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Reveling in Retirement

Reveling in Retirement
After two college presidencies, Dr. James Hefner is taking time to pursue his avocations, while still in demand within academia.

The average college president’s tenure lasts around five years. In 2005, Dr. James Hefner had served more than four times that long in the position: seven years as the president of Jackson State University and 14 years as the president of Tennessee State University. He accomplished a great deal in those years.

“I loved the challenge of moving my institution from one point to another. I had always put a premium on recruiting the best and the brightest students because I always felt it was important to serve all students but to also have that critical mass of exceptional students for the others to look up to and aspire to — and I had been successful at that,” Hefner recalls.

Over his 14-year tenure at Tennessee, Hefner also oversaw a complex and ambitious building program: eight new buildings and the renovation of all the old buildings on the main and downtown campuses. He raised millions of dollars for these projects and pushed for the establishment of new Ph.D. programs, too, all the while managing to eat lunch with the students in the campus cafeteria at least twice a month.

And the university and the Nashville community seemed to appreciate his efforts. After the retirement announcement, a Nashville city councilwoman, Carole Baldwin, threw the search process a curve ball by declaring her intention to nominate Hefner to succeed himself.

But, while no doubt flattered by the “save Hefner” campaign, the president remained resolute on the challenge that lay before him: after a decades-long tenure at the pinnacle of university leadership, he needed to create a second act. What was the life he really wanted now?

Hefner was clear that he didn’t want that life to revolve around politics. “When you are a public college president and an African-American college president, there’s going to be politics associated with that. Pursuing new programs and new academic degrees is going to take you to the state legislature, and you’re going to have to get out there and be an advocate,” he explains.

At the same time, he adds, “what you have to advocate may not be congruent with what others would like,” so over time some of those relationships may become more frayed and difficult. Though he considered those among the “normalities” of the job, Hefner was looking forward to laying that particular burden down.

Hefner was equally clear about his passions, though — and they remained students and research.

*“Students matter most and that was my philosophy at Jackson State, and I took that with me to Tennessee State,” Hefner says.

Not surprisingly, those are the poles around which the “working” portion of retirement revolves. After his retirement in May of 2005, Tennessee State named him president emeritus and appointed him to the highly prestigious and richly endowed Frist Chair for Excellence in the business school.

“While I was president, I always wanted to teach just one class, but there was never time,” Hefner says. Now he revels in the opportunity to teach “Principles of Economics” to sophomores at TSU.

At the same time, he says, “Skip Gates called” — using the nickname by which the director of Harvard’s celebrated DuBois Institute is universally known.
Gates wanted Hefner to become a Sheila Biddle Ford Foundation fellow, an honor shared by the likes of Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka; Dr. Karla Holloway, the Kenan Professor of English at Duke University; and many other scholars of national and international repute. Hefner happily agreed, and he’s hard at work on a book project titled The Black College in the Making of America.

Nearly three years into his retirement, life remains busy for Hefner. During a typical week recently, he notes, “I was at Harvard, they supply me with an office in the graduate school of education to do research on the book. When I returned home, I continued to do research but, remember, I also teach one class per semester.”

Hefner’s schedule is much lighter, much more flexible than it was during his presidential years, but he remains in high demand.

“I have my consulting work with the Southern University System in Louisiana and the Southern Education Foundation in Atlanta. I’m also on the Board of Regents at the University of the South, I work with the president to increase their supply of Black students and faculty.

“And I’m having my first meeting (as a member) with the Morehouse board soon. I’m really looking forward to that because Robert Franklin, the new president, was a student when I was a faculty member and I knew him well. He’s a fine person, and I want to do everything I can to help him in his new role,” he adds.

Most gratifying, Hefner has much more time to spend with family: his sons, Christopher, a Nashville realtor; Jonathan, a physician in Atlanta; and David, an associate vice president for marketing and communications at Tuskegee University, and their wives and children. He also spends much needed quality time pursuing what he calls his “avocations.”

“You’ve got to have your vocation, but you cannot live without avocations, and mine are reading, fishing and traveling to museums, symphonies, and playhouses with my wife,” Hefner says.

Hefner is, in fact, a passionate fisherman who particularly enjoys trips to Alaska for salmon — “it’s just extraordinary country,” he enthuses — and to Florida, where his favorites are bream, mullet, crappies and bass.

However, he’s just as happy to pack away his waders and take in a cruise or visit a museum with his wife, Edwina, or to check out the music, dance and theater at Charleston’s Spoleto Festival with his granddaughters.

Asked about the diversity of his interests, Hefner waxes nostalgic, recalling the professor at North Carolina A&T State University who educated his tastes.

“Her name was Dr. Juanita Tate, and she basically took hold of my life. She enrolled me in art and literature classes. I had to read a newspaper everyday, Time and Newsweek every week, Look and Life every month. There had never been an African-American Ph.D. in economics at the time I was in her hands, and she looked at me and said I would be the first. And I was — at the University of Colorado-Boulder in 1971. She was there, and she spoke at my inauguration at Jackson State in 1984. It’s because of Dr. Tate and what she did for me that I’m enjoying the life I enjoy today.

“So I celebrate my life, and I celebrate my family,” Hefner says.

As second acts go, who could ask for anything more?

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