Nearly 9 decades for DWU: Farney, Mitchell nearing retirement
Though they're originally from California and New York, Mike Farney and Dave Mitchell are well-known names in the Mitchell area.
With the school year wrapping up this week and graduation on Sunday, Dakota Wesleyan University is saying goodbye to the two beloved professors. Farney has been at DWU for 40 years, Mitchell for 47, a total of 87 years of service. Students and colleagues describe them as having unsurpassed knowledge, passion, and care for their subjects, their students, and the college as a whole.
Mitchell, a professor of business, is known as a rigorous teacher, wanting his students to master not only the content but also to develop their analytical thinking skills. He also demonstrates great care for his students. In one course he teaches, he allows students to email him their thoughts in lieu of participating in class discussion and brings those ideas back to the class the next day.
"Some of the best insights I get are from students like that," he says. He'll listen to students to plead their cases for points on an exam or assignment, and will concede if their arguments are good enough. He's open to new ideas from students for projects. "I'm learning just like they are," he said.
Farney is the "resident physicist" at DWU. He typically dresses in his characteristic white turtleneck layered with T-shirts sporting the faces of various scientists, and occasionally in full costumes portraying famous people. He's also known for his lively demonstrations in class. "I can't teach unless I am demonstrating something. Preferably with a yardstick in my hand," he said.
A true scientist, Farney is always open to new information. "I'm delighted to be proved wrong by a young person," he said.
Farney joked about their respective approaches in the classroom, calling Mitchell "a proper gentleman."
"I'm not a proper gentleman, exactly," Farney said. "Dave teaches his classes very conscientiously. I teach my classes somewhat madly."
Both professors have been active with their passions outside of the classroom. Mitchell has been very involved in the community, from church to politics to community organizations. He has taught an adult Sunday School class at the Downtown United Methodist Church for over 25 years.
Farney has promoted a love of science for 26 years through the South Central South Dakota Science and Engineering Fair. He's proud that many students have competed at the international level.
"Our South Dakota students often go to the International Science and Engineering Fair and are sometimes looked down upon. Until, of course, they win," he said.
Both Mitchell and Farney have found DWU to be a unique place. Farney said, "There's an ethos here that is so nice. Be kind, be decent, be supportive. Whatever your politics happen to be, whatever religion you happen to have, whoever you are."
Demonstrating that ethos, he explained that he frequently does his class demonstrations for the building's maintenance man—whom he called by name—talks with him regularly, and has been to his home.
Farney continued, "This is the kind of thing we do. We're all working together to keep this place up and running. And that's how we've kept it up and running even when our president once said, 'I don't know if a place like this can remain.' Yes it can. Because we pull together. And when people come here they kind of like what they see."
Mitchell echoed these sentiments.
"One of our main jobs here is to help students develop, not just to get intellectually smart, but to develop as people. That's one of the reasons I've stayed 47 years. There really is a sense of community around here." He later added some flair to his reasoning for sticking around: "There's an old joke: 'How do you get out of a rut? You pick a good rut and stay in it.'"
DWU feels the same about the professors. "Dr. Farney left (the students he taught) with an indelible mark that forced them to look at the world and its complexities through a more sophisticated, more knowledgeable, and more critical lens," said DWU President Amy Novak.
"DWU will long be indebted to his creative contributions to teaching, learning, thinking and doing."
"(Mitchell's) attempts to help students delve deep into what they believe, to help them see alternative perspectives, and to propel their passion into actual civic engagement left a legacy on all whom he encountered," Novak said. After naming his contributions to DWU in addition to teaching, she added, "Dave's legacy will continue to have a lasting impact on Wesleyan for generations to come."
Both are expected to be granted the status of "professor emeritus," a title that recognizes distinguished service and allows retired professors to continue involvement at DWU and in their respective fields.
Farney has some rather concrete plans for his days after retirement, one of which includes a portable planetarium for young people in the Mitchell community. "It's not small, and it's not inexpensive," he said. "We'll try it out in June to see if it fits our needs." He also plans to work with the incoming physics professor to help make the course even better. Does he plan to cut back his work with the science fair?
"Not quite yet," he said with a smile.
Mitchell isn't certain exactly what his days will look like in retirement. He's looking forward to staying connected to the university and the community and contributing however he can, and he has more than a few ideas. There's a sign above his desk that reads, "Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved."
Speaking of lessons he learned from his faith, he said, "One of the hardest things for me to learn has been how to let go. I think I've learned how to do that. So I'm not uncomfortable about this transition. I don't know what's gonna be on the other side of it, but it's not a problem to be solved."