A Moment in History
By Michael J. Graham, S.J.
The Xavier University Community has been engaged for the last many months in one of the most momentous projects any university ever undertakes: the search for a new provost and chief academic officer. More than any other single position, this university officer is charged with overseeing the whole of the student learning enterprise. A search committee very ably focused the attention of the campus on the search, solicited and reviewed applications, and helped shepherd the process along to its recent successful completion. I am happy to report that Scott Chadwick, currently academic vice president at Canisius University (our sister Jesuit school in Buffalo) assumes his new duties at Xavier University on July 1.
But that leads to a problem, because to welcome Chadwick in as our new provost, is to say goodbye to Roger Fortin, our current provost. And that will be a hard, hard thing to do.
Roger was a pillar of the history department when first I came to Xavier in January 1984. A distinguished faculty member, he was also no stranger to University administration. But Roger was on sabbatical when I resumed teaching here in 1989, and so, for the first and only time in my entire academic career, I taught a seminar on the American Revolution, a specialty of Roger’s. I happily yielded the course back to him when he returned because, truth be told, he was much better at it than I was. Roger has the knack that any truly good history professor has of conveying to his students the ins and outs of historical episodes as if he himself had been concealed behind a curtain while the events unfolded around him. A very popular teacher, Roger was known for pacing the room back and forth in front of his students and peppering them with questions.
Roger and I kept in touch when I left full-time teaching in 1994 to begin working in the development office. I remember a particularly enjoyable lunch at a café in Madisonville where I pitched to him the idea of writing a new University history in time for our 175th anniversary in 2006. The project consumed him for a number of years (in part because of a new position that he came to in 2001; see below). But I can say for certain that we are all the richer for having this able overview of the sometimes precarious, usually encouraging and always interesting history of XU. And I know for a fact that Roger has benefited from the project in ways that he perhaps never foresaw when he undertook it. If I had a nickel for every time that Roger has settled back in his chair at one meeting or another and said, “I think a bit of historical perspective here would be helpful,” our endowment would be flush indeed.
That new job Roger came to not too many months after I began my own presidency in January 2001 was, of course, his own post as our provost—actually, first as the interim academic vice president while we searched for a permanent one, and then in that position on a permanent basis following the work of a earlier search committee. It was several years later that Roger became the provost when we moved a variety of other offices pertinent to student learning under his supervision.
Recently, I had the opportunity to review a set of strategic accomplishments that have marked the last 10 years of our collective history here at Xavier, and couldn’t help but notice the many projects in which Roger had a hand. He has been a tireless advocate of faculty life and work here at the University: encouraging the creation of an academic vision statement by the faculty, working with the faculty to enhance mechanisms of shared governance in multiple ways, championing a Center for Teaching Excellence that has now come to fruition in the Conaton Learning Commons, and filling better than two dozen new tenure-track faculty lines over several years.
He has championed as well a variety of academic initiatives, including several which have leveraged the communities around us for the educational benefit of our students. He was an early proponent of the new honors program which eventually became the Philosophy, Politics and the Public Program (PPP), which has turned out remarkable students for better than five years now. And he sought ways to extend the insight behind the PPP program in a variety of other directions as well, initially in something we called the Institute for Politics and Public Life. It has now morphed into a Center for the Study of the American Dream and holds enormous promise for the University. He was very directly engaged in establishing an initiative for Catholic schools through a Center for Catholic Education that a donor established here at the University, activities which have not only improved the caliber of Catholic schools regionally, but helped us better live out our mission as a Jesuit, Catholic university. The opening of the Hoff Academic Quad this past fall would have been inconceivable without Roger’s own vision for how multiple offices and areas that impact student learning and faculty life could be better engaged with one another. And this very brief overview of Roger’s accomplishments as provost here at Xavier omits something that has been of incalculable importance to me: Roger’s patient and steady work behind the scenes to resolve what we shall just call “situations” and let it go at that.
Although he will be stepping down from his present position this summer, I am pleased to say that Roger will continue helping to advance the University in the coming years. After a well-deserved sabbatical, he will return to the classroom full time as a distinguished service professor in history. He will be especially engaged with that American Dream Project; I’ve recently seen emails back and forth that suggest that Paul Colella, director of the PPP Program, has already begun wooing Roger to teach a seminar he has in mind. I am thrilled that a future generation of Xavier students will have the opportunity to sit riveted in their seats, just as students did from the 1960s through the 1990s. And I have no doubt as well that I will find myself at meetings with Roger from time to time in the coming years, and he will get that familiar gleam in his eye, sit back in his chair and say, “Some historical perspective might be useful here, I think.”
Roger’s pending transition, coming as it does as the academic year enters its home stretch, reminds me of a very great truth: across the whole of Xavier University’s now 180 years, uncountable numbers of men and women have labored to make this place the remarkable place it is. Those who came before us held this good place—its mission, its spirit—in stewardship and care for those who would come after them, just as we who are here now hold it in trust for coming generations. As Roger passes to Scott Chadwick the baton that he has carried so well, he offers us all an example of something that happens here at the University over and over and over again. Namely, the way the institution renews itself through the energy, passion and commitment that each new member of the University community brings.
Thank you for all that you do to make Xavier University the vibrant place it is. And join me in thanking Roger Fortin for all that he has done.