by Vincent Reda
(September 19, 2006)
Kermit Hall Moved Quickly, to Great Effect
Kermit L. Hall approached his days with an urgency and focus that in retrospect augured too brief a life, yet one so dynamic that it brimmed with impressive accomplishments in scholarship and academic leadership.
University at Albany Provost Susan Herbst opened Monday's "Memorial Tribute" to the 17th President of the University at Albany, who died on August 13 at age 61, with an admission that remembering President Hall will be "a long-term undertaking."
"A man as accomplished and complex as Kermit Hall is not somehow summarized in a moving speech or in 100 speeches," she said. "There is no 'bottom line.' His life and his impacts will be appreciated and understood for years to come — by the ways he changed lives and the way he built the institution we love."
Thirteen contributing speakers, however, earnestly went about filling in portions of the late president's portrait before an assemblage of approximately 1,500 people in the RACC. Several of their comments were directed to Phyllis Hall, the President's widow, who sat in the front row amid many of Hall's faculty and administrative colleagues from 30 years at universities throughout the country.
Given the nature of the man to whom they paid homage, a large portion of the picture the speakers drew necessarily had to do with pace, something noted by one of the President's assistants in Hall's first week on the job at UAlbany. With a combination of awe and trepidation, she opined: "I think the 'L.'s' for 'lightning.'"
Nothing had changed in that respect on the President's last trip to China in July, when he conversed privately with SUNY Chancellor John Ryan, who offered the Tribute's first reflections. "At the end of one long day," said Ryan, "Kermit said, 'You know, I've been here almost two years and I've got a lot of things going, but things aren't progressing quite as fast as I want.'
"I told him, 'Kermit, nothing will ever progress as fast as you want.'"
Meeting as many people as possible, from government leaders to high school students, learning from all, creating programs, achieving — these were aspects of life, particularly within higher education, that Hall could not get enough of, nor fast enough. UAlbany Vice President for Student Success James A. Anderson, whose professional relationship with Hall reached back to the early 1990s during Hall's 18 months as provost at North Carolina State University, recalled Hall's penchant for tearing along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina in his red Corvette with the top down. "Beside him was his soul mate, Phyllis," said Anderson, "who constantly admonished Kermit about exceeding the speed limit."
Anderson paused, and said, "of course, for those of us who have known Kermit over the years, Kermit never — never — adhered to the speed limit of life."
Rev. Sandy J. Damhof, the UAlbany Chapel House Protestant minister, called Hall "a visionary leader, a kind man, and a tremendous asset to this university." Typically, she remembered, when the leaders of Chapel House, during Hall's first week as UAlbany President, were about to call his office to arrange a future appointment, he shocked them by calling first, and seeing them that very week.
Jeff Luks, president of the University's Alumni Association, and Pierre Alric, a member of the University Council, both remembered that interviewing Kermit Hall for the job of UAlbany President in late 2005 turned into interviews of their committees — Hall wanting to know everything about the University as quickly as possible.
Hall's pace was never inhibited by travel, be it within town or to China. Luks noted the President's tireless schedule that included trips around the country to meet with alumni. Alric recalled how, unknown to him and other members of the Presidential Search Committee, then-Utah State President Hall and wife Phyllis had slipped into Albany one day two weeks before his first public interview with the Committee, and conversed with numerous students in the Campus Center.
Yet all the speakers reflected that Kermit Hall was more than fast — he was effective. "A great voice in higher education has been prematurely silenced," said Stan Albrecht, president of Utah State University, which Hall led for four years before coming to UAlbany in February 2005.
Albrecht noted that Hall turned heads upon becoming Utah State's president, announcing that he would milk at least one cow in each of the state's 29 counties. A dairy farmer noted that he had milked the first one from the wrong side, but, as with most things, Hall mastered the craft before a few more cows went by, and in doing so milked even larger objectives.
"He said publicly that he wanted to get to know Utah with the cow-milking venture, but what he really wanted was for the people of Utah to know him, and to know his vision for Utah State and higher education," said Albrecht. "This was classic Kermit."
E. Gordon Gee, now chancellor of Vanderbilt University, was president of the The Ohio State University when he hired Hall as his dean of humanities in 1994. "Both of us have the most unstable employment patterns in America," said Gee, who is now at his fifth university as chief executive. Yet such movement for Hall never meant giving anything less than tireless effort on behalf of his institution, particularly at UAlbany, said Gee. "I can tell you this, in my last conversation with him, which was in the last two months, he had a passion and a belief in this place — one that he would have fulfilled. This was his place, and his time, and his opportunity."
Frank Adams, a professor emeritus at North Carolina State University, remembers the up-tick in workload once Hall arrived there as provost. "As with UAlbany, we had his leadership for far too short a time — but, oh, what a time it was," said Adams. "When we lost Kermit to Utah State after 18 months we had had what one of our colleagues said was '18 years of progress at North Carolina State' . . . Before Kermit, we had not worked so hard, nor been so happy at it."
Donald Gifford, Edward M. Research Professor of Law at the University of Maryland, said that Hall as an historian exemplified the "scholar" as no one else he has encountered in higher education. As fellow faculty members at the University of Florida in the 1980s, Hall would push Gifford with the urging, "500 words a day, Donald; 500 words a day."
Gifford recalled his first-ever bird-watching trip, one instigated by Hall for himself and wary colleagues through the swamps of northern Florida. "He rattled off 11 different species of exotic birds that we were going to have the opportunity of seeing." After three and a half hours, with the heat rising oppressively, only 10 species had been observed, the bald eagle the one holdout. Hall would not halt, pushed the bedraggled bird-viewing party onward, staring through his binoculars 5, 10, 15 and 20 minutes at the sky. When Hall finally spotted the bald eagle, said Gifford, it was "a speck in the sky that the others of us could not see, the tiniest detail, hundreds of yards away and a hundred feet up.
"And, as we watched, that eagle came all the way across the lake towards us and swooped right down . . . within feet of Kermit," he said. "I am convinced that Kermit was a kindred spirit of that majestic bird. Like that eagle, Kermit had extraordinary vision . . . both that eagle and Kermit shared a breadth of perspective that few of us have. Like that eagle, Kermit soared above it all with unsurpassed dignity and elegance.
"Yet, at the same time, he would swoop down and touch a junior colleague, an administrative aide, or a member of the maintenance staff, inspiring us all."
Hall moved swiftly, all agreed, because people and their educations were his passionate mission. "He had all the technical abilities and leadership qualities to run a major university, but he also had special human qualities that truly made him extraordinary," said Chancellor Ryan.
"He said he wanted to hit the ground, listening," said Nick Chiuchiolo, president of the University at Albany Student Association. "I told my parents, 'cancel my meal plan' because this guy's taken me out to lunch more times to discuss student issues.
"And he loved to tell stories to us, and discuss his studies, but he knew that he not only could teach students but he could learn from them as well . . . No student was too insignificant, and no issue too trivial."
Leonard Slade, poet and chair of the Department of Africana Studies, noted that the President wanted to imbue in students a rounded, liberal arts education: "Kermit Hall was a Renaissance man who loved music, poetry and learning. He made us connect with the universe."
Carl H. Rosner, a member of the board of directors of the University at Albany Foundation, added, "Kermit Hall, with an extraordinary level of energy, accomplished much, and he brought a level of joy and pride to the faculty and students alike."
Ultimately, Hall's urgency of action may have been due to his recognition of the pace of change one must deal with to achieve success in the modern world — and that, if you care about your institutions and your colleagues, including students, you find time to apply your energies to ensuring the quality of what comes after your departure.
In making this point, Frank Abrams cited the last of Kermit Hall's Twelve Principles of Leadership: "Start training your replacement so that the legend will continue — there is always a number two."