Think About It: No One is Indespensable

Dr. Don Meyer, PhD, is the President of Valley Forge Christian College

“Which of us can resist the temptation of being thought indispensable?”

Margaret Atwood

On occasion, I like to illustrate the limits of my leadership influence by saying, “If a Mack truck hit me today, life at VFCC would, more than likely, go on rather quickly.” It is humbling to acknowledge that, but I really believe there is more fact than fiction to the statement.

No matter how important we may think we are, no one is indispensable. But lest we overstate that fact, we should probably ponder Paul Irgang’s thoughts in “When a Wet Vac Counts More Than a Ph.D.”

As a building-maintenance technician at the University of Miami, Irgang knows how “…physical-plant employees (at colleges and universities) are often underappreciated and undervalued,” work in an “unofficial, yet undeniable, caste system. At the top of the system are tenured Ph.D.’s and after untenured faculty, staff, librarians, secretaries, and food-service personnel are the untouchables: physical-plant employees.”

He says if you can use a hammer and have a clean record — that is, no criminal convictions (arrests are ok, but no convictions) — you can get a job in the department of facilities management (physical plant) at the University of Miami where he has worked for nine years. He also says, with a twinge of humor, if you are unable to use a hammer, you may still be eligible to become an administrator.

Irgang does say, however, that he and his colleagues are most appreciated when a hurricane with sustained winds of more than 150 mph approaches the campus, especially during the “emergency preparation” stage. The closer it gets the more important he and his friends become.

During these crises, physical-plant team members do everything they can to save the buildings and also millions of dollars’ worth of experiments in progress. As they board up windows and make sure all the pumps are working, they receive “a free catered lunch and unlimited kudos,” and are called “essential personnel.” Irreplaceable 10,000-year-old ice-core samples must not be allowed to thaw. Computers must be wrapped in plastic and kept dry and out of harm’s way.

But when the high pressure just offshore causes the storm to take a sharp turn north and they dodge a bullet again, the phone rings and someone says, “Listen, I’ve been trying to get a high bulb replaced for almost a week. How many of you guys does it take to screw in one of these things?”

Irgang ends his essay by saying, “It is my sincere hope that all those in higher education begin to understand that the successful operation of a university campus demands a team effort and that there are times when a man with a wet vac is as valuable as any Ph.D. in theoretical physics… And, remember, we have ways to do everything.”

Irgang’s comments help me smile and reflect on what it means to be indispensable.

Saxon White Kessinger’s poem “The Indispensable Man” makes the point clearly for all of us.

“Sometime when you’re feeling important; sometime when your ego’s in bloom; sometime when you take it for granted, you’re the most qualified in the room; sometime when you feel that your going would leave an unfillable hole, just follow these simple instructions, and see how they humble your soul.

“Take a bucket and fill it with water, put you hand in it up to the wrist, pull it out and the hole that’s remaining is a measure of how much you’ll be missed. You can splash all you wish when you enter, you may stir up the water galore, but stop, and you’ll find that in no time, it looks quite the same as before.

“The moral of this quaint example is to do just the best that you can, be proud of yourself but remember there’s no indispensable man.”

As the saying goes, “The cemeteries are filled with indispensable men (and women).”

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA

Responses can be emailed to president@vfcc.edu

Official page: Facebook.com/DrDonMeyer

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