The Dean Wears Prada

By staff February 1, 2007

You’re probably vaguely aware of something called “Semester at Sea.” I was. All I knew was that an ocean liner sails around the world for a semester with a bunch of college students, and for this they receive class credit. Well, why not? The problem of what to do with rich college students will always be with us, and here was a happy solution—send them out of the country on a big boat. What would happen, do you think? Would they party like mad for 100 days straight? Or would they embrace the world in all its diversity and learn some humility?

Then, through a strange chain of events, I recently found myself receiving “feelers” from Semester at Sea. We were trying to figure the perfect “niche” for me to occupy on an upcoming voyage (never referred to as a “cruise,” by the way). At first it was thought I could teach creative writing to the more uncreative students. Then this was “dumbed-down” to English composition, but it turned out I didn’t have the right degree for that. Then it was suggested that perhaps I could be the assistant registrar. I thought this was the person who sits at the table with that box of index cards on registration day and whom you never see again, but it turns out that he or she actually has to work like a dog on computers, so I certainly didn’t want that job. However, the post of custodian of board games and karaoke was open, and in fact, we’re still discussing it.

Anyway, with this end in mind, I journeyed over to Fort Lauderdale to check out the MV Explorer, which was just back from one of its around-the-world semesters. The students had disembarked that morning, but the deans were still on board, heaving a big sigh of relief and getting ready to go out and “tie one on” in that decorous way college deans have.

But first I got a quick tour of the ship. Within 30 seconds I was struck, as if by an epiphany: This was it! This is what rich retired people should do—go on educational cruises! (Excuse me, voyages.) I was sitting on a gold mine. The future of boomer retirement flashed before my eyes.

First of all, the ship is gorgeous: just three years old, some bankrupt Greek luxury liner they got a deal on. It looks like a miniature Four Seasons hotel. It’s much too good for college students. The spa alone! Treatment rooms. Halasotherapy. Pre-oxidation. Everything. “Is there a casino?” I asked, panting.

“We turned it into a library.”

“Well, that sucks.”

Actually, it was a brilliant move. The whole ship has been turned into a very chic boutique campus that floats. The lounges are now classrooms, and there’s a dining room that serves passengers cafeteria style, plus another more informal place up on the lido deck. “How’s the food?” I kept asking. Everybody agreed it was “OK.” I sneaked a peek at a menu. Hamburgers and corn on the cob. The crew was from the Philippines, and, boy, were they excited to finally get a night off. They were swarming into cabs and heading for the wild side of town.

Naturally, there were no stupid cruise ship activities, but there were lots of student clubs and interest groups. I inquired about folk dancing, which I figured was about my speed. I was also—let me not beat around the bush—concerned about student drinking on board. What exactly was the policy? After all, Semester at Sea is run, in an academic sense, by the University of Virginia. I’d been in Charlottesville once during that famous horse race they have, the one where the natives have to stay indoors and lock their daughters in the basement, and I certainly wasn’t tolerating 100 days of that. Well, it was explained that they did have a system where every once in a while the students got a ticket and could get some sort of drink. It seemed sensible. And, more importantly, the staff and faculty could drink all they wanted in their own private lounge. I asked to see the lounge. It was perfectly acceptable. In fact, it was the nicest one on the ship.

“Do you get many older students?” I asked. It turns out they get quite a few. Anywhere from 25 to 80 a voyage, so you don’t stick out like a sore thumb and you can always find other geezers to talk to. The deans insist that the older students are welcomed by the college-aged ones and sought out as mentors, or, in my case, cautionary tales. Desmond Tutu is going on a future voyage, and there’s even talk of lining up Jimmy Carter.

The cabin they let me spend the night in was terrific. It was a dean’s cabin on the highest deck, with an enormous private balcony, marble bath with tub, seating area, walk-in closet, etc. I’m sure they don’t give these to the students (tuition and room and board is around $20,000), but if you make a special donation to the “Dean’s Fund,” well, who knows, one may suddenly become available.

Now, I’m sure you see the adventure and intellectual stimulation you’d get from Semester at Sea, but look at it from a specific example. Let’s say you sign for a course in Islamic Art. So you sail from Fort Lauderdale through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific. Every day you go to class and study Islamic art. Then you get to the Far East and see Islamic influences in Asian art firsthand. Then back on the ship and on to Malaysia and India for the real thing (isn’t the Taj Mahal Islamic?). Then a couple of weeks later you’re in the Middle East for the mother lode, before finishing up in Spain with the Alhambra.

Now that’s a course in Islamic Art.

I went out to dinner with the deans. Luckily for the other diners, they rented a private dining room in that quaint old restaurant, The River House, near Las Olas. A merry time was had by all. There were tales of voyages past and present; many, many toasts and declarations of undying friendship; a tear or two; and I seem to remember a poem.

It certainly seemed very nice and gemütlich. But was it me?

Finally, it was time to leave.

I tuned to say goodbye to one of the deans, a tall woman all in black, who had draped around her shoulder the most gorgeous Prada bag you ever saw.

“My,” I said. “What a nice bag.”

“I got it in Vietnam,” she said. “Ten dollars.”

“You can get Prada in Vietnam for $10?”

My God, I hadn’t even considered the shopping.

Where do I sign up?

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