Friday, September 28, 2012

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 31: Peter Iver Kaufman

Peter Kaufman
"Excuse me, Professor, but is that tie 100% polyester or just 90%?"

Those were my first words to Peter Kaufman back in 1980.  My girlfriend thought he was the cat's meow, and she had dragged me to one of his religious studies classes at the University of North Carolina, where I was a sophomore. The class discussion was lively but seemed ridiculous to me. It had little to do with religion; Peter just kept badgering us about how we knew what we were saying was true.

The whole thing was incredibly irritating, and it was not helped by the tie Peter was wearing, which was shiny, wide, and garish.  Hence my wise-acre challenge to him at the end of class.

"What do you mean?" he exclaimed, and looked down at his tie, brushing at a stain.  "What's wrong with this?" he said and brushed at the stain a few more times.

"Well it looks like something from about 1968," I replied.

"Maybe it is, maybe I got it for my college graduation," he said, with a twinkle in his eye. And he brushed at it again.

And thus began my relationship with one of my greatest professors, mentors, and friends. Eventually I became a religious studies major (the most unlikely of majors for me), and he pushed, pushed, pushed me to do all sorts of crazy things, including traveling around the world one semester while taking all my courses on a self-study basis.

A few years ago, I got a call from an organization in Texas.  The director said, "We like the work you are doing at GlobalGiving, and we want to give an award to the person who taught you how to be an entrepreneur. Can you send us his name and bio?"

Without hesitation, I sent them Peter's bio, and after a few days they called me back.  "Are you sure you sent us the right person?  This seems to be a religious studies professor who has written books like Thinking of the Laity in Late Tudor England."

"Oh, don't be fooled by that," I replied.  "He only writes those things to jump through the hoops he needs to be a professor.  What he really does is bug the crap out of his students to convince them not to accept conventional wisdom, and to look at the world in different ways. Surely that is what entrepreneurship is all about, isn't it?"

They agreed and gave him the award.  Characteristically, Peter turned it down (or tried to - I never found out what happened).

Peter taught at UNC-Chapel Hill for thirty years, during which time he won so many teaching awards it got monotonous.  In 2008, the University of Richmond's Jepson School stole him away to become the George Matthews and Virginia Brinkley Modin Professor of Leadership Studies.  Before leaving for Richmond, Peter decided to become a traditional entrepreneur himself at age 60-something, launching the Scholars Latino Initiative to advance the idea that all students, no matter their background, should be able to have access to a college education.

I have seen Peter a couple of times in the last few years and can confirm that his ties have changed - they are now only years rather than decades behind the current fashion, and they sport a much higher natural fiber content.  But one thing has not changed.  Peter is still his irascible self, urging his students, his peers, and above all himself to never accept the status quo, and to see the world in new ways.

Over the years, Peter has affected the lives of thousands of students - including mine, in fundamental ways - and the actions of those thousands of students have in turn improved the lives of hundreds of thousands or maybe millions of people.  For that, I am grateful - we should all be.

Share on Facebook