Former Beloit College president defends liberal arts education

Vic Ferrall remains a wood craftsman, storyteller
Former Beloit College president defends liberal arts education
Photos courtesy of Vic Ferrall
Former Beloit College President Vic Ferrall and a buffet he made from the wood of a walnut tree on his farm near Orfordville.

This all started at a laundromat in a tiny Door County crossroads called Valmy. It was 1991.

Two accomplished friends saw each other over their clothes’ baskets: Martha Peterson, who had been both dean of students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and president of Beloit College, and Gaylord Nelson, former Wisconsin governor and U.S. senator.

After some pleasantries, Peterson said, “Did you know Beloit is looking for a new president?”

Nelson thought for a moment and said, “What about my friend Vic Ferrall? He likes that kind of stuff.” ​​​​​ (Those who knew Nelson will not be surprised to learn he did not actually say “stuff.”)

From that brief exchange, a college president was born. “The best thing that ever happened to me,” Ferrall said last week.

Ferrall and I were talking because — well, because I wanted to meet him, if only by telephone.

A few days earlier, Ferrall, 83, had sent a note and an unpublished essay to his friend and my colleague at Madison Magazine, Neil Heinen, who — I think mostly on a whim — forwarded it to me. The essay was about how life’s small moments — Ferrall calls them pebbles — are in some ways more important than milestones.

I was intrigued enough by the essay to do some research on the author. I learned Ferrall had been president of Beloit College from 1991 to 2000. He had a law degree from Yale and had worked at a top Washington, D.C. firm. He wrote a book on the imperiled state of liberal arts education. And he is an accomplished wood craftsman.

Finally, Ferrall and his wife, Linda, have in retirement fashioned an enviable life for themselves, splitting time between a renovated 1846 farmhouse near Orfordville and an apartment in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.

One of the great things about journalism is that when you find something or someone interesting, you’ve an excuse to pursue it further. There might be a story there.

Vic Ferrall wasn’t so sure, but he enjoys conversing. With a little prodding, he told me about himself.

Ferrall was born in Illinois, moved east early with his family, and did his undergraduate study at Oberlin College in Ohio. He did a year of law school at Harvard, didn’t like it, and switched to Yale.

Out of Yale, Ferrall went to work at the U.S. Justice Department, doing antitrust cases, soon moving to Capitol Hill and the antitrust subcommittee chaired by U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver. That’s when Ferrall befriended Gaylord Nelson.

After Kefauver died in August 1963, Ferrall entered private law practice in D.C., beginning a nearly three-decade career as a successful communications lawyer.

By 1991 — when Nelson told Ferrall about his Beloit College conversation with Martha Peterson — Ferrall was middle-aged and restless. If he didn’t make a move, he’d likely be a Washington lawyer forever. Ferrall applied and got the Beloit job.

“I believed in liberal education,” he says. “Oberlin had an impact on me.”

Ferrall spent a decade as Beloit’s president. He says they were wonderful years, both for he and Linda, and for the school. “A time of marvelous growth and progress,” the chairman of the board of trustees told the Janesville Gazette when Ferrall retired in 2000, “distinguished by major improvements in all aspects of the college.”

Under Ferrall, the historic president’s house was the site of lively dinner parties and impromptu gatherings after campus events with artists, writers and musicians. Ferrall recalls sitting in his study and chatting about classical clarinetists with Branford Marsalis. Another time, Ferrall’s friendship with the philanthropist Patrick Lannan led to a dinner in Santa Fe with “Legends of the Fall” author Jim Harrison. “Exciting, because I was a huge fan,” Ferall says.

After Ferrall’s pending retirement was announced, Gov. Tommy Thompson, a friend, came to the president’s house for dinner. They ate Linda’s meatloaf in the kitchen. Afterward, Ferrall introduced Thompson at a campus assembly by saying, “I’m a Democrat. Gov. Thompson is a Republican. But he’s been a supporter of higher education and Beloit College, and I’m honored to introduce him.”

Taking the microphone, Thompson looked at Ferrall and said, “I didn’t know you were a Democrat.”

In 2007, seven years after leaving the college, Ferrall was back with an exhibition of his woodwork which ran for two months at the Wright Museum on campus.

In 2011, Ferrall published a book that had been percolating inside him for years. “Liberal Arts on the Brink” was Ferrall’s clarion call to liberal arts educators to band together and extoll why critical thinking and learning for learning’s sake matters, rather than trampling each other trying to see who could transform their institutions into vocational schools the fastest.

This past May, Ferrall wrote an article for Times Higher Education (a spin-off of the London Times) titled, “Are these the dying days of genuine liberal arts education?” Its potential demise, he argues, is particularly troubling in an age of polarized politics. Ferrall describes a basic tenant of a liberal arts education: “You continuously examine your own views to see what’s wrong with them. You continuously examine the views of people who disagree with you to see if they might have something. Maybe they’re right.”

As Ferrall wrote in the new article, now it all comes down to “she’s a liberal” or “he supports Trump.” End of story.

During our chat, Farrell recalled with great fondness John Wyatt, a somewhat eccentric Beloit professor. “They will tell you,” Wyatt once said, “the liberal arts are meaningless and useless. I tell you they are the only thing that are meaningful and useful.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.