An American Life

Derek Hodgson

Derek Hodgson’s first look at what would ultimately be his adopted country was from the deck of the Mauritania. The Cunard liner’s September 1961 voyage from Southampton to New York had taken an extra day, thanks to a prolonged encounter with a hurricane.

Rough seas caused a drastic decline in diners at shipboard meals but disturbed the soon-to-be Harvard freshman not at all. “When you’re young, even hurricanes are an adventure,” he said.

The Mauritania would discontinue transatlantic crossings four years later, and the next time Hodgson traveled to England—as a visitor with a newly minted bachelor’s degree—he would fly. He would have by then become an American—in spirit, if not in fact—with an American life. In 1975, he would obtain U.S. citizenship, and in mid-August, 2003, he would assume the presidency of Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Hodgson was born and reared in Watford, fifteen miles northwest of London. In his childhood, the town was an entity unto itself; today, it has become part of the London Metroplex. He went to government-owned schools and at eleven took the required examination to determine his academic focus in ensuing years. Hodgson’s clear affinity was for science and mathematics, but he also studied many other subjects, including Latin for four years.

“From childhood, I was interested in the wide world,” Hodgson said. As an adolescent, he traveled in France and other parts of western Europe and was alerted by his school’s headmaster to newly established Harvard scholarships for foreign students. “I was born at the right time,” Hodgson said. By the spring of 1961, he knew he was going to Harvard to study chemistry.

The Hodgsons at home

The Hodgsons at home: Billie is in the foreground with Samantha, and Julie and Derek are behind her.

“I liked Harvard a lot,” Hodgson said, “perhaps a little too much.” Even in the years just preceding the British Invasion, “being from England was a good thing” in Cambridge, Mass. Hodgson learned to play bridge and “got to travel a bit.”

One summer he worked in the chemistry laboratory of a huge Oklahoma oil company. (“My roommate was from Tulsa.”) During other vacations, he labored in a California Institute of Technology laboratory, taught summer classes at what is now Northfield Mount Hermon School, and operated a forklift at a suburban Chicago aluminum mill. All the while, he wrote frequently to his parents and brother back in England and planned the next stop in his American odyssey.

“I am an inorganic chemist,” Hodgson said. “For people like me, Northwestern University in the sixties was Mecca. Going there for graduate work was a fairly easy choice.”

At Northwestern, he earned a master’s degree and a doctorate and was greatly influenced by James Ibers, a pioneer in structural chemistry who is Northwestern’s Charles E. and Emma H. Morrison Professor of Chemistry. At this point, Hodgson said, he hoped “to be an academic scientist for the rest of my life.”

He pursued his dream for eighteen years on the faculty of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. During that time, he met and married his wife, Billie, and became the father of Julie, who is now a first-year law student at Syracuse University. Both Billie and Julie, Hodgson points out, are North Carolina natives.

By the time Julie started first grade, though, the family had moved to Laramie, Wyo., where Hodgson assumed the post of head of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Wyoming. Three years later, he became the university’s vice president for research. He also was a member of the Wyoming Economic Development and Stabilization Board, board chairman of the Western Research Institute, and chairperson of a committee that reported directly to the governor and competed for and coordinated federal funding coming to the state.

In 1994, Hodgson became provost and vice president for academic affairs at Mississippi State University, a north-central Mississippi institution with an enrollment slightly higher than that of IUP. Hodgson is particularly proud of achievements there in academic planning, development education, faculty welfare, and post-tenure review.

In the five years before he came to IUP, Hodgson was vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, one of four campuses in the state’s university system and one with an enrollment slightly smaller than that of IUP. In addition to all academic aspects of the university’s programs, he was also, soon after arriving at UNO, made responsible for enrollment management, which included recruitment, registration, and financial aid. By the time he left Omaha for IUP, student affairs had also been added to his job description.

Hodgson found that UNO’s enrollment and retention figures had become matters of grave concern. During his tenure, he said, “Both enrollment and retention rates turned around tremendously.”

Hodgson’s first presidential post is at a university he characterizes as “fundamentally on sound ground.” Discussion of IUP’s future, he said, will revolve around priorities: “All of us at the university will be seriously asking ourselves what is important to us. What programs would we fund first to be sure they were supported? What would we choose to protect?”

While he has his own ideas about the answers to these questions, he thinks “the university as a whole needs to come to grips with this.” With his background in research, he will naturally have direct interest in matters surrounding the university’s newly established Research Institute, but his primary goal will be “to enhance the academic success of our students.”

“Our retention and graduation rates are good,” he said, “but some schools in the State System have better rates. We’ll take that as a challenge.”

Results will be forthcoming—and published. Eliciting “advice and enlightened criticism” from alumni and other constituent groups is important, Hodgson said, adding, “The more opportunity we have for communicating with people that care about us, the better.”