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President Osgood speaks on his way out of Grinnell

The S&B sat down with President Russell K. Osgood to discuss a variety of issues including his time here at Grinnell. The interview was extensive and will be published in three parts. In Part 1, Osgood discusses his time before Grinnell and diversity at the College.

Thank you for taking the time out to sit with us.

Not much longer will I be President Osgood.

I think you stay president forever.

That maybe, but I’ll be Russell Osgood again, which is very pleasing to me.

The weather’s been beautiful. Have you and your red shorts been out, with the dogs?

Yeah, I have as a matter of fact. I showed up at the track meet with two dogs and red shorts and then I went home and had to come back with blue shorts and the dogs because I went swimming in the red shorts.

Did you get those dogs while you were here?

All of my dogs are Iowa-bred farm dogs. They are Cairn Terriers. C terriers are big in Iowa, probably bigger than in any other state. Probably because they are too little to bug farm animals, but they are great ratters so they kill rats on farms. So they are very common.

Did you start collecting the red shorts when you came to Grinnell?

Here’s the real story. I run early in the morning, really early. And I refuse to put a reflector on. Someone said, “No one will ever see you.” I thought, “Well what can I do?” So I started wearing red shorts, or for a while I had white shorts that I would wear running. That’s how it got started.

When was that?

I started running when I was a freshman in college, are you ready for that, 1965.

A more serious question, can you tell us a little bit about your time at Yale as an undergraduate, then the Navy, then law school, then Cornell.

Yeah, I could fill your tape for hours. I was a happy undergraduate. The one kind of cloud on the horizon was the Vietnam War was building up. I can’t say I had given a lot of thought to what I was going to do right out of college. I thought I was going to go to law school or graduate school in history.

So it came to my senior year and the war was at an [apex]. But Nixon was elected president. And no one here remembers this, but Nixon was sort of promising he was going to end the war. That seems odd for a Republican, but that was in effect what he was saying—maybe in a violent way, but he was going to end the war. In my senior year, the draft was there, so I was drafted, but just before I was inducted I volunteered to join the Navy.

By the way, then the war starts to really end, so by the time I go on active duty, they don’t want me, or anyone, they’re trying to get rid of people. So that turned out to not be a big thing, but I was in the Navy then. It was the most important experience of my life. Because, I grew up, not in a rich family, but in a moderately well-off family, in a suburb. There were never poor people. I had all of my grandparents, it was a big, successful, extended family. The only two racial minorities in my town were two daughters of black maids, and they were in high school with me. There were no Asians.

So I go into the Navy, and I’m in this division of 25 sailors. None of them had graduated high school. They were all kinds of people—African-Americans, poor Appalachians and southerners. I had one guy with no teeth. I had guys who were in bankruptcy, who were being divorced. And here I am, 21 years old, and as I said, it was the most important experience of my life. I really liked them, we had a great time together, and I learned that there is this whole world that I don’t know much about.

I learned a lot about life and how you relate to people in those two years. I was only in the Navy two years because they threw us all out eventually because they had too many soldiers. All of my sailors were trying to stay in because it was a job.

I came out, very suddenly. I didn’t know I was going to come out, and I made a snap decision to go to law school. I went to Yale Law School because it was very small. I got into Harvard and Yale law school and I went to Yale Law School because it was very small. And I had gotten married to my junior high school, high school, college sweetheart and we already had 1.5 kids. So, I thought, law school is shorter than graduate school, this is how I make decisions in life. And I think it was the right thing.

Then I became a tax lawyer in Boston, then I became a faculty member and the rest you know about. As an undergraduate, I majored pretty heavily in English, History and literature, and then I took a lot of math courses. All of the jobs in my life have revolved around math and English history. So the thing that I would say to students here, you think, “I don’t know where I’m going in life” and that’s true in a minor sense, but in a major sense, you understand yourself better than anybody else, and you’re usually pretty close to accurate about what you’re interested in.

At some point after I had been teaching a long time, I became the Dean of the Law School, so I did that for 10 years, and then 12 years as the President here. I am ready to never be an ever administrator again. I’m not at all unhappy with it. I just, when I started out, if someone had said to me, “It’s going to be 22 years,” Wow. I always assumed I would go back and be a faculty member and that’s what I’m going to be doing.

How did your 10 years before Grinnell in an administrative position prepare you or not prepare you for working here?

It was pretty good preparation. It was a little bit different. I’m not trying to ingratiate myself with you, but I basically like dealing with undergraduates better. They are more interesting than law students, and I love law students, so this is not a negative comment about them. I knew that before I came here because I had taught undergraduates at Cornell as well as law students. So that was a good change. Having more of an array of disciplines is something that I like because I like lots of different things. To be honest, I like the liberal arts format a lot because you’re not trading off good things at one school for good things at another school. It’s one school, and I like that.

One of my favorite things about your tenure here is that you’ve managed to compete with all of these other nationally acclaimed liberal arts colleges that are located in densely populated, coastal areas. Grinnell is in the middle of the cornfields, one of the most ethnically homogenous states. How have you managed, and why is diversity so important?

I would just start off and say that, one of the irritating things when I came here is that you would hear two things about diversity. One group would say, “We are at ground zero, we haven’t done anything.” That was true by the way. And then shortly thereafter they would say, “It’s hopeless.” Because, fill in the blank—we’re in Iowa, we’re not near a big city. Well the most ethnically diverse liberal arts college has always been Amherst College, which is not in a big city, although it’s in a more populated state. So the idea that your precise geography makes it impossible struck me as a bad excuse for not trying.

Then, the other thing I learned a long time ago in life, is if you say something will never happen, it will never happen. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The other thing about Grinnell that was odd is that we actually had a more diverse past. Back in the 1950s we had many more African-American undergraduate students. We had never had a lot of Asian students, and there weren’t that many Hispanic students. So those were areas that we would grow inevitable, but there was no reason why we couldn’t have more African- American students.

The other thing I would say, and some would disagree, is that there was never any opposition here in the faculty or among students. You think, “Well, there are barriers.” The barriers here were strictly psychic. The people thought that we couldn’t succeed. Having said that, that was one thing. The second thing is, I think before I came and people started to think more about it, we hadn’t done enough to focus on processes by which we hire people and look for students. Everyone says, “Let’s get more diversity.” Well, how do you do that.

I think that the faculty have done an excellent job in making that processes more likely to turn up candidates and then more likely to hire them. The students were always going to work out more quickly, why do you think that?

Because it takes seven years.

Exactly. The number of diverse students in the applicant pool is changing dramatically every year. If we couldn’t do better, we were losers. That has now also begun to happen in the faculty pools, but the student pools change more quickly than the faculty pools. You also pick all of your students in four years. You pick all of your faculty in a period of 25 years, so you’re not turning over as many people at once.

Why do you think it’s so important to maintain a diverse education community?

There are several reasons. For one, I think it makes, and this is actually the most important reason—it makes for a better educational experience. You learn from your fellow students, you learn from the faculty and you learn on all kinds of different dimensions. You don’t just learn what they assign you for class. You learn in the dynamic in the classroom and in the dynamic in your residence halls. If there are more different people, you learn from that.
Little experience, one of my close friends at Yale College, this doesn’t sound like diversity but it is, he was in a horrible car accident while we were in college. It left him substantially disabled. I learned a lot helping him learn to live a new life, which was a life in which he was disabled. If you expand that out to people of different races, coming from different countries, different religious backgrounds, you learn more. The educational argument is the strongest one.
The second argument is that it is a just thing to do. People have been oppressed or denied equal opportunities and society is here to ensure that everyone can be on a path to success in his or her life. Grinnell should and has made a contribution quick to that.

The interview was conducted by Marcus Eagan and Eliza-Eve Leas.

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