When considering his over 35 years of service to the University of New Hampshire (UNH) and a near-constant commitment to the daily doings and dreams of his student body, John “Ted” Kirkpatrick’s post-UNH plans may at first come off as unusual and out-of-character.
“I’m going to take two or three months and do absolutely nothing,” he said.
But upon closer inspection, the senior vice provost of student life and dean of students won’t really do “nothing.” Rather, he aims to set time aside to help those he cares for in different ways, whether it be helping his last son in high school, spending time with his grandchildren, or even holding a new job.
“You might find me at Hannaford’s being a bagboy, I could work at a hardware store…maybe I’ll drive a forklift at Stonewall Kitchen Warehouse,” he suggested. “I want to feel useful; but unlike when I was young and you had to take crummy jobs to do whatever, this time, and at my age…I’m not going to sit on my duff. I’m going to do something.”
It’s an explanation fitting of a man who, after nearly four decades as a staple of the UNH community, is set to retire from his role effective July 1, 2020, following the end of the current academic year.
Kirkpatrick, who has served as dean of students and senior vice provost for the last five years, earned his Ph.D. in sociology from UNH in 1983. He later became a clinical professor of sociology at UNH, advocated for improved access to mental health support and worked primarily with “at-risk” students while serving as the dean of the College of Liberal Arts (COLA) for over three decades, according to “UNH Today.” He was named to his current posts in Dec. 2015, a job that oversees Health Services (now Health & Wellness), Psychological and Counseling Services, SHARPP, Residential Life and the Office of Community Standards.
“I’ve been here for the better part of 40 years at UNH, and I’ve had a great run,” Kirkpatrick told The New Hampshire on Oct. 9. “I’ve enjoyed every moment of it.”
Provost Wayne Jones announced Kirkpatrick’s retirement in an email to UNH faculty on Sept. 27, where he specifically praised the dean for his efforts to maintain a “strong relationship with colleagues in residential life” and improving Psychological and Counseling Services to “ensure timely access to mental health support…” The announcement comes as the university searches for three new senior vice provosts, which include Kirkpatrick’s role, Senior Vice Provost of Academic Affairs Dr. PT “Vasu” Vasudevan, and the late Julie Williams, the senior vice provost of engagement and faculty development, whose death was announced on Oct. 2.
Kirkpatrick also received acclaim from the Student Senate, which unanimously approved of a resolution recognizing his accomplishments. The motion read that Kirkpatrick served “with the utmost distinction and dedication,” specifically highlighting his efforts to strengthen the role of students in the relationship of “shared governance” between student governing bodies and UNH administration, as well as “developing a reimagined approach to student life through a combination of organizational changes and progressive reforms to student policies.”
In recent years, Kirkpatrick has overseen changes in student culture as well, such as his role in creating Unity Day, a yearly celebration of local community service established in response to 2017’s Cinco de Mayo celebrations that garnered national attention and controversy for showcasing stereotypes and cultural appropriation of Mexican culture.
“It’s a tough job, I won’t deny that,” Kirkpatrick, who made his decision to retire this past April, said. “…It’s been a long but good run, and it’s time for me to kind of think to the future while I still have mobility and at least part of a cognitive ability to enjoy myself.”
The dean explained that he had been pondering retirement for some time, a move partially motivated by the intensity of his role as dean of students, which he said requires him to be consistently available for students all year long, even at “2 a.m. on a Wednesday night.”
“This role is particularly demanding,” Kirkpatrick, who turns 66 next March, said, “and I just don’t want to be somebody who’s losing a little steam and losing a little energy at my age. I also believe that the university – the vibrancy of any university – is [based on] how fresh and forward-looking, and just the fearless way to approach [sic] the future is what makes working with students so great, because you have all those attributes as a student body.”
Although Kirkpatrick expressed pride in his time, commitment and accomplishments at UNH, he said it will be up to history and future generations of students to judge his ultimate level of success. He also acknowledged that, in spite of his retirement coming at the same time as several other major vacancies like Vasudevan’s return to the faculty and Williams’ death, he said he is confident that the university will handle its national searches well and find suitable successors.
Regarding his role specifically, Kirkpatrick stressed, if given a say in choosing his successor, that the best candidate for his position must be able to place their confidence in the student body and their roles as part of the larger community.
“You have to believe in what universities do in the lives of students, that they’re transformative experiences,” he added. “You have to have a very high tolerance for ambiguity, which means that the world is not always an easy one, and sometimes don’t lend themselves to quick resolution. You have to be patient, you have to have a mastery of the diplomatic arts…there are a lot of stakeholders on this campus among student groups, graduate students, staff, faculty, and your job is to be a good listener and to be responsive…if I don’t respond to you for two weeks, that’s a problem.”
While he remains committed to helping student for the remainder of the year, Kirkpatrick said a little time off will help him determine his own next move.
“I’ve worked my whole life, and I’ve had good health and the pleasure to do that,” he said. “But before I figure out what my next mountain is, and what I want to do, I’m going to take a couple of months to just rachet down a little bit.”
And even after he departs UNH for the last time to embark upon his next journey, Kirkpatrick says he will never forget the personal mission that brought him there in the first place: the chance to leave a college and its students better than he found them.
“I’m not a particularly spiritual person, so I believe in, for whatever reason, you and I and billions of others are on this planet for a finite amount of time; make it count,” he said. “You find yourself not by doing inward meditation so much, [but] rather by looking outward and what you do in reference to others. So, in the end, that’s always been the way I’ve approached life generally, even when I was very young, and so you hope you can make some difference…the point is to try…do good and be good. That’s all you can ask.”