AAC&U Remembers Bobby Fong: Friend, Colleague, Leader, and Champion for Liberal Education

Monday, September 8, 2014

It is with deep sadness that AAC&U marks the passing of Bobby Fong, longtime AAC&U leader and tireless champion for students, for liberal education, and for our most cherished values. At the time of his sudden passing on September 8th at the age of 64, Fong was president of Ursinus College. Previously, he led several other AAC&U member institutions; he was president of Butler University from 2001 to 2011, dean of the faculty at Hamilton College from 1995 to 2001, and dean of arts and humanities at Hope College from 1989 to 1995. Yet he remained at heart a dedicated and gifted teacher for whom the privilege of helping students learn was always the highest calling. He began his academic career teaching English at Berea College in Kentucky and was a world authority on Oscar Wilde.

Bobby Fong gave unstintingly to AAC&U throughout his career, helping shape the values and work of the association. He is the only person to have served twice as chair of the AAC&U Board of Directors—first in 1994, when this was still the Association of American Colleges, and then again in 2012. He served as a member of the board for thirteen years in all, spanning the presidencies of John Chandler, Paula Brownlee, and Carol Schneider. All expressed their grief and sense of personal loss. “Bobby was extraordinarily able to combine colleagueship with friendship in ways that made more of both,” said AAC&U’s current president, Carol Geary Schneider. “His generosity and wisdom will be irreplaceable.”

Bobby Fong also served as a member of the advisory board for Liberal Education and was a key leader in AAC&U’s long-term initiative, Liberal Education and America’s Promise, or LEAP. 

The son of working-class immigrant parents, Bobby Fong made his own journey as a first-generation college student, first to Harvard University as a scholarship student and then to the University of California–Los Angeles, where he earned a PhD in English. He knew firsthand the transformative power of a liberal education and, with his passing, the liberal arts have lost an extraordinary champion.

Fong brought to the ongoing debates about liberal education a special passion for the humanities and an abiding commitment to the higher purposes of education. In an article completed just before his death and that will be published next month in AAC&U’s journal, Liberal Education, he articulated his own view of the higher aims of liberal learning, noting that higher education today needs “a renewed urgency and commitment to assist our students in forming their souls.” He urged all who are committed to the mission of AAC&U and to the power of liberal education to remember that, even as attention is being focused on students’ preparation for the world of work, educators must not lose sight of the larger purpose of “cultivat[ing] mind and heart.” He rightly asked, “What are we about if not teaching students to love wisely?”

Whether helping lead member institutions or guiding the AAC&U staff and board, Bobby Fong brought to everything he did a distinctively soft-spoken but firm style and a compelling intelligence. Among his many passionate educational commitments, cultivating students’ humanity while also advancing diversity and equity were paramount. As AAC&U board member Mildred García put it, he “was not only a strong proponent of the liberal arts, he was also a fighter for academic excellence for students of color and for the underserved.” Fong was instrumental in the decision two years ago to expand AAC&U’s mission in order to include a commitment to “inclusive excellence.” He noted in his forthcoming article that “we must both affirm the claims of universal humanity and uphold a commitment to cultural diversity.”

AAC&U and the entire American higher education community have lost an important voice and force for liberal education, equity, and student success. Profoundly saddened by his passing, all who knew him as a friend and colleague will remain inspired by his example, as indeed will the countless others whose lives he touched over his many years as a liberal educator.  As former AAC&U President Paula Brownlee noted, Fong “built personal attachments out of his professional work, and to all he brought thoughtfulness and, indeed, wisdom.”

As we grieve his passing, may his own words serve to soothe. “In pathos we cultivate pity,” he reminded us. “We need to guide our students in accommodating themselves to the pains and troubles of the world so as to school their hearts and engender their souls without daunting their courage and hope.”

Bobby Fong is survived by his wife, Suzanne Dunham Fong, and their two sons, Jonathan and Nicholas (“Colin”).