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The Education of a New President

As part of his desire to be as inclusive as possible in learning about St. Lawrence, President Fox has eagerly solicited both opinions and questions from St. Lawrence alumni, faculty, staff and students. He agreed to answer a few representative questions here.

How would you expect to manage the process of balancing competing needs across the University?

It’s inevitable that there will be more wants than givens in an environment of competing goods on the St. Lawrence campus. St. Lawrence, however, has a long-standing and admirable practice of shared governance, which is premised on good habits of discussion in tri-partite committees, the Faculty Council and Thelmo. While the president must always know where the buck stops (it’s a terminus informed by the rub of ideas, pressured by inherent limits of choice and punctuated by the complex  effort to get it right), the way to make the wisest decision is to listen for the best wisdom.  And often in the discipline of listening closely, like paying attention to a cadenza or jazz lick, one discovers insights from sources not always obvious at the outset.

My approach to making difficult decisions, when what to do and not to do is on the line, will be similar to the practice established by Dan Sullivan – to work with the University community in a manner of open and transparent communication, but with structured decision-making (because questions and issues cannot be left open indefinitely). I am by nature inquisitive and will seek information like a beagle chasing a rabbit; evidence-based decisions preceded by reasoned discourse will shape a trustworthy process; and taking time to listen proves, as my father used to say, that the long way around is usually the shortest route home.

What do you see as your first major objective as president of St. Lawrence?

The short answer is to make sure the academic year 2009-10 is exciting, inspiring and productive for our students, especially the Class of 2013 who join our community this fall. Beyond the immediacy of the in-box and of deliberately working one year at a time, we must soon face the task of defining and shaping the St. Lawrence that the Class of 2020 will know. Where and how do we start?

I think it’s a mistake to assume, even with the great advantage of once knowing St. Lawrence as a student and then keeping close to it as an alumnus for more than 30 years, that I will begin right where Dan Sullivan left off.  Rather, I will begin exactly where he began –  at the beginning. And the beginning must have the major objective of learning two things immediately:

• Given the economic conditions of the moment, and perhaps even a long while of uncertainty, University finances will get my first attention. We are fortunate to have, among the staff and trustees, people with expertise who will be my teachers in the design and oversight of budgets. While every institution I have known follows standard accounting practices, each has its own system and philosophy. Acquiring a fluency in St. Lawrence’s own budget language and tradition will be a high priority.

• The second part of my beginning is related to the initial work of budget translation: to learn and understand the current culture of planning at St. Lawrence. There has been a tremendous thrust in campus facilities in recent years, arguably a gigantic leap that is unprecedented in St. Lawrence’s history. And there is, of course, no standing still as a new phase of planning must get under way. Renewing and updating the University’s strategic plan is the larger goal, but not without putting first things first – the education of a new president on the subjects of the University’s finances in the context of a recession and the campus’s state of readiness for mapping the next journey.

I also recognize at the outset the wonderful opportunity that the completion of the Momentum campaign will give me. It’s the perfect way for Lynn and me to meet people with their own St. Lawrence stories and dreams. And these conversations will naturally flow back to campus with us in the midst of fresh plans being discussed and imagined.

St. Lawrence has struggled to increase the diversity of its faculty, staff and student body.  How will you help the University move forward in this important direction?

I was born the year before the landmark Brown decision of the U. S. Supreme Court, outlawing school segregation, and grew up a few blocks over the city line of Washington, D.C. Many of my childhood memories begin in the haunting shadows and tensions of school and neighborhood segregation. My elementary school, for instance, was not always integrated, but had recently become so by the time I began there. My parents chose a house on a block that included Irish-Catholic, Orthodox Jewish and African-American families. The concept of diversity, from the time it traveled under the banner of integration, has been ingrained and lifelong.

And yet, as our society continues to find increasingly better terms of understanding differentness, especially about race, there is obviously more work to be done. If this conversation does not occur while students are in their college years, when else is it likely or even possible?

St. Lawrence reflects, perhaps in some ways exceeds, equivalent measures of making possible a learning community that looks like America and the world. While St. Lawrence’s location is not close to the intersections of commerce and society that create the easier circumstances of diversity, it has, nevertheless, an advantage over many other institutions. The principles of its Universalist founders were highly progressive, even in our own day. If you know only one thing about Universalist theology, I suggest three words from the time of the American Revolution: “grace to all.” This would be more than enough to understand St. Lawrence’s deeply rooted resolve to develop the kind of community living on its campus today.

If diversity on American campuses is not yet perfectly natural, it is important that the challenge not be left to affectation or accident. Then it will not likely succeed at all toward the better purpose of our ideals. Therefore, it must be intentional and intense. By that I mean, a liberal education out of necessity today must be inter-cultural (not merely cross-cultural, which implies something else). The opportunity for diversity must be a constant force, like electrolytes in the bloodstream that are absorbed into the St. Lawrence fiber, bones and ethos.

Diversity must remain a strategic priority for St. Lawrence and, as I said during interviews with the search committee, it really is non-negotiable and is not “put-off-able.”  Budgets need to support these efforts because budgets are also value statements about what’s important to an organization. Demography and diversity are going to be the same thing strategically in shaping our destiny. Sufficient resources for programs, curricular possibilities and the recruitment of people will correlate to the best results of our best intentions. We know the why; it’s the what, the how, and the how much that we shall continue to face.

What does a liberal arts degree mean when we graduate? How can we justify the cost of a liberal arts education? How are students going to be able to afford a liberal arts education in the future, especially at SLU?

The best reward of a bachelor’s degree earned at a liberal arts college is, of course, intrinsic and personal. It’s the self-confidence in self-education that this particular kind of college career gives a person. All gaps in knowledge can be bridged when you enter the larger world with a liberal education. It opens doors and options; it never seals a fate. It means a history major can go to medical school or a chemistry major can try divinity school or an English major heads to Wall Street. A friend of ours with an outstanding law practice attended a large public university; his wife studied at a liberal arts college. He once remarked in passing, but with regret, that he was only schooled, while his wife was truly educated. A liberal arts degree suggests what Saul Bellow, in his novel The Adventures of Augie March, described as “the universal eligibility to be noble.” No other university degree can be as consistent in these benefits as the one defined by a liberal education.

The cost of a liberal arts education should perhaps be viewed as a capital expense more than an operational one. It is the best investment with the greatest return possible in both moral and material terms. If one is looking for the justification of the investment, there are two tests. First, the economic one will demonstrate very profitable comparisons by using data and labor statistics. But second, and more important, ask someone who has carried into a career the liberal arts degree for 10 or 25 years. The lack of doubt among graduates is the best proof of all. Over the years I have observed that the shift from thinking about cost to understanding worth is usually quite rapid.

The question of affordability has always been around and will never go away. It worried me as a student, too, a feeling I have never forgotten. Nor have I forgotten the help I received, which has made me forever grateful. St. Lawrence’s commitment to financial aid partnerships with students and their families has a long history. Each year the commitment gets stronger and stronger because so many Laurentian donors are supporting annual and endowed scholarships. I anticipate this tradition growing as my generation enters a period when philanthropic ambitions can finally be realized.

I also see promising public policy developments in the student loan arena that will make a difference. As an optimist, I imagine one of the long-term positive consequences of the present recession now upon us, because it’s a significant topic of national conversation, will actually be added measures of financial support for American students. Cheaper alternatives, such as public universities, are becoming more expensive and overcrowded. Private institutions are often more adept at being flexible and efficient. Colleges and universities will probably spend less on major capital projects in the near future and realign priorities with more for financial aid. It is an endeavor none of us takes lightly, particularly parents, but there is absolutely no retreating at St. Lawrence from maximizing financial resources for student aid.

What do you think are the challenges of residential student life? How do you foresee addressing student concerns about campus life to create a positive educational, social, extracurricular and experiential atmosphere?

We talk constantly about the nature of a liberal education and we have an extremely strong case to make for ourselves. The vigor of the St. Lawrence academic life is today self-evident in new majors, collaborative research and wider international opportunities.

We need also to talk about living the liberal arts life at St. Lawrence. And that is something slightly more than the wonderful transactions occurring in classrooms, laboratories and studios.  Campus life and the St. Lawrence social environment add immense value to the liberal arts experience, apart from the already excellent liberal arts education available in all the usual places, such as ODY Library, Richardson Hall or the Johnson Hall of Science  I’m noting a distinction by emphasizing “experience” because the education of the whole person at St. Lawrence will most definitely include the terms of social life. I am all for it, of course, and grew up myself in extraordinary ways from my first year in Sykes (the room in the clock tower facing the interior courtyard) to the beautiful spring day when my class gathered for commencement in Appleton Arena. We worked hard, and I remember that faculty in the ’70s sometimes worried that we played hard, sometimes too hard. Memory (especially in the tall tales at Reunion) seems to exaggerate our capacity for social vigor.  We really did work hard.

I know this for myself because I have the personal history to know it: there has never been “more to do” on the St. Lawrence campus than there is today. And yet, I also know the occasional, sometimes common student concern that there is not enough to do. Somehow we have to figure out how these two perceptions can become congruent and not an irritant to the holders of either opinion.

First, campus life at St. Lawrence needs to be safe in the clearest terms of individual personal welfare. That is an unequivocal principle. Meanwhile, St. Lawrence, because of the formative years it frames for its campus residents, will be a kind of experimental station for social life and community participation. You get to try out freedom, individuality, friendships and organizational commitments. The restrictions are few and comply with legal diligence, but the lines of responsibility, nevertheless, form the boundaries of fun. And there is ample room for the great times and hearty laughter inside the fair territory. I am a strong advocate of students making their own fun, creating their own social arrangements and terms of belonging, and taking responsibility for ensuring that respect and decency prevail in their residential community. Seeking the advice (and consent) of the administration is implicit in this conceptual framework. And let me add, the talent and wisdom in the student life department is extraordinary and runs much deeper in staffing than it ever has before.

My sense is that the channels are in place for student concerns to be heard and addressed. I would add that my availability for conversation with individuals, small groups or town hall forums is a set piece in how I work on a campus.

Please describe your philosophy for intercollegiate athletics in a liberal arts setting and in particular how that philosophy connects to the mission at St. Lawrence.

My own college varsity career left no trace. It could be measured in weeks or days, not even one season. But I knew and admired (and still do) many of the St. Lawrence coaches from my time as a student. It meant a great deal to me that Bernie MacKinnon ’57 came to hear me speak when I came back to campus some years after graduating. Tom Fay and Bob Goodwin indulged my fantasies as a “walk-on” and were never discouraging. It may actually have disappointed them (or brought them relief) that I happily retired to the intramural program, then run by John Clark ’69. Put another way, I remember our coaches as gifted teachers.

My fundamental assumption and test about the experience of athletic competition in a liberal arts college is that it adds great meaning to a student’s total development as a person. For many of our alumni, their most revered St. Lawrence mentor is named “Coach,” and that is as legitimate a tribute as any I can imagine.

Athletics fit into the liberal arts environment because the field, floor, court, course, rink, track, diamond, pool, ring and boathouse are also “classrooms” filled with the furnishings equivalent to labs with spectrometers, studios with easels or a room with a lectern. Students learn discipline, collaboration and the strategies of competition. Most important, they learn to deal with setbacks in the most tangible terms of performance or loss, which is an essential coping skill hard to duplicate anywhere else in the course catalog.

I am in accord with athletics’ qualities of balance between intellect and hand (or foot). Further, the St. Lawrence athletic tradition makes me proud of how much these programs have meant to the University’s excellent reputation.

What is your reaction to the University’s current and planned activities in the areas of campus sustainability, energy conservation/renewable energy, and local economic development and town-gown collaboration as pursued in the Canton Initiative?

I believe our alumni are deeply proud of St. Lawrence’s genuine commitment to a greener campus and sustainable world. I think it has been “walking the talk” for a long time, arguably ahead of its time in some ways, that “if it’s sustainable, it’s teachable.” I bear witness to St. Lawrence’s impressive record because two of the most-discussed books on campus in the early ’70s were the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth and Charles Reich’s The Greening of America. These older discourses were the forerunners of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

Bill and Lynn Fox with their daughter, Hallie, a 2009 graduate of Middlebury College

St. Lawrence has come a long way in its response to the worsening environmental conditions that the forces of the 20th century caused. But it still has a long way to go and it also has an opportunity, and really as if it were a microcosm of the nation, an obligation to demonstrate to its students how to be stewards of the earth.  All the systems of the St. Lawrence and Canton community accurately resemble the structures of large metropolitan areas, so that the success met on the scale of a campus must somehow be translated and carried into the world of much larger populations. It’s a premise that is implicit in what a liberally educated person in the 21st century must know and understand.

My parents were in the generation of the Great Depression, which clearly shaped their values and worries. They had a storehouse of vivid memories about rationing food, gasoline, tires, metal and paper during the Second World War. Definite lines of continuity remain between their formative experience and our own decade as young people. This message still speaks to the millennial generation on campus, in the form of that old admonition our mothers pronounced: “Use it up, Wear it out/Make it do, Do without.” Those terms today at St. Lawrence are being practiced by the familiar Three Rs: Renew, Recycle, Reuse.

If the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment did not exist, St. Lawrence would be motivated, nevertheless, to advance the goals of sustainability. It’s highly significant that the University is buying 15% of its electricity from renewable energy resources. Insofar as it is feasible, I foresee that giant step as the first of many to come.

I’m intrigued by a host of measures now being practiced at St. Lawrence. The Outing Club runs an “ice farm,” a commodity that, next to cheese, the North Country has in abundance. There is renewed emphasis on “buying local,” particularly farm produce. I would entertain the possibility of a student-faculty collaboration that would manage an organic garden or orchard to help feed the campus community. How about a course in the history of food that includes some time in the field to learn a few gardening skills? The ancient universities in Europe, one could argue (remember, I’m a historian), not only taught the classic quadrivium and trivium of the liberal arts, but also practiced sustainability.

These issues must be treated in concert with our wider community of Canton and St. Lawrence County. The partnership between the Hill and the Village must be a symbiotic one. It must be a balanced relationship where neither party dominates or holds back the other. Rather, the keys to the city must unlock the gates to the University and the students must develop affection for Canton that makes it their “other” hometown. Canton must not only “serve” students and even prosper by them; it must also be a classroom of engaged learning.

As liaisons for the University, what message would you like alumni as word-of-mouth ambassadors to share with other alumni about St. Lawrence?

Watch St. Lawrence closely. If I remember my smattering of Latin, there’s a wonderful piece of Roman wisdom that fits St. Lawrence aptly: ex parvis saepe magnarum rerum momenta pendent – great consequences come from small circumstances. The theme of St. Lawrence “momentum” is literally built into this old truth. It’s why St. Lawrence continues to surprise and delight people who are just getting acquainted with it.
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