By: Michael Wilkerson, Director of Arts Administration Programs, SPEA
There was a period not long after his second retirement when Ken Gros Louis talked about writing a book called The Poetry of Leadership, his response to our data-obsessed and sometimes dehumanizing 21st century. I asked him what he meant by that title, and he answered: “Everything you need to know is in King Lear.”
Throughout his 23 years as chancellor and as dean, department chair and professor, Ken drew his ideas from his encyclopedic knowledge of medieval literature and, of course, Shakespeare. He never wanted to give a speech without including a poem, with a twist of literary analysis to make it relevant to the occasion. Gros Louis knew what made people tick, understood how to draw the best work from them, how to figure out what they needed most–and then to try to help them get it.
He was a master at maneuvering around obstacles, often joking about “the fine print of Machiavelli” as a secret source for his creative problem-solving. He believed that technology and careers change, but that the nature of humanity is usually good and always enduring.
He continued to believe this even after the tragic early death of his irrepressible wife and feminist scholar, Dee Gros Louis; and then of his closest assistant and “surrogate son,” Bill Van Antwerpen; and still, after being denied the presidency of IU on more than one occasion (though he was offered several other presidencies, he declined them all without a second thought to stay at his beloved IU).
He kept going, regardless, for himself, his second wife Diana, the campus, and his daughters, Amy and Julie.
How should we now remember this legendary administrator, whose management of the campus was simultaneously strong-willed and light-handed, who enjoyed his place in the spotlight but who never needed the fulsome praise that so many others demand? He drew his inspiration from Herman B Wells, who made the Bloomington campus a world-renowned yet strikingly informal institution.
Like Wells, Ken hired first-rate faculty and administrators and proudly turned them loose to do their jobs in their own ways.
The mission of the campus leadership, Ken often said, was to serve the faculty first, the students second, and everyone else after that. (Sometimes this did not sit well with the board of trustees, powerful donors, or politicians, yet most came to like him once they grew to understand him.)
It was my great fortune to work for Ken Gros Louis for many years and in several capacities. One year, he appointed me “student liaison” but in only a few months revoked the title and changed my duties, not because I had failed in the position, but because he wanted to be the one to meet with the students himself, a tendency that never ceased for the rest of his life.
As a boss, he was as hilarious as he was inspiring, sometimes carrying on elaborate jokes that could last for months. Upon his first retirement in 2001, we watched as he emptied out his desk drawers. Most of what was inside was not awards or office supplies, but various prank gifts he’d collected over the years.
Ken’s on-the-job comedy was as legendary as his accomplishments: at the formal dinner with the first group of distinguished scholars from China ever to visit IU, in 1982, he insisted that all of us young staff members attend, knowing that this was to be a profound learning experience.
But he also wanted us to witness some trickery. He introduced then-intern Bill Van Antwerpen to the Chinese delegation as “one of the West’s foremost scholars of contemporary China,” who “just happened to be hobbled that night by laryngitis.”
Poor Bill was fawned over repeatedly by the visitors, who were eager to hear his scholarly insights on the new China, about which he knew nothing, while he desperately feigned the inability to speak for several long hours.
It was a typical Ken trick, and he enjoyed equally being the recipient of Bill’s retaliation. I need say no more about the time he accepted a student group’s invitation to visit Briscoe Quad for the first time as chancellor, and he appeared in their meeting room on horseback.
After retirement, Ken had an office in Wylie Hall and was able to park illegally for years because the officer who ticketed cars on that part of campus said, “Dr. Gros Louis, you were the only one of the VIP’s who always wanted to know about me, how I was doing, how my family was. Now that you’re retired, if you want a place to park, you just go right ahead.”
Stories like that are everywhere, being told and retold in these sad days after Ken’s passing. He stood for a kind of egalitarian collegiality that offset his relentless quest for academic and administrative excellence. Without him, there would probably not be a Wells Scholars program or a Neal-Marshall Center or a new theatre building or the campus GLBT center, or even the beautiful green Arboretum that has made the north side of campus almost as beautiful as the original Old Crescent.
I recall the behind-the-scenes maneuvers he used to make all those things come into being, and I’m sure there were many more I never knew about. Like Herman Wells, his legacy is everywhere; yet nothing on campus is named for him.
So what was in King Lear that enchanted Ken Gros Louis and informed his unique world view? Lear is a complex, messy tale in which ambition destroys a family and a kingdom, in which disaster is fueled by the failure of the characters to know themselves, in which the worst “administrator” in literary history carries out the order to execute an innocent, saying “if it be man’s work, I’ll do it.”
(Ken would quote this passage and shake his head, still astonished on the hundredth reading that the man went ahead, bureaucratically, with the killing.)
In King Lear people persevere through astonishing adversity and ultimately find some hope and peace in self-knowledge. Only one character, “The Fool,” sees the situation clearly from start to finish, while he both entertains and schemes, holding the world together with witty songs and perfectly timed acts of valor and compassion. That was how Ken handled himself, and it was how he led the campus.
That way of being, of putting the human heart and mind first and the rules and the money and the data second, of seeking a creative solution to every problem no matter how immense–that was the true poetry of leadership.
No book, unfortunately, was left behind for those of us who mourn Ken, but he left us something far more important: a good life, a series of lasting accomplishments, literally thousands who were proud to call him their friend, and, ultimately, a campus vastly better than it would have been had he not led it for so many years.
At various points in my career, I would visit Ken as I was embarking on some new job or adventure, within the university or across the country. Each time he would offer congratulations, but then look me in the eye and say, “Go out there and do something good.” It was, after all, the only thing he ever wanted from anyone, especially himself.