May 2, 2018
Six days ago I was told the nature of this event, and since then I have been trying to figure out what is happening. Maybe I can get there by a roundabout reference to Roman emperors. Under very different circumstances from ours here today, at least one emperor, on his deathbed, is said to have said, “I think I am becoming a god!” Well, I think I am becoming a chair!
I find myself in a moment I could not ever have expected or even imagined, but to which I am agreeable: The Trimble Foundation has given to Puget Sound an enduring faculty position that stands to extend and propel the presence of China in the intellectual life of the college and its pattern of intensive teaching and learning. An endowed chair is a major event in the life of any institution of higher education, but in a liberal arts college it has especially powerful effect because the incidence is rare and the opportunities wide ranging.
The six days since I learned of the creation of a new chair in contemporary China studies have been ones of an elongated surprise, first the revelation of the magnificent gift that will find its place in the China component of the Asian Studies Program, a remarkable development that will build upon strength already under way and give new energy to the university, the program, and China studies.
Then came an unexpected further revelation that caught me almost speechless, which usually does not happen: The chair would bear my name, and—although I tried—I could not get away with professing unworthiness. Then the next day I learned of the broad range of programmatic content connected with the new faculty position. Beyond expertise that will expand curricular and scholarly development within the college as an intellectual community, the position will be part of building connections in China for faculty and students and high-impact initiatives providing exceptional opportunities for teaching and learning. The gift is a wonderful advancement of creative programming at a liberal arts college, and I have the sense that things proceeded through the energy and thinking anew by a great team of people, including Asian studies colleagues, academic leaders, and the Trimbles.
It is a BIG IDEA! (Capital letters, bold print, and underscored—right here on the page!) It is new, and yet it benefits from patterns of academic innovation and experience at Puget Sound and even has models in place, such as the on-site schools in Southeast Asia under the current Luce Foundation grant, that suggest success in this new venture.
So as to the name of the chair, I may be humbled by it; but I am also honored by it to the depths of my being and proud and pleased to be able to be associated with this great project.
The past sets up for the present, and the past is always present: Let me share a few thoughts on Asian studies at Puget Sound, which was in the picture when I arrived in 1973–74. Asia had had its first appearance in the curriculum at the College of Puget Sound in the 1930s, when Frank Williston (Ph.D., University of Chicago, 1935) taught a course on what was then called "the Far East."
In the midst of the Vietnam War as the ’60s turned to the ’70s, Professor Robert (Bob) Albertson rallied colleagues and took the lead in establishing two separate but related programs that were groundbreakers at Puget Sound: Asian Studies and Pacific Rim/Asia Study-Travel. The first tenure-line positions for Asia specialists, one in Asian religions and one in Chinese history, were filled. From there came program development supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Japan Foundation, within energetic advancement of the whole institution under the leadership of President Phil Phibbs. In the 1980s came the establishment of Japanese and Chinese languages and incremental further expansion of faculty and curriculum. Asia became a “presence” at the college, primarily but not exclusively in the humanities, with a range (East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia) that is unusual for a liberal arts college Asian-area studies program. The range was served by the influence and experience of the Pac Rim program, now fully integrated into the Asian Studies Program.
Something else happened along the way, and a second Bob entered the life of Asian studies at Puget Sound. It was a wonderful thing to meet Robert (Bob) Trimble, Puget Sound Class of 1937, with a major in chemistry that was followed by a career in chemistry. The occasion of meeting was the May 1983 alumni trip to China led by Phil and Gwen Phibbs with a group of 23, including me as scholar in residence. I delighted in meeting Bob, who was born in 1915 in Fuzhou, Fujian province, China, where his father was a medical missionary and the family lived until returning to the U.S. in Bob’s 11th year, in 1926. Bob loved rediscovering China, now new and newer. I also delighted in the ways that Phil and Gwen and Bob and Genevieve could find overlapping keen interest in the daily discoveries of the trip. Bob reconnected with his alma mater, and over time The Trimble Foundation gave a Big Gift! (exclamation point right here on the page!) to support Asian studies and particularly China studies. Among its outcomes were scholarships for students and our alliance with Hwa Nan Women’s College (which began as one of the colleges founded by Protestant missionaries in early 20th-century China and had Trimbles involved from the outset). For over 20 years we have been sending alums to Hwa Nan to teach English at the regenerated post-Mao Hwa Nan (where Gordon and Sonia Trimble have been teaching for years, and where Bob Trimble did some helping out as a conversation leader). Puget Sound and the Trimbles have a long friendship even beyond Asia and China studies, and we are ever aware of the confidence in the college that you have shown in so many ways.
And thus I get to the big point about the current remarkable gift for the BIG IDEA and the great project. The Trimble family has expressed confidence in the University of Puget Sound and its faculty, students, and staff that will endure—that is what an endowed chair does, endure. I am off campus, so I think I can say with bold assurance that you will find Puget Sound at the ready to meet the challenge of your gift. Not just the China team, but the Asian Studies Program overall and the college itself will benefit from the chair in contemporary China studies and its programmatic range. Your gift propels an energy and thoughtfulness already in place.
What a moment this is for Puget Sound!