by Philip H. Jordan, Jr.
President Emeritus of Kenyon College, former Dean of the Faculty, Connecticut College, 1968-1974
I first met Charles Shain when he arrived in New London in 1962 as President of Connecticut College for Women. In contrast to his predecessor, Rosemary Park, gracious in manner but formidable in authority, Charles seemed to the college faculty almost like one of us. He was an academic like us, but he challenged us too. He was awfully good looking, wore clothes with style, was energetic, charming, articulate, superbly intelligent, a full professor from a college that we suspected was more prestigious, at ease with people in a gentlemanly way. His speeches were fresh and thoughtful, reflecting the Fitzgerald scholar and the English teacher but in an idiom all his own. We could easily have disliked him from envy or received him with the cold shoulder due a Midwesterner in New England. But we soon learned that a sense of superiority was not part of his nature. Charles had enough ego to do his new job well, but not the excess that makes an egotist. At the heart of his job, he came to see and disclose to us, was leading Connecticut College into a new era.
Charles Shain was a college president in times that became tumultuous. And he seized every opportunity to turn the tumult to Connecticut’s advantage. In that way, without a grand design but moved by humane instincts, the new era, unfolded. Civil rights, feminism, America’s engagement with Asia, the youth and drug cultures, the questioning of single-sex education, the war in Vietnam, antiwar protest, the Bobby Seale trial in nearby New Haven — all of these movements and events, these disruptions and upheavals of the ‘sixties, became under Charles’ leadership occasions for the college to change and grow. His conviction that a first-rate liberal arts college must shape education to serve the rising generation, balancing the new and the inherited, became the unifying principle of his presidency. During his twelve years as president, Charles made the college larger, built new student residences and an arts center, introduced Asian studies and Chinese language, brought in black students, helped found a consortium in the northeast to exchange students of the opposite sex (What to do until the doctor comes on coeducation, he called it), then initiated coeducation at Connecticut, weathered student activism and canceled classes for a teach-in after violence at Kent Sate and Jackson State, explaining all that to critical parents and alumnae. He emancipated the college from feeling lesser than the more eminent Seven Sisters, the “Heavenly Seven” we called them. His vision and courage led us into striking out on our own, not waiting for reassurance from others’ earlier actions, but instead taking the chances and responding to the imperatives of the times. For the faculty, at least the younger ones, the challenges and changes of the times were exciting. I remember finding confirmation of this heady mood in lines from the young Wordsworth:
But to be young was very heaven
Charles, in his fifties, felt some of that exhilaration too, but he must also have found the times stressful and wearying. He never admitted to that.
I came to know Charles closely after he made me chief academic officer in 1969. Campus unrest peaked in the years we worked together. In those years we decided on and carried out the admission of men, with the major adjustments that coeducation entailed. Charles and the college were pressed and tested in ways neither he nor anyone else could have predicted when he came in 1962 or during the first half of his presidency. Yet under fire he kept his composure, his sense of humor, his personal warmth, his powers of understanding and persuasion. All of us around him learned from him how to rise above the battle yet not to disengage, how to discern the moral aspects in an issue that seemed purely political, and how to appreciate ironies and absurdities in behavior without rancor, keeping our respect and affection for the people involved. In every colloquy with him I felt like a collaborator in a worthy enterprise. During the Watergate crises, when the Oval Office tapes came to light, I told Charles that it was a pity our conversations in his president’s office had not been recorded. In contrast to Nixon, Haldeman and Erlichman, the Shain-Jordan talks were marked by intelligence, objectivity, humane concern, and generosity.
Charles’ capacity for empathy — the kind that sees what is at stake for the other person — and his capacity to persuade because of his empathy were remarkable. I remember a tense confrontation with a faculty member in his office. The professor came in representing the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors to remonstrate against a decision, which he said, traduced the faculty. (I don’t even remember what the decision was.) Charles heard him out, staying pleasant in the face of stridency. Then he responded quietly, explaining the context, the rationale, and the purpose of the decision. Before Charles could finish his account, our colleague broke in: “Stop! Stop!” he said, “I’m beginning to see the other side.”
Charles retired from Connecticut College in 1974. I left the next year, following his example, to become president of Kenyon College in Ohio. He was the principal speaker at my inauguration. Through my two decades in the job he remained for me the model of a college president. But our friendship was more than professional. Since the Jordans came to Maine every summer we saw the Shains quite often after he retired and after I did. I came to recognize what you all have known, that the qualities and character of the leader I admired were simply the qualities and character of the man. His change of venue from Connecticut College to Georgetown changed Charles little if at all. This is why so many of his former associates on the job remained faithful and fond after the job was over.
That is why so many friends from his Connecticut College days spoke with feeling at the news of this death, why the newspapers have described his life and career so fully, why the College will memorialize him on Alumni Weekend this May, when the thirtieth anniversary of the first male graduates will be celebrated. When I spoke recently to Barrie Shepherd, the college chaplain during the Shain years, he asked me to give these words about Charles:
We all admired and loved Charles. All of us are richer for having known him. We will all cherish the memory of our friendships with him. Another colleague at Connecticut College and friend of Charles from Princeton days, William Meredith, one of the major poets of our time, once said of Charles and me, “You two have parlayed a good heart into something like real style.” When I called William about Charles’ death, he wanted to send something for this memorial. He chose this poem, remembering that both he and Charles had served in the American air forces in the Second World War:
High plane for whom the winds incline,
Who own but to your own recall,
There is a flaw in your design
For you must fall.
High cloud whose proud and angry stuff
Rose up in heat against earth’s thrall,
The nodding law has time enough
To wait your fall.
High sky, full of shapes and vapors,
Against whose vault nothing is tall,
It is written that your torch and tapers
Headlong shall fall.
Only an outward-aching soul
Can hold in high disdain these ties
And fixing on a farther pole
Will sheerly rise.
- William Meredith