“The Friendly Unknown”

Theodore “Dorie” Friend

From publishing a comparative history of the Philippines and Indonesia under Japanese control to serving as President of Swarthmore College, Theodore “Dorie” Friend has followed a storied career path. While Dorie received his degree in History and Literature from Williams College and PhD from Yale, he recognized the importance of doing field work to understand both sides of the history — he describes his time in the Philippines and Indonesia as transformational.

Dorie’s steady hand guided Swarthmore through the rebuilding of the endowment during a fragile economy. As President of the Eisenhower Fellowships, Dorie piloted a financial restructuring to ensure operational sustainability. Over the last seven years, Dorie has traveled to Indonesia, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to conduct over 200 interviews for his upcoming book, “Toward an Open Islam: Woman, Man, and God in Five Muslim Cultures.” Recently, when a colleague asked Dorie if he had followed a particular career plan, he replied, “No, I didn’t know what one was and I didn’t want one.” For Dorie, doing what he loves and embracing the unknown seems to have worked out just fine.

Did you have career plans after you graduated from college?

My parents just loved me and said, “You’re not going to be doctor?” [laughing] I said I am not, but I might be a teacher and that’s an honest life. I thought vaguely at some point maybe I would see what deans do, and that I could do that. Those were the limits of my conscious thought. I used my advice that I gave my children later: do what you love, and you will always have something to do.

I took the Fulbright very shortly after finishing my PhD at Yale. At the time, I thought if I want to do more research I better go to the Philippines. When I came back, I took the only job offer I had got, which was from SUNY Buffalo. It was very daring of Swarthmore, a dozen years later, to offer me the presidency considering that I had no administrative experience. It was very trusting or foolish [laughing].

What were some of the big challenges you faced as President of Swarthmore?

It was a totally consuming job. Not having enough time for my children was the most difficult part, but I got the job done. I can remember a day, when I went to the office by 6 am. The last phone call that reached me at home was 11 pm. That was seventeen hours. This was not the typical day, but it stays in my mind as being too long a day.

How did you try to separate your work life and your personal life?

When I was with my kids I tried to be with them all the way, but I wasn’t with them enough from my point of view. I would go out in the backyard and fling a Frisbee with the boys and tell imaginative stories with my daughter, who was the youngest.

What did you do after Swarthmore?

I got a leave of absence after my service there. I put that together with some grants for two consecutive years off to finish a book of history that I had interrupted to take the job. I got the history book done, “The Blue Eyed Enemy”; and I wrote a novel, later published, during that period.

How did you become involved in the Eisenhower Fellowships?

They came after me in 1983, and I said, “Well, I have a leave, and I am writing a book or two and I really don’t want to interrupt that. If you don’t have anyone when I am done with this two year leave, I would be very interested.” They hadn’t found anyone they wanted and they offered it to me. I accepted. It had a good mission, but it was in desperate financial trouble. I said we can’t make this happen unless we raise an endowment. They were very cooperative, and they knew it had to be done. Starting from zero endowment, by the time I left in 1996, we had a $25 million endowment.

Is there a common thread that runs through all of your career experiences?

There may be, but I would have to discover it [laughing]. Always pursue what you love and choose the more compelling interest put in front of you. It’s as simple as that.

Do you have a definition of leadership?

No, and I shy away from those who do. There is so much stuff buzzing around social science that obscures what leadership might be that I would rather not get into a conversation about it. I would like to see someone show some, but I don’t want to hear some formula about leadership.nI was a leader because I had to be. No one told me as a child that I had to be a leader. One of the things I would think to myself is E.M. Forster’s great two word declaration, “Only Connect.” In a full sentence it would be: what really matters in human relations of any kind is to make connections with others.

I think that a leader, especially in my fields of interest, can do a lot just by saying: What’s the problem? What are the standards? What are the limits? Those are enough questions. If you can get people to come aboard on a description of the problem, an assessment of the standards, and a statement of the limits, then you have everybody you need.

What advice would you give to people who want to contribute to the world?

Forster already said it in a literary context, but I am saying it here in this context. I am happy to say it here and say it emphatically. Only Connect. Translating Forster into Dorie language: Be Genuine. It sounds a little too Jimmy Carter [laughing]. In addition to being genuine, one has to be patient and sometimes even relentless.

Where do you turn when you face obstacles or when you need new ideas?

I find a quotation from Henry Miller helpful, which I can’t remember so it’s my own variation. Okay, I face an obstacle, don’t bang my forehead against it. Jump over it, dive under it, or run around it. Obstacles can only be so big and then you find it can be so small if you come at it from a different direction. My answer really is over, under, and around.

Have you had any mentors throughout your life?

It’s an interesting and important question. The primary one was my stepfather who was a lawyer who married my mother the year I graduated from college. I failed my orals at Yale because I could barely speak. I had written and thought but never spoke. And I thought, how am I ever going to earn a living teaching if I can’t speak? My stepfather, Charles Kenworthey, was a very able lawyer. He disciplined himself, and he delivered naturally to the judge and jury without notes. He inspired me by example. I realized that there is a voice here, there are lungs and a larynx and a tongue and a mind, and I just have to put them all together. I passed my orals a couple of months later.

One secondary one was my dissertation director, Samuel Bemis. He had the wit that I was swimming far beyond him in Asian fields that he didn’t know anything about and he let me go. Mentors know when to stop being a lifeguard and trust the young swimmer. He did that for me, and I still cherish that trust he had in me.

Any final thoughts?

The unknown should be in there in all of my answers. If I didn’t make it explicit, I want to add to the nth, unknown to the nth degree in everything. What shall I be? How shall I become it? What’s a graduate school? What’s a history degree good for? How does one learn to talk about history? How do you learn to be a college president? How can this institution (Eisenhower Fellowships) be led with zero endowment? Have the faith and love to treat the unknown as a potential friend.