Summer on campus has a caesural feel. Most of us who work here look forward to the slower pace, to an ice-cream cone savored in the shade of flowering dogwoods. During summer 2000, the feeling of suspension is particularly intense, though it’s tinged with a hint of uncertainty. We’re technically between presidents these days, though the big office in University Hall has a much-loved occupant making it her own.
Just how much affection this community has for Sheila Blumstein was obvious during Commencement weekend. The character of those three days in general, and of the Monday morning Commencement ceremony in particular, is really a reflection of the man or woman at the top. Vartan Gregorian’s Commencements had a dignity and verve, and E. Gordon Gee’s were remarkable for their animation and drive. This year’s Commencement – Blumstein’s first as president and, it appears, her last – was a warm and relaxed affair. True, former President Gregorian was spotted hovering nearby, delivering on his promise to walk down the hill with every class admitted during his presidency. (The class of 2000 was the last of these; will Commencement 2001 be the first in twelve years without his stabilizing presence?)
But this year Blumstein was the ringmaster. There she was at the First Baptist Church in America, a small but forceful woman adjusting her big, floppy Corporation hat, helpfully directing the seniors with a smile and a hand motion as she made easy work of the Latin in the baccalaureate degree ceremony.
A short time later, there she was at the outdoor podium behind University Hall, making what was perhaps the most overanalyzed statement of the weekend: "I want to offer a special welcome to President Emeritus Gregorian. Vartan Gregorian is a man of his word." Even the Providence Journal joined the speculation the next day: Had Blumstein been referring to President Gee’s early and unexpected departure this winter, after he’d made it known he wanted to lead Brown for eight years? No, Blumstein insisted, she was simply acknowledging Gregorian’s promise to return until all the classes he’d seen matriculate had walked through the Van Wickle Gates.
Was it my imagination that sensed a certain ease on the Green that Monday morning? True, some colleagues speculated the next day, this year’s Commencement lacked the superstars of recent years, the John Glenns, Steven Speilbergs, and Queen Noors. No matter. The star this year was one of Brown’s own, a professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences, an aphasia researcher, a thirty-year veteran of faculty skirmishes, a woman – a woman! – whose calmness, strength, and lack of pretention was precisely the medicine the University has needed this year.
Blumstein has made no secret of her wish to return to the long horizon of research, but that hasn’t stopped speculation that the president’s job might be hers for the long term. "Is it true she likes it more than she thought she would?" people want to know. "Do you think??" On Commencement morning, when she told the graduating seniors, "Embrace a modest amount of risk with a long-term strategy," it was tempting to wonder whether maybe, just maybe, she was talking about herself. What did she mean? During the languorous days of summer, it’s fun to speculate.