Frank Rhodes Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Adaptation and Change in the American University; Conversation with Frank H.T. Rhodes, President Emeritus of Cornell University; by Harry Kreisler; 3/31/99.

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Professor Rhodes, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you. Good to be here.

Where were you born and educated?

I was born in England and grew up there. I was educated at Solehul School which, when I went, was an all-boys school, an independent school. And that was a terrific educational experience. I wasn't the most outstanding student, but the debt that I have to that school is substantial, not least in the kind of opportunities that it gave for leadership as well as learning. I graduated just as World War II ended, so I was at school in England during that war, and I then went on to the local university, the University of Birmingham, where I took a couple of degrees.

And you chose geology as your field?

No, I didn't really. I knew almost nothing about what to choose. There weren't such things as college advisors in those days. And my plan had been to go into the regular army. That was, no doubt, partly the result of the times. But my parents, who were wiser than I was in this, decided that I really should be encouraged to go to college first. And so I decided to go and study chemical engineering. The reason I chose that was that I felt this rather romantic notion of oil engineering being out in the desert on a rig, and I was very fond of life outdoors. And in the course of that I happened to take a course on geology, which was a requirement, and fell in love with it. And have been in love with it ever since.

What books did you read as a young person that influenced the choices you were later to make?

Mostly what I had to read. I was not an exemplary student. I was a late bloomer in that sense, but good enough to get by. But from an early age I enjoyed both literature and science. I probably should never have gone into science, though I've had a happy career in it. But I developed a love for words and literature based on, I think, some superb teaching that I was privileged to have in Shakespeare and the Victorian novelists, the English novelists.

Is this before college?

This was before college, yes. The British system is a little different in that you get heavy doses of one thing, but the down side of that is that you have to specialize very early if you're going to go on to college. (Things have changed now.) So at age 15, or thereabouts, you decide whether you're going to go into a literature stream, or into a science stream, or into a premedical stream. And that means a great narrowing of horizons at a very early age. I chose science but I still managed to keep going with some interest in literature.

Were there any important mentors you had as a young person that you recall to this day?

There were several. And one of the great things about this school to which I went, Solehul School, was that it was small enough -- 500 students -- to allow you to really develop your own road in life as an individual. Great responsibility was given to the students in terms of the organization of the school discipline. And so I ended up being what was called Captain of the School. And that experience of having leadership responsibilities for 500 other boys was really a very important growing experience. And two or three masters at that school were really very important influences in my life, as were a couple of people I had at college as professors.

You then did postgraduate work in the United States after you had gotten your degrees in England?

Yes I did. I was one of the first Fulbright scholars, and so I went to the University of Illinois as a very new Ph.D. I managed to do a Ph.D. in two years in Britain and that was unusual then and it's impossible now, but that was a great benefit. So while I was still relatively young I had the immense good fortune to go to Illinois, which was a totally new experience, a huge, sprawling, wonderful university, and a whole new world. And I worked with a great man, and a good friend, who died just this year, Harold Scott, in paleontology, which was a wonderful experience. He had the good judgment to leave me largely to my own devices but to open up possibilities for doing things. And I also had the immense good fortune to meet my wife there. So it was a very eventful year for me.

You learned a way with words and you learned leadership in these early years in high school. Does this help us understand the transition from a faculty member to administration?

Well I don't know that I'd claim that I learned leadership. I was given responsibility and I think that encourages a sense of leadership. But I don't know that any of us ever plans a lifelong career with that kind of precision, and it's only retrospectively that you can get a sense of what the reasons were that led you that way. I fell from grace fairly slowly in terms of leaving a pure academic life. I was a head of a department for a dozen years or so in Britain in the geology department, in the University of Wales. I became a dean over there, got a little exposure, and then went to the University of Michigan as a professor, spending all my time teaching and doing research. But I gradually drifted back into administration. And there's a sense in which these positions seek you out. I don't think I've ever applied for a job in that sense. It's different now, you have to apply for jobs. But an opportunity was offered me to become dean of a very large college at Michigan, the College of Literature, Science and the Arts with twenty-plus thousand students and fifty-plus departments, and so on. And that was really when I first got a taste for this and, although I'd never planned to spend the rest of my career doing it, that's pretty much what happened.

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