Catawba College's new provost, Dr. W. Richard Stephens, Jr. is an advocate for always having a Plan B. In fact, he credits a series of Plan Bs for helping shape his career in academe.
"Life often demands that you take a step back, two steps to the right or left and then go forward again," he explains. Rick Stephens has heeded life's demands.
This tall, athletic man who calls the southern Illinois area 'home' made a late declaration of a major when he was an undergraduate at Greenville College. "Sociology was suggested to me by one of my professors. I had taken several classes in the department and found them interesting."
His undergraduate magna cum laude degree in sociology, he thought, would serve him well in law school. That was his plan, though he had a Plan B. He had applied to graduate school at the University of Kansas.
While on a tennis tour over spring break of his senior year, his mom phoned him to let him know that she had opened a package he had received in the mail from the University of Kansas. "It looks like they're going to pay for you to go to graduate school," he recalls her saying. So Stephens ended up in graduate school, not law school.
Perhaps sweetening his choice of the University of Kansas was the coed named Debbie whom he had met as an undergraduate while on a ski trip to Colorado. "I was her ski instructor," he explains. Debbie, who is Stephens' wife of 31 years, had landed a job in the University of Kansas area after her graduation from Greenville College. Ending up at the University of Kansas also meant he could be with her.
"I veered to graduate school and they threw me right away into [teaching] a class of 225 undergrads," he remembers. "I was the youngest one [graduate assistant] there and I did damage to some people I'm sure, but being there gave me the freedom to pursue my interests and I found many different kinds of issues interesting.
"At the graduate level, I found it was possible to sample a wide variety of courses, but my practical bent was to get as much out of my experience as possible and earn my degree. I began asking faculty members what type of projects they were working on and whether they needed help. I went very quickly into research projects and found I had a knack for getting people to tell me their stories."
One of Stephens' graduate research projects involved documenting the history of the community corrections movement and its early intervention efforts. He interviewed and recorded the stories of people, "from inmates to the governor of Kansas," he says. He put flesh on the bones of his criminal and political sociology courses through this experience.
He now urges students to do the same. "The liberal arts need to be challenged by experience," he admonishes, advocating experiential learning. "Classrooms are where you get concepts and structures in place, but you also need to sample outside the classrooms, in the community.
"Students need to be thinking about their lives beyond college, not just in the last semester, but all through their years in college. They need to sample opportunities and make adjustments."
Stephens' graduate school experience continued into the early 1980s as he earned a second master's degree, this one in philosophy, while continuing to teach class and complete research projects. He also earned his Ph.D. from the University of Kansas, earning honors on his dissertation, and he stayed connected to the racquet clubs in the area. "I figured out early on that there were many ways to make your mark in tennis, and teaching gave me opportunities to meet and learn from all kinds of people."
Theory in Practice in the Soviet Union and China
In the 1980s, both the Soviet Union and China were experiencing huge social and political system changes. Stephens wanted to experience those changes first-hand. He was awarded a Pew Grant to study Socialist Reform in the Soviet Union which provided research funding; however, it was his assignment by the International Baseball Association to conduct baseball clinics in the Soviet Union as a roving instructor which allowed him "behind the scenes" access to perestroika and glasnost. The Soviets wanted to learn how to play baseball which became an Olympic event during the 1984 Olympics held in Seoul, Korea.
"I always learned how to latch onto opportunities," he explains, after a query about his baseball expertise. "My dad had been a coach, so we played everything."
A continuation of his Pew Grant took Stephens from Russia to China. He biked from Beijing to Shanghai with a half dozen other people in a tour group and saw that "euphoria was developing" in China with that nation's economic reforms.
His advice to students: "Spy opportunities and make adjustments. Don't over-commit to any one pathway out of the gate. The value of the liberal arts is that it creates essential breadth and allows an individual to find the connections between the various experiences one has in life.
"There is so much about ourselves that we don't notice because we're in familiar surroundings. When you step outside your normal environment, you will notice things about yourself that you never noticed before."
That Academic Career Path
In addition to the years that Stephens spent teaching at the University of Kansas, he also served as an assistant professor, associate professor, professor and chair of the department of sociology and social work at Greenville College in Greenville, Illinois; as a visiting professor of sociology at Nizhni Novgorod State University in Nizhni Novgorod, Russia; as vice president for Academic Affairs and as Academic Dean at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Massachusetts; and as Chief Academic Officer and Dean of the School of Graduate and Professional Studies at Husson College in Bangor, Maine.
Stephens was tapped for the Provost position at Catawba in the late fall and joined the college community January 1. His wife, Debbie, is wrapping up the sale of their home in Maine and her work obligations and will join him in June. The couple has two adult children, Ashley, 25, who lives in Chicago and works as a cancer research coordinator at Northwestern University, and Bill, 23, who is completing the last year of work on his computer engineering degree at Eastern Nazarene College.
Stephens says the warm reception he received from the Catawba College community and the opportunity to again work at a small residential college which emphasizes both the liberal arts and professional studies was appealing.
"Catawba College has reached out more to me than I have to them," he explains. "The choice was not just about the job. It was much more about being part of a community that is authentic, attending and tending to the things that matter most."
He says he wants Catawba College's students to know that "we have high expectations for them."
"We are really into each and every student getting the best set of educational opportunities that we can provide," Stephens concludes. "We promote the expectation that they become the kind of liberally educated persons who can go access and assess a community and make contributions. Our expectation is that they invest in persons around them."
Excerpt from Dr. Stephen's Convocation Address, "Rick's Promise" (Opening Convocation, Spring 2009)