Measuring success with gratitude: An interview with Lorne Buchman

October 9 will be Saybrook President Lorne Buchman’s last day on the job – although he will remain on Saybrook’s Board of Trustees for at least a year. 

In an interview with the Saybrook Forum, President Buchman – better known across Saybrook as “Lorne” – said that he has been personally inspired by much of the work Saybrook faculty have conducted during his tenure as president.  He leaves with a richer education in humanistic thought that has inspired him to believe more deeply in the potential of people around him, and to try and lead accordingly. 

The man who first envisioned Saybrook as a university, Lorne has overseen a remarkable period of growth in Saybrook’s history.  “We went back to the roots of our mission and expanded from there,” he said.  “New life has been given to an educational tradition that started at Saybrook 40 years ago, and maybe the most remarkable thing of all is to realize how pertinent and vital are the values of that tradition within the contemporary discourse.”

Still, he emphasized, in the end it is all about the basics:  the relationship between students and teachers, and enabling great education.  “I think that the measure of our work together will be the extent to which our students feel a sense of gratitude toward the education they received at Saybrook.”

An edited version of the Saybrook Forum’s interview with Lorne Buchman is provided in its entirety below.


Saybrook Forum (SF):  One of the things I hear most from alumni and students is how their experience at Saybrook was a transformative one.  How much it changed them.  Does that go all the way up to the top?  Was Saybrook a transformative experience for you as well? 

Lorne Buchman (Lorne):   “Absolutely.  Very much so.  I think what’s happened to me is that I have, over time, internalized the values of Saybrook and its mission in a very deep way.  That has affected my way of thinking about higher education and its possibilities, it has affected the way I want to encourage and lead community, it has brought me to a place where I understand the significance of a values-driven education in a way that I hadn’t before. 

“I had certainly been compelled by my previous experience in education for creative people, for artists, for scholars in theatre and literature – I understood deeply the openings that can be created for people in a rigorous, creative, and intellectually rich education.  But there is something profound in the unique values of Saybrook that have gone to the core and have impacted how I lead Saybrook and how I hope to live my own personal life.”

SF:  Which values most come to mind?

Lorne:   “It begins with a fundamental belief in the creative potential of each individual and with a belief that each individual has the capacity to go deep within to know themselves:  and that the combination can produce astonishing results for positive change.”


SF:  In fact your previous tenure as a college president was at the California College of the Arts, and you’re going now to lead the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.  Clearly you feel a connection with the creative process and art education.  Do you also see a connection between art and design and humanistic/transpersonal psychology? 

Lorne:   “Clearly art schools and art colleges don’t hold a corner on the market of educating creative people, and the kind of education that Saybrook offers is one that encourages the individual’s creativity in a very powerful way.  And that creativity has a whole spectrum of activity … as Ruth Richards has pointed out in her book.  I think fundamental to a Saybrook education is helping people know their own creative selves and how that knowledge can shape people’s lives and ultimately whole communities.

“I find myself especially moved, in this regard, by the admonition of Rollo May:  ‘If you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself … Also you will have betrayed our community in failing to make your contribution to the whole.’

“Saybrook education seeks to empower every student to find their own life’s work  and to make a difference.  I think we teach creativity.”


SF:  When did you realize this?  Was it immediately on coming to Saybrook, or did it take time?             

Lorne:   “It was more like a delicious food that tastes pretty good at the beginning, but that takes time to really appreciate, and savor.  It sort of becomes part of you as you digest it.  It goes deep into the body .”


SF:  We’ve talked about how Saybrook has changed you.  How has Saybrook changed in your time here?

Lorne:  “What I think is the greatest achievement of this community is that, as Sandy Rosenberg once put it, we went back to the roots of our mission and expanded from there.

“The university, the multi-disciplinary environment, was all designed to extrapolate the values of the Humanistic tradition and to wrestle with those values within the discourse of this century .  We sought to be responsive to the questions that people are asking in 2010, which are different questions than what people were asking in the early days of existential-humanistic psychology..  New life has been given to a tradition that started long ago, and maybe the most remarkable thing of all is to realize how pertinent and vital are the values of that tradition within contemporary discourse and how they must now inform, in addition to psychology, multiple disciplines of inquiry.”


SF:  Those values have had an enormous impact upon global culture, have transformed global culture, but have never taken hold as “mainstream.”  Saybrook is so necessary precisely because it’s the exception:  why do you think that is?

Lorne:  “I don’t know the answer to that entirely, except to say that higher education has always been informed by many different kinds of traditions.  An intellectual tradition, a scholarly tradition, a literary tradition, a creative tradition, a historical tradition, a religious tradition, spiritual traditions – and I think each one of those has its own ways of addressing human experience and wrestling with complex questions; in the best of circumstances those questions have become the basis of a great education, mainstream or not.  The humanistic tradition doesn’t have a corner on the way human values need to be discussed, it’s just a very compelling approach for me, and one from which I’ve learned a lot.  But I could say that as a student of Shakespeare I’ve also learned much about humanity, and similarly as a student of history, religion, the humanities … it’s all taught me a lot about the issues of human experience that make for great education.  And then I would add of course that the tradition of art making is one of the most dynamic processes I know for expressing something important about human experience — which is part of what draws me so powerfully towards the art school environment.”


SF:  Your early background is in theatre direction.  What made you go into higher education administration? 

Lorne:  “It is all connected to my training as a theater director.  I think the skills I have as a theater director find articulation in academic administration:  because at best both are about a process that you’re leading, and then gradually handing over.  I like that the director disappears in the theater, and I think that presidents should disappear in higher ed – at the most crucial moment of realizing purpose. The most important moment in the theater is between the performer and the audience member;  the most important moment in education is between the student and teacher.  Directors and presidents are not directly present for either.  I would add that there’s also something very powerful in the relationship between the scholar and the practitioner, as I was trained in the theatre.  It’s a great educational model at Saybrook, to educate people in both the library and on the street.”

SF:  Why is that combination of the scholar and the practitioner so difficult to find in higher education?

Lorne:   “I think it has to do with the nature of the institution, the proclivity of the individual and the illusion that graduates have to be both scholars and practitioners in their careers.  To my mind, it’s not necessary for everybody to be “balanced” in both (though some do it beautifully).  I simply think the complementary endeavors make for great learning.  Perhaps the preoccupation for those illusory balanced lives after graduation discourages some schools from adopting this structure 

“I think the brilliance of a Saybrook education is that it isn’t driven by the question of ‘how you’re going to do both.’  Instead we’re interested in the way the mutually nourishing combination, for educational purposes, opens up all kinds of possibilities, and that it will educate an individual in whatever s/he decides to do.  You are a better practitioner for being a scholar, and a richer scholar for understanding practice.”


SF:  In your tenure at Saybrook, what accomplishments are you most proud of?

Lorne:  “The obvious answer is that we created a university and we set ourselves on a path of enrollment growth … and we hit it.  Saybrook has a financial strength and a future to provide resources for academic excellence that it hasn’t had in the last few years, and it is opening up possibilities for a very rich, multi-disciplinary environment.”


SF:   What sort of experience have you tried to create for students? 

Lorne:  “A place where they are safe to take risks;  where they are challenged with a kind of rigor that will allow them to discover parts of themselves that they never knew before, and a place that fundamentally respects their capacity to create positive change in the world.”

SF:  How do you create an environment in which students feel both safety to experiment and the rigor that pushes them? 

Lorne:  “How do you get both?  That’s education.  That’s what education is about.  You have to be at once incredibly firm and incredibly gentle.  It’s like a good massage.  Nobody likes to be hurt, but nobody likes feeble inept touch:  the art is in the balance.”

SF:  What makes great educators who can do that? 

Lorne:  “There are a lot of answers, but I think it’s those who can overcome their own habits, their own tendency to become habituated to the way things are done.  Samuel Beckett said ‘habit is the great deadener,’ and I think that’s right:  we need to preserve the spirit of discovery in ourselves to encourage our students to create their next great work.”     


SF:  What do you see as the next challenges Saybrook will have to overcome?

Lorne:  “Hiring new faculty and building on the strength of the incredible teachers that have served Saybrook for so many years now.  That’s hugely important.  Technological innovation, in support of the work that Eric Fox is doing.  Critically important.  Continual improvement of student services on both the academic and administrative sides.  Building of the Board of Trustees, and the outreach to community for philanthropic support.”


SF:  What parts of Saybrook will you take with you to Pasadena?            

Lorne:  “I think that what I learned about human potential at Saybrook is one of the most important lessons I can take to Art Center.  I think Art Center has a lot to learn from a humanistic set of values, just as I think Saybrook could learn a lot from the way in which the Art Center teaches creative people.  Does that suggest some connection down the road?  I don’t know.”


SF:  Do you have any message to the Saybrook community?

Lorne:  “I think that ultimately the measure of our work together will be the extent to which our students feel a sense of gratitude toward the education they received at Saybrook.  As much as I’ve learned here, and as much as I appreciate this community, the real measure of success for me is the appreciation students will have for having received a great education.”