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An Exemplary Academic Life

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You don’t have to rely on institutions to lead one

By Paula Marantz Cohen


 

On July 21, The New York Times ran a paid obituary for Felix (“Phil”) Haas, Provost Emeritus of Purdue University. A native of Vienna, Haas had served under General Patton in World War II, earned a Ph.D. in mathematics at MIT, and taught at Princeton before going to Purdue, where he was on the staff for more than 40 years.

Professor Haas was proud to serve at a land grant institution, which gave students from all backgrounds the chance to get an education. But even more impressive was his decision, after he retired as Provost, to return to the faculty. He taught for 15 more years pro bono. According to the obit, all he asked in return was “a commitment from Purdue that his teaching would relieve the load of non-tenured female faculty members with young children.”

Professor Haas’s idea immediately raises questions. Is a woman’s first child worthy of more course reduction than a second or third? How young is a young child? And what about non-tenured male faculty with young children or, for that matter, older faculty with aged parents whose situations are as, if not more, taxing? These questions would likely crop up if a university were to try to implement a general policy modeled on Professor Haas’s exchange. But he was acting on a small scale as an individual, making it possible for him to do a limited good that might not be practical on a larger scale.

So often we complain about what our institutions do but don’t think to sacrifice personally to make a change. In this case, someone did. I pay tribute to Phil Haas for a life nobly led, and hope that I can someday follow his example.

Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper. Her new novel, Suzanne Davis Gets a Life, will be published this spring.


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