Trapped in Theseus’s Ship: Retirement, Graduation, and Institutional Identity

Photo courtesy of Luke Hayter, Flickr.com.  Original photo altered.
Photo courtesy of Luke Hayter, Flickr.com. Original photo altered.

By Jacob Zimmerman, Opinions Editor

After graduation every year, a small number of Furman’s faculty members leave the university.

Some of these professors hang their caps and gowns in the back of their closets for the last time. Before graduation, these professors may have already removed their belongings from the offices they have occupied for decades, stacking old books in cardboard boxes and lifting framed pictures from the walls. Perhaps these professors have attended soirees thrown by friends and colleagues in celebration and remembrance and received framed certificates with their names centered and embroidered on the page. Other departing professors leave at the end of temporary contracts, some uncertain about their next destinations, while still others move forward into new positions that promise greater rewards and more security.

Every year, professors, administrators, and staff retire or move on with little fanfare or recognition. In some cases these individuals have given the majority of their lives to this institution and their students. Their retirement or departure, along with the graduation of each year’s senior class, could be taken simply as evidence of the university’s dynamic life. Such departures are proof that people come and go, but the institution — its values, its goals, its ongoing legacy — endures. According to this view, each person contributes a brushstroke, a sketched figure, a precisely drawn line, a new shade of color to the tapestry, a contribution that will live on after each has dismissed his or her last class, punched out his or her last time card, and sent his or her last email.

This limited metaphor is incomplete. Furman University is nothing more or less than the sum of all the people that move within its Georgian brick walls and precisely trimmed lawns. The picture is alive, each tiny detail expressing a resonance that begins to fade when a person moves beyond the canvas. When a person leaves this campus, Furman loses a part of itself.

After graduation, former Furman students also remove their caps and gowns, often folding them into their packaging, sending them back through the mail to the supplier to be used again the next year. These experiences of leaving Furman are different, yet each resembles the others, like encountering a similar crossroads at a different place on the path.

Next year, a new professor will occupy the vacated office, will place their books on the shelves and their pictures on the walls. Next year, a new student will be living in that dorm room, reading different books at the same table in the library. Next year, a host of new faces will populate the same halls, fill the same classrooms, eat (what is often) the same food, but Furman will be different. It will be different not only because new people have arrived, but because old people have gone.

Professors are models not only in the mastery of their areas of study but as mentors for moving gracefully into a new period of life, and ultimately as peers, fellow travelers who face similar uncertainties and carry with them similar hopes. Treasure them now.


Categories: Opinions

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