Presidential Page Turners

How Big things Get Done

How Big Things Get Done. Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner (2023)

When in graduate school studying Latin American history, it never occurred to me that I would one day be deeply involved in seeing big building projects to completion. Yet here I am, having helped guide big Kent State projects such as The John Elliot Center for Architecture and Environmental Design, and Crawford Hall, the new home for the Ambassador Crawford College of Business and Entrepreneurship, with combined budgets exceeding $100 million. Flyvbjerg is a Danish planner whose company is called in when projects miss construction deadlines and run well over budget. This is a clear look at why these problems happen, and he provides solid advice for how to deliver big projects efficiently. Required reading for university planners and facilities leaders.


Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-1955. Harald Jahner (2023)

Translated by Shaun Whiteside

As an historian I am drawn to eras of transition. Most often people do not understand they are in the midst of transition, realizing it only later. Everyone in 1945 Germany understood very well that they were in transition, which makes this an especially interesting read. According to Jahner, “The intention of this book has been to explain how the majority of Germans, for all their stubborn rejection of individual guilt, at the same time managed to rid themselves of the mentality that had made the Nazi regime possible.” Fascinating chapters cover the struggle for survival immediately after the war, as well as design, music, literature and politics to explore a decade of massive change in Germany (both East and West).

My Life in Full: Work, Family, and our Future. Indra Nooyi (2021)

My Life in Full

Indra Nooyi served as the CEO of PepsiCo from 2006-20019. This is her story,  from growing up in India, to attending graduate school in the United States,  to eventually working at PepsiCo in different capacities, eventually becoming the first woman CEO of the company. The second half of the book covers the implementation of her Performance with Purpose (PwP) initiative to reduce the environmental impact of production, to improve the nutritional value of PepsiCo products, and to treat employees better, as well as her thoughts on gender in the workplace, and on balancing work with family at the highest levels of corporate America.

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois. Honoree Fanonne Jeffers (2021)

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois

As we kick off our celebration of Black History Month, I want to share “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois” by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers as the next Presidential Page Turner selection. This sprawling, intense, captivating and nearly 900-page novel spans several centuries of family and American history. The author moves forward and backward in time to examine the history of enslaved people in Georgia, Native American history, and how family members experienced life in the Jim Crow South, the Civil Rights movement, and the vicissitudes of family up to the present day. It took me more than a month to read this novel. I enjoyed every minute, and was sad to see the book end.

The Rise of the G.I. Army, 1940-1941: The Forgotten Story of How America Forged a Powerful Army Before Pearl Harbor. Paul Dickson (2020)The Rise of the G.I. Army 1940-1941
As a historian I am particularly interested in transformative eras, whether or not people at the time realized that they were living in a transformative moment. Dickson examines just such a moment, when President Roosevelt and others realized that the tiny U.S. Army would be no match for Hitler should war happen. Indeed, Dickson notes, the U.S. Army was smaller than even the army of Portugal in the late 1930s, so small that all of its soldiers could have fit into Yankee Stadium. The author covers political battles in Washington, including a razor-thin vote to institute a peacetime draft in 1940, and the three large military maneuvers designed to test the wobbly legs of the Army as it rapidly expanded in 1940 and 1941.

A Traitor to His Species: Henry Bergh and the Birth of the Animal Rights Movement. Ernest Freeberg (2020)A Traitor to His Species (Ernest Freeberg)
Ernie Freeberg, Head of the History Department at the University of Tennessee, and I are good friends and former colleagues. He is an award-winning author and historian, whose book on Eugene Debs was a finalist for the L.A. Times book award. A fascinating tour of Gilded Age New York City, featuring vivid descriptions of humans interacting with thousands of animals in the city streets (mainly horses, pulling trolleys and delivery wagons and dying from exhaustion, and cattle being driven to slaughter). In the center of the book is Bergh, a quirky, patrician defender of animal rights when such a concept was barely even conceived, let alone accepted by the general public.

The Art of Resistance: My Four Years in the French Underground. Justus Rosenberg (2020)The Art of Resistance
At the age of 16 Rosenberg's parents sent him away from Danzig, as they were worried, as Jews, about the rise of Hitler and the possibility that their city would be invaded when war began. He studied in Paris for three years, and when war reached France he fled to the south of the country and joined the French Underground. A personal, intimate and nicely written memoir. Rosenberg eventually taught for years at the University of Dayton, and later at Bard College. He survived many close calls and escaped from a Nazi camp for Jews in transit to Auschwitz. I was struck by this passage: As I was to learn again and again, survival is often a matter of luck, but being able to take advantage of good furtune depends upon alertness, preparedness, and constancy of intent. A moving epilogue recounting the fates of his friends and associates concludes this valuable book. 

Students First: Equity, Access, and Opportunity in Higher Education. Paul LeBlanc (2021)Students First (LeBlanc)
You know LeBlanc, or at least the university he leads, if for no other reason than the ads for Southern New Hampshire University, truly moving ads, that feature university leaders on the road presenting diplomas to graduates who earned their degrees fully online. The Preface and Chapter One of this book are worth the price of admission, for in them LeBlanc succinctly lays out the challenges to accessibility, equity and degree completion in the United States. If you combined your reading of these two chapters with reading Sarah Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price you would have a well-informed understanding of how the cost of attending college and earning a degree has shifted from state governments to consumers, with the poor paying the price in lessened access to a college education since the early 1980s. And the key is earning a degree, as LeBlanc explains powerfully. Even at a much higher cost the investment in earning a degree still pays off handsomely in increased lifetime earnings. However, “attending college but failing to graduate is often worse than not going at all, since the result is some not-very-useful credits, no degree, and often serious financial debt (p.xx).” What do families want from college? LeBlanc cuts through the noise and answers this powerfully and succinctly as well: “most families want three things from college:

  • the right credential to unlock the door to a successful career, (and success means some combination of good pay, meaningful work, and a stable future)
  • for it to be affordable
  • to make students feel as though they matter, providing a sense of belonging and that institutions genuinely care about them (p.xxii).”

Leadership Matters: Confronting the Hard Choices Facing Higher Education. W. Joseph King and Brian C. Mitchell (2022)Leadership Matters
Higher education insiders will probably want to read this book because they tend to read all such books. One gem: the author’s advice, early on in the book, is for presidents to help the university community understand who they really are, and what the university really is, as opposed to what faculty, staff, students and trustees my think they are. As the authors put it (p. 17) “One of the first keys to solid presidential leadership is to determine if the campus community understands itself and its role more broadly in higher education.”

All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler. Rebecca Donner (2021)All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days
Mildred Harnack, from Milwaukee, met her future husband, a German exchange student, when they were both students at the University of Wisconsin. The couple married and moved to Berlin just as Hitler and the Nazis were coming to power. They shared information with diplomats in the U.S. Embassy via the young son of an American diplomat, under cover as a student of Harnack. As the war began, and the U.S. Embassy closed, the Harnacks tried to open a channel to British intelligence but were rebuffed. Eventually they shared intelligence with the Soviets, until their arrest, torture, and execution by the Gestapo. Researched and written by the author’s great-great-niece.

White Noise. Don Delillo (1984)
I decided to read this novel when I learned that a movie version was being filmed in Northeast Ohio in the summer of 2021, starring Greta Gerwig and Adam Driver, with one day of filming taking place on the Kent State campus. I'm not sure how this will be made into a movie, as much of it is the internal thoughts of the main character, a professor at a small, liberal-arts college in Ohio (much of the filming took place at Hiram College). The professor's general sense of dread and angst comes to fruition in an "airborne toxic incident."

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Isabel Wilkerson (2020)
This is the most important book I have read in the past decade, as the author powerfully examines the history of racism in the United States via comparisons with caste systems globally. It is also one of the most moving books I have read, as the author then presents gripping tales of her own and others' personal experiences with racism. Examples leap from the page, such as the discussion of how Nazi ideologues in the 1930s studied Jim Crow segregation and legislation but thought its "one drop" rule too radical for Germany. A more than worthy follow up to the author's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration. 

Paying the Price:  College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream. 
Sara Goldrick-Rab ( 2016)Paying the Price (Goldrick-Bar)

By following students with high financial needs in a longitudinal study, Goldrick-Rab demonstrates that college is not affordable for poor and even many middle-class students. Financial aid covers portions of tuition and fees, but usually not indirect costs (transportation, books and supplies, housing), nor opportunity costs from lost wages if students work less than full time (students who work more than ten hours a week have far lower graduation rates). Financial aid (covering tuition and fees) is good, but students with high financial needs require support to cover other costs if we truly want them to earn a college degree.

Resurrection of the Wild: Meditations on Ohio's Natural Landscape. Deborah Fleming (2019)
Published by Kent State University Press, this collection of essays, which provided me with real comfort during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, recently won the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. In lieu of a review, I simply cite this passage, which reflects the grace of Fleming's writing and the beauty of her observations:

The process of growing with all its wayward meanderings is also the process of fruition. We reach ripeness not by making every correct choice but by error as well, because our mistakes teach us more than happening on the lucky 'right' choices. The wanderings and wrong turns make people interesting. What we are left with in the end - careers that take us in unexpected directions, success or disappointment in love, places we have lived in and become a part of, opportunities we passed up that haunt our memories - is what brings us to self-understanding. 

The Death of Democracy: Hitler's Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic. Benjamin Carter Hett (2018)The Death of Democracy: Hitler's Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic
The author deftly presents the stresses and strains, hatred and propaganda that buffeted Germany during and after WWI. He follows the anti-democratic machinations of right-wing politicians fearful of German Social Democrats and Communists, and how these political maneuvers weakened democracy, paving the way for the rise of the Nazis to power. "Hitler pulled all this together - the deliberate dishonesty, the concern with public irrationality, yet also the desire to revel in this irrationality." And once in power, "judges, lawyers and the law were among the things Hitler most despised, and his regime was one long assault on the rationality, predictability, and integrity of law."

The Yellow House. Sarah M. Bloom (2019)The Yellow House
Bloom is the youngest of 12 children who grew up in East New Orleans, a blighted area of the city that never came close to reaching the promise of its developers in the late 1950s/early 1960s. A tale of a family, of trials and tribulations, of home and of shifting memories. There's a reason this book was named one of the year's ten best books by the New York Times. The most powerful book I read in 2019.

The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Civil War. Eric Foner (2019)
Foner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, will speak at Kent State on May 3, 2020, as part of the May 4 observance. He presents the struggles to pass the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which freed slaves, established citizenship guidelines, and created voting rights for African-American men. From the promise of full citizenship during Reconstruction, to the Supreme Court's dismantling of those gains, to the subsequent rise of Jim Crow segregation, Foner reminds us that rights "can be gained, and rights can be taken away. A century and a half after the end of slavery, the project of equal citizenship remains unfinished."

The Topeka School. Ben Lerner (2019)
I read this because of my family ties to Kansas, and because a relative worked at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, the psychiatric clinic at the heart of the novel. The tale of a student's senior year at Topeka High, the tale of his parents, both counselors at the clinic, one of whom, his mother, is a famous author. Family dynamics, community dynamics, and mediation on how and why a young person commits an act of violence. Beautifully written.


The Man Who Saw Everything. Deborah Levy (2019)

This slim novel engagingly follows a British historian who writes on Eastern Europe, and who visits the German Democratic Republic in what turned out to be its final years. But really this novel is mostly internal to the thoughts of its protagonist, with the last half of the story being a fascinating tour of memories and regrets.


Why this World. Benjamin Moser (2009)
I stumbled across this book when I read a review of Moser's most recent book, a study of Susan Sontag. Why this World is a biography of the Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector, who was born in the Ukraine but moved to Brazil with her family when she was just one year old. Yet, for her entire life many Brazilians considered her a foreigner, an impression driven by the strangeness of her fiction. Hers was the life of an era, including spending 15 years in post-WWII Europe as the wife of a Brazilian ambassador. I have never been able to complete the reading of one of her novels, which feature hard-to-follow interior dialogues that stretch for pages and pages. Yet, I have always found her fascinating. As Moser notes, "this was how many people saw her: weird, mysterious, and difficult, an unknowable mystical genius far above, and outside the common run of humanity."


Travelers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism, 1919-1945. Julia Boyd (2018)

Credit Boyd with the idea of using travelers' accounts, almost all of them from the United States and England, to track both the construction of fascism in Germany, and to chart when visitors began to understand that Hitler was a despot bent on destroying democracy. American visitors, if I may generalize, seemed to realize it earlier and more deeply than British visitors did. The American novelist Thomas Wolfe sounded the alarm forcefully, as did W.E.B. du Bois after a 1936 visit. However, many other visitors ignored the growing threat, either naively or because of their own political beliefs and prejudices.


A gloria e seu cortejo de horrores. Fernanda Torres (2017)

I loved this novel by a well-known Brazilian actress who is the daughter of famous actor parents. A quick read, it is a meditation on fame early in life, and the seemingly human need to re-create fame, or even just notoriety, late in life. Recently the novel was released in an English language translation with the title Glory and its Litany of Horrors.


Flights. Olga Tokarczuk (2007)
Flights is listed as a novel, though it seems to weave fictional tales into and around stories of what appear to be the author’s travels throughout the world. If you travel by plane frequently, you will be attracted to the author’s descriptions of a life lived in airplanes, airports and hotels. But there is much more to this book, including fascinating histories of museums and other curiosities.


Ze Dirceu: memorias volume 1.  Jose Dirceu (2018)
The memoir of a notable and controversial figure in Brazilian political history. A student leader in the early 1960s, Dirceu was imprisoned after the military coup in 1964, and later exchanged along with other political prisoners as ransom for the kidnapping of a diplomat. He went to Cuba, underwent plastic surgery to alter his appearance, then lived clandestinely in Brazil for several years. After Brazil returned to democracy he was elected as a federal deputy, and then served as Chief of Staff in the first administration of President Luis Ignacio (Lula) da Silva. He wrote this memoir from prison, where he is now serving a sentence for corruption. The first two-thirds of the memoir are an interesting account of his fascinating early years. The last third of the memoir is his settling of scores with myriad opponents and critics.


What Is It All but Luminous: Notes from an Underground Man. Art Garfunkel (2017)
I read this quirky memoir because I attended an outstanding Art Garfunkel concert at our Tuscarawas campus earlier this fall. This is not a chronologically arranged, standard and straightforward memoir. Instead, it is a series of vignettes, some of them quite moving, and many of which give the reader insight into the creative process. 


The Years of Youth: A History of Kent State University. Phillip R. Shriver (1960)
This book popped up on a list of Amazon-suggested books for me, and being an historian, and Kent State's President, I thought it wise to read it. I also vaguely recognized the author's name. Shriver wrote the book while a professor of history at Kent State. He went on to a successful 16-year run as the President of Miami University (1965-1981). The book is a nice mixture of leadership/administrative histories, enrollment and infrastructure growth, and briefer histories of students, traditions and state educational politics. Among the many interesting nuggets: Kent State's colors were originally blue and orange, as nearly all its early leaders came from Illinois (blue and orange being the colors of the University of Illinois).


Ballots and Bullets: Black Power Politics and Urban Guerilla Warfare in 1968 Cleveland. James Robenalt (2018)
I read this book to learn more about Cleveland’s history, as Kent State has a long tradition of enrolling students from the city. Also, this was a moment in time when Cleveland gained national attention for electing Carl Stokes the first African-American mayor of a major U.S. city, even while poverty, police violence and institutional racism generated violent movements that tore through the city. As a historian, I am always curious about Cleveland neighborhoods, and this book succeeds in describing the troubled history of the Hough and Glenville communities, with the author ending a book with a passionate appeal for addressing persistent urban challenges in Cleveland.


Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State.  Joe Eszterhaus and Michael D. Roberts (1970)
Because I had already read the excellent This We Know (Barbato, Davis, Seeman), I read the second book assigned to incoming freshmen this year: Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State. Written shortly after the shootings and revised a few years ago, authors Eszterhaus and Roberts deftly narrate the troubling events and decisions made and not made that produced the tragedy, and the concluding chapters on each of the four students killed on May 4, 1970 are heartbreaking.


Moments of Truth: A Photographer's Experience at Kent State 1970.  Howard Ruffner (2019)
When I received an advance copy of Howard Ruffner’s Moments of Truth: A Photographer’s Experience at Kent State 1970, I was drawn to the scores of photographs, many of which appear for the first time in this book. Soon, however, the text drew me in, as Ruffner, whose photograph from May 4, 1970 appeared on the cover of Life, gives a gripping narration of events as he experienced them. In addition, Moments of Truth is also the story of Ruffner’s youth spent in Lakewood, Ohio, his service in the Air Force and of his love for photography. In this sense, Moments of Truth is both a memoir, and the history of a generation.


Been So Long: My Life and Music. Jorma Kaukonen (2018)
Been So Long is a memoir by a founding member and guitarist of the seminal rock and roll group Jefferson Airplane. The grandson of Finnish immigrants, and the son of an American diplomat, Kaukonen engagingly describes growing up in the Philippines, Sweden, Washington D.C., and elsewhere. He recounts the music scene of the 1960s and '70s, and describes mistakes made and lessons learned over the decades. Reading this book makes you want to meet him, which you might be able to do, as he has played the Kent Stage, and now lives on the Fur Peace Ranch outside of Athens, Ohio.