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The Fogel Era Begins
"Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.”
Henry James

On a July afternoon in Montpelier, new University of Vermont President Daniel Mark Fogel invokes words of American poet Walt Whitman and numbers of the United States Census Bureau with equal comfort, authority, and precision.

Fielding questions from reporters at the Associated Press offices, Fogel shares personal history as a poet and his early-1970s stint teaching creative writing in Mexico. Not quite Jack Kerouac, but intriguing stuff, especially from a guy in a pinstriped suit. Noting that higher education leader and prolific poet aren’t exactly compatible pursuits, Fogel says he now lacks Whitman’s famous description of the mindset for writing verse, the opportunity to “loafe and invite my soul.” There are nods and knowing smiles around the table; after all, inside many journalists there lurks a poet.

Minutes and a quick walk along State Street later, Fogel’s audience is a small group of business and government leaders gathered in a conference room at the Vermont Bankers Association offices. The president’s point is his university’s economic impact on the state, and he makes it with census data that shows $1 million increased lifetime earnings on average for a college graduate.

The teacher in him is on display as Fogel makes the numbers real and relevant. He offers Rutland County, 1,550-UVM alumni strong, as an example. That factors out to $15.5 billion of increased earnings over those residents’ lifetimes. Or, to make it a bit easier to picture, that’s $38.7 million increased earnings each year in just one Vermont county. Speaking without notes, Fogel spins out the numbers like digits on a combination lock until he has made his case and the thing pulls open. Nods and knowing smiles around another table.

Fogel is scarcely a month into the job but well into a statewide tour that day in Montpelier. His round of visits already has given many in Vermont a sense for the man’s intellect, energy, and force of will. He tells the group at the Bankers Association that the tour is, in large part, a chance to listen, but he opens with comments that sound a bit like a stump speech. Surveying the work before him, Fogel says, “I’m not the kind of person who would have wanted to come and just run a well-oiled Newtonian machine and watch the gears turn soundlessly. We have work to do, but we’re building on a very solid foundation in an institution that is a very valuable asset to the state of Vermont.” As he often does, Fogel closes the statement with the punctuation of a quick smile and a steady gaze.

Another point made: If Dan Fogel thought being president of the University of Vermont was going to be easy, he would not be here. For this poet, professor, provost, and president — a man who has spent much of his life searching for the precise word or negotiating the labyrinthian prose of novelist Henry James — zest for a challenge that promises a worthy payoff is a habit of being.

Complex jobs demand complex people. A university president does well to bring the skills of a politician, a poet, and a numbers wonk and accompany them with some impressive teaching and scholarly credentials. It also wouldn’t hurt to have the characteristic Fogel noted would be useful in UVM’s next athletic director — “a little touch of snapping turtle.” The particular mix that is Dan Fogel seems to have been in the making for most of his fifty-four years.

Columbus. Ithaca. Baton Rouge. Burlington. Fogel has lived nearly all of his life in four college towns, his childhood, teen, and college years all spent within earshot of the hallowed chimes of Cornell University’s McGraw Tower. Family history with Cornell echoed in the air, as well. Fogel’s father, an English professor and department chair, and his future father-in-law, an economics professor and dean, had a combined Cornell tenure of eighty-five years.

Given a house where the bookshelves were thick with James Joyce and William Shakespeare, and a family where dad’s 1962-63 academic year sabbatical in London meant you got to discover the Beatles before your friends, Dan Fogel grew up in some fairly predictable ways. Drawn to child-friendly biographies of presidents and generals, Fogel also dabbled in the harder stuff. He recalls staying home sick from school and taking the Shakespeare out of the bookcase, intoning the lines with dramatic flourish, or tackling Joyce’s daunting Ulysses at age twelve after his father told him that many considered it the greatest novel in the English language.

Could there ever have been doubt such a boy would make tenure, perhaps by age fifteen? Yes, Fogel says, other paths beckoned.

For one, there was music. Fogel rubs the calluses on the fingertips of his left hand, started at age seven and toughened once again that morning with a session on the electric guitar. Critiquing his own vocals and strumming, he has said, “It ain’t high art, but it feels good.”

Old cowboy songs and the sort of authentic American folk catalogued by Alan Lomax’s mid-20th century recordings drew his first interest, but Leadbelly and the “Streets of Laredo” lost some of their pull on young Fogel that fateful day in England when he switched on the radio and heard “If there’s anything that you want/If there’s anything I can do/Just call on me and I’ll send it along/With love from me to you.”

That did it. “I had recurrent dreams of being the fifth Beatle,” Fogel says, placing himself in the company of roughly 90 percent of his generation. He sets himself apart from the crowd, though, with the Sixties credential of seeing the Fab Four’s Shea Stadium concert in person.

A bit less likely for a child of his era, Fogel remembers having a radio stuck to his ear rocking around the clock to the 1960 national political conventions. Fogel looks back and supposes that he “drove everyone crazy” with the singular passion of a relentlessly optimistic, blonde-crew-cutted-12-year-old on the campaign trail for his hero, John F. Kennedy. The political bug held early into his undergraduate years at Cornell, where Fogel initially studied government before following his “bent for the written word.”

Appropriately, right when Fogel’s passion for politics was strongest, he met a debate partner to be reckoned with, Rachel Kahn, another Cornell faculty kid seated across the table in seventh grade home room. Several years would pass before they became a couple in high school, and then they’d have a number of years on their own before reuniting and marrying when Fogel was in graduate school.

Rachel Kahn-Fogel describes that first meeting of formidable 13-year-old minds. “We just used to argue all the time, very verbal. Did not like each other, couldn’t stand each other, in fact,” she says, laughing. She adds that a healthy dialogue has always been the way in the Kahn-Fogel household. Family dinners with son Nicholas, a Stanford law student, and daughter Rosemary, a teacher and writer in Baton Rouge, were lively affairs.

While her husband’s life work has been rooted in the written word, Rachel Kahn-Fogel finds her expression in the visual world through painting. Her large watercolors in vivid hues bring to mind still lives with a pop art sensibility. One that hangs in Fogel’s office is shades of orange and purple and depicts a pair of binoculars, a safety pin, an hourglass. Although she describes herself as shyer than her gregarious husband, she still shares his infectious enthusiasm for the, well, schmoozing that is part of being president or president’s spouse. Looking ahead to getting involved beyond campus, Kahn-Fogel eschews the organizational board duty that often draws the attention of those in her position; she’s more drawn to front-line volunteer work. “I’m not big on meetings, “she says, “I’d rather be out in the community doing something with art and kids.”

Dan Fogel’s love for language is audible in his long sentences, often seasoned with a literary quote pulled forth from a memory that is a bit frightening for its depth and accuracy. And it’s visible in the new floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lining the north wall of the President’s Office in the Waterman Building. A good deal of Fogel’s life is on those shelves, and in the course of a ninety-minute conversation he steps over often to find a well-worn first edition, a scholarly journal, or a university planning report written with a clarity and flourish rare in such documents.

In a perfect world, Fogel would be able to take the second volume of the Norton Anthology of English Literature off the shelves a bit more often. Neither the provost he was at Louisiana State nor the president he is at UVM has time for sharing his passion for writing and literature with students in a classroom, a reality that Fogel accepts with some wistfulness. He notes that his favorite course to teach introduces students to Romantic poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, and Byron.

“My teaching is infused with my love of the material and my joy in it. If the students didn’t feel the soaring of the spirit that I felt in encountering the spirits of those poets…” Fogel says. As his words trail off, the look that follows finishes the sentence — “then I wasn’t doing my job.”

“I love to teach and truly feel like the guy in Frost’s ‘Road Not Taken,’” Fogel says. “I’m sorry that I can’t travel both roads and be one traveler.”

Fogel approached his scholarship with an intensity similar to his teaching. He has focused his critical writing on late 19th- and early 20th-century writers such as Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and, in particular, Henry James. Just three years into his career at LSU, Fogel made his presence felt in the field when he founded a new journal and scholarly society centered on the study of James. It was a bold move for an assistant professor, a career passage when most academics are absorbed with finding their rhythm as teachers and producing the publications that tenure demands. The combination of strategy, determination, persuasive power, and chutzpah that enabled Fogel to pull it off was an early sign that he would be well-suited to the demands of higher education management and leadership.

Walk up to the third floor of Bailey/Howe Library and you’ll find the Henry James collection at catalog number ps2123. You’ll also find, in the numerous volumes with the name “Leon Edel” on the binding, ample hard cover evidence of the hurdle Fogel faced in starting the Henry James Review. An eminent James scholar, Edel controlled access to the James family archive and was known to be a somewhat crusty character who had thwarted similar efforts.

Undaunted, Fogel set to work building on relationships with scholars Adeline Tintner and Jim Tuttleton, who knew Edel well. He listened carefully and stuck close to their advice on how best to work with Edel and receive his all-important blessing. Fogel’s homework paid off and testimony to the connection he built with Edel through the years is found in the nineteen hours of videotaped interviews the young professor recorded with the senior James scholar not long before his death.

Fogel walks over to his bookshelves and takes down a copy of the first edition of the Henry James Review, dated 1979. He says, “I tend to take action by sticking my neck out and saying I’m going to do something; then I’m driven to follow through by a deep sense of not wanting to be shamed if I don’t get it done.” Fogel pauses, then places his thought into something of an existential nutshell: “Commitment that isn’t lived out isn’t real commitment.”

Fogel would apply that ethic throughout his career at LSU, which began to turn from teaching to administration in the mid-1980s when he directed the university’s graduate studies program in English. In the 1990s, he went along the diverging administrative road in earnest with ascending steps of responsibility — dean of the graduate school, vice provost for academic affairs, and executive vice chancellor and provost, a post Fogel held for the past five years.

A number of his leadership achievements at LSU could serve as a roadmap for the tasks ahead at UVM. As LSU’s provost, he led an extensive strategic planning effort targeting priority programs and backing them with significant funding increases. Fogel was active in LSU’s drive to increase both public and private support, including a $22 million increase in the university’ restricted state operating budget last year, and a highly successful capital campaign. In addition, he led a wide-ranging effort to enhance the intellectual climate for undergraduate education at Louisiana State.

Answering a question about the particular challenges of leadership at a university compared to a corporate setting, Fogel says, “I’ve never been used to a command and control structure. Promoting a clear understanding of issues and building consensus on how we ought to do things from here on in is second nature to me.” And he shares the story of the day he called his father with the news of his 1992 promotion to Graduate School dean at LSU. Ephim Fogel couched congratulations to his son in a humbling reminder — “Don’t you ever forget that professor is the highest rank in the university.”

Professor of Art Michael Crespo, a longtime friend and colleague from Louisiana State, saw Fogel’s capacity for leadership firsthand. “I’m convinced that Dan is such a wise and surefooted leader because for all of his life he has witnessed the workings of the individual and the broader social order through the unrelenting scrutiny of the poet,” Crespo says. “More so, he had the ability to process his ‘sightings,’ his poetry into the most humane and efficient bureaucracy he could imagine. He touched so many with such intimate concern and friendship. And we responded by engaging more genuinely and passionately in the conduct of our university. LSU has not been in a better spirit of working community, at least not in the thirty-one years I’ve been on campus. It’s Dan’s legacy.”

In most of his endeavors — teacher, scholar, or administrator — a guiding light of Fogel’s career has been a simple sentence from the master himself. Henry James was addressing fellow writers when he wrote, “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost,” but Fogel suggests that many, whether first-year students or university presidents, would do well to heed that advice.

There are times when and places where it appears that being a university president might not be too hard and could even be a little fun — sitting on the podium at graduation or in the bleachers at a conference championship basketball game, for instance. Meeting with residents in a Burlington neighborhood thickly populated with college students generally wouldn’t fit the scenario.

It’s Dan Fogel’s first week on the job, a hot day in early July, as he stands in Pomeroy Park, at the corner of North and Booth streets. Fogel’s on a day-long tour with Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle; stops have included happy convergences of town and gown such as the Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Laboratory and the adjacent Champlain Basin Science Center, where academic research meets public outreach and education. And now the tour has arrived at this spot that is not so happy. The neighborhood, given its location roughly equidistant from the UVM Green and downtown bars, rates a sort of epicenter status in Burlington’s battle to prove that college town and peaceful city are not mutually exclusive terms.

Many of those gathered in Pomeroy participate in the Neighborhood Action Project, an initiative the university has been involved with that has brought improvements. Yet, there’s a sense that more could be done. Sandy Wynne, a Willard Street resident and UVM alumna, tells Fogel, “We need a can-do attitude from the university and that hasn’t been the history.”

“We’ve got a can-do attitude now,” the president pledges, and urges Wynne to give his administration time, given that he is just some seventy-two hours into the job. As he walks down Isham Street, he also promises to return to the neighborhood “in the wee and perilous hours” for a firsthand glimpse of the challenges neighbors face. (Fogel made good on the promise from midnight to 2 a.m. on September 7 when he joined a Neighborhood Action Project walk.)

In August, Fogel and Clavelle made another public appearance together, this one at Burlington’s City Hall, to affirm past progress on off-campus student behavior and related city quality of life issues, and unveil plans to further that work. Nine new initiatives for the fall 2002 semester include stepped up roles by UVM Police Services in typically noisy areas, late night university-run off-campus shuttle buses, and more aggressive university oversight of off-campus student behavior.

On-campus as well, early signs indicate the Fogel administration will move forward swiftly. In August, at Fogel’s first board meeting as president, trustees urged moving forward with a plan to establish a university-wide honors college beginning with the next academic year. It is the sort of enhancement that the new president sees as essential in stepping up the intellectual climate on campus for undergraduates. Measured against the sometimes glacial pace of change in higher education, the honors college is being pursued by administration and faculty with notable speed.

Delivering his convocation address opening the academic year in September, Fogel speaks forcefully, in a booming voice that on first meeting reminds many of former UVM president Lattie Coor. “I am not a patient man,” Fogel tells the faculty, staff, and students in Ira Allen Chapel, “and I am intent on unleashing the power of our marvelous faculty and dedicated staff so that together they can ensure that we advance this great university with a generous and bold sense of what is possible.”

Fogel shares an equally generous and bold sense of what currently is at UVM. He frequently cites evidence — student application rates, admissions selectivity, significant recent increases in external research grants and awards — that UVM is better than it has ever been. Yet, he makes it clear that higher aspiration is essential. The nation’s top student-centered research universities — places like Tufts, Brown, Washington University, and Princeton — provide models for that aspiration. Fogel adds that UVM can go them one better by bringing its “public character and long tradition of civic engagement” to the table.

Fogel may not be interested in playing caretaker for that “well-oiled Newtonian machine,” but it’s also clear he wouldn’t be interested in leading a university that he didn’t think had the potential to step up among the nation’s elite. UVM’s new president feels fortunate to be here as he embarks on the next and what he hopes will be the last step of his career in higher education.

One afternoon shortly after his move to Burlington, Fogel walks past the Ira Allen statue on the Green and toward the top of College Street. He stops in his tracks and says, “Look at that!” gesturing at Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks beyond. It’s a newcomer’s exclamation, made by most when they first set foot on this campus. But as Dan Fogel says it, one has the sense he will be saying it with the same enthusiasm for years to come.

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