By Meredith Dobes
Since 2002, he pioneered Roosevelt University’s mission. He fought for the university’s values. He reignited an entire athletic program. He built a skyscraper while changing the university’s recruitment focus. He helped develop a three-year pharmacy program at the Schaumburg Campus. He implemented a strategic plan for university improvement. He came out as the first openly gay university president in the nation.
He is President Charles Middleton, and on June 30, 2015, he will retire.
When Middleton signed his third five-year contract in 2012, the retirement was part of the renegotiation. He said he knew that he only wanted to do one more term because there were other things he wanted to do with his life.
He is the university’s fifth president, and he has been in academia for 52 years since he began college in September 1962. He earned his bachelors degree from Florida State University and his masters and doctorate from Duke University.
His area of academic expertise is modern British history from the late 18th century to the early 19th century.
Before his time at Roosevelt, Middleton was vice chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University System of Maryland, provost and vice president of Academic Affairs at Bowling Green State University and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
He was elected to the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 2006. He is part of the Board of Governors of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute in Hyde Park, N.Y., the Board of Directors of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, the Point Foundation Board of Governors and the Chicago History Museum Community Advisory Council.
Middleton has always defined himself, first and foremost, as a historian. When asked what he thought his lasting legacy would be, he answered, simply, that it is for others to decide.
“I would hope that, in the end, people would say that given what he knew, and given what the range of options were at that moment, he always at least tried to make the very best decision that he could and that, in the main, he succeeded in doing that,” he said.
Middleton said that his sexuality has been largely irrelevant in his work in academia and at the university, and it should be that way.
“In that sense, I think it was a model for what other institutions can do,” he said. “I think that everybody, irrespective of who they are, where they’re from, the color of their skin, their gender, their sexual orientation, whether they have brown eyes or green eyes, all those other things, are totally irrelevant.”
He said that the university provided him with equal opportunities, and he is grateful for that.
“It’s one of the reasons I’ve always strived to do the best I could for the university,” he said. “I think that inclusiveness is such a Rooseveltian ideal and that it strengthens all of us.”
Middleton said his favorite part of his presidency was working with people from all aspects of university life and the university community.
“I am not a private person,” he said. “I’m a very public person, and I like to be around other people, the more the merrier, because the more interesting it is.”
Because of this affinity for communicating with others, Middleton said he can’t imagine not being involved with something, in some capacity, following his retirement. He also said that he can’t imagine not being involved with the university, in some way, perhaps by attending concerts, sporting events, lectures or having lunch with his friends.
“I’d be happy just to come over and hang out, and just stay out of everybody’s way, too,” he said.
Looking back on his presidency, Middleton said there are some things he might have done differently, had he had the gift of foresight, but that he has learned to not doubt anyone, most of all himself.
“Sometimes you get wildly lucky and you actually do better than you thought you could,” he said. “Sometimes it’s not quite that way, but either way, I think you live in the present, and you use the past to inform your decisions. You have a vision of the future. You try to bring all those things together, make a decision, move on to the next one, and don’t lose a lot of sleep wondering if you could’ve done better.”
Middleton plans to go on vacation to Honolulu, like he does every year, the day after his retirement — June 1, 2015. He said that in the short term, he doesn’t expect many drastic changes in his life.
“I’m going to listen to options that may come along, but in the main, I really want to take some time to do what I haven’t really had the opportunity to do since I went off as a freshman to college in 1962, which was a very long time ago. I want to see what it’s like on the other side, in the non-college world. I’m sure I’ll find more than enough to keep me off the streets at night.”
Middleton and the Board of Trustees decided that the best thing to do would be to begin the transition to a different president in the third year of Middleton’s contract: 2015. This will allow ample time for the Presidential Search Committee to recruit and select the right candidate.
If there are difficulties in the search, Middleton said he will stay on for another year.
The Presidential Search Committee will be composed of six distinguished members of the faculty, one from each college. These members are nominated and decided on by the Board of Trustees, which seeks to finalize the committee by the end of this month.
“The bottom line is: the transition of presidencies is a big event in the history of the university,” he said. “It needs to be handled and managed in such a way that the university continues its forward momentum and that the new president arrives without there having been a hiccup in that process.”
He said members of the committee need to be responsible, committed and available at a moment’s notice because the search for the next president is very serious.
“I know that one of the things that will help us succeed is that the most distinguished members of the faculty will roll up their sleeves and work with the Board and students and administrators from the university to recruit and successfully bring to campus a really fantastic person,” Middleton said. “That’s the goal.”
Middleton said that once the next president is selected, he will do whatever that person wants him to do to help ease the transition, but otherwise, he intends to stay out of the way.
“It’ll be the beginning of a new era, and the best way to begin a new era is for the old era to let it take its own roots,” he said.
Middleton said he wants the university to stay on course with the Institutional Strategic Plan after he leaves. He said the goals and objectives are the right set to pursue for the wellbeing of the university, and the next president should work toward achieving them in his or her own way.
He also said that, for him, it will be business as usual for the next 12 months leading to his retirement.
“There have been five of us, so far,” he said. “We’ve each made our own individual contributions that are time-specific and that move the university from where it was when we became president to where it was when we left.”
Of the university’s five presidents, four of them are still alive.
Middleton said he hopes this predicts a long life for himself, too.
“We’re looking for the next person to take it from where it is next spring and five-to-10 years from now, who knows how long, leave it in better shape and ready to go even beyond that,” he said. “That’s what it’s about.”