March 31, 2009

Naropa University’s Next President.

Naropa University, in green-minded, progressive, outdoorsy Boulder, Colorado, is an idyllic, alternative small school. Founded only 30 years ago, it’s still forming, still young—and yet its roots go back not only to the Beat poets that founded its excellent writing school, but all the way back to Nalanda University, the Harvard or Oxford of ancient India. It’s a vibrant, artistic, genuine and vibrant community to be a part of, and it’s story is still being created today by its students, staff, faculty and Presidents.

Recently, I was invited to attend a meeting of trustees, faculty, and friends of Naropa University to meet and listen to, and ask questions of, the final two candidates to succeed present President Dr. Thomas Coburn. I only went to one of the meetings—dammit—and while I loved the candidate I met, and his wife (the candidate had me at “Oh, I watched your interviews of Dr. Coburn!”—considering the interviews are two hours long, that’s some thorough extracurricular preparation). The other candidate was also strong, apparently. Both hailed from diverse, intellectually-rich, professionally-stellar backgrounds. 

Still, my concern is thus: I knew former President John Cobb pretty well, and also interviewed him in an early issue of elephant magazine (before we went paperless). I got to know the present President, Dr. Thomas Coburn quite well. I personally admire and respect both. I knew Judy Lief, and Barbara Dilley, and many of the early faculty (my mom was one of them back in the 80s—my dad and ma attended the first summer of Naropa, in 1974. Conveniently, I was born on the day off between two sessions). I consider Naropa’s writing school co-founder Anne Waldman a mentor, and even knew Allen Ginsberg somewhat (I was named after his colleague in Beat arms, Philip Whalen, according to my ma). In 2002, I attended the Jack Kerouac Writing School, got As, but dropped out due to lack of scholarships (at my undergrad education at Boston University—which was/is more expensive than Harvard—I got through four years with $4,000 in debt, total. One semester at Naropa, which at that time couldn’t support poor but academically-excellent folks with scholarships, put me $8K in debt). But all’s well that ends well—I left Naropa to start what would become elephant. Seven years later, it’s my understanding that the financial and scholarship situation at Naropa has a growing foundation.

Anyway: here’s the point. I’ve personally experienced the rising, falling, lefting and righting trajectory that is the short, brilliant history of Naropa University. And here’s where I see things going:

  1. We name a professionally solid, academically-skilled administrator and Naropa becomes more conventional, continues to fail to fundraise adequately, and become just another love-able, small, poor liberal arts school. 
  2. We name someone who gets Naropa’s mission—who isn’t bothered by questions like “are we Buddhist or Buddhist-inspired or not Buddhist at all?” We name someone who will travel 300 days a year, and fundraise so much it’s silly, build new buildings, unite the three campuses to some extent, have a few less classes on diversity understanding and a lot more scholarships to support diversity of every kind, continue Dr. Coburn’s excellent work in making Naropa a green, outward-looking campus, and re-magnetize Naropa’s amazing, underpaid faculty and administration. And hire an excellent, skilled administrator (VP) to actually run the school, day to day.

 I remember when I attended St. Johnsbury Academy, a prep high school, on scholarship. The Headmaster traveled, fundraised, intimidated people, and gave inspiring speeches. His higher-up staffers and faculty ran the school. It was successful, academics were brilliant, teachers were like Robin Williams out of Dead Poets. 

So, Naropa trustees, forget about resumes and fancy academic talk…and find someone with vision, boldness, energy, and an ability to fundraise and delegate.

Let’s make Naropa something cutting-edge, forward-thinking, unique—and financially-solid, and academically-excellent. Our past Presidents have delivered the ball down the field. Now it’s time to forget the running game. Step back, return to our roots, take a deep breath, survey the field…and Hail Mary! 


The beautiful Arapahoe Campus. Right: an old school logo.


Naropa Institute (now University) founder Chogyam Trungpa (from an early draft of an old issue of elephant magazine).

A few random Naropa videos for those not overly-familiar:

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