When David Fithian and his husband, Michael Rodriguez, made the decision to come to Clark, they sensed it would be a perfect fit. They already knew, based on Fithian’s personal experience as a student and alum, that Clark was an important institution with a long heritage of changing lives for the better. And, they felt confident that the Clark community was hungry for the kind of change that would help to propel the university forward, deepen awareness and appreciation for all that is so special about it, and broaden the impact of its important mission. That combination created a strong tug that neither David nor Michael could resist.
As Fithian has been settling into his role, Rodriguez too has been settling into his new routine.
Since making the move east, Rodriguez has focused on setting up operations at Sylvan Farm in Rehoboth, Massachusetts, where he and Fithian are raising seven Friesian horses. “Michael is an incredibly warm human being, and people gravitate to him,” Fithian says. “But he also has a magical relationship with animals. He’s the kind of person who has dragonflies landing on his hand.”
A Long Island native, Rodriguez studied biology and animal science at Cornell University, with the goal of becoming a veterinarian. But his love for performance led him to transfer to Ithaca College in his junior year, then to pursue a career in the theater, acting and singing in off-Broadway and summer stock productions throughout the 1980s.
As the HIV/AIDS epidemic ravaged both the gay community and the arts communities, he considered alternative professional paths that might prove more meaningful. “I thought, ‘What combines the math and science I’ve studied and loved with the creative and emotional aspects of the things I’ve done in my life?’ Psychology wrapped all of it into one.”
He finished his undergraduate studies at Hunter College, then earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in clinical psychology at Yale University, where he met Fithian through a mutual friend. The two have now been together for just over 26 years and were legally married on their 10-year anniversary in 2004.
In 1995, Rodriguez began a prestigious pre-doctoral clinical internship at Harvard Medical School/The Cambridge Hospital, Fithian was hired as assistant dean of freshmen at Harvard University, and they made the move to Cambridge. Rodriguez subsequently did his postdoctoral work at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, where he was head of psychology on an in-patient schizophrenia-research unit. He worked on a long-term study in which newly diagnosed patients were given medications that historically had only been used with those who had exhausted other treatment options.
“I worked with a lot of first-episode schizophrenia patients and their families. It’s a sad thing to see people struggling to understand what’s gone wrong with their brain,” he says. “But there was hope. Our patients were at the beginning of their diagnoses and we were testing whether a novel treatment protocol might prove more beneficial both in the short and long term.”
After Fithian became assistant dean of Harvard College, Rodriguez took over as dean of Adams House, helping 425-plus students navigate the challenges and complexities in their personal and academic lives. He also taught a seminar on the psychosocial aspects of HIV and AIDS, and a class on human sexuality that was among the most popular at Harvard. When Fithian was recruited to Chicago, Rodriguez joined the board of Chicago House, the Midwest’s first HIV/AIDS service organization, a seat he held for eight years.
A love of horses was a constant in their lives. Whenever they vacationed, they sought opportunities for horseback riding. But it was a 2018 hike to a friend’s mountainside ranch in San Miguel, Mexico, that inspired them to pursue their long-standing dreams of owning a gentlemen’s farm and raising their own horses.
“I hiked to the top alone and came upon a small herd of wild horses who were clearly as startled to see me as I was to see them,” recalls Rodriguez. “Then the leader came over, and suddenly I was surrounded by wild horses. It was one of the most magical encounters I’ve ever experienced.
“On the way back down the mountain, I asked David, ‘Why don’t we have horses in our lives?’ and we soon decided that you can’t wait for your dreams to happen; that a decision to pursue them always has to be consciously made.”
Within a few months, they bought their first farm in Indiana and welcomed their first two Friesian fillies into their family. Rodriguez now balances his support for Fithian’s work at Clark with operations on Sylvan Farm.
Despite the challenges from COVID-19, Rodriguez has learned a good deal about the University and he’s impressed with and excited about its ties to the Main South community, which he likens to Yale’s connection to its New Haven neighborhood and the University of Chicago’s to the south side. “There’s clearly an understanding at Clark of how important a university can be to a community, and how vital it is to make sure people are engaged and excited about that partnership,” he says. “We’re happy to be part of it and eager to build upon it.”