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SLU's next leader reflects on his 'life of curiosity'

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CANTON — William L. Fox sees his transition from one Canton college to another as the fulfillment of a life spent thinking — and doing.

The president of Culver-Stockton College, Canton, Mo., returned Tuesday to St. Lawrence University for the first time since he was chosen to lead his alma mater as SLU's 18th president.

"My life has been a liberal arts life, a life of the mind, a life of curiosity, of doing, of being engaged in a community. And I think that's an example that I have to represent to our students and of course to my colleagues," he said. "There's a lot of hard work to do ahead of us. My immediate expectation is to grab a strap and hang on for the conversation I'm about to join."

Mr. Fox, who received his bachelor's degree from SLU in 1975, will replace Daniel F. Sullivan, the university's president since 1996.

He's excited to return to the place where he began his college career, where he was greeted by St. Lawrence's faculty and staff Tuesday.

"I think about this geometry of coming full circle as a moment of life that's a little like 'Field of Dreams' for me. Coming back here, I can almost see those ghost-like figures coming out of the trees," Mr. Fox said. "There's a line in that film: 'When you've been touched by a place, the wind is never again cold.' And that's how I feel about my return to Canton, and to this beautiful, wonderful north country campus."

Mr. Fox will take the helm on July 1. In the meantime, there's a lot of planning to do as he prepares for the transition from one college presidency to another.

One of the challenges he will face is the possibility that the economic slowdown will delay some of the university's goals.

"St. Lawrence right now needs to keep the foot on the accelerator," Mr. Fox said. "No university in America is exempt from the current economic climate. The pressure against revenue streams is tremendous and it will be unrelenting for the foreseeable future."

Even so, the future president is confident that SLU will push ahead. A good relationship with the north country is a big part of that, he said.

"Based on my experience in the other Canton in my life — Canton, Missouri — one of the things I learned very early there that I will never forget and want to continue here is it can't be 'A Tale of Two Cities,'" Mr. Fox said. "A university and its community have to be partners, and the sense that the university has of its own responsibility is longstanding, and, I believe, unbreakable."

The college's commitment to going green will remain a high priority, Mr. Fox said, even though reducing St. Lawrence's carbon footprint will require "tremendous investment" in tight times. Calling the campus a microcosm of American society, he added that an investment in the future is always a wise one.

Mr. Fox has a distinguished background in both academia and the ministry, but he said his leadership philosophy was also shaped by jobs he took in college, working on construction crews and taking the night shift at a paper plant.

"I think back at all those ways of relating to people as an essential part of my education," he said. "I should add that I also sold shoes for a time. If you can do that, you can do just about any job in the world."

Mr. Fox also drew inspiration from his predecessor, Mr. Sullivan, as both a fellow liberal arts college president and an SLU alumnus over the years.

"Dan is regarded among American college presidents as one of the best in the nation. I've benefited tremendously from his guidance," he said. "There have been many instances at Culver-Stockton where I'm currently serving when I looked to Dan for ideas and for examples for how to do things in a way that was intelligent, balanced and appropriate strategically. He's never failed me in that department."

Mr. Sullivan announced last October that he plans to retire at the end of the college's 2008-09 fiscal year.

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