including secretary for the Yale chapter (which has an alumni award named in his honor), senator for eighteen years of the national organization, chairman of the Phi Beta Kappa Foundation and president of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Joe and his husband Mark live in Connecticut with their border collie, Storm. We are delighted to welcome Joe Gordon to the Lenfest Scholars Foundation board, and to continue to have him active in our community.
Meet our newest Board Member, Joe Gordon