Trustee Profile: Bill Keller, N.Y. Times Executive Editor

This is the first installment in The Student Life’s new series profiling members of the Pomona Board of Trustees and their thoughts on a meaningful life.

I recently had a chance to talk with Pomona College Trustee Bill Keller PO ’70. Since 2003, Keller has served as Executive Editor of The New York Times. Prior to assuming his current position, Keller was an Op-Ed columnist and senior writer at the Times, working at bureaus in Moscow, Johannesburg, and Washington, D.C. In 1989, Mr. Keller was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Soviet Union. Keller has been a member of Pomona College’s Board of Trustees since 2000. He lives in New York with his wife and their two daughters.

TSL: What constitutes a meaningful life? What sorts of things do you do, or have you done, that have been particularly meaningful?

Keller: I think the patron philosopher of journalists is Socrates—as in, “the unexamined life is not worth living,” which I take not as a call forintrospection and self-absorption but a summons to curiosity and reflection about the people and things andevents around us. A meaningful life, I think, starts with accepting that ignorance acknowledged is a form of wisdom, and that asking questions is a worthwhile, enliveningpursuit, even when it doesn’t produce entirely satisfying answers. So, a meaningful life is about paying attention. That, plus true love and a bit of poetry. And when Yeats and Larkin don’t do it, you can crank up Steve Earle or Guy Clark.

TSL: In your experience, how did you reconcile your own ideas of meaning with the realities of the people you met or worked with?

Keller: For the most part, as a journalist, I approach the world as a spectator, a student, a researcher. That gives me a kind of strategic distance on the realities of others and allows for a measure of flexibility. For me, the easiest way to deal with reality is with an open mind. That doesn’t mean indifference or a kind of over-arching agnosticism. It means I take my time getting to conviction.

TSL: What is it about a story that gets you excited? Is there a beat that stands out in your mind as being especially meaningful to you?

Keller: People go into journalism for a variety of reasons. Some want to change the world. Some just love telling stories. Some savor the opportunity for travel and adventure. Some are voyeurs.Some are show-offs. I probably feel all of those things in some measure, but the thing that excites me most about reporting and writing is the puzzling-it-through. I love immersing myself in a complicated subject—a place, a person, a situation—andworking through the complications and emerging with a reasonably credible explanation. The reaction I want from a story is not so much “I didn’t know that” as “I never thought of it that way.”

An individual story can be enormously satisfying, but the work is more meaningful if the individual stories add up to a larger narrative. Probably, my favoriteassignment was covering the final years of the Soviet Union, and the satisfaction was cumulative. The individual stories—examples of a society coming to terms with its history, flickers of freedom and dissent, signs of the emptiness and corruption of the old regime—added up to a sense that a society widely regarded as unreformable was on the verge of climactic change.

TSL: In the way of pursing your proverbial passion, is there anything you wish you had known as an undergraduate student?

Keller: More by accident than design, I used my time at Pomona less to accumulate information than to develop skills—critical reading, assembling and appraising information, presenting my conclusions in a relatively clear and engaging way. And I guess that serves me well in my line of work, especially now that the actual information is only a Google search away. Still, I wish I’d packed in more history, which is not just a chronology of facts but a way of absorbing the world. And I wish I’d picked something off my beaten path—a musical instrument, a language, a theater course—and really tried to master it.

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