Devoted to the life of the mind
Acting President Ronald Sharp leaves Kenyon after thirty-three yearsWhen John Crowe Ransom Professor of English Ronald A. Sharp was in high school, his thoughts and dreams revolved mostly around sports and girls. But by the end of his senior year, Sharp had discovered art, books, and music. This set him on the path that led to his distinguished career as an author, teacher, and expert on the work of nineteenth-century English poet John Keats. A member of the College's faculty since 1970, Sharp received the Distinguished Achievement Award this fall from his alma mater, Kalamazoo College. As Kenyon prepares to welcome President-elect S. Georgia Nugent, it will also soon bid farewell to Sharp as acting president and as a member of the faculty. Sharp announced this spring that he has accepted a position at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, as dean of the faculty and professor of English. He and his wife, Inese Sharp, codirector of the Brown Family Environmental Center, will leave Gambier at the end of July after thirty-three years as members of the community. With only months left at the College, Sharp stops to reflect on his career as an administrator, the demands of balancing scholarship and administrative work, and how a kid from Cleveland who dreamed of baseball landed at Kenyon's top post.
What prompted you to look for a position outside of Kenyon?
I didn't look for a position. Several colleges and universities contacted me. We have had thirty-three wonderful years at Kenyon, but the position at Vassar was extremely attractive. It will be hard to leave, but Inese and I are excited about what lies ahead.
When you took office as acting president, what did you consider to be your greatest challenge?
Steering a proper course between taking new initiatives and keeping the ship afloat. I think the trick for an interim president is not to initiate such radical change that you preempt the agenda for the new president. But at the same time, you don't want to just hold on tightly hoping that nothing bad will happen.
In other words, you didn't want to be just a place holder.
It's not good for the College when you have as much momentum built up as we did to lose ground by taking the safe route on everything. We've seen genuine progress this year in admissions, faculty hiring, our new marketing plan, and, of course, in the planning for the new Center for Fitness, Recreation, and Athletics. I'm proud of that.
You became associate provost in 1998, provost in 2000, and now you're the acting president. Did you ever consider making the role of president a permanent position?
No. It was clear from the beginning that it was in the best interest of Kenyon to bring someone in from the outside. Over the past few years, I've taken on several new roles.
You're the author and editor of six books, including your most recent, Selected Poems of Michael S. Harper, which was published this academic year. How do you manage the demands of being an administrator at the College and still find time for scholarly work?
It isn't easy. The time issue never goes away. It's something that's of concern to all of us, but I think the problem is magnified now that I'm the president. The key is making use of small chunks of time. I get a couple of hours here and there, frequently on airplanes, to work on my scholarship.
What attracted you to your role as an administrator?
Unlike many people who are in academic administration, I had no interest in administration for years. Not only did I have no interest, I had a certain amount of contempt for administrative duties. I could never understand why someone devoted to the life of the mind would want to be an administrator.
What changed your mind?
Well, Kate Will changed my mind. She was my predecessor as provost. Kate called me into her office one day and said, "I'd really like for you to become associate provost," and I said, "Kate, you've got the wrong guy. I really have no interest in that stuff at all." She asked me to think about it for a week, which I agreed to do. I left her office, and the next day I had the most powerful intuitive experience of my life, which caused me significant cognitive dissonance. It was almost a physical feeling. There was this debate raging in my head, and eventually I realized that I had a lot of ideas for the future direction of the College. I sensed that being an administrator might open up a whole range of new intellectual and creative challenges, and that has emphatically been the case.
What's your favorite part of being a member of the administration?
The single most important thing I do is hiring faculty members. We hired nearly ten professors a year during the three years that I was provost, partly because we were moving to a 3-2 teaching load. Probably the accomplishment I'm most proud of is doubling the number of minority faculty at the College during that period. I think the most important part of a provost's job is hiring first-rate faculty.
I'd think living in Cromwell House would be a nice perk as acting president.
It's sweet! In all seriousness, Inese and I felt it was important that we live in the center of campus. Especially with an interim presidency, the campus needs a sense of stability and continuity. I'm very pleased that we decided to live in Cromwell.
When you were growing up, did you think you'd become a college professor?
No, no. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a baseball player. I did well in school, but I wasn't an intellectual kid. I wrote a lot of book reports on the Babe Ruth story, many of them from the book jacket. It was during my senior year in high school that I discovered books, and it was a whole new world to me. I began to read voraciously and intensely. I headed off to Syracuse University my freshman year thinking I wanted to be a sports reporter.
But you graduated from Kalamazoo College. Why did you transfer?
I wasn't getting what I needed at Syracuse. Most of my teachers were graduate students, and I was starving intellectually. When I told the dean of Syracuse that I was going to transfer, he said, "I see that you're interested in literature, and I don't know that your aptitude lies in that area." He tried desperately to let me know that heading in this direction wasn't the right thing for me.
Did Kalamazoo provide what you needed intellectually?
Yes, it did. I had a wonderful professor there named Walter Waring. He was the greatest teacher I've ever had and a major figure in my life. Walt spent hours and hours with me. He'd suggest a book, and I'd stay up all night reading it. This is when I began to realize that becoming a college professor might be my calling.
You're an expert on poet John Keats. How has his work affected your life?
At the foundation of Keats's poetry is a sense that if you accept suffering and mortality, really embrace them, your life will be transformed. I always ask my students to think about how they would feel if they went to see the doctor and discovered that they had only two months to live. What would flowers look like? How would you feel about your friends, your family? Accepting that death is real makes life more, not less, meaningful and beautiful. The idea is that the setting sun wouldn't be as beautiful if it were there all day. Keats's view has had an enormous impact on my life. The world feels different to me when I see it through that lens.
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