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President to bid adieu with Shakespeare seminars

SANTA FE – As he prepares to say goodbye to the mountains and forests surrounding his bucolic 250-acre Santa Fe campus for the hustle and bustle of New York City, Mike Peters, president of St. John’s College, is planning one final and noteworthy project: a seminar on Shakespearean dramas.

Mike Peters

PETERS: Mindful of the lesson of King Lear

After a decade at St. John’s – now celebrating its 50th year in Santa Fe – Peters will retire in June. His farewell seminar will begin this month – Friday and Saturday – and wrap up on Feb. 13 and 14. The subjects are the history plays “King Richard II,” “King Henry IV” Parts 1 and 2 and “King Henry V.”

Peters will lead all four sessions, William Shakespeare and history being two of his favorite subjects.

For Peters, 10 years in one location represents a long time. He is a West Point graduate and Army colonel who has called nearly 30 places home. Although he grew up mainly in suburban Washington, D.C., he spent two high school years in Turkey, where his father, also a military man, was stationed.

One of his early missions as an Army officer took him to Vietnam. What was most impressive, he says, “was the commitment of the soldiers to serve under those difficult circumstances.”

He was later assigned to the office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Adm. William Crowe during the Reagan years. Also in the 1980s, during the Cold War when Leonid Brezhnev was chairman of the Soviet Communist Party, he served as an attache at the U.S. embassy in Moscow. And he played a role in ousting Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian dictator, during the presidency of George H.W. Bush.

The three assignments provided an illuminating and first-hand look at how policy is made and implemented.

After retiring from the Army, Peters took a job in New York as chief operating officer and executive vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations. He worked there nine years. So, in some ways, moving to New York City will be like going home. He plans to renew his ties with the council, and – more importantly – the move will place him and his wife, Eleanor, closer to his mother and their two children and five grandchildren.

At St. John’s, Peters has overseen a multi-million-dollar building program. Levan Hall, home of the Graduate Institute, was constructed, as was the Winarski Student Center.

He was also largely responsible for the growing number of foreign students who come from about 20 different countries and comprise 17 percent of the student body. “There was just a handful when I arrived,” Peters notes. “They bring a sense of community and diversity to the campus.”

As a liberal arts college, St. John’s main focus is on the great books of the Western tradition. Even the foreign students – many from China and Nepal – are up to the challenge. “For the most part, they do it well,” Peters says.

As president, he helped students get financial aid through the lottery scholarship. He also oversaw the creation of:

⋄  Summer Academy – One-week sessions introducing high school juniors and seniors to the seminar style of teaching.

⋄  Music on the Hill – Six free concerts held every summer on the campus’s grassy outdoor stage.

⋄  President’s Council – A kitchen cabinet of advisers not on the board of directors.

Peters is a big man, easily 6-foot-4, perhaps taller. At 68, he appears to be in excellent shape and health. But being a college president demands a lot of focus and energy and now is the time to slow down. “There’s a time for everything,” he says. He looks to King Lear for guidance, calling it “a great play as you get a little older,” particularly the counsel on “giving up authority, too early – or too late.”

His favorite book is Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” a work that clearly falls in line with his Army background. He is, after all, a man who loves literature, foreign policy, the military and education. He cautions about blurring the lines between information and knowledge, a mistake policy makers sometimes make in their haste to produce college graduates.

As far as St. John’s is concerned, he says, neither Santa Fe nor New Mexico truly appreciate the treasure that the college is, an institution “that really enriches the human capital of the state.”

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