A Candid Conversation With President Fogel

Daniel Mark Fogel is entering his third academic year as President of the University of Vermont. To date Fogel has been vocal with his goals for the university. Last year he released his vision of UVM in 2013 where UVM would ideally be in the top rank of academic institutions in the nation. His capital campaign, known as the Campaign for the University of Vermont, may be the greatest action he has taken to en route to his highly set goals. The goal of the campaign is to raise $250 million; as of July 2004 the campaign has raised $160 million, 64 percent of the goal.

I recently had the chance to sit down and talk with Dan Fogel. In our discussion we did talk about what he has accomplished in his first two years, what he plans to accomplish this year, and the issue of diversity and financial aid at UVM, but we also talked about politics, scholarship, and literary influence.

When asked to reflect on the highlights of his first two years as president of the University of Vermont the first thing he said was, “The most important thing that we have accomplished in my first two years is the setting of a clear, bold and appropriate new direction for the university.”

Other achievements that top his list are the purchasing of Trinity College which will house UVMs education and social services; the university and the faculty union’s (United Academics) agreement on their long arbitrated first contract, after a 2002 study UVM faculty were found to be the second lowest paid in the nation; and the commencement of the Honors College this Fall which Fogel hope will add an “intellectual spark and academic enthusiasm to the campus community.”

The University of Vermont is Vermont’s only research university, and is considered a public institution, yet with a population of only 500,000 the state does not have the tax base to give UVM the appropriation the similar ranking institution receive from the state. When asked what UVM’s role in the state of Vermont will be over the next decade Fogel said, “The vision for UVM includes and has to include a strong commitment to the state of Vermont and to its core values around agendas like environmental preservation, equality and social justice, and to its cultural, intellectual, social and economic wellbeing. Even if we were a private university this would be true.”

Tuition is pegged to increase 4 percent each year for the next 10 years. Tuition’s rate of increase is expected to be faster than the rate of increase in family income over the next few years. I asked Fogel if the increasing financial hardships for families to put their children though this university, as well as the deep debt many students fine themselves in at the time of their graduation was a concern of his. “It is one of my top concerns. Financial Aid for students is the number one priority in our campaign. Scholarship and financial aid at the university has increased drastically in this past year, from around $41 million and 2003 to around $50 million this year in 2004, and by 2013 we plan to offer $93 in financial aid.”

Fogel made an appearance on NewsHour on PBS along with three other presidents of public universities to discuss the role and implications of Grutter v. Bollinger where the Supreme Court ruled in favor of race being used in university admission decisions. There are only a few public universities in the US that have selective admission where the Supreme Court ruling has direct affect; UVM has open admission so it is not affected greatly by the recent Supreme Court decision on.

The state of Vermont is the second least diverse state in the union, with Maine being the first, and for the most part the University of Vermont has reflected just that. When asked why a diverse campus community is important to him he responded, “A university is a true marketplace of ideas, competing viewpoints and competing perspectives that are informed by different kinds of life experiences richly form the fabric of intellectual life. The chances for very rich highly differentiated intellectual exchange is greatly reduced when a community is very homogeneous and is greatly enhanced when a community is greatly heterogeneous.”

The University of Vermont still has a long way to go to create a truly diverse campus. To date the specific demographics of this years student body had yet to be released, but enrollment in the university’s ALANA program is roughly 10 percent this, which is an all time high for the program.

When our conversation moved toward politics Fogel had much to say but little on the specifics of his political views saying, “Along with the privileges of being a university president come the obligation not to spend any of the universities political or social capital on my own political interests.” When asked of student political action on campus Fogel seemed to dismiss any action other than the action of voting which is not surprising as a university president he must take the middle ground, and moderates have always been the most reluctant to make their voices heard.

But, what Fogel did have to say on the voting process for this year’s election was did show truth to his self-proclaimed designation as a “closet political buff.” He said, “I don’t care what your party is I would think hard about where I was going to register to vote. And if I had the opportunity to register to vote in a home state where I might make a difference particularly in national politics, It doesn’t matter if you’re with the President or Senator Kerry, your vote is not going to make much of a difference in Vermont because it’s a foregone conclusion. Your vote might make a big difference in Ohio, Pennsylvania, or Florida, if your from one of those states. I don’t care which side you are on, and I’m not going to tell you which side I am on, you can make a difference there, because those states like Florida last time, can come down to the wire and can effect the fate of the nation and of the world. It’s a silly electoral system but that is the way it works. Right now there are three other states that really matter.”

As our conversation transitioned from politics to scholarship, Fogel was able to be blunt and honest, not holding back as he did on some political issues. When asked how his scholarly and creative pursuits have affected his role as president of a university Fogel said, “I don’t think that it would come into play if you were one to simply operate the bureaucracy of the university and move the paper along and not create any positive change, but it comes into play when you develop a vision of what can be if it is not now, which is a creative act. When you try to enlist people into sharing that vision. I feel shaping a university is as much a creative act as shaping a poem or shaping a song.”

The writer that Fogel has a good deal of his scholarly pursuit in is Henry James, but he was quick to make it clear that his interests and pursuits went well beyond James. I asked him a simple question of why Henry James, his response was, “James characteristically looked at all sides of the issue, he called it going behind or looking all around a character or situation; and I think you have to do that in a job like mine. You have to understand everyone’s point of view, you can’t get angry at people, you can’t hold grudges, you have to understand if they disagree with you where they are coming from. And James is like that, in his late novel in particular there are debate among scholars at who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, they’re not wearing white and black hats.”

Toward the end of our discussion I found myself in the midst of a conversation that I had only introductory knowledge of. A true neophyte in every sense, I made a few comments that Fogel did not have to disagree with me too much verbally, for he only had to reach into his bookshelf to pull out a book he had written that went into great detail supporting the exact opposite of what I had previously stated. Before I knew it Fogel was digging in his bookshelf pulling out books on Modernism, Romanticism, and Henry James. He said, “I see James as a figure who looked back to Romanticism and looked forward to Modernism.”

I started the discussion as a candid interview with an administrator to discuss more than what one can read on the UVM website. By the end of the discussion I had shut off my recorder and was having a private lesson from a scholar.