After a lifetime of memories at Rollins, retiring political science professor Tom Lairson is ready to tackle his next academic challenge.
Political science professor Tom Lairson (right) and his wife Sally ’79 (left) celebrate four decades of Tom's work with Rollins College. Here, the pair are pictured during a recent Rollins field study in China.
When, in the course of a single year, you turn 70, celebrate your 50th wedding anniversary, and mark four decades teaching on the same campus, riding off into the sunset seems a natural progression among milestones.
For Tom Lairson, whom colleagues call “the founding father of political science at Rollins,” it’s more accurate to say he’s flying off into the sunset—even if, technically, the course to Delhi, India, calls for an easterly route.
Tom Lairson (Photo by Sally Lairson) In July, Lairson and his wife, Sally ’79, will start a new life at O.P. Global Jindal University, where he’ll teach Chinese studies part time for the next three years. Serving as an ambassador for Rollins is also part of the job, as the two schools collaborate to promote a global approach to liberal arts and humanities education. “So, to say I’m retired is only half correct,” Lairson says with a grin.
The son of a Kentucky watchmaker and the first person in his family to attend college, Lairson began teaching at Rollins in September 1976. He leaves a vast legacy of accomplishments, the most notable of which include:
While cleaning out his office in Cornell Hall, Lairson took a few moments to reflect on a career that has witnessed tremendous change.
From generalist to specialist
“When I first got here, there were three people in the political science department—today there are nine—so you taught lots of different classes, and that often meant teaching things you only had a limited knowledge about. Over the years, I was able to specialize in international political economy, with a focus on Asia. The favorite thing I did was taking students to Asia on many occasions, especially the three times I was there for a semester with students in China. That was, by far, the best thing I ever did at Rollins. (Coming from humble beginnings), I think it’s fair to say my wife and I have many times stood in China or Vietnam, Singapore and India, and just marveled at the fact that our lives were big enough where we could do that.”
Tom and Sally Lairson with a group of Rollins students in China. (Photo courtesy of Tom Lairson)
New faculty, new studies
“The biggest difference between Rollins in 1976 and now is the quality of the faculty—it’s immensely better. We also have programs you simply couldn’t imagine back then, like Asian studies. The first program I started from scratch was the international relations major, and you didn’t have a lot of resources or people to help. I was asked by the chair of the political science department to create a program, so, being young and naïve, I did. I just sat in my office and thought, what kind of program should this be? We ended up blending political science, economics, history, and foreign languages, and we used John Hopkins as a model. Back then, you just had to create a program like this, take it before the Academic Affairs Committee and wait four to six weeks. Now that process would take a couple years.”
“Maybe the very best class I ever taught here was the very first one, an intro to international politics. It had maybe 20 students and several went on to prominent careers in law, international business, medicine, politics, and intelligence. David Skidmore, who teaches at Drake University, was in that class. One time we went to a conference together, and David couldn’t sleep at night, so he’d keep me awake. At 2 in the morning, we were talking about textbooks on international political economy, and he said, ‘I think we can write a better book’—so we did. We’ve published four editions of International Political Economy: The Struggle for Power and Wealth.
Ambassador to Vietnam
“In 1994, when the U.S. government was lifting the embargo on Vietnam, I was selected by the Ford Foundation to teach Vietnamese government officials about international relations. There were no American representatives in Hanoi at all except for a colleague and I—no consulate, no embassy, nothing. The two of us ended up going to the Vietnamese foreign ministry half a dozen times, and they picked our brain various times trying to get information, because they didn’t understand the U.S. We were treated very nicely and given access to all levels of government, so I’ve been able to use those connections during several trips back to the country.”
From typewriters to today
“In the mid-70s, there were no personal computers, so you used a typewriter. I had my 450-page dissertation written on my typewriter. You make a mistake, you start over again. Making the transition from a world of primitive technology to today’s technology, part of that was convincing students about the importance of learning a new system. In the 1980s, I would require students to write a paper on the computer instead of having someone type it for them, and I’d get a lot of blowback for that. One of the things I did early on was put all my courses on the Internet, and I had to teach a lot of the students how to access that information.”
Parting shot from a colleague
“Tom’s deep, often contagious, passion for his field of study is where he makes his mark on most individuals. As such, he personifies what I tell my students to search for in their own careers. Tom has lots of interests outside of academia, but at the same time, his work is so much more than a job to him. It’s fun. As his wife, Sally, might say, it’s quite possible he enjoys it as much as Kentucky basketball. He truly loves learning about how the world works and then helping other people learn with him. That, to me, along with our innumerable conversations over the years, is what I will always treasure.” — Mike Gunter, chair, Department of Political Science