Douglass Sullivan-Gonzales, professor of history and dean of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, recognizes the importance of past experience, present opportunity and future change. Many people and circumstances shaped who he is today, but with a mind seeking knowledge and a heart desiring understanding, DSG, as Sullivan-Gonzales is fondly referred to, influences the University of Mississippi in more ways than mere administration.
1. When you were in college, what were your plans for the future?
As a sophomore at the University, I was intent on becoming a minister in the Baptist Church; but one, I’m Presbyterian, and two, I’m not a full-time minister. So things shift with opportunity.
2 Where did you meet your wife?
Maribel. She’s from Nicaragua. I was teaching down there, and we met at the Xerox machine in 1985. It’s our 25th year of marriage.
3. How has being a parent changed you?
I have two daughters, Francis and Renee. More patience, more understanding; it’s a measure of grace that outweighs my first inclination to demand accountability–a little more patience with people, as we try to understand all of our limitations.
4. What has been the happiest moment of your life?
There’s sort of two series of very great moments that I think of, 1985 and ‘86. When I met Maribel in Nicaragua was a great time where I felt like I had achieved many of my goals already, and I found myself trying to reassess ‘what am I going to do now.’
Second happiest moment would be sort of revolving with the family.
Maybe it’s just as recently as intertubing on a river in the Smoky Mountains this past August.
5. What has been the saddest moment of your life?
Probably when my brother passed away. The Easter before he died in 1982, we expressed our love for one another, then he had a stroke and died three days later. He left three boys.
He gave me a strength for the rest of my life to understand life’s finality.
6. What has been the biggest turning point in your life?
There have been significant shifts in my life. I experienced growing up in a very pluralistic community in Chattanooga – Jewish, Catholic, Church of Christ, Presbyterian and Baptist.
The woman next door, a Jewish woman, her son was killed in a car wreck in the army, and she was wailing in the house.
The Church of Christ, the Presbyterian, the Catholic and my mother, the Baptist, were all in there talking and trying to console her.
It was a deep experience in plurality. I remember that interfaith moment when the Jewish woman was asking people from Christian faith if she would see her son again, and then our family would go down the same path in a couple of decades with my brother passing away.
7. What would you consider your biggest failure?
I started my PhD at SMU in religious studies. I was very mouthy and aggressive with a particular professor. I thought I was better than I was, but I was only a B student in my writing.
He flunked me basically.
I went and confronted him about the grade, and we had a showdown.
He told me that I had to choose whether I was going to be a preacher or a philosopher and that I couldn’t do both.
I said I was going to do both, but it wasn’t going to be here.
So I left SMU.
When I won the best dissertation award from Texas, I had to look back and thank that professor for being the ass. If he hadn’t failed me, I might have ended up with a very miserable life.
So failure in that sense became success.
8. How has your job changed you?
I’m much more comfortable now in being very transparent with people when I need to be. I can say no without fear of hurting their feelings, and it used to terrify me. I would avoid conflict unless it was the only thing left.
9. What advice do you have for students?
People who set trends have to risk falling down.
Take risks–good, smart, thought out risks. Join a group and get involved and try to take what you know and apply it in real life.
I don’t think it matters what course of study, you have to be both scientist and humanitarian to be very successful in this world.
You’ve got to always push the bar and make the ethic of excellence higher each year.
10. What do you want on your tombstone?
’Swimming upstream.’ You’ve got to go against the flow. Always.