In Focus: The Henry Koerner Center for Emeritus Faculty

Except for the time he was kidnapped by Kurdish guerillas, Yale anthropologist Frank Hole’s early research trips to the Near East went relatively smoothly — or so it would seem by the casual and matter-of-fact way he tells it.

Sitting in front of an audience, almost 50 years after he took his first trip to Iran in 1959, Hole reflected on those initial expeditions and the wealth of experiences he has had in his accomplished career during a recent “Intellectual Trajectories” talk at the Henry Koerner Center for Emeritus Faculty, located above the Visitor Center at 149 Elm St.

The retired professor spoke for 40 minutes before fielding questions from his fellow emeritus faculty members in the audience about the logistics of finding a site for excavation, the tools and techniques used and, of course, how he came to be kidnapped. When the talk was over, the group dispersed. Some grabbed their coats to head home while others lingered a while, chatting with friends. It was a typical Monday evening at the Koerner Center and just one of the various events that take place there in a given week.

“All of the activities are self-generated,” says Dr. Bernard Lytton, director of the Koerner Center, which was founded in 2003 to provide retired faculty members with a place to meet and interact with each other, continue their work or teaching, and maintain relationships with the University community.

In addition to the “Intellectual Trajectories” program, there are a number of other academic and non-academic activities organized for and by the center’s membership of 156 — 90 of whom are active participants.

There are Thursday lunchtime lectures, panel discussions, art exhibitions and meetings of “The Antioxidants,” a discussion group on aging, which undertakes topics that range from aging in literature to “Sex from Plato to Philip Roth.” On Friday night, there is a film series run in alternate semesters by fellows Joseph LaPalombara and Alan Trachtenberg. This semester, LaPalombara, the Arnold Wolfers Professor of Political Science and Management Emeritus, is leading a series examining the works of Marlon Brando, beginning with the actor’s first film, “The Men” (1950).

But for Wendell Bell, professor emeritus of sociology, the “Intellectual Trajectories” talks are the most interesting and rewarding of the Koerner Center activities. “We never miss one,” he says. Each “Trajectory” talk chronicles an accomplished career in academia and a unique perspective on the University during times of great transition. So positive has the reaction to these stories been that the first 22 talks are currently being compiled into a book to be published this year.

While for some people retirement might be a time of simply relaxation and travel, many of the Koerner Fellows remain actively involved in academia. In fact, supporting its members in their academic pursuits be it teaching, advising, researching or writing was a founding principal of the center, explains Patricia Dallai, executive director of the facility, and it continues to be a main component of the center’s efforts today.

For the use of those fellows still engaged in teaching and research, the Koerner Center includes among its facilities: 12 faculty offices, given out to fellows for two-year terms; a library; and a seminar room, perfectly sized for small gatherings. These spaces are modest, considering the large number of fellows still involved in intellectual pursuits, says Dallai. In this academic year alone, 13 of the fellows, including En­glish professor Annabel Patterson and International Economy professor Gustav Ranis, taught undergraduate courses. Since the center’s opening in 2003, five fellows have been awarded Mellon Emeriti Fellowship grants that support their research in the humanities and humanistic social sciences.

Many Koerner Fellows like anthropologist Hole, who retired three years ago and continues to conduct research and to travel remain active in their departments and academic fields even outside the classroom. For example, Dr. Charles Radding, an expert on gene swapping who retired in 2004, serves on the editorial board of a journal and as the director of graduate studies for Yale’s Department of Genetics.

As a whole, the Koerner Fellows are prolific writers and the center’s library is stocked with books written by the group. Within the last 15 years, 48 fellows have written 89 books about topics ranging from Benjamin Franklin to bioethics and the origins of American democracy, to the age of Einstein.

Yet of everything that the Koerner Center offers, says Lytton, the Donald Guthrie Professor Emeritus of Surgery, perhaps the most valuable is “we’ve created a sense of community. I think that’s the best part.”

Many fellows agree, saying the connections they make at the Koerner Center is one of its main benefits. It is “very nice to have a continuation of the lifestyle you enjoyed,” says Lowell Levin, a professor emeritus of public health. “It keeps minds lubricated, challenges thinking [and] opens up new worlds, capturing the intelligence of the community in one spot.”

Many fellows observed that it is at the Koerner Center that the lines that once separated them as faculty - between the sciences and the humanities, the medical campus and central campus, the undergraduate and graduate schools - are being ­dissolved.

“The great thing,” Radding says of the Koerner Center, “is that it keeps us working on those connections.”

— By Erin Johnson, Woodbridge Fellow

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