Big Daddy Fogel: A Look at UVM’s Former President

A slightly shorter version of this post was published in The Water Tower.

Weeks before I first arrived at the University of Vermont, during the summer of 2011, I read it on national news: Daniel Mark Fogel, UVM president since 2002, had resigned after a series of romantic letters and emails between his wife and his vice president hit the press. The publicity surrounding this pseudo-scandal was a heinous invasion of privacy for Fogel, who was forced to admit that his wife had suffered from psychiatric problems her whole life.

But Fogel deflected much of the sympathy he was due by accepting a $400,000 severance package, which Vermont governor Peter Shumlin described as “exorbitant.” And so I arrived at a school under the leadership of lackluster interim president John Bramley, knowing little about his predecessor outside the countless “Fogel’s package” jokes.

But who was this man? I loved UVM right off the bat, but this was a post-Fogel UVM. Did he deserve more credit than we gave him?

Here, I will try to answer these questions, for you and for myself. Dan Fogel is many things, I’ve discovered: poet, professor, scholar, editor, publisher, administrator, father, husband. But I still don’t think I really know what kind of human being Dan Fogel is. What follows is the most honest portrait I can give of a man who has never been the man he used to be.

On January 31st, 2003, six months into his presidency, Dan Fogel wrote a letter to his Board of Trustees outlining his ten-year vision for the university. After describing in detail what he thought UVM could look like by 2013—University Heights, Davis Center, and all—he insists that his plan’s “plausibility rests on our recognizing the strategic moment, the tipping point at which we now stand, and acting boldly to do what must be done if we are not to fall back but move upward.” The Board was so impressed by the letter that they persuaded Fogel to release it to the entire university.

Fogel had just left Louisiana State University, where over 26 years he had climbed the ranks from professor to provost. “I never sought out administrative work,” he told me when I interviewed him in his large Old Mill office last week. In 1983, there was a crisis in the LSU English department—the dean fired the English graduate program director during a staff meeting—so Fogel was invited to fill the position. It was all uphill from there, as he navigated his way from post to post as if fueled by pent-up ambition: from Graduate Director to Graduate Council Member to Associate Dean to Dean to Vice Provost to Provost.

Nothing stood in his way except for the original dean who, when Fogel first applied for her position, rejected him for being “a Yankee Jew,” in Fogel’s words. (Offensive but not inaccurate—he grew up in Ithica, NY and earned his English B.A., English and American Literature Ph.D., and poetry M.F.A. all from Cornell University.) So although he’d never planned on joining the administrative, he proved himself a natural, and he was thrilled to feel the “broad overview” and “Renaissance sense” that he’d always dreamed of.

It was yet another crisis that brought him back up north. “Back then, some people thought of the university as three separate universities,” he told me. “In fact, people weren’t even sure whether the University of Vermont would continue to exist.” That’s why they hired Fogel: a big man with a big name from a big school who would help make UVM bigger.

Kerry Martin UVM The Water Tower Dan Fogel - Photo by Ben Sarle
March 23, 2011: Fogel in his office after announcing that he will be stepping down from his presidency in 15 months. (Source, also of this post’s featured image: The Burlington Free Press & Ben Sarle, benslens.com)

And he certainly did. Under Fogel, the undergraduate student body grew from 7,000 to over 10,000. He expanded the full-time faculty by eight percent, and increased all faculty salaries by five percent every year. The number of applicants jumped from under 10,000 to over 20,000. ALANA students doubled, from five to ten percent. The average student SAT scores increased substantially. He founded the Honors College, bought Trinity Campus, and built some of the greenest buildings on any college campus in the country: University Heights, Jeffords, Aiken, and the Davis Center.

But other things got bigger too. Since 2002, the total annual cost for Vermonters has risen from $14,761 to $25,348; for out-of-staters, it’s gone from $26,821 to a cool $45,676. He greatly expanded the administration, doubling the number of vice presidents to 26, and increased their pay. And while all this happened, he watched enrollment in—and funding for—the liberal arts plummet.

For this, he garnered critique from professors. Tension between faculty and administration is a long-standing tradition in universities, but their contempt for Fogel was uncharacteristically acute; many saw him as a top-down ruler, imagining a crisis that didn’t exist until he invented it, imposing his own ideas on the school, and not accepting any advice from tenured staff that knew UVM a lot better than he did. This view was especially strong among liberal arts professors, who felt like Fogel had turned his back on his own discipline.

“I regret it very much,” Fogel told me when I asked how he felt about slipping English enrollment. “I feel passionately about the arts and humanities, as well as the softer social sciences.” But this passion was entirely absent from his ten-year vision, which stressed heavy investment in business and environmental and biomedical sciences.

I’m not saying that this was an inherently bad choice for Fogel; this refocus has earned UVM a growing reputation as a cutting-edge research institution (as well as a larger endowment). But it undeniably marks a change in Dan Fogel. Fogel was a life-long lover of the arts. “I want students to feel that what they’re reading really matters,” he told me. “Literature allows us to address the most important questions in life, questions that can’t be addressed by science.” But he allowed his presidential post to make him rethink or downplay the importance of the arts, either for the university’s reputation or his own.

Fogel told me that one of his pet peeves is this common argument that people should learn to write in order to succeed in business. He may have lived by this ideal at some point, but as soon as he realized how far his skills of language and persuasion could take him, he couldn’t resist, and he ceased to practice what he preached. As a respected scholar, professor, and founder of The Henry James Review, Fogel had reached a point of rhetorical mastery where he had a choice between remaining genuine and true to his beliefs, or submitting to institutional order, to pragmatic, economic utilitarianism, and rising to the top of his field. He went with the latter.

But now, after nearly three decades of administrative work, Fogel is back in the classroom, teaching courses on Henry James and Romantic poetry. He’s very happy to have returned to the humble world of professorship after so much pomp and circumstance, and I imagine he feels like he’s come full circle. But I sat in on his two classes, and I can say this much.

First, I don’t know what kind of teacher he was like before he rose in the ranks, but he doesn’t seem to have shed his presidential tone for his pupils. I asked him whether he had brought any presidential perspective back to his professorship, and he laughed, “Probably, my poor kids. I sometimes berate them about their writing, and they’ve heard some of my presidential anecdotes.” But it goes past that: as a teacher, he is still comfortable being the biggest, smartest, most important voice in the room. He makes many extremely astute and informed observations about the texts, without a doubt, but he is utterly impotent at sparking discussions. Perhaps the blame for that lies on his students, many of whom seemed disengaged; but perhaps it is Fogel’s own choosiness, his esoteric eloquence and interpretive authority, that scared his students into hiding behind their laptop screens.

And second, whatever way you look at it, Fogel has not come full circle. Professor or not, he’s not the man he used to be. He used to be a guitar-playing hippy poet with a big red beard; now he’s a well-kept, well-dressed scholar who exudes professionalism. He used to be a war protester and a regular at rallies in Washington; as president, he used the police to break up numerous student rallies, protests, and campouts. And like any hippy poet, he probably cared little for money, driving him to volunteer for the Poets in the Schools program and teach at an English school in Mexico before going to grad school. But when I asked him whether his status as the English department’s by far highest-paid professor weighs on him, especially as the department faces a fiscal crisis, he gave me a remorseless, “No, it doesn’t.”

Now I must make this clear: Dan Fogel is an eminently kind, thoughtful, innovative, intelligent, hardworking, and happy man. Few people can resist respecting his uncountable accomplishments. He has every reason to be proud of himself. But that pride has unpredictable and potentially irreversible human consequences. Success can be isolating, even lonely, but it’s impossible to foresee this until you’re already on the top and you’ve got no one to impress except for yourself.

So thank you, Dan Fogel, for taking the time to talk to me. Thank you for everything you’ve done for UVM. If this portrait has been inaccurate or presumptuous or unfair, I apologize; I know your intentions have always been positive and pure, and for that, you earn a lot of respect from me. And readers, don’t trust everything I’ve said here. Because even after all this, I don’t think I know the real Dan Fogel. But I sure hope Dan Fogel does.

Kerry Martin UVM The Water Tower Dan Fogel
Fogel and his wife, Rachel Kahn-Fogel, sporting some snappy attire. (Source: 7DVT.com)
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