Remembering Jordan Kurland

BY HANK REICHMAN

On June 4, following Committee A’s annual spring meeting, present and former AAUP leaders, activists, and staff members gathered in Washington to join family members and friends in honoring the memory of Jordan E. Kurland, who passed away in January at the age of 87, still actively employed by the AAUP.  Jordan served for more than a half-century in what is now AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance.  Last June, as AAUP celebrated its centennial year, the annual meeting paused as well to honor Jordan with a resolution commemorating his 50 years of service as a staff member.  Last weekend’s memorial heard remembrances of Jordan from his colleagues and co-workers in the AAUP and from family members and close friends.  I was honored to be asked to speak on behalf of AAUP’s current leadership.  The following is the text of my remarks:

Jordan Kurland at the 2014 AAUP Annual Meeting

Jordan Kurland at the 2014 AAUP Annual Meeting

It is an extraordinary honor to speak today on behalf of the current AAUP leadership at this very special memorial to a truly exceptional man, often referred to by his colleagues as “the great one.”  Unlike many of those who will speak today, I only had the honor of working with Jordan quite late in his life.  Indeed, my first memory of him was at an Executive Committee retreat some five years ago, well into the final years of his remarkable career.  I wondered then: who is this gruff but apparently beloved character?  I would soon learn, of course, about Jordan and what I can only call his legend, and when I became chair of Committee A the next year I found myself asking a very different question: will I be up to working with him?  Will I meet the test his very presence seemed to impose?

For to be in the presence of Jordan was not only to encounter a formidable but attractive personality, an extraordinary but in no way arrogant intellect, and, of course, decades of experience and history.  It was, I could sense early on, to be in the presence, to put it bluntly, of something that was indeed very much like greatness.  Let me say a few words about greatness.  I am a near-fanatic devotee of professional sports, especially baseball and basketball, and of American popular and roots music.  And these are two fields where the term “greatness” is far too often slung about with seemingly wild abandon.  Sometimes it seems that hardly an athlete or musician can achieve anything of even modest note without the public being informed, in the most inflated rhetoric, of that individual’s “greatness.”   We academics, on the other hand, are astonishingly stingy with that sort of accolade.  When was the last time you’ve heard it said of a professor that to be in her presence is to be in the presence of greatness?  So I don’t use this word lightly, but if there is anyone in our world for whom that word is appropriate it was undoubtedly Jordan.

In what did Jordan’s greatness consist?  First and foremost, he had astonishing abilities.  His analytic acumen, his unfailing and extensive memory, his shrewd political sense, and his extraordinary grasp of both detail and principle were impressive enough.  Perhaps more important was his extraordinary and abiding passion for his work and for the hallowed principles but also the flesh-and-blood people that he defended.  And then there was the boldness of his vision, his ability to see a big picture when others only saw details, to embrace challenges that most would avoid.  I think here of how, at an age when most would be comfortably retired, he conceived and shepherded into reality the amazingly ambitious special investigation that the AAUP launched in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

But above all it was Jordan’s perseverance and dedication and the unfailing and deeply rooted optimism that drove that perseverance that most made him great.  For it must be acknowledged that over the somewhat more than fifty years that Jordan dedicated to the AAUP and to the defense of academic freedom, our profession has experienced more failures than successes.  Jordan joined the AAUP staff at a time when membership was greater than it is today, even though the size of the profession was smaller.  Far more faculty then were protected by the principles of academic freedom and tenure that Jordan dedicated himself to defending than are today.  When Jordan joined the staff the term “corporatization” had yet to be coined.  And who spoke then of “adjunctivitis?”  The deterioration of our profession and the increasingly insidious but terrifyingly effective attacks on academic freedom over the past decades developed, of course, not because of but in spite of Jordan’s often heroic efforts.  But the trend is undeniable nevertheless.

But what gives me inspiration is how despite this reality Jordan never gave up, how he persisted in his work to the very end, how he continually rededicated himself to principles, but at the same time never lost the flexibility to adopt to new circumstances without abandoning essential values.  As far as I can tell Jordan was never really discouraged.  Even as his health deteriorated, he saw no choice but to press on, always optimistic that in the end right would conquer.  Yesterday we took note of the fact that the meeting of Committee A that concluded this morning was the first without Jordan in over fifty years.  Of course, he had not always been present in the flesh.  Some of us remember a recent meeting where Jordan joined us by teleconference from his hospital bed, the monitoring equipment beeping in the background, and Jordan impatiently dismissing a nurse seeking, I think, to take his blood pressure, declaring with passion, “Can’t you see we’re in a meeting here?”  It was funny in some ways, but also immensely inspiring.

If only Jordan were here in two weeks to see us debate the removal — after more than fifty years — of Grove City College from the censure list, surely a splendid example of his faith fulfilled. [Note: Grove City College has been on the AAUP’s censure list longer than any other institution.  The vote to censure the college was ironically the first cast by Jordan Kurland at an annual meeting and in the months before his death he labored hard to work with a new administration there to facilitate its removal from the list.  At last week’s meeting, Committee A voted to recommend to the annual meeting that Grove City College be removed from the censure list in recognition of positive changes undertaken by the new administration working with Jordan.]

Of course, some will say that Jordan was just a workaholic, that he would have been lost without his job at AAUP.  Those who knew him best, of course, know different.  They know, as I came to know, that Jordan’s lengthy career, his stubborn refusal to call it quits and just, well, relax, came from a very different place.  It emerged from a profound faith in what he was doing, a faith in those with whom he was doing it, and a faith in and dedication to those he served and assisted.  And it came as well with an indomitable joy in the struggle.

In the final analysis his faith was the source of Jordan’s greatness.  But it must also motivate and inspire us today.  Even as we mourn Jordan’s passing and celebrate his life, a new generation of AAUP activists is emerging to confront the challenges of our time.  I hope we will think of them as Jordan’s heirs, continuing the battle he waged for so long, with such energy and intelligence, and with such unflinching optimism.  And I hope they will be inspired and empowered by the greatness of the late Jordan Kurland, whose unique and impressive life we commemorate today.

In a previous post to this blog shortly after Jordan’s passing, I wrote: “With Jordan’s passing we will all be inclined to “end of an era” thoughts.  But I’m convinced that Jordan wouldn’t be happy about that.  He would be urging us to redouble our efforts and to recommit ourselves to the cause to which he dedicated most of his life.  In that spirit, the spirit of Jordan Kurland, if you are reading this blog and you aren’t yet a member of the AAUP, please join.  If you are a member, but aren’t yet active, get involved in your chapter or state conference.  If you don’t have a chapter, why not organize one?  The leadership and staff of the AAUP and the AAUP Foundation will be discussing an appropriate way to honor and continue Jordan’s legacy, but for now I urge you to donate to the AAUP Foundation Academic Freedom Fund, indicating with your donation that it is in memory of Jordan Kurland.”

 

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