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Archive for October, 2012

PORTRAIT OF A DEAN

Today’s wisdom: The Fleming Museum is not the Louvre. You are in no danger of being overwhelmed by lofty ceilings, mile-long galleries, and an acute case of “museum legs.” The intimate size of the Fleming results in some of the works keeping interesting company. Yesterday morning I was struck by one corner of the American collection, in particular, where an Andy Warhol screen print of a cow neighbors a painting that always draws my attention: the late professor Francis Colburn’s portrait of the late Mary Jean Simpson, UVM’s first dean of women.

Dean Simpson, 1954
by Francis Colburn, 1909-1984

Colburn painted the dean in his familiar style, a gawky  earnestness about it, Simpson pictured in a melded landscape with Ira Allen Chapel of her professional life over her right shoulder, and her personal Vermont roots in Craftsbury represented by rolling hills over her left. Between the scenes, Dean Simpson stares out at the viewer from behind eyeglasses of the day, fixing a timeless look that suggests you–you, standing there in the Fleming Museum–may have violated a student code of conduct. And it seems likely that code is stipulated in one of the stern volumes on the desk in front of her.

Explanatory text on the wall by the portrait includes a passage from a four-page letter that Dean Simpson sent to the parents of all incoming female students in 1945. She warned that one’s daughter “should not let her work pile up, nor sacrifice regular study hours to pleasant social demands, nor give more time than she can afford to ‘dates,’ sports, or other extra-curricular activities… It is expected that the women of the university shall at all times conduct themselves with dignity and good taste.”

Admirable standards and sound advice from another age, no doubt. But after a few minutes sensing what it might have been to be called into the Dean’s office for sacrificing too many hours to pleasant social demands, it’s a bit of a relief to turn to the gentle gaze of Warhol’s cow.

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“There he is. I see him,” the student sitting in the pew behind me in a very full Ira Allen Chapel says to his friend. He is Slavoj Zizek, arguably one of the few philosophers who could draw some 800 students to the chapel on a Tuesday afternoon and give many of them the sort of celebrity-spotting thrill that the guy sitting one row back is experiencing. So it goes when you’re an intellect who has been called “the most dangerous philosopher in the West.”

Zizek is a fairly regular visitor to UVM. This is his fourth appearance on campus, brought via a connection with Todd McGowan, professor of English/Film and Television Studies. In his introductory comments, Zizek joked that UVM is his favorite of all of the American universities because it is the only department where Lacanians are in power. (We’ll assume he means the English Department, maybe just Film and Television Studies, maybe just the occupant of Todd’s office.)

Slavoj Zizek drew a crowd of about 800 to Ira Allen Chapel on Oct. 16.

At this point, if you’re looking for a full discourse on Zizek’s talk yesterday, I’ll let you know that you’ve come to the wrong place. I’ll declare myself ill-equipped. But one of the great freedoms of a blog is that one is allowed, maybe even required, to wade in ill-equipped from time to time. So I’ll endeavor to give a flavor for Zizek’s hour-long talk, delivered while seated at a table on the chapel stage, as the famous thinker and author, a one-man mosh pit of nervous tics, continually swiped at his nose, patted down his gray hair and beard, tugged at his orange t-shirt printed with a blue bicycle.

Zizek’s subject was “Buddhism Naturalized.” While that topic served as a touchstone that he returned to repeatedly and a destination at the end of his comments, it did little to fence in his free-range mind or sense of humor. A sense of things to come came quickly as Zizek opened his talk by likening Buddhist prayer wheels to canned laughter on TV sit-coms. Off and running, Zizek soon leapt to Andres Breivik, the madman killer of Oslo, and issues of pro-zionism and anti-semitism; Annie Hall and the Marshall McLuhan scene; the Holocaust; the teen movie Project X; Kant; the sexual practices of obese Indian maharajas; tips on sex and health from a United Airlines in-flight magazine; the viral wildfire of the Korean Gangnam style music video and why we could consider it “quasi-sacred”; Kung Fu Panda; the free self; Zen; a haiku he composed with a friend — “Toilet bowl with stale water/I sit on it/Splash”; the etiology of Star Wars (“bullshit,” Zizek says); suffering; enlightenment; randomly falling in love vs. on-line dating services; the FBI’s siege of the Branch Dividian community in Waco, Texas; and back to Buddhism with final comments in which Zizek brought his talk to a close like a pilot who nearly touches the plane’s wheels to the tarmac only to lift-off and circle the airport another one, or two, or three, or four times.

“The dialogue is open,” he told his young audience, a number of whom he would meet  with in the evening for a question and answer session. “I just wanted to complicate things a little bit. I thank you for your patience.”

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A UNIVERSE

This is one of my favorite days in the editorial cycle of the magazine—the day I take a photocopied stack of proof sheets from the upcoming issue and give them one last good proofing. This task comes with a bit of trepidation, the worry that I’ll come upon some colossal error that I’ve missed up until now (granted, that’s far preferable to coming upon said colossal error in a printed magazine). But it also comes with a good deal of fulfillment, the sense of a journey nearing its destination. It’s satisfying to see all of this good work—writing and editing and design and photography and illustration—the work of many coming together in 64 pages, plus cover. 

So, there’s that. But it’s also reaffirming to see all that these pages reflect, the work and the lives of the broad community that is the University of Vermont. I recently wrote something about the university that made reference to that “universe” at the root of the word university. Yes, that does sound a little grand, but it’s grandness well grounded in truth. And it’s a truth that is reflected in this loose stack of papers on my living room floor. (That’s another thing I like about this proofing task; it’s well-suited to work at home on a Friday.)

This “universe” of people and endeavor and time reflected in the fall issue, due at press next Wednesday, ranges from Professor Paul Bierman studying the melting ice sheet in Greenland to 99-year-old alumnus Fraser Drew reflecting on the afternoon he spent with Ernest Hemingway in Havana to student Hillary Laggis honoring the memory of her late friend Avi Kurganoff. It’s the Class of 2016, 2,372 students strong walking down Main Street after convocation; and it’s our new president Tom Sullivan taking center stage at his installation ceremony. It’s composer David Feurzeig putting the tragedy and recovery of Tropical Storm Irene into music and it’s the nostalgia of alumni remembering their first off-campus apartment.

A universe. I could go on, but I won’t. There’s the matter of these pages on the floor.

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This afternoon, Ira Allen Chapel will be filled to capacity for the ceremonial installation of Tom Sullivan as the University of Vermont’s 26th president. This morning, as I walked to the office, I was thinking about UVM’s tenth president and his inauguration ceremony. Though I’ve worked at UVM a long time, I did not attend that one. Ba-boom.

It was 146 years ago that James Angell came to the university as its tenth president. While working on some short essays that will supplement a coffee table book of UVM photos, I’ve been dipping more deeply into UVM history over the past year or so. President Angell, to my thinking, was one of the finest presidents the university has ever had—and, certainly, if the arc of his post-UVM career is considered, one of the most distinguished individuals to serve in that office. After a very productive five years at UVM, Angell accepted the presidency at the University of Michigan, where he stayed in office for 38 years and became one of the leading lights of American higher education. In 1880, Angell also took on critical diplomatic work in building relationships between the United States and China.

James Angell, UVM president, 1866-1871

Certainly old James Angell deserves a better campus memorial than the odd, squat Angell Lecture Hall.

Maybe I’m a bit professionally biased since Angell was editor of the Providence Journal newspaper for six years before becoming UVM president. But consider his achievement. Taking office in 1866, Angell faced an enrollment of 30 students due to the Civil War, crumbling buildings, low faculty morale over the small point that they hadn’t been paid in some time. While Angell had the good fortune to be president when land grant status brought in additional money, he also dealt with the skepticism of alumni who believed that classical studies would be eroded and a parallel skepticism of farmers who simply believed that practical education would not happen.

Angell and his wife were both approachable, charismatic people. The new president taught several subjects and had a remarkable memory for names and faces. By 1870, enrollments had doubled, $80,000 had been raised, salaries were restored and raised, and more faculty were hired.

President Tom Sullivan has made it a priority to tour the state in his first months, logging a thousand miles and so far getting to twelve of Vermont’s fourteen counties. He’s also made it clear that the university’s land grant status is central to its character and mission.

President James Angell, on board at the outset of land grant universities, set to work selling the concept. He went throughout Vermont on tour “to visit all the state and country fairs and compete with the two-headed calves and other curiosities in attracting public attention.”

While this afternoon’s ceremony at Ira Allen Chapel will be replete with the pomp—gowns and medallions and maces—that universities so cherish, I would have loved to have seen James Angell’s inauguration and hear the flourish of those nineteenth century words from a former editorial page writer who didn’t hesitate to cut loose with the verbiage. Speaking to the land grant, agricultural mission of the university, Angell referred to Vermont, “where God in his Providence seems to have called so many of them by filling these thousand verdant hills with cattle and by fashioning with his plastic hand these fertile valleys in which today 10,000 scythes go singing merrily through the bending grass.”

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