An Obituary for Ohren

OhrenBy Dr. Joe Ohren, Retired EMU MPA Public Administration Faculty
NOTE: this is an edited version of the text of Dr. Ohren’s comments on the evening of September 27, 2016, at a celebration of his 44 years in the profession. His comments followed those of several former students and professionals who had been invited to reflect on his impact.

Good evening and thank you all for coming to this celebration; I have spoken to many of you personally and hope to connect with all of you before the evening is over.  But, if not, please know that I am delighted to have you join me for this special evening.  You should know at the outset of my remarks that I was not sure I wanted to do this; I spoke at the 35th anniversary reception of the MPA program over a year ago and in many ways I saw that as my “swan song.” 

But Jeff Bernstein was pretty persuasive in saying that while I had had a chance to speak at that event, others had not had a chance to reflect on my tenure in and contribution to the program and the profession.  So I relented, and am very grateful to Jeff and Rose Soliven for all their work in pulling this together, and undoubtedly Doreen Mendelssohn had much to do with this as well.

As is often the case for my lectures or speeches I take my cue from a newspaper article or a current event and weave it into what I hope will be a coherent presentation.  This evening I take my cue from a recent New York Times article written by Bruce Weber, the obituary writer who, after eight years on that assignment, moved to a new assignment. 

I have borrowed from him—and hence my title, An Obituary for Ohren—the following thoughts:

…an obituary is not about a death, but a life.  …  An obituary is, after all, the first last word on a life, a public assessment of a human being’s time on earth, a judgment on what deserves to be remembered.

Obviously, this is not an obituary in the literal sense.  But, in a self-serving way, I want to offer an “assessment of my time on earth,” and my own judgments of what I hope “deserves to be remembered.”  You have heard already the thoughts of others, their judgments of what deserves to be remembered, mostly based on an assessment of my time here at EMU.  So I figure it is only fair to offer my own insights.

My experiences in the mid 1960s and early 1970s, first at Aquinas College and then later at Syracuse University, encouraged me to think beyond myself, from the Dominican “Four Pillars”—community life, common prayer, study and service—to the Athenian Oath at the Maxwell School, from which I quote:

We will transmit this city not only not less, but greater, better and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.

Teaching was not my first career choice—I wanted to make a difference in cities as a city manager, a product of an introductory public administration class in my junior year taught by Robert Clarke at Aquinas.  He was the first of several important mentors in my life, and one I was able to thank publicly at a Michigan Political Science Association meeting some years ago. 

What I wanted to do was to help shape policies to be adopted by elected governing boards (none of that politics-administration dichotomy for this student of Public Administration), and more importantly, implementing those policies in the public interest.

These were, after all, the heady days of the Great Society, when a generation of young people sought out public service—while others, including two of my brothers, fought to protect us from the “falling dominoes”—to make our society more just, safer, healthier, and more equitable.  In writing this of course I was tempted to borrow the phrase, “Make America Great!”  For us all is how I would end that phrase since that is really what we were seeking.

But, as sometimes happens—I too hope that I have had that impact over 40 plus years—a mentor at Syracuse suggested I consider teaching.  “Why not,” I think I remember him saying, “teach future generations of city managers. Impart to them what you have learned here with us.  I think you would be good at it!”  (Of course, this is an imaginary conversation from 1969, but I suspect Guthrie Birkhead would feel comfortable with my characterization of the conversation.)

And, the rest, as they say, is history.  I taught for two years in the acclaimed Public Affairs Program at Syracuse, finished the doctoral coursework and defended a dissertation, and over the next 42 years I fell in love with teaching.  Not right away, but over time. 

I remember writing out my lectures, longhand on yellow pads, for each class period, reading them from the podium, afraid to ask questions, or take questions for that matter, for fear I would lose my place.  Learning the class material again, not as a student, but as a teacher must. 

And, gradually finding a way to connect with students—in the classroom using exercises and probing questions, in advising sessions, both academic and personal, in joint research projects, and as I grew, in collaborative public service projects and contracts. 

I remember vividly, to this day, writing a section of a HUD report in 1970 for Dean Alan “Scotty” Campbell, who was under contract with the Department.  He paid me with a personal check, still another mentor.  It started me on a similar journey and led me to recruit interested and exceptional students to support my own contracts as I began my consulting work and extending the student learning process outside the classroom.

For me, teaching became not just a career, but a calling, a vocation to use David Brooks conception:

a vocation involves falling in love with something, having a conviction about it and making it part of your personal identity. … it reveals itself in a sense of enjoyment as you undertake its tasks and it can’t be easily quit when setbacks and humiliations occur.

For me it was wonderful; despite the lack of immediate feedback from legions of students, I won several teaching awards over the years, and in 2005 Eastern Michigan University bestowed on me a coveted Institutional Values Award for Community Engagement. 

But, it had its downsides; my commitment to my “calling” got in the way of family relationships and my wife and older kids undoubtedly suffered.  Some of my colleagues found me testy or aggressive at times—I would use the word assertive, but I suspect that at times I came across as pretty self-righteous.  Indeed, a former department head took me aside at one point and suggested that some of my colleagues wouldn’t trust me in the Chair’s position, a role I aspired to at one point in my life.  “You take yourself too seriously!” I remember him saying.

As a student of bureaucracy I learned how to make my way around the university, establishing personal relationships with others in key positions and working around the system for students who sought my help.  And, on more than one occasion it got me into trouble; I always apologized after the fact rather than seeking permission in advance.

And, not every student enjoyed my approach to the teaching-learning process.  Consider the following comments from recent student evaluations:

  • Your test questions are too broad, often difficult to interpret;
  • You often go off on tangents;
  • Limit your “rants;”
  • All over the place at times, try not to jump around as much;
  • Lectures and discussions are often disconnected from assigned readings;
  • Not enough structure to the class—Ohren seems to wander all over, both literally and figuratively.

These impacts and reactions need to be acknowledged here since, in the words of the obituary writer, “unsavory details are often unavoidable.” 

And, given that my life has been so tied up with my identity as Dr. Ohren or Professor Ohren, I am only now realizing how hard it is to learn, or perhaps relearn, how to be “Just Joe.”

But, as I have finished teaching here at EMU—I suspect I will continue to teach in other venues for as long as I am able—I am reminded often of the impact I have had.  As Sandra and I travel around the state, I find myself noting that “one of my alums” is city manager or finance director there, or I have worked with that governing board to build consensus on an action plan. 

I have had the good fortune to have one leg in the university and one leg in the real world; sharing the latest research findings with elected and appointed governing board members and city administrators, speaking to and writing for professional audiences rather than the more traditional academic publications, while at the same time infusing those required classroom readings with real world examples, even if I wandered all over at times.

On what basis do I hope to be remembered?  How would I end my obituary?  As I did earlier, let me draw from some recent student evaluations for some perspectives:

  • You can tell he loves what he does;
  • Entertaining and stimulating, always animated;
  • Passionate about what he teaches and cares about his students;
  • Makes the material relevant and interesting, weaving in personal experiences and examples to help us understand the material;
  • Personable and approachable;
  • Respectful of student opinions;
  • Helped whenever students needed it;
  • Always available for questions or advising.

So, how would I like be remembered?

  • As a stimulating and provocative teacher;
  • A warm and supportive advisor;
  • A combative colleague at times;
  • A mentor for young colleagues and students alike;

but beyond Dr. Ohren,

  • Evolving into a pretty good father and husband over the years;
  • A fair baker and cook who has been willing to share his treats with students and colleagues and now with sick neighbors and good friends;
  • A devoted grandfather who enjoys catching up with all seven of the kids;
  • An activist elder who is committed to having an impact on environmental policies;

And, perhaps most important at this point in life,

  • As someone who tries not to take himself too seriously.

In the words of my spouse, a “mensch”—a person of true goodness and integrity.

Before I close, let me remind you that the other reason for doing this is to encourage donations to the scholarship fund set up in my name several years ago by a former student and now colleague.  This is truly, to borrow the phrase, the gift that can keep on giving, supporting worthy students who are pursuing unpaid internships as part of their own learning process.

Thank you all again for sharing this evening; a special thanks to Sandra and the Ohren clan—kids and grandkids; to my friends from around the area who have become a supportive community as I have transitioned to “Just Joe”; to my departmental colleagues, many of whom are here this evening, and especially to Jeff Bernstein, Rose Soliven and Doreen Mendelssohn who played leadership roles in pulling this together; and finally to Eastern Michigan University, which despite its challenges and frustrations at times, has been a good home for me for the past three decades.

Dr. Joe Ohren ([email protected]) retired after 31 years as a public administration faculty member of the Eastern Michigan University MPA Program. Throughout his career, Joe dedicated himself to the education of future public servants and helped more than 60 local communities with goal setting, team building, strategic management, and performance management.
If you wish to write a note about Joe that will be compiled in a commemorative publication, contact Rose Soliven ([email protected]) by October 25, 2016.

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