UMKC philosophy professor celebrates 50 years of teaching

When Bruce Bubacz (BOO-boch) was growing up on the southeast side of Chicago in the 1950s, one of his middle school teachers called his mother to complain about the books he was reading and the influence he was having on his classmates. 

“The material is a little too mature,” the teacher cautioned over the phone. 

Mrs. Bubacz shrugged off the complaint. 

“Oh, we’re not going to do anything about that. He’s doing what he’s doing,” she replied.

Decades later, Bubacz is still impacting students and is celebrating his 50th year as a formal educator and 47th year at UMKC, where he is curator’s teaching professor of philosophy and chair of the philosophy department. 

“I think what she was really complaining about was the fact that the other students were listening to me, instead of her,” Bubacz, 74, says of his former teacher with a laugh. He sits in his office at one of two neatly organized desks, its surface covered in open binders, a mug full of pencils, and framed photographs of his dogs, his daughter and a moment from his wedding day.

Three brown bookshelves—full of texts on philosophy and law—line the room. Degrees, certificates and pictures of his former professors cover the walls. An empty, leather armchair sits near the center of the room and completes the office’s scholarly air. 

“I always enjoyed telling other kids what I was reading about,” says Bubacz. “That may be one of the reasons I took the direction that I did.” 

After graduating high school in Chicago, Bubacz went to Ripon College in Wisconsin, where he studied philosophy as an undergraduate. From there, he went on to get a master’s degree from the University of Washington in Seattle, where he taught for three years before receiving his Ph.D. in 1973. 

That same year, Bubacz began working at UMKC as a professor of philosophy and has since served in many roles at the university. From 1979 to 1985, he served as the founding director of the College Honors Program (now known as the Honors College). From 1987 until 2000, he chaired the philosophy department. He served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences from 2000 to 2002 and then as chair of the mathematics and statistics department from 2004 to 2005. From 2005 to 2007, he was UMKC’s provost and vice chancellor of academic affairs.

No matter the position he’s had at UMKC, Bubacz has always taught classes, which he sees as his true role at the school.

“Even when I was provost, I taught,” he says. “You’re not supposed to do that because you’re not supposed to have enough time. But I was not going to stop teaching. It’s what I enjoy most.”

His enjoyment is apparent while he works. 

Nearly half a century after accepting the job at UMKC, Bubacz gets ready to begin an Introduction to Philosophy class on a Thursday evening in Katz Hall. Standing at the front of the room, he’s over 6 feet tall with slicked back grey hair and wearing square-rimmed glasses. He wears dark green pants with a tie to match, a white button-down with light green stripes and a mint-colored blazer. A gold kangaroo is pinned to the lapel, same as every day.

He begins the class by asking if anyone has any questions. A few students stir in their seats, but none speak up.

“Well, as usual, I have some questions,” he says with a smile and launches into a review of the previous week’s text. Fifteen minutes later, after Bubacz reads some of Plato’s Euthyphro aloud and cracks a few jokes about the text, a few students begin to perk up. He paces the front of the room, gestures with his hands and probes them with more questions. When a student raises her hand to answer, he gets excited and says, “Go ahead!” She answers correctly. “That’s right,” Bubacz says. “That’s exactly right.”

“You’ve been altogether too quiet today,” he says after the students fall silent again. 

After instructing the students to engage in group work, Bubacz sits on a table at the front of the room and looks from group to group, tuning in, saying nothing. When he reconvenes the class, the students are more talkative than before. Ideas bounce around the room, and before long, a serious philosophical discussion is underway. Still, Bubacz doesn’t forget to keep things amusing. 

“Some people don’t speak well in front of a group,” he says to the class. “Some people would rather have a root canal.”

At the end of the period, he stands facing the window and says, “Sorry today was not as nice a day out there as it has been.” He shrugs playfully. “I tried.” Bubacz walks among the students as they pack up to leave, talking to lingerers, laughing and happily answering a few questions.

Back in his office, Bubacz considers the rewards of teaching. “I love it. I take a great deal of joy out of the students,” he says. “I feel I can still work up the energy and engage them.”

Many people would become burned out after working in the same career for 50 years, but not Bubacz.

“There was this thing going around a couple years ago, about ‘How old do you feel?’ In my case, maybe 50, maybe late 40s,” says Bubacz. “You have aches and pains and creaks, but so what? What kind of enthusiasm do you have? How excited are you about what you’re doing? How much fun are you having?”

For Bubacz, the answer to these questions was sufficient to deny the contract buyout offered to tenured faculty members over 62 this year.

“When the deal came out, I thought about it for one minute, and that was it,” says Bubacz. “I said, ‘No, I’m having too much fun.’”

Bubacz made his decision despite a word from his financial adviser.

“You know, for someone of my vintage, the retirement plan here is really good, and my financial adviser is saying, ‘You’re essentially working for nothing,’” Bubacz explains. “I said, ‘But that’s not why I work.’”

ljk6f4@mail.umkc.edu

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