Soulful

I’ve been thinking a lot about the soul lately. I’m not sure why. Maybe because in a time of change and transition—and it sure seems like the world is in one of those times right now—the mind turns to the things that are eternal and essential. The soul is the thing you don’t sell, you don’t surrender, you don’t lose—no matter how trying the times may be and no matter what the price.

A movie called Cold Souls was released this summer. It was based on a dream the film’s director, Sophie Barthes, had. In the dream, Woody Allen’s soul has been extracted from his body and become visible. Strangely, Woody’s soul ends up looking like a chickpea. That’s right, a small, wrinkled garbanzo bean. The movie takes that whimsical notion—that a person’s soul could be extracted, expressed as something, and stored someplace—and tells a wacky but provocative tale about a corporation called Soul Storage, a firm that will extract and store your soul for a fee.

The story centers around the fate of the soul belonging to lead actor Paul Giamatti. (You remember him, from that wine-tasting comedy Sideways and the lead role in the John Adams dramatic miniseries for which he won an Emmy.) Anyway, in Cold Souls Paul Giamatti plays the part of a person named Paul Giamatti (but who resembles the chickpea-souled Woody Allen). Giamatti has his soul extracted and secured in a lockbox on Roosevelt Island in New York. The story takes a turn when we discover that Soul Storage has become part of a Russian-American trafficking network, and Giamatti’s soul ends up in the body of a Russian starlet. Her trafficker husband had it stolen for her, thinking that it was Al Pacino’s soul.

Are you following this? Because I am going somewhere with it. It’s really the idea of the extracted soul that interests me, and the idea that each of us has a soul—that thing, whatever it is, that defines who we are, our inner essence, the crucial element that makes each one of us, us, and expresses our fundamental core self. And the idea that this eternal and invisible essence could be extracted and expressed as something we can see and store someplace. The reality of the soul is a belief as old as the Bible and Buddhism, at least, and an idea philosophers have written about since Plato and Aristotle and before.

As the lead actor (and character), Paul Giamatti was interviewed in The New Yorker about the premise of the movie and made a few humorous guesses about what some famous people’s souls would look like if they could be extracted: Willie Nelson’s would resemble an ear of roasted corn, Dolly Parton’s a fluttering hummingbird, and Merle Haggard’s an old Chevy engine block—powerful but kind of rusty, with lots of greasy buildup. One of my favorites was Donald Trump, whose soul would be a nice set of wide whitewall tires. And the soul of Italy’s inimitable prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, would be a heavily lacquered coffee table.

You’re still wondering: Where is he going with this? I’m getting to it now. In the university’s senior-officer planning retreat this summer, prior to two days of strategic planning for the year, I talked about this movie with members of the cabinet and asked each one of them how they would describe their own souls. And then I asked them, if you could extract the soul of Puget Sound, the soul of our great college, what would it resemble? A golden egg, one said. A young maple tree, offered another. A shining rock on a sunlit beach. A slice of the Earth that runs deep below the surface. Four young men rowing a small boat across the Atlantic Ocean. Most of those images suggested some kind of promise—a bright future, a depth of possibility, a destiny and determination to do something great.

That soul, that spirit, is something I see expressed in many ways at Puget Sound, in so many small acts of daring and innovation and leadership. You can see it in the six Fulbright scholars who graduated in this past year’s senior class, now in France, Germany, and Peru, along with the Goldwater, Udall, and Rotary Ambassadorial scholarships our students earned. You can see it in the faculty, too. Jim Evans won the 2008 Washington State Professor of the Year Award for excellence in teaching; it was the second year in a row one of our faculty members has earned the award, which we have received a total of five times—the most of any college or university in the state. And in Communication Studies Professor Renée Houston, who accepted an award on behalf of her colleagues in economics and sociology and psychology for their indispensable teamwork on a Civic Scholarship project that partnered with Pierce County to develop a 10-year plan to end homelessness in the county, a plan recognized by the National Coalition to End Homelessness. And in our staff and faculty and administrators and alumni, who, in the toughest recruiting season we have ever seen, with smaller applicant pools and struggling families, managed to recruit our largest class in 13 years, with more diversity and higher verbal SAT scores than ever before.

You can see this same soul in our facilities staff, who last November noticed a crack in a beam in the fieldhouse hours before what could have been a catastrophe, evacuated the building without injury, worked all night and with construction crews over the next three months to not only repair but to dramatically enhance our beloved fieldhouse—our own home of champions. Or in our student athletes, the champions themselves, who responded to being deprived of the fieldhouse for practice and play by recording the only two undefeated seasons in conference play on record—breaking winning-streak records in women’s soccer and men’s basketball, and joining several other teams in postseason play.

In all of these instances, the soul of Puget Sound was expressed. Students, faculty, staff, and alumni all dug in and pulled the oars a little harder to keep Puget Sound moving forward across the ocean of challenges we faced this past year, at a time when many colleges and universities had to cut back and lower their sights and reduce their expectations. We trimmed our sails, too, but because of the soul that gives life to this place, we kept our sights high and moved forward.

The soul of a place, like the soul of a person, is most visible, most exposed, when times are tough, when unusual challenges are being faced, when there are difficult choices to be made. I am proud of what we have seen at Puget Sound this year. We are a soulful place.