Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Bev Beeton, I'm Glad I Got To Know You

 The Anchorage Daily News has an obituary for Beverly Beeton this week.  

I was a faculty member at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) when Dr. Beeton became Provost.  She was a formidable presence.  My description of her at the time was something like this:

"I've never seen her wearing less than $1000, and she speaks like Katherine Hepburn.  Does anybody speak like that naturally?"

My sense was that Dr. Beeton had a one hell of a facade, one that had been carefully developed.  I made a goal of finding the human being behind that facade.  It wasn't a high priority, more like a curiousness.  

One day the opportunity came.  I was chosen to chair the committee that nominated the people who would get honorary degrees.  And Dr. Beeton, as Provost, oversaw that committee.  She invited me out to lunch to talk about how the committee would work.  

A couple of years before that (my dates are a little fuzzy, but it was close to that time) I had gotten a grant to create a class that would focus on women in public administration.  The proposal was to get five prominent women public administrators and give them the freedom to design a class to "pass on the wisdom of women administrators."  We had three women who had been state commissioners, one Native Alaskan woman leader, and a Superior Court judge (who eventually would become an Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice.)  They were given the freedom to design the class and Arlene Kuhner, an incredible English professor, and I would figure out the mechanics of making it work.  

The structure they gave us was a panel of women administrators each week addressing a different topic with lots of time for Q&A. They invited the women administrators and set up the subject, Arlene and I took care of all the academic work, though the five women, if I recall right, got to see some of the work the students did.   It was a great class and I learned a lot.  I recall one of my students, a man from China, telling me afterwards how impressed he was that all these women were so smart and capable and how it made him realize how China was wasting so half its human resources by not giving women equal access to important positions.  

So, at the lunch,  after discussing the committee work, I mentioned the class and how it had been run as a lead in to this question:  "You're the most senior woman administrator at the university (this was before we had any women Chancellors).  You must feel somewhat isolated."  The ice was broken and from then on we had an entirely different relationship.  We talked about that isolation, about the problems of sex discrimination, and lots of other administrative issues.  

I remember one time she told me that she wanted to set up a more objective evaluation system where administrators and faculty would have to develop measurable outcomes.  That was something I had my graduate students do for their jobs in one of my classes.  But I always told my students that it was useful for them to do for their own jobs, but it was impossible to do really well. And it was easy to misuse the results of such measurements.  Especially if someone just focused on the numbers and not the context of the numbers.  There are just too many important, but hard to measure aspects of their jobs. 

My response to Bev (by then she was Bev to me) was that it was a difficult but interesting exercise and suggested that she set up an example of how to do it for her own job as Provost.  Her response was, "My job is just too variable and complex to be able to do that."  My response was, "That's what every other administrator and faculty member will say.  If you can't do it for your own job, then it doesn't seem fair to ask others to do it."  I never heard about that project again.  

But this started out being about getting past the facade and learning about the real human being inside.  After our first lunch and the committee meetings that followed, I was in her office for something and mentioned that my daughter, a Steller Alternative School student at the time, was taking a spring break hiking class in Utah.  I had resisted at first.  Why do Alaskan students need to go to Utah to go hiking?  Well, she countered, we're going to learn about Utah too.  I asked a colleague of mine who was from Utah for an assignment for her.  He suggested she read Wallace Stegner's Mormon Country.  She agreed she would. 

When I explained this to Bev, she really opened up.  She'd grown up in rural Utah in a not particularly academic setting.  She felt very much like she didn't belong there.  She really wanted to get out of Utah, as far away as possible.  She was even a fashion model in New York, I think, for a while - which began to explain her very un-Alaskan high style way of dressing.  She got herself through school.  But essentially became as different a person as she could.  And once I got past that facade, I got to meet a very warm, accomplished, and charming woman.  

We didn't become the kind of friends who see each other out of work  - though I did run into her once on a garden tour.  We didn't have a lot of opportunities to talk about non-university issues.  I only learned from the obituary, for example, that she'd been married twice and had children but we were allies of a sort who liked each other at the University.  

One other observation.  Bev was a smoker.  When the university banned smoking indoors, small knots of people could be seen huddled outdoors in the dead of winter, smoking.  It created a cohort group of people from various parts of the university hierarchy who had smoking in common.  Their basic connection was that they were smokers, but they got to develop other things they had in common as well.  

I haven't seen Bev in years, but my world is poorer knowing she is no longer with us.  

This wandered a bit.  It's memories, not an academic paper.  It is a reminder that there is a human being inside all the people around you.  A person who is hidden behind whatever facade they've intentionally or unintentionally formed.  Try to talk to the human being - especially in these days of high conflict - instead of just to the facade.  

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