WE HAD TO FIND a new chairperson for our department at the university where I am a tenured professor. I was the head of the search committee. After a year of dedicated work with many meetings, along with interviews with 16 candidates, the day of decision finally arrived. The first two votes did not yield a majority choice. A university statute provided for a third vote, where the votes of a majority of professors can overrule the votes of students and other academic groups serving on the committee. The statute is rarely invoked, but this time it happened. And I was on the losing side—along with the students, teachers, docents, and two other professors.
After the vote, tears filled my eyes (embarrassing in front of 20 people), and I needed a moment to recover. I envisioned a future scenario of mistrust and tyrannical behavior; I expected fights and divisions. That final day had been a long one for everyone, and we were all exhausted. However, a statement in an article I'd read in this magazine came to my aid. So in my final words, thanking the committee for their diligence and commitment, I included the phrase, "Democracy means learning to lose." I added that we would now finalize our discussions about the candidates and stretch out our hands to welcome a new colleague.
Easier said than done—I was devastated. I gathered up final notes, collected piles of material, organized lists and records of proceedings, and packed up my things to board a train. On my way out, I met a student in the elevator. This student, whom I didn't know very well, said, "Looking as horrible as you do, it must mean that our vote was overruled." I couldn't tell him then of the outcome of the meeting or that I was actually contemplating leaving my position altogether. While he walked me to the train station in the pouring rain (what a mirror of my inner state of mind!), he reminded me that I had told a class that a university, as established by the founding statutes of the University of Bologna 800 years ago, is where people are willing to be taught. And that the students needed me to stay regardless of what happened with this appointment. He said they were the ones who really matter at a university.