Smooth as Gless: Administrator believes in
doing what he is asked to do
Darryl J. Gless has held many titles over the course of his
distinguished career. The oldest, and the one he cherishes most, is F.O.B. –
Friend of Bill.
His friendship with former President Bill Clinton began when
they both were Rhodes Scholars at the University of Oxford. They may not have
sat in the same classroom, Gless said, but Clinton had a way of turning any
experience into a classroom of his own making.
Gless remembers the trip a group of Rhodes Scholars took
from Oxford to Stratford to see a production of King Lear. On the bus ride
back, Clinton talked extensively with Gless about the scene in which Lear is
turned out of the castle and forced to seek shelter in a hovel, where he
encounters the poor and finally develops an understanding for how his subjects
were forced to live.
It was his empathy with the poor and his belief that
government can be used as an instrument to help them that drew Clinton into
politics, Gless said.
During that bus ride, they also discovered the many things
they had in common.
“Bill is wonderfully modest and he always listened to
everybody – and listened to me of all things,” Gless said.
Both were small-town boys: Clinton hailed from Hope, Ark.;
Gless from Schuyler, Neb. Their mothers were nurses and their fathers died much
too young. Clinton’s father died in a car accident three months before he was
born, and Gless’ father died of a heart attack at age 47 during Gless’ senior
year in high school.
“I went to the University of Nebraska, which is where
hotshots went from my kind of town, and it was wonderful for me,” Gless said.
“I had no college graduates in my family. My older brother had gone to Nebraska
and flunked out the previous year because of a time management problem. I
worked like a dog because I was afraid I would follow my brother.”
His diligence paid off with a Rhodes scholarship that
changed his life in ways he could not have imagined back in Schuyler, Gless
said. Among his other classmates at Oxford were Robert Reich, who went on to
serve as Clinton’s secretary of labor, and State Talbot, who served as deputy
secretary of state under Madeleine Albright.
“I was around so many more accomplished people that it
infused me with humility,” said Gless. “It made me think, as I had all my life,
that I had to try harder.”
After completing his master of philosophy degree at Oxford
in 1971, Gless earned his Ph.D. at Princeton University four years later.
It was winning the Rhodes, however, that he said infused him
with a lifelong sense of obligation to do what he was asked to do. It is a key
reason he accepted the appointment by Clinton in 1994 to serve on the National
Council of the National Endowment for
During the past 29 years, Gless has demonstrated that same
unflagging sense of service to Carolina, which the University acknowledged in
honoring him with a 2009 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.
Gless, a respected scholar of the works of Shakespeare and
Spenser, joined Carolina’s English department in 1980, one year after his first
major book was published.
The book was a study of Shakespeare’s play “Measure for
Measure,” which deals with the issues of mercy, justice and truth and their
relationship to pride and humility. Gless sought to examine the work within the
wider context of the theological, philosophical and political thinkers of
Shakespeare’s day who may have influenced him.
That book, in an unexpected way, caused him to leave the
University of Virginia after seven years; it was cited as one reason he was
denied tenure there. Faculty viewed the book’s historical interpretations as
outside the bounds of traditional scholarship, Gless said, but he believed the
whole idea of scholarship was to push those bounds to expand understanding.
A home at Carolina
That disagreement, plus an unabashed love for teaching
undergraduates, led him to Carolina. Here, Gless said, he knew he had found a
home in an institution that refused to treat teaching and scholarship as
Gless earned tenure and continued to teach as he provided
administrative leadership in many areas.
From 1987 to 1992, Gless oversaw the evaluation of the
undergraduate curriculum as associate dean for general education. For the next
three years, he served as director for the University-wide self-study for
In 1998, as chair of the Morgan Writers Program, Gless
helped initiate the biennial North Carolina Literary Festival, held here
earlier this month, that alternates among Carolina, Duke and N.C. State.
From 1997 to 2005, he served as senior associate dean for
the fine arts and humanities and oversaw the development of the First Year
Seminar Program, now considered to be one of the best of its kind in the
He also co-authored a proposal that ultimately produced the
Robertson Scholars Program, which for the past decade has allowed outstanding
students from Carolina and Duke to enjoy the academic, cultural and service
opportunities at both institutions.
Along the way, Gless earned a Tanner Award for Excellence in
He said the utilitarian purpose of literature for students
is that it allows them to examine “language that is working as intensely as
language can work” to trigger an imaginative response.
For literature to live, he believes, various readers must find
their own meaning in a particular work based on their values, beliefs and life
experiences as they try to understand the author’s intended meanings.
“When you are studying old literature, even though it comes
out of a culture that we think is our own, the interactions between people are
so different – they are the same and yet they are different – that
you are able to examine things that are of continuous importance but see them
from angles that surprise and illuminate,” Gless said.
In 1991, he co-edited a volume of essays on “The Politics of
Liberal Education” that helped to refocus his scholarly interest in improving
education by increasing racial, ethnic and other kinds of diversity in
“One of the things that I say to my students that I have
experienced is that you learn the most when you open your mind to ideas that
run against all of your reflexes,” Gless said.
Winning a Massey was almost as surprising as winning the
Rhodes, he said, and no less humbling when he thought about the hard work of
others who have been so honored.
During the spring awards banquet, Gless was dumbfounded when
the citation was read. “I wanted to say some nice things afterward, but it was
the first time in years I was left speechless,” he said. “I was so eager to get
back to my seat that I just made a kind of silly joke and ran.”