Glenn Lunden ’83

Like many students at Wesleyan, I wrote a senior thesis. Within that student-advisor relationship with my thesis advisor, Professor of History Ron Schatz, I learned how to debate, how to conduct in-depth research, how to find my way back when I was going down a blind alley and how to redirect my research in more fruitful directions. That opportunity to work with a professor in a (near) peer-like environment, in a setting where you’re doing work that’s getting deep critical analysis, is a key part of a Wesleyan education. Even today, that experience is something I continue to draw upon in the work I do as a transportation planner at MTA New York City Transit. The difference is that now I’m on the other side: I’m the mentor providing the critical analysis in response to in-depth projects put together by others.

My thesis was about Otto Beyer, a man who developed cooperative relationships between union and management at the B&O Railroad in the 1920s. Bringing together workers and managers to come up with better conditions for the employees and better practices for the company was unheard of at the time, but Beyer was coming straight out of the progressive movement, and the B&O, which was headed by a forward-thinking president, was receptive to his ideas. The major focus of my work today is supervising the development of subway schedules. A schedule in the world of New York City Transit is not just a train timetable —it’s a schedule for all the pieces of work that go into moving nearly 8,000 trains a day. This means part of my job is dealing with work assignments for thousands of unionized employees.  In a certain respect, my senior thesis, with its focus on union-management cooperation, still resonates with me today: I’m trying to think in a way that understands our workers’ needs and responsibilities, but that is also in the best interest of management.

There are many people out there who have a passion. The people who succeed are the ones who can temper their enthusiasm with professionalism. I’m only half-joking when I say I ended up working in the transit industry because I wanted to play with trains when I grew up. At Wesleyan I had the latitude to steer some of my academic work toward the study of railroading—but if, and only if, there was some relevance to the class. My professors always asked the hard questions: ‘Why should I, as a non-train enthusiast, care? Why is this relevant? Make me understand why this is important.’ That sort of critical analysis is what brings a degree of professionalism to the enthusiast, preventing enthusiasm from overwhelming professional standards. That in-depth analysis is a key feature of a Wesleyan education.

I only took one class with Dick Buel (one of my favorite professors), but something he did had a direct bearing on my professional career: counterfactuals. We might be studying colonial history and he would say, ‘Here’s what we know about the society, culture and economics in this particular place in time. But suppose something different happened. What do you think would have happened, knowing what you know?’ If you think about it, that’s what planners do: We project what will or may happen, given our knowledge of what’s happening now and what happened in the immediate past. This is why I think there’s a continuum between looking at the past as a historian and at the future as a planner: both must take the long view.

I always had the desire to not just do well, but to do good. When I was at Wesleyan I won a Harry S. Truman Scholarship, an award given to students committed to public service. Not only did the scholarship allow me to go directly to graduate school in planning and public affairs at Princeton, it also took the pressure off me to find a paying job for the summer going into my junior year. I was able to take an unpaid internship working at New York City Transit in the Operations Planning Department—the same department I work in today and where I try to make a positive difference for the millions who take the subway every day. If I hadn’t received the scholarship, I might not ever have found planning.

Ideally, a university experience should prepare you for life. Not necessarily a specific career—though that can be one aspect—but to prepare you to live as a responsible adult engaged in the community and the world at large, and able to deal with people with different perspectives and different approaches in order to find the commonality to move forward. From the critical-thinking skills gained during my senior thesis to the diplomatic skillset sharpened during seemingly endless house meetings at Alpha Delta Phi—which, even at that time, was co-ed—at Wesleyan I gained the know-how and perspective that have stayed with me as I've made my way in the world—and down my career track at the New York Subway.

Glenn Lunden ’83 is senior director of subway schedules at MTA New York City Transit.