For a man who often appears reserved and daunting to those who do not know him, the nickname Michael Reardon’s colleagues gave him–The Cardinal–does his personality justice. Over the last year, Reardon has exhibited his aloof mannerisms at the various appearances he made in his role as interim president of Portland State: a stern face, a straight back and calm, contemplative language. “He plays his cards very close to the vest,” said Johanna Breener, a professor of sociology and a friend and colleague of Reardon’s since 1981. “Michael can seem very mysterious to people. The idea [of his nickname] is that he is the silent power behind the throne.”
For a man who often appears reserved and daunting to those who do not know him, the nickname Michael Reardon’s colleagues gave him–The Cardinal–does his personality justice.
Over the last year, Reardon has exhibited his aloof mannerisms at the various appearances he made in his role as interim president of Portland State: a stern face, a straight back and calm, contemplative language.
“He plays his cards very close to the vest,” said Johanna Breener, a professor of sociology and a friend and colleague of Reardon’s since 1981. “Michael can seem very mysterious to people. The idea [of his nickname] is that he is the silent power behind the throne.”
Now, after 44 years at PSU–a longer tenure than almost any other individual on staff–Reardon will step down from his position in mid-August, when Wim Wiewel, the provost and vice president at University of Baltimore, takes over as PSU president.
For those close to Reardon, his current coworkers and former students, his distant demeanor is merely an exterior. Reardon’s friends praise his academic intellect and bright wit, as well as his passion for teaching and helping students.
“He’s a warm, wonderful, witty person,” said Lawrence Wheeler, the current director of the Honors Program and one of Reardon’s former students, “but at public events, there’s a certain amount of decorum.”His education and training in Jesuit primary and secondary schools were integral in developing Reardon as an intellectual and a teacher.
‘Incredibly cerebral’Students who learned from Reardon before he began working in the administration said that his cool exterior only emphasizes his engagement in education and learning. Reardon’s process for solving problems is emblematic of his personality and interest in intellectualism, according to Wheeler.
Often, when he helps a class or group resolve a problem, Reardon will put his hands on a table, lean forward and ask what Wheeler called “the famous Reardon question:” What is it that we’re trying to do?That kind of query can be seen in almost every aspect of his life, but particularly in his field of study, Intellectual History.
“My own interest is in, essentially, put it this way: Why is a particular text written? What allows it to be written in terms of the author, the issues, the audience, the mental climate that it’s part of?” Reardon said.
Over the last four decades, Reardon has taught thousands of students about how Marx, Nietzsche, St. Augustine and the countless other philosophers have impacted the modern world and intellectual thought.
Reardon, who will turn 69 on June 10, came to Portland State in 1964 as a green instructor, having received his doctorate in Intellectual History just three months before he taught his first class that September. During the first class he taught Reardon met his future wife, Sally, who was a student at the time. They married three years later in 1967.
Craig Wollner, the current associate dean of the College of Urban and Public Affairs, was a junior at PSU in 1964 when he took another of the first classes Reardon taught, Europe Since 1789. Wollner said Reardon was the most exciting instructor he had ever had.
“Incredibly cerebral. [He] had an ability to make history come alive,” Wollner said. “And he was young. I guess I felt like, he’s doing something I’d like to do.”
A tumultuous eraThe spring after Reardon came to PSU was the beginning of this young school’s most tumultuous era, the same time that conflict over Vietnam began to heat up in the United States. That spring, he and a group of young faculty noticed that Portland State was hosting a seminar for army reserve officers.
“We were a bunch of young, arrogant new faculty and we were outraged,” Reardon said.
Many members of the administration were veterans of World War II and planned to attend, Reardon said. Meanwhile, he and the other faculty held a counter-rally in the Park Blocks.
This made the situation awkward, Reardon said, for then-President Branford P. Millar, whose name and picture were attached to the fliers advertising the seminar without his knowledge. “And here was poor Bran Millar, who during the war, because he was a Quaker, had been a conscientious objector.”
Millar went to both rallies, listening to each of the groups. Reflecting on the experience, Reardon felt the young faculty had been unfair to Millar, adding that the former president was “a really great man.”
“We were kind of bastards,” Reardon said.
When their paths crossed again three years later, Reardon, then a member of the Publications Board, disagreed with Millar on a dispute over a nude war-protest photo of Allen Ginsberg taken from above the groin that was published on the front page of the Vanguard. When the board made a decision that was not in Millar’s favor, and when the Vanguard published a second racy photo the next day, he did not have kind words for Reardon.
“He actually called me a hardened and turbulent young man,” Reardon said.
As a result of the second photo, a publicity shot for a PSU play showing a woman bent over a trashcan, Millar shut down the publication of the Vanguard. Reardon and 79 other faculty members reacted by collecting enough money to publish the newspaper independent from the university.
Life before Portland StateReardon spent his undergraduate years at Georgetown, where he earned a degree in International Studies. Thinking he would be interested in working in the Foreign Service, he planned to go to graduate school for a degree in Russian Studies.
He ruled out attending some of the best schools in the country–including Cornell and Fordham–because the cities they were in were too cold or because “Up until that time, all of my education had been at Jesuit schools, so going to another would have locked me in for life.”
He wound up in Bloomington, Ind. at University of Indiana. While working toward his degree in Russian Studies, Reardon chanced upon a class in European Intellectual History and was hooked. He finished up at UI, earning both his master’s and doctorate in Intellectual History from the university, while studying under intellectual greats such as Robert Tucker.
Before his schooling, as a child growing up in Kansas City, Mo., Reardon said he spent a good amount of time at his grandparents’ farm near Leavenworth, Kansas. There, he occasionally worked on the farm, which grew mostly wheat and helped support Reardon’s father and nine siblings during their adolescence.
“My grandfather insisted on a farm doing everything, so we did everything,” said Reardon, adding that the farm also raised and milked cattle. “And I stopped doing it as soon as I could.”
Despite his extensive college education, Reardon said that the schooling he received at Rockhurst High School in Kansas City was the best.
“It was just superb,” he said. “It was difficult, it was substantive.”
Advancing a universityBefore taking on his role as interim president of PSU this past year, Reardon worked his way up the ranks as a professor. After teaching in the history department for close to a decade, Reardon was elected as chair of the department in 1977.
Shortly after, he became the director of the Honors Program, a move that he says gave some of the most memorable times of his career. Reardon was able to revise the entire department and curriculum, setting it up to be a widely respected program among academics nationwide.
Reardon applied the same kind of critical thinking to revising departments at PSU that he did when he was trying to help students understand philosophy. Wheeler, who took over as director of the Honors Program after Reardon became vice provost of Academic Affairs in 1987, said that as an administrator, Reardon became interested in understanding a question that led to many of the core components of PSU: Why is higher education what it is?
“Why do we teach these disciplines and where do they come from? And how do they change? What continues? What drops out? What new things come along?” said Reardon about his thoughts before working in administration.
By asking these questions, Reardon helped develop many of the programs and aspects of the university that students partake in today.
“One of the most amazing things to me was the way he conducted the provostship,” Wollner said. “He conducted that office as another intellectual enterprise.”
When he became provost and vice president of Academic Affairs in 1992, Reardon helped then-President Judith Ramaley start the University Studies Program, for which he has received both praise and contempt. As provost, Reardon facilitated the development of Portland State’s relationship with Waseda University, not only thrusting forward PSU’s International Studies program, but also the ability for students to participate in foreign exchange programs.
A third retirementDespite his accomplishments at Portland State, Reardon has remained consistently behind the scenes, rarely looking for credit for the work he has done.
“The amount that we owe him for revolutionizing the curriculum and putting us at the forefront of general education is probably incalculable,” said Wollner. “I think, in many ways, they should just rename the whole place after him.”
In each of his endeavors–whether studying Intellectual History and teaching it, or running a department and revamping a university–his friends and coworkers say Reardon has been able to grasp knowledge quickly and build relationships.
“He’s got a way of deciding he wants to know something and mastering the material on it, then being able to articulate it to others,” Wollner said.
Reardon will enter his third retirement when he leaves in August. He left his work as provost in 1999, and spent some of his time teaching, but a large amount of it traveling through Asia. Like Intellectual History and academic administration, Asian history and culture has become a passion in the later years of his life.
Reardon was asked to work as interim provost in 2004, before the university hired Roy Koch. After a year, he retired again, taught a little and continued to travel. Now, after he retires for a third time, he says his job as interim president will be his final work at Portland State, after 44 years.
“This is it.”