The Fallacy of Legacy

We enter a career in higher education to help students. Most of us start as instructors and we have that wonderful opportunity to be in a classroom helping people understand something they previously didn’t. I’ve always called them the lightbulb moments, those moments when you see that look of confusion transition into the light of understanding. As a teacher, there really is nothing better in terms of job satisfaction.

For many of us, at some point in our career, we make the jump to administration. Eventually we may have responsibility over a program, a division or a campus as a dean, or even an entire college as a VP or president. For a few of us we may even become the chancellor of a multi-college district. These positions carry with them a tremendous amount of responsibility and much less of the direct level of job satisfaction you get as a classroom instructor.

One of the ways we as administrators look for job satisfaction is to look to create legacy. Early in my career I believed in this idea. As a program director at Hartnell College I ran the Math Engineering and Science Achievement (MESA) Program. I took over a program that on paper was amazing, but in reality was in total shambles. Me and my team turned the program around and did it quickly. We brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and donations, we created collaborations that would be the foundation or our Bellwether Award. The Bellwether is a national award for innovation and excellence in community college education and Hartnell was the 2003 Award Winner for our MESA Program work. It frankly felt great and was incredibly satisfying to have demonstrable success as an administrator. Our students were doing great, transferring in good numbers to places like Cal Poly, Davis and Berkeley.

Circumstances at Hartnell at that time were tough, budget cuts led to staffing cuts and so many of us had to take on multiple responsibilities. Eventually it made sense to move on to take a better paying position with fewer responsibilities. But I always thought of that program as my legacy at Hartnell. We’d rebuilt the program, put it on a great financial footing, created great supports and pathways for students and they were seeing great success.

Several years later I would re-connect with some folks at Hartnell and check in on the MESA Program. Well, the program now had a part-time director, someone who wasn’t much of a leader. The participation level of the program had crashed again, the financial stability of the program was no longer very stable, all in all things were mediocre at best. I was crushed, my legacy was broken!

As my career developed I decided to take a decidedly unique pathway through my career. After leaving Hartnell I started taking a leave every three or four years. A year off to travel, kind of an in progress retirement while I was still young and healthy enough to do some of the adventures I wanted to do. I did things like hike across Scotland, bike in Ireland, I went to Base Camp at Mt. Everest and I hiked a thousand miles on the Appalachian Trail. Since I was stepping away from jobs every three years there was something I had to make peace with, and that was I was always going to be turning over things I built, to others to take over. At times, that’s been fine, the people who have followed me have done great work, but at times, like at Hartnell, things I helped build were neglected and fell apart. My second big heartbreak was the decline of an award winning, nationally recognized renewable energy program that was neglected and eventually ended a couple of years after I left.

So, given my career path choice I’ve had to come to grips with the idea that it’s my responsibility to build and maintain things while I’m there. To do my best to assist the students I’m charged with helping be successful. You have to learn to do what you can, when you can, but most importantly make the lasting impacts and connections that are so important. I think too many of us get hung up on legacy as a program change, a new program or process the college follows, I think that’s incorrect. Back to the quote at the top of the piece, our true legacy is never the things or the programs, it’s the connection and impact on the people, particularly our students. That there are programs that I started that are still thriving and helping out students is great, but not nearly as important to me as the connections I still have to former students. To the former colleagues and faculty who still call me up and ask my advice on how to move their career forward. For me, that’s the real legacy we leave behind in education. Sure, I won’t have any buildings named for me, but the impacts I’ve had on the people will endure far longer then any structure and that makes me far happier than seeing my name on an edifice.

Published by Michael Kane

Michael Kane is a writer, photographer, educator, speaker, adventurer and a general sampler of life. His books on hiking and poetry are available in soft cover and Kindle on Amazon.

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