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The Scarlet & Black

Meet David Maxwell, the new chair of the Board of Trustees

“David, there’s this college in Iowa that everybody is saying may be the best damn liberal arts college in the country. I want you to go look at it.” Those are the words – spoken by his uncle – that convinced David Maxwell ’66 to fly from his home in Great Neck, New York to Grinnell, Iowa for a three-day visit.


By the time he returned to New York, he knew where he was going to college.


He did not know, however, that nearly 60 years later he would be elected by the Grinnell Board of Trustees to be their new Board Chair.


“I have such a profound sense of gratitude and happy obligation to the College,” Maxwell said in a phone call with The S&B. “This is a way that I can in some small way begin to repay that obligation, … to help the College keep it’s promise to you, to the students. I’m tremendously grateful for that opportunity and very honored to be in it.”


Maxwell, who was elected in May, replaces Patricia Finkelman ’80, who will continue to serve as a trustee. Board Chairs are elected for two years and cannot serve more than two consecutive terms.


From the beginning, Maxwell’s life was far from average. His father, distinguished jazz musician Jimmy Maxwell, played trumpet for Benny Goodman’s band (Goodman was a rock star of big band jazz in the mid 1900s). Students may recognize the sound of Maxwell’s trumpet from the first haunting notes of the theme to the classic movie The Godfather.


Jimmy Maxwell gave his son an unusual access to the world, and before Maxwell arrived in Grinnell he had already lived and worked in Switzerland, England, and Russia. It was his time in Russia that convinced him he should pursue a degree in Russian area studies in college. He intended to join the US diplomatic corps; one day he hoped to be the US ambassador to Russia.


At Grinnell, Maxwell discovered an environment entirely different than his “nouveau riche, middle class” New York upbringing, where, according to Maxwell, the community was “overly attentive to what they considered stature: wealth, titles, positions, cars, large homes, and exotic vacations.”


“[Grinnell] was wonderfully different [and] focused on ideas. … There were students from all over the country,” he said.




At Grinnell, Maxwell participated in intramural sports (he was the quarterback of the West Norris football team); he joined the international relations club; he played “mediocre guitar” in a rock band; he spent time in the Forum – then a student center – listening to music and drinking coffee; and of course he took time off to “relax” on the weekends.


But he spent the majority of his time studying – suffering from what he identified as a case of imposter syndrome. “I was very worried that I was in over my head and that the College was going to discover that they shouldn’t have admitted me,” he said.


In this way, Maxwell discovered a new passion: Russian literature – specifically the work of Anton Chekhov, on who Maxwell has since focused his studies.


While Maxwell’s passion for the subject is obvious today – he speaks reverently of Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, quoting their work with ease – this was not always the case. He only realized his passion after a Grinnell professor, Richard “Dick” Sheldon, observed that Maxwell referred to work for other classes as homework; in Russian classes, Maxwell referred to the work as “reading.”


Reflecting on these authors, Maxwell expressed a certain admiration for the scope and ambition of their work. “I think what drew me in most of all was the power of the questions that they are asking. … They wrote these gigantic novels that addressed these cosmic questions,” Maxwell said.


What drew Maxwell to Chekov in particular was Chekhov’s reluctance to give the reader a definitive answer to any of the cosmic questions he asked. Whereas Dostoevsky was didactic, Chekhov often ended with no resolution at all. To explain his fascination, Maxwell used Chekov’s own words: “The artist’s task is not to answer the question. It’s to pose the question properly.”


With Sheldon’s guidance, Maxwell shifted direction in his fourth year of college and applied to graduate school. He was accepted, and at Brown University he developed a close relationship with Thomas Winner, a leading authority on Chekov’s work. Maxwell received his masters and doctorate degrees in Slavic languages and literatures from Brown.


The influence of Russian literature on Maxwell’s life is not confined to academia; it extends to his approach to leadership and even his personal life. “I think that [Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky] have had a tremendous impact on the ways in which I explore the questions of, ‘Why I am here?’ and ‘What is my purpose?’ and ‘What is my relationship to other people?’ and ‘What is my relationship to the universe?’” he said. “Those three in particular are in some ways … my holy trinity.”


Then he quickly added, “I hope that doesn’t offend anyone.”


After graduating from Brown, Maxwell’s career took some unexpected turns.

In his graduate studies, Maxwell discovered he enjoyed academic life and he took a job teaching Russian language and literature at Tufts University in 1971. “Wow,” Maxwell said of the job of a teacher, “this is the job. You get to read books you love and talk to smart young people and write about it.”


In 1981, however, he became Tufts’ Dean of Undergraduate Studies. In this position, he found another passion: “The satisfaction of working with faculty and staff and students and my administrative colleagues to continually improve the experience of the students.”


He has since served as the President of Whitman College, the director of the National Foreign Language Center in Washington DC, and most recently as the president of Drake University – a position he singled out as especially rewarding. He retired in 2015, and in 2016 he joined the Grinnell Board of Trustees.


He has also served – and continues to serve – in various national education organizations, including as a Senior Fellow of the Association of Governing Boards and as the chair of the Board of Directors of the Council on Higher Education Accreditation, among others. In Iowa, he has been inducted into the Iowa Business Hall of Fame, named the “Person of the Year” by the Chinese Association of Iowa, and received multiple awards for his volunteerism and leadership.


Still, even in the midst of all these accolades, when asked what he is most proud of, Maxwell hesitated. “I’m hesitating a little bit,” he said, “because, I mean, my first reaction is that I don’t like to be proud of myself.”


“I would characterize myself as very spiritual and morally grounded. I do have this sense of purpose – that there’s got to be a good reason that I’m here. And for me that reason isn’t about me.”


In a follow-up email, Maxwell described the most “rewarding” experience of his professional life as having “the opportunity to play the same role in the lives of hundreds of students as a teacher, advisor, and mentor” that others have played in his own life.


Throughout the interview, Maxwell emphasized the importance of these mentors in shaping his life. In an essay written for his 50th class reunion at Grinnell, he wrote that “virtually everything that ‘I’ did was really the consequence of the generosity, commitment, and friendship of others – my Grinnell experience is really about them, not me.”


His success, Maxwell told the S&B, is down to “mentors and role models, from … Beth Nobel [a Grinnell professor] telling me to get a haircut to Dick Sheldon and Thom Winner helping me figure out what my path was.”




Looking ahead, Maxwell declined to discuss what priorities the Board may address this year until they meet in October to officially set their agenda. However, he said he hopes to ensure the Board focuses on issues “for which the resolution will have an immediate impact on the future of the College” and does a good job “hearing the voices on campus and off campus from students and staff and alumni.”


Maxwell emphasized that he sees his role as an “enabler” of the Board’s expertise. “Part of my role as the chair is to make sure that we are functioning as a cohesive unit and that I am ensuring that all of the voices on the Board are heard.”


The inspiration behind this leadership style is – predictably – rooted in Chekhov’s own philosophy. “I don’t think that I always know the answer to the questions,” Maxwell said. “I think it’s my job to make sure we’re asking the questions properly and to collectively figure out what the right answer is.”


Maxwell, who has two sons, now lives in North Carolina with his wife, Madeline and their dogs, Moose and Tug.


Look for him in Grinnell soon.

David Maxwell has served in various positions in his life, including as professor of Russian literature and as the president of Drake University.
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  • J

    Jean DonaldsonSep 6, 2019 at 9:21 pm

    Nice job characterizing Maxwell as a generous, morally grounded human being whose character took him on a worthy adventure he hadn’t anticipated.
    Humble and wise and committed to the greater good–just what we need from all our leaders at Grinnell.