Mid-Career Faculty Stories: Mel Gray
For many faculty, the quest for tenure, and then full professorship, provide a set of goals that ground and guide us – until those goals are reached. Like Sandra Bullock in the movie Gravity, we may find ourselves set adrift and lost in space, suddenly untethered from the mother ship. This special issue
of Synergia focuses on the challenges and inspiring stories of mid-career faculty.
In an interview with Dr. Ann Johnson, Faculty Development Director, Dr. Mel Gray describes his
35 year career teaching economics, strategy and nonprofit management to undergraduate and M.B.A. students and reflects on the ways in which he finds new "growthful" opportunities and uses UST's Faculty Development programs as a way to rejuvenate and get moving in a good direction.
Could you tell us a little about your career at St. Thomas? When did you begin? What kind of things were you doing initially? And if you can remember back, what do you recall as being your career plan? What were you thinking your career would be like?
I began as an adjunct and I was working in state government. I worked as an adjunct in the Economics department for two years while also working for the state of Minnesota; I wrote my first book during that period. Then four full-time positions opened up simultaneously in the economics department and I applied. That was 1979, back when we were all one college. I taught both grad and undergrad courses.
What were you thinking your future would be like?
Well my future actually began way before that. So when I went to graduate school, my intent was to be a college professor. That was my career expectation. A tweedy-type. I thought that was just going to be the ideal lifestyle. But I was married to another academic, and back in those days and still today, it’s hard to find two positions in the same place. As an economist, I had a lot more flexibility at the time. So I became the “trailing” spouse. I worked in the Federal Reserve System, state government, and the nonprofit world for a while, but gradually I started moving back more toward the academic side of things. I had published a few things, but interestingly, when I started at St. Thomas, publication wasn’t really valued.
That’s been a big change institutionally.
I kept doing it, though because I knew if I ever left St. Thomas and wanted to live someplace else, I needed to have that in my portfolio. I didn’t do a huge amount, and I didn’t do some of the upper level journals, but I did enough to keep my head in the game and keep myself sort of fresh and engaged. It turned out it was sort of a moderate amount of work. I have been here since.
I know how many different roles you’ve taken on at St. Thomas and how things have changed, but from your perspective, how has your career changed over the years? Because certainly the institution has changed.
I guess the biggest change is making the jump from undergraduate economics to pretty much full-time in what was originally the Graduate School for Business, or now the Opus College of Business. There were some rough spots. For example, when I became Faculty Development director – I followed the footsteps of Rob Foy who got things off to a nice start almost single-handedly building the center of program. I had imagined that I would do two terms following Rob, continuing to do what Rob was doing [i.e., focusing on enhancing teaching skill] but also adding one more thing to it. St. Thomas was gradually moving towards the expectation of more scholarship, as we called it and still do – and engaging the profession. But we didn’t have in place any mechanisms to support faculty in doing that. So that’s one thing that I tried to do – to provide forums and workshops, some on seeking funding and that sort of thing. I actually put together the proposal for the administration on how to set up a faculty grants office. What I proposed was having a grants office that would enable faculty to pursue external grants such as foundation grants and NSF funding.
When my first term ended, I had an opportunity to play a formative role in the new Graduate School of Business and move to the Minneapolis campus. But I kept up my Faculty Development interests by taking responsibility for the training of adjuncts in the Graduate School of Business. I did that for about a half dozen years. And then something else came along of course – I was always in search of a shiny new object.
For a lot of faculty, moving into that kind of a leadership role, as you did in Faculty Development is a big decision. Was that a big decision for you, or was it something you always saw yourself doing?
It was. Very early on in my career, I had a chat with Charlie Keffer, and I said if I were to choose the administrative route, take on some responsibilities, given my background, what could I aspire to? As a non-Catholic, non-Christian, not religious, what could one reasonably expect to aspire to? And he said, “deanship” and I said, well in order to do that I need to get some administrative experience. So that was a little piece of my ultimate decision. And my arm was twisted a couple times by faculty development committee members. I wasn’t pursuing it. I finally put all those pieces together and formally applied, went through the process. But that was a piece of my thinking. Would I ever want to be, like a dean? I never was, but I wanted to keep alive as an option – whether at St. Thomas or elsewhere
Around that time I had an odd encounter – I ran into Monsignor Murphy [president of UST before Father Dease] on a train from Finland to Russia. I said, “Monsignor Murphy?” and he said, “Mel?” We talked on that train and he quizzed me on what my vision was.
Where are we now chronologically?
We’re moving into the late 90s and early 2000s. About this time I experienced a plateau period in my career. For organizational reasons, I was moved back to the Economics department along with three colleagues in the Graduate School of Business. We were reporting to the chair of economics but teaching in the school of business. There was this disconnect. That lasted for four or five years. But finally I just thought this is not going to work, so we went about the process of transferring our appointments back to the college of business. There had been some shake-ups in my personal life along that time too. For a few years, my feet weren’t exactly firmly on the ground.
How did you regain your balance and momentum?
I think one real saving grace in that period was because of my arts-related research, and the second edition of my Economics of the Arts book came out just about that time, as well. I was elected president of the Association for Cultural Economics International (ACEI), a small but vocal group. And so it gave me and St. Thomas a tiny bit of visibility there. That was a six-year obligation.
So it gave you another leadership position that was attractive to you?
Yeah. It gave me a focus on something which I could try to help grow because things were not going all so smoothly back here. And that ended just about the time my appointment was transferred back to the College of Business.
And then, what happened?
Going back to the college of business, I had to learn to live in the finance department, which is where we were appointed, because finance is sort of an applied branch of economics. It was one of the most obvious places for us to be assigned. It seems to work. Most of our responsibilities are at the graduate level, although I’m scheduled to teach an undergraduate course for the economics department this coming spring. There are a lot of speed bumps. Every time you jump out of your silo, you encounter some speed bumps.
Moving past the plateau
Speaking of that plateau period, for other mid-career faculty around campus who might be in that situation, what advice might you give?
What I would ordinarily advise is that when this occurs, I’ve never missed an opportunity to take a sabbatical. Those have had huge impacts. It’s a time to regroup, it’s a time to read, it’s a time to put together a research proposal. Every single research proposal put together for sabbatical or for a research grant, something serendipitous plays a huge role. Something changes. I go back and I say, well this was my intent of the sabbatical, but something else intervened, and I switched directions, and it was so much better. You just have to be able to adapt to those circumstances. Take advantage of sabbaticals. If you’re not up for a sabbatical, do some reading on what’s new to at least get some sort of research grant to get a kick start in a different direction. And use the Faculty Development programs as a way to rejuvenate and get moving in a good direction. Taking the workshops means you have to talk to other people. You hear other people’s ideas, and get feedback on your own. That can help reorient and move you along.
Since the association for cultural economics international experience, have you found other ways to take on leadership roles that have been helpful?
That ended about ’08. And in ’09 I went on sabbatical again, and I was appointed editor of a journal. That for me was kind of a big deal. That I thought was kind of a long shot, but I applied for it anyway, and surprise – I ended up getting it. I worked on making that journal more prominent over a 3 year period.
The theme I’m hearing is you like being part of an organization that needs to grow in one way or another.
Yeah. I like to help facilitate that transfer to the next level, if possible. And it gives me a growthful challenge.
For you, that’s how you’ve kept your passion perhaps over the years?
Yeah. To rekindle. Finding new challenges. The way I described it when I was inducted into the Quarter Century Club, which has been a while ago now, was to say that I felt I had probably a kind of case of adult ADD and that I just needed to shake things up, move to the next challenge, the next opportunity. Once I felt I mastered something, okay now. There’s this series of outlets that I found ways to pursue.
And those, so sometimes it sounds like you went searching for those opportunities, and other times they just kind of found you?
They just sort of appeared, and I thought oh, let’s check that one out.
But, it also sounds like you’ve kept your love of teaching going. How do you keep your motivation up now that it’s been 30 years?
There are a couple of things. One of the nice things is that economics is not static. There are always new discoveries, new elements to incorporate into your course. Your course gets reconfigured over time. So one year to the next there may not be a huge change, but over a three or four or five year period, there is a huge shift. Every few years, all those power points I spent all those hours designing, recording, I have to do them all over again. But that’s fine. Its part of what you learn and re-learn, and learn what worked for students, as well. It’s part of the subject matter.
And the other thing that I’ve been able to do is design some courses that are my special interests. I teach a survey non-profit course. Over the years I’ve designed several courses that have been picked up by others. At the undergraduate level I designed and offered the first several times a course in law and economics. For a while I did a fair amount of forensic economics on the side. And by the time I had done a dozen or 15 consulting gigs for lawyers, I was beginning to get a good feel for how economics can be used, and so I introduced a course on that topic. And it is still a part of the undergraduate economics curriculum. I created a course in economics and strategy. It’s still part of the graduate curriculum. I haven’t taught it for maybe four years now, but it’s still offered to students.
The work-life balance
You mentioned when you started at St. Thomas, we didn’t have the pressure to publish. That’s changed, but that wasn’t so much of an issue for you. It sounds like you were already publishing. And you’ve published how many books now?
By one count, I have 4 Library of Congress numbers. Working on the 5th.
Some of our younger faculty who came in, and things are different now. And the workload and the pressure to publish and the pressure to produce is a little more intense. So do you have any advice to younger faculty on how to balance work and life? Or do you feel that’s been something you’ve been able to do successfully?
I’ve had an unusual situation. Early on, I was married to an academic. With two academics there is some flexibility in our schedules. We could work around how one of us could drop a child off at daycare and the other would pick him up. We could make those things work. Summers are great if you’re an academic. Your child’s out of school for the summer, and so are you., I would pick up a summer school class from time to time, but if we wanted to travel, we could all do that easily. That made things a little bit easier. I think it’s not so easy when you have a non-academic partner and a household built around that. My wife is not a full-time academic, she’s a Ph.D. We do some consulting work together, and she does some adjunct teaching from time to time, but she doesn’t have the academic schedule. We’ve adjusted our schedules gradually to spend more time together. The advice I would give would be to try to find ways to build some flexibility into your lives, your relationships.
I have to ask, are you looking toward retirement, and what are your thoughts in that regard?
The word keeps popping up.
I wanted to get your thoughts on it, because I know there are other faculty out there actively thinking about retirement. I’m curious. I’m trying to learn how people get there and what their thoughts are. What would be useful, especially in terms in faculty development efforts?
One thing that I had done in anticipation of making some kind of transition, I began looking around for if I were to retire, what would be the adjunct teaching opportunities at St. Thomas, or at the University of Minnesota.
If I can continue working with the Nonprofit Center and teaching at this pace and stay healthy, then I see no reason to accelerate the process. My wife is a little bit younger. We’ve got a decent thing going here, and I’m enjoying what I’m doing. What would I do if I retired? I’d do a bit of teaching, and still do some writing. Well wait a minute, that’s what I’m doing now, so let’s get paid a full salary for it. The only drawback, it’s not a huge thing, I’m still on the academic calendar. We have some friends that we travel with. They’re almost all retired, or flexible in other ways. They can go off and take a two week spring trip to Italy. I can’t do that.
So in the meantime, you’re looking at your options and checking them against how you feel, what you’re doing now, and just making decisions that way.
Yes. As my wife says, we have no room at the house for all the books in my office. I’m going to keep the office just to keep going.
Are you happy you found St. Thomas?
I’m happy I found St. Thomas, and I’m happy St. Thomas found me, in a way. I think we’ve all grown, and I think that’s been one of the nice things for me about St. Thomas, is that it hasn’t been a static place. It’s like change is part of the DNA around here.
Take advantage of professional development opportunities
I’m not sure that every faculty member can truly appreciate that we do have an unusual situation here: The commitment to faculty development. There are a lot of other schools that have very good faculty development programs in a variety of ways. Some are even bigger and better funded and better supported than ours. There are a lot of places that have nothing, or just nothing that comes even close to approaching what we have here. Two things that I would suggest to faculty: one is to take advantage of what is offered, and if it’s not offered, find a way to press your interests and preferences, and let Ann Johnson know what would help move your career along. If you can’t make something that’s more suitable, or if you feel there’s a program that looks good but doesn’t quite fit, how do you tweak it and be engaged in that tweaking. Don’t just sit back.