Please remember in your prayers Michael Jordan, Ph.D., 63, a professor of English at St. Thomas who served as associate vice provost for undergraduate studies from 2005 to late 2015. He died Sunday, Jan. 24, of pancreatic cancer.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Friday, Feb. 5, at House of Hope Presbyterian Church. In honor of Jordan’s great passion for music, contributions to The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra are preferred in lieu of flowers.
If you find yourself in Aquinas Hall, look carefully at the six photographs suspended behind six windows on the first floor, each representing the six colleges and schools of the university. Five of the photos show just the exteriors of the buildings. But look closely at the one that anchors the west end of the building and you’ll see a lone figure walking into the John R. Roach Center for the Liberal Arts. That’s Michael Jordan, circa 2010.
He had planned to end his career the way he had begun it: teaching. After taking a sabbatical this spring semester he intended to once again teach The Classical Tradition, a course he knew intimately, this fall. Amy Muse, Ph.D., chair of the English Department was looking forward to having his thoughtful presence back in the department. “We can only imagine the wisdom on mortality and a life well-lived his students would have received from reading Homer and Virgil and Dante with Michael,” she said.
Jordan came to the College of St. Thomas in 1982, the same year he received his Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. Throughout his 33-plus-year career he wore many hats both as a professor and an administrator. More so, he built a highly regarded reputation among faculty, administrators and students alike as an unfailingly civil and dedicated member of the university community. He was valued for many reasons – his integrity, kindness, earnestness, erudition and humility to name just a few – but what many prized most was his steadfast belief in the lasting power of a liberal arts education and his passion for providing every St. Thomas student with an intellectually rigorous, soul-shaping core curriculum.
“He was exceedingly dedicated and earnest with a vision for undergraduate education at St. Thomas,” said Thomas Redshaw, Ph.D., a retired English Department professor who knew Jordan when he was hired. “He was always an advocate for the students but never for a student being slighted by the curriculum. In other words, he thought a St. Thomas education had something in particular to offer and that they needed to treat it as something other than a state university.”
Jordan’s vision to make the curriculum and university a better place is evinced in his purposeful, and fast-paced, professional trajectory. He received tenure in 1987. The very next year he became chair of the English Department, a position he held for a decade, save for a one-year hiatus between 1991 and 1992 when he served as acting dean of the college. In 1997 he, with Susan Alexander, Ph.D., was voted Professor of the Year. And in 1998 he was made a full professor.
His areas of expertise: literary theory, comparative literature, classical Greek literature, philosophical anthropology, and the history and theory of liberal education, were expressive of his “profound sense of the interconnectedness of the various disciplines,” according to his wife and fellow St. Thomas English professor, Brenda Powell, Ph.D., who spoke to the Aquin in 1997.
Jordan continued to teach until 2010, well after he became associate vice provost. He also continued to serve on numerous committees and task forces, including, among many others, division director of humanities and fine arts, chair of the Curriculum Review and Implementation Task Force, chair of the English Department, interim chair of the History Department, chair of the Committee on Studies and chair of the Core Curriculum Task Force, a role he held until recently.
Also of note, he had been the editor of Logos: The Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture since 1996 and taught undergraduate and graduate courses in the Catholic Studies Department. The former allowed him to remain immersed in scholarship after he transitioned to administration. Managing editor and adjunct Catholic studies faculty member Liz Kelly called him the best boss she’s ever had.
“Michael’s rejections were so beautiful and so graceful, authors hardly felt rejected. There was a great grace in him that way,” she said.
Though he was humble and mild-mannered, it wasn’t uncommon for students to find his vast intellect intimidating. But he was a patient listener and had a patient way of guiding students through daunting subject matter.
Terri Topness ’02, who works in the Office of the Registrar, remembered a visit she paid to his office as a student in the M.A. in English program when she felt overwhelmed in his Issues in Criticism course.
“I was considering dropping out of the program, but his quiet faith in my abilities helped me get through a very difficult first semester,” she said. “He was engaging me in a discussion on Russian formalism, and I couldn’t understand why he was talking to me as if I knew what I was doing. When I told him as much he smiled and said, ‘You understand more than you think,’ so I figured I did, and I kept up with the program.”
His colleagues fondly remember his bold competitiveness on the court during faculty basketball games in McCarthy Gym. Most of his students probably never guessed that Jordan, a former MVP of the St. John’s College (Annapolis, Maryland) baseball team, where he received his B.A., was quite the athlete. Off the court, his colleagues were struck by his belief in their inherent goodness and capableness, something he labelled as his “ongoing regard.”
In her tribute speech to Jordan at a reception in his honor this past December, St. Thomas English professor Erika Scheurer, Ph.D., quoted Emily Dickinson: “We never know how high we are till we are asked to rise.” The words, she said, came to mind whenever she thought of Jordan, who advocated for St. Thomas’ nascent Writing Across the Curriculum program, and for Scheurer to helm it.
Jordan is survived by Powell and their two daughters, Amelia and Julia. Together, Jordan and Powell, who retired in 2014, formed a rich intellectual partnership, a real shared mission for education and family that made an impression on those who knew them. The two poured their hearts and souls, time and energy, into St. Thomas in a way that’s extraordinarily rare.