Charlene Callahan: professor, Provost, boater, wood-worker

photos courtesy of Nicole van der Berg and ncf.edu

She thinks of herself as a merger baby: “When I interviewed in the summer of ’75, the school was just transitioning from being private to public and a lot of faculty had left because they didn’t think the college was going to survive,” Charlene Callahan said. Callahan came to New College straight out of school at Michigan State University where she earned her undergraduate, graduate and doctorate degrees in Psychology. Her time at New College is all she has ever known of a full-time tenured job. Now she’s retiring.

New College Provost, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of Psychology Charlene Callahan has remained at the school for more than 35 years. She began teaching in the fall of 1975 when New College merged with the University of South Florida and was appointed Provost in 2001, the same year that New College became an independent institution. In between, Callahan was Division Chair of the Social Sciences, won awards such as the Florida Legislature Distinguished Faculty Teaching Award in 1995 and taught classes that often incorporated her research interests in entitlement and fairness.

While Callahan was finishing her PhD, she was also planning on getting married. Her future husband started a business in Sarasota and Callahan was tasked with finding a job as close to the city as possible. She had received a job offer at the University of Tennessee and had all but resigned herself to a long-distance marriage. However, when she came down to Sarasota in June for the rehearsal dinner she got a call about a job opening at New College. She interviewed the Monday after her Saturday wedding. “I got the job so instead of a honeymoon I had an interview,” Callahan said. “The sad part is the marriage lasted 17 years but the job lasted 35 years.

“I came here for reasons that didn’t have to do with New College and I didn’t, to be honest, know what I was getting into,” she said. She had been trained to be a researcher at a large university and that’s what she thought her life was going to be. “So it took me a couple years for me to figure out that I’m was going to have a different take on what I do,” she continued. “For love, or whatever it was at the time, I chose New College and then I sorta fell in love with New College instead.”

Callahan got a liberal arts education just by being in the classroom and having to answer questions that students would ask about areas outside of her discipline. “I came to like that much better than what I was trained to do,” Callahan said. “I was very, very lucky.”

Callahan’s first term as Provost lasted from 2001 until 2006 and she returned to the position in 2008. According to Callahan, Provosts have been hired in different ways including being appointed by USF and national searches. Callahan was asked by New College President Gordon “Mike” Michalson. “We both thought it was going to be short term and it worked out till it was long term,” Callahan said. During the gap between her terms as provost, Callahan took a year off and continued to teach.

“When I left as provost I left saying that we have to really beef up our advising because that is what the contract system is based on,” Callahan said. “I didn’t have enough time to really make anything happen. It was kind of ironic that I came back and was assigned advisees and kept thinking how much work it was. It was good for me to learn that for when I came back as Provost. I’m much more aware of what students need.”

During the three years Callahan had away from the role, she could stand from a distance and watch the relationship between the provost and the faculty. “I realized what some of the problems were and it sounds trite but it’s communication,” Callahan explained. “So when I came back I decided that I’m not going to fight or argue with anyone. I’m going to be goal-oriented and we’re going to talk about issues and getting things done. I’ve tried to do that and it’s not always easy.”

Callahan made the decision to retire five years ago under the state’s Deferred Retirement Program. “I’m sorta of glad that I was forced to make this decision,” Callahan said. If a faculty member declares that they will retire, the state allows them to work five more years while earning both their salary and their retirement. The state also takes the retirement money and puts it in a fund while adding 6.5 percent interest to it every year. “I was really tired five years ago so I thought that this was an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Callahan said.

“So here I am at that point where five years ago I signed these papers,” Callahan said. “I don’t feel that old so I’ll probably do something else.” Callahan plans to teach at New College as an adjunct professor, go back to school to learn about subjects such as chemistry, physics and math and to volunteer. “I want time off and freedom to choose new things to do,” Callahan continued. “There’s so much stuff I can do and I’m sure I’ll stay busy, but I won’t have what I had here so it’s kind of scary.”

She also maintains her boat — though does not fish because she is a vegetarian — plays with her two German shepherds, spends time outdoors by hiking and camping and works with wood. Over the years she built a barn and deck. Callahan more recently started making furniture. “It’s really satisfying and therapeutic for me,” she said.

“I feel really privileged,” Callahan said. “People should stop and think about how lucky they are to be here. We forget that this is a great place to be and when you’re leaving you really do see that.”

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