An interview with interim president Carl W. Vogt ’58

Carl Vogt met with news editor Benjamin Katz on Tuesday, September 15 to discuss his new position at Williams.

Here you are willing to give up your life, your job and your family in Washington in order to spend a year in service to Williams. What is your primary motivation for doing that?

Vogt: I suppose it is best told by recounting how I got here in the first place because it is really relevant. I grew up in Texas and got out of high school in the mid ’50s. My father was an immigrant from Germany who never went to college. My mother was the daughter of a North Texas sharecropper who never went to college. So when they had the opportunity to be able to send me to a school like Williams that was a very important thing in their lives.

The problem was that at that time nobody in Texas, or very few, had ever heard of Williams College. People who had heard of anything like it thought it was William and Mary. I also had a chance to go to Princeton, which people had heard of. A lot of people were suspicious of it, but had heard of it and knew that it was a fine school. So when I decided to go to Williams I had to explain to my parents why I wanted to do that and they were very supportive. I’m sure they had friends who thought that I couldn’t get into the University of Texas and that I had to go up to some obscure place in New England.

Over the years I reminded them that Williams had been a very important choice for me and had added enormous value to my life in ways that I had never expected. So I think that if they were alive today I would say this is another example of why Williams was the right choice for me. It seemed to me to be an opportunity to give back to what has given to me over the years.

Much of my law practice over the years has been involved with higher education. I represented Duke University for many years and a lot of educational associations in Washington. My wife is an academic; she was an assistant professor in Germanic languages and literature at Berkeley when we got married. A good part of my career has been involved in higher education issues and I’ve always found them the most interesting. Governance in a college or university environment is much more subjective and complex and I think exciting then governance in the commercial world, which resonates, as it should, to the bottom line.

Making money is a very straightforward yardstick as a measurement of performance. There are many other complexities that flow from that, but that is the basic commercial concept. In the academic world you deal with values. How do you establish values? How do you establish what kind of performance adds value to an enterprise whose main product is a student’s learning experience? So I find that much more stimulating. This is an opportunity for me to engage directly in a world that I have engaged in as counselor for many years.

I was fortunately at the stage in my career where I could manage to do this. In the short term I had been involved in several major pieces of litigation that settled. I was able at that point to do this. That was fortuitous that it happened exactly at the time that it did. Had it happened a month earlier I don’t think I would have been able to do this. I think in that sense I got lucky.

Is there anything in particular that stands out in your memory from your times here as a student? Any professors that were particularly memorable?

Vogt: There were a couple of people in particular. Vincent Barnett, who was dean of the College at the time, I thought was just a marvelous human being. I remember some discussions with him that I thought were important messages that I took with me. They weren’t profound at the time, but they became that way later in life.

I was tremendously impressed when I showed up for my freshman course Poli Sci 101 and I was in a group of 15 people with James McGregor Burns. I had a number of courses with him.

Professor Waite was a marvelous role model. He lectured in history and political science. He was an expert on Germany, German history and particularly the Third Reich. He left a profound impact on me.

James Phinney Baxter was the president and although I never got to know him he was a man whose image conveyed a lot of values, experience and energy. He was a very important guy.

I have gotten to know John Chandler very well since I left because he came to Washington. He was teaching the history of religion when I was here and as I told John if you really needed an “A” you went and took his course. He was a terrific teacher, but he was also a very kindly grader.

I think the most important thing that I took away from Williams really is the relationships with my peers, a tremendously engaging, intellectually energetic and fun group of people. Other than freezing to death my first year after growing up in Texas I learned to love the place.

You are here on campus in the role of Interim President. Do you have any ideas what kinds of issues you will be focusing on or how you will be spending your time here?

Vogt: There is an agenda of things which Hank Payne has underway which I hope to follow up. I think that Hank has been terrifically effective as a president in so many ways. I think his administration is going to be remembered as one of the really positive ones in the history of the college.

Continuing some of his initiatives and following thorough on some of his issues which are pending right now is of course a very important first step. There are also opportunities in a situation like this to take a fresh look at other issues that come up. I think it is extremely important that this be a collaborative experience for the Williams community and the interim president. I need to consult and listen because I don’t have a context with which to evaluate issues on my own. I’m going to be very dependent and solicitous of support, information and just knowledge from the Williams community about how they feel about things and what they think the right directions are.

I think it may be an opportunity during this interim period for the college if it wishes to take a look at its core values. What is Williams? What really are our core values? It is a little easier to do it sometimes in a situation like this then at the beginning of a president who will be around for a number of years. I think it can be very positive, and I hope it is for Williams. I’m looking forward to it.