Retiring in a pandemic: Some final reflections from Steve Klass

Steve Klass

I was asked to write a brief reflection piece as I head into retirement at the end of June after a 32-year career in higher education that culminated in my current role as VP for Campus Life here at Williams. Our current isolated, Zoom-based lifestyle certainly makes for an “interesting” context in which to reflect on the past three decades. I use the term “interesting” in much the same way as I would to describe a torpid fever dream that I’m sharing with everyone I know. Much like the ending of Inception, the spinning top of 2020 has yet to exhibit any sign of wobbling…and, as I sit here writing this on the morning of May 9th, it’s snowing heavily, so I rest my case.

Before I found my way to higher education, I spent over 15 years working in restaurants (and a hotel, briefly) in pretty much every role, including a few years as a self-trained chef; I even had a stint as co-owner of a place in New Haven for a few years. Trust me, the arc connecting that work and the past few decades in higher ed makes retrospective sense — as does the experience of playing in bands in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s at places like CBGB (the iconic punk/new wave music venue) in NYC — but doing that here will take too long, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

Suffice it to say that I am a proud liberal arts college alumnus with an independent major that primarily focused on philosophy, religious studies, and semiotics. I’ve never enjoyed or understood the purpose of accepting conventional wisdom, coloring inside the lines, etc. Thanks to the safety net provided by my liberal arts background, I’ve been able to take risks, learning from the occasional failure. One such risk led me to higher education when I answered a classified ad for the position of Manager of Cash Operations at a local university in 1988. I thought it was a job, but it became a career path that has spanned nine very different roles at three very different institutions.

Every year, I give seniors the same advice: “stay in the moment; try not to spend too much time looking past this year; it’ll go by in a flash and you’ll be angry with yourself for not having enjoyed as much of it in real time as you should have.” This year, after announcing my plans to retire, some of these students turned the tables and asked me how well I was following my own advice.

The answer isn’t quite so simple. This particular pandemic-influenced moment I’m trying to stay within has no real shape. On the other hand, I’ve had so much to do to wrap up my 14 years at the College that I’ve been firmly rooted in the present, although mostly with tasks, which is not really what I was talking about. My original, pre-COVID-19 advice was envisioned as a focus on the relational, on the intellectual, on maintaining that sense of shared purpose and community that undergirds the undergraduate experience…not on getting stuff done.

But, here we are, and even as our collective time consciousness is stretched out of shape by the current situation, the clear deadline informed by my impending retirement is pushing me toward a linear, horizontal approach to time that I’ve never found particularly attractive. I tend to favor a more vertical, kairotic view of time; one that values the quality and importance of the moments we spend rather than the more utilitarian chronological measurement of time’s movement backward and forward on the x-axis. Sure, I had to pick a date on which to retire, but I don’t have to count down the days and weeks as many well-meaning friends have suggested.

I’m an extrovert who is generally sustained by my interactions with others. So, unsurprisingly, the most meaningful dimension of my work has been, without a doubt, the relationships forged over the years with the amazing students and colleagues I’ve had the gift of knowing. In particular, it’s been remarkably meaningful to stay in touch with students over the years, viewing accomplishments, watching families grow, sharing joyous moments, and enduring life’s jarring challenges.

The same thing is true about all the amazing colleagues with whom I’ve been blessed to work. Your care for students, for each other, and for the larger community has been mind-blowing and awe-inspiring. I’ve learned an incalculable amount from each of you and am a far better, wiser person for having known all of you.

So, as I seek meaning in the past few decades of work, I’m consistently drawn to vertically-oriented moments in time, principally those that are scaffolded by relationships and marked by crucible experiences that define who we are rather than focus on what we do; moments that foreground the relational over the transactional. What I think I’ve loved and admired most about the College over time is the resilience of our community, particularly our students, and the ways in which that resilience is rooted in personal story. One of the most remarkable and restorative forms of generosity I’ve witnessed is the willingness of students to share their personal stories in public, risking exposure to all the vulnerability that comes with that unselfish act. Time and again, in response to periods of campus and/or global upheaval, the student response has been to create venues for the public sharing of deeply meaningful personal narratives.

This is never easy, but is almost always impactful. Sharing our personal story — about who we are, where we come from — can be the hinge that sways challenging moments toward deeper understanding, toward empathy. And, even now, as we work so hard to cultivate virtual connectivity — as poor a substitute as it is for our three-dimensional human relationships — story remains as a form of essential connective tissue. I’m not naïve enough to consider this a panacea, but I’ve seen enough of its power and impact to know that personal story-sharing deserves ongoing nurturing. I firmly believe this is why Storytime has been such an enduring and important campus tradition for the past decade, and I’m deeply grateful for that.

Sorry about the rambling. These less-structured days lead to free-form reverie more often than not. I wish we were all gathered together in a room for this, but this will have to suffice for now. Please accept this as an expression of my enduring gratitude and admiration for all those who have made this accidental career choice such a remarkably rewarding and uplifting gift.

Steve Klass will be retiring this year after 13 years at the College. Klass has served as Vice President for Campus Life since 2010.