UU minister to lead former Universalist college

UU minister to lead former Universalist college

The Rev. Dr. William L. Fox elected St. Lawrence University’s eighteenth president.
Jane Greer


The Rev. Dr. William L. Fox, a historian and Unitarian Universalist minister, was elected president of St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., in November. Fox’s election represents a distinctive kind of homecoming: He is a graduate of the school, class of 1975, and is returning to lead an institution that played an important role in the education of Universalist ministers from 1856 to 1965.

Fox is currently president of Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Mo., a 155-year-old liberal arts college with 850 students. He will take up his new responsibilities at St. Lawrence in July 2009.

St. Lawrence was originally founded as a college and Universalist theological school in 1856. One of the school’s best-known graduates was the Rev. Olympia Brown, the first woman to graduate from an American theological school and the first woman to become an ordained minister with full denominational standing.

Brown, a graduate of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 1860, had applied to several Unitarian and Universalist theological schools with little success. According to her autobiography, “Mr. Fisher, the president [of St. Lawrence], replied that I would be admitted and would have all the opportunities that the school afforded, but he did not think women were called to the ministry. ‘But,’ he said, ‘I leave that to you and the Great Head of the Church.’” Brown took this as a form of encouragement—despite the fact that Fisher believed he had successfully dissuaded her. She enrolled, graduating in 1863.

The theological school was closed in 1965 following the formation of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which united the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America in 1961.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Fox grew up with a foot in both the Unitarian and Universalist worlds. “Part of the family lore is that as I heard A. Powell Davies preach, I sat perfectly still and spellbound in the gallery of All Souls Church when I was a very small child,” he said. Fox’s family commuted to the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore for most of the 1950s, and he has vivid memories of Dr. Waldemar Argow, who preached without notes and with only a gold pocket watch on the desk of the pulpit. After that, the family joined the Universalist National Memorial Church in Washington, D.C.

“Being in Washington as an adolescent through the ’60s was both exciting and formidable,” he said. “I was an eye-witness to much national history, particularly in Washington, a time that was a defining day for African Americans and also for women. Growing up close to Walter Reed Army Hospital also gave me a window on what war does to young people, so that the Vietnam period was also vivid in terms of protest and painful individual recoveries.”

When it was time to choose a college in the early 1970s, Fox picked St. Lawrence, where he felt a Universalist pull. “My home church, Universalist National Memorial Church, has a bell tower named for the lifelong Universalist Owen D. Young. Owen Young was honored for his commitment to international justice and peace between the two World Wars. The St. Lawrence library is also named for Owen Young because of his numerous contributions as the university’s chairman of the board in the 1920s. That continuity for me as a young person was a cord linking my two worlds: my family’s church experience with my college days 500 miles from home.”

Two people were especially influential on Fox’s decision to enter the ministry, he said. The Rev. Seth R. Brooks, a 1922 St. Lawrence alumnus, was minister of the Universalist National Memorial Church from 1939 to 1979. (Fox was his immediate successor at the church.) The Rev. Dr. Rhys Williams (St. Lawrence class of 1951), minister of First Church in Boston, was Fox’s ministerial internship supervisor for two years. Both were dynamic preachers, organization-builders, and committed community activists. “They were a generation apart,” Fox said, “but they were both touched by the same calling to be wonderful mentors and teachers.”

Ordained by the Universalist National Memorial Church in 1978, Fox was called to be the congregation’s minister in 1979. “When I went there I was young, untested, and had very little life experience to offer a congregation of wise elders,” he said. “And I was succeeding somebody [Brooks] who was the beloved minister of that church for 40 years and who had a very large reputation in the city of Washington, in the religious life of the city and among clergy. I owe that congregation much more than it could know in terms of my professional development; it gave me a second theological education and a lasting reference point like true North on life’s compass.”

Fox served the church from 1979 to 1998, with a four-year interlude in Claremont, Calif., where he served a Congregational church and joined the part-time faculty of the Claremont Theological School from 1988 to 1992. While engaged in full-time church responsibilities, Fox earned a Ph.D. in American history and religion from George Washington University.

Then followed a succession of academic administrative jobs at Goucher College in Baltimore. Fox served as special assistant to the Goucher president, a position of leadership that included serving in various interim roles at the college, including vice-president for enrollment management and associate dean for graduate and professional programs. He also taught in the history departments at Howard University School of Divinity, Montgomery College in Maryland, and Goucher.

In 2003 he was recruited to be president of Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Mo.

Was it hard to leave the ministry for academia? “In reality, I never left the ministry,” Fox said. “I’ve always viewed myself as a minister whose style is didactic, someone whose calling is expressed in the terms of a teacher. What I’m doing now as a college president is teaching. Not in a classroom, but on the campus. I’m in an enterprise here that is very much involved with the life of the mind and a lot of my ideas about that are centered on the significance of a liberal education.”

In the midst of moving to Missouri, Fox faced a challenge testing all of his skills, including the pastoral: Only a few days before his arrival, the Culver-Stockton campus was devastated by a tornado. On May 10, 2003, just hours after the conclusion of commencement exercises in the college’s field house, a tornado blew through the campus, completely destroying the field house, damaging numerous other buildings, and uprooting 300 trees.

“Some would say the challenge when I came here was restoring a campus nearly destroyed by a tornado,” Fox said. “But I would say that the greater challenge in those beginning years was convincing the community it was time to dream again and that it was time to act on that larger hope. That’s my Universalist optimism, and that allowed us to get many great things accomplished in this community.”

Under Fox’s administration, the campus was rebuilt, the college endowment was increased, the budget was balanced, and a ten-year strategic plan, which included the launch of a new curriculum in the fall of 2008, was put into place.

When he assumes the presidency at St. Lawrence in July 2009, Fox will have a larger institution to oversee. St. Lawrence has 2,200 students and a 1,000-acre campus. He will also be navigating an increasingly difficult course in the world of higher education and the economy. St. Lawrence, Fox says, is a leader among national liberal arts colleges and has a pioneering reputation in environmental science, Canadian studies, and international education. But like other small liberal arts colleges it is facing competition from larger and more specialized universities.

Fox defends the importance of liberal education: “What the liberal arts colleges do that the others don’t is help the whole person to think critically, both broadly and deeply, to speak clearly, and to learn how to engage the big questions.”

“One of the biggest issues of life that we have today,” he continued, “is how people are going to know the ‘other’ in terms of human diversity. The ‘Other’ with a capital ‘O’ is also a theological question that has relevance.” He added: “In a world of conflict you can’t do statecraft without the soulcraft.”

With an economy in recession, Fox will be competing for increasingly limited resources. “I think all of us in higher education will inevitably face relentless forces against finite resources,” he said. “Yet, we have no choice as a society. We have a generation to get ready and we have to find ways to do that in terms that will serve them and their generation in the best way possible.”

He remains undaunted by universities with larger endowments. “I think that institutions that are much more modest in their assets are actually doing some of the most creative things in education, programs that are progressive and exciting,” he said. “So much of the best action and the best teaching and the best engaged learning is at places that have the great strength of liberal traditions, but they’re not making the headlines with their endowment returns.”

Fox finds great congruence between Unitarian Universalism and his academic work. “The UU way is to encourage personal curiosity and not be afraid of where that might lead,” he said. “That also fits the academic ethos, whether it’s the scientific method or what people in the humanities do to explore some of the great questions.”

Fox listed three touchstones of his Unitarian Universalist faith that he has drawn upon throughout his life. “First of all, I’ve always felt that human beings always have a chance,” he said. “That’s just good Universalist philosophy.”

Fox said his second article of faith was drawn from George H. Williams, one of his professors at Harvard Divinity School (another St. Lawrence alumnus, class of 1936). “George used to say to us, ‘Choose well your enemy, because in the end you will be just like him,’” Fox said. “This changes your whole outlook about another person as well as yourself. I’ve found this construct to be useful to me in all my relationships on a campus and in a community.”

The last point, Fox said, was based on a passage from the Gospel of John. “Unitarian preachers, particularly of an earlier generation, used to love that text: ‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.’ That’s a very important ideal, but I really think that freedom also needs the accompaniment of justice and beauty.”

“In some ways truth would be too small if it’s just about freedom,” Fox said. “So it needs the dual lenses of the good and the beautiful. That’s why the cause of liberal education that I’m serving still matters in a world looking for balance.”

St. Lawrence was one of five schools founded by the Universalists in the nineteenth century. The others were Tufts University, in Medford, Mass.; Lombard University in Galesburg, Ill.; Buchtel College in Akron, Ohio; and Smithson College in Logansport, Ind.

Lombard University, chartered as a college in 1857, was later absorbed by Meadville Theological School in Chicago, which exists today as Meadville Lombard Theological School, a UU seminary. Buchtel College, chartered in 1870, became part of the University of Akron, and Smithson College, which opened in 1872, folded for lack of funds after seven years. Tufts and St. Lawrence are the only two schools with Universalist roots that have survived intact, although both are officially non-sectarian now.

“In terms of official [Universalist] linkages, they’re only historic and symbolic, but they’re valued at St. Lawrence,” Fox said.

These linkages were honored in 2006 when St. Lawrence celebrated its 150th anniversary. The celebration included speakers, publications, and exhibits about St. Lawrence’s Universalist past. As part of that celebration, several graduates of the theological school, which closed in 1965, raised money to bring high-quality copies of the portraits of three of St. Lawrence’s early Universalist leaders to the UUA headquarters in Boston.

Portraits of Ebenezer Fisher, the first president of the theological school and the university (1865–1879), Isaac Morgan Atwood, president of the theological school (1879–1899), and John Murray Atwood, dean of the theological school (1914–1951), were presented to the UUA at a ceremony on October 2, 2007. They now hang in the UUA’s administrative suite.

“There is a certain poignancy in this gathering,” said the Rev. Dr. Richard Gilbert (class of 1961) at the portrait dedication ceremony. “Many of us are part of a faithful but dwindling remnant of alumni.” But the theological school will live on in many ways, Gilbert continued—including in the influence that the school had on its graduates and the influence these graduates later had on Unitarian Universalism.

“The theological school, then, is a community of memory and hope,” Gilbert said. “Here we tried to learn to talk the talk and walk the walk.”

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