A new college president doesn’t always want to take risks that could have longstanding effects on his or her reputation -- especially only months into a new position. But Mississippi State University’s President Robert (Doc) Foglesong, who joined the institution in April after a celebrated career in the Air Force, doesn’t seem to mind testing the waters.
The retired four-star general has largely forgone traditional fireside chats and luncheon meet-and-greets with students. Instead, one of his first moves at Mississippi State was to form a rock band called BARK, a name inspired by the institution’s English bulldog mascot. The idea, he says, is to get students (and alumni and faculty members) excited about their institution -- and many on campus say that the unique effort is working.
(Listen here for an extended Inside Higher Ed “Behind the Music” podcast interview and musical interlude featuring the president.)
“He’s adding a lot of excitement to the atmosphere of the campus,” says J.R. Love, president of the student body at Mississippi State. “I thought it was a little strange at first, but we’re really getting to see Doc’s personality.” (Besides being a presidential rock star, Foglesong is also focused on helping low-income students get into the university and starting a student leadership mentor program.)
Last spring, Foglesong put out an open invitation to any faculty and staff members with musical talents to join his band. “Nobody wanted to volunteer at first,” recalls Joe Ray Underwood, a professor of counselor education and educational psychology, who’s played guitar professionally for years. “We just weren’t sure that Doc could sing.”
But after an impromptu performance of the Eagles’ “Tequila Sunrise” during an annual faculty recognition event in April, Underwood’s mind was quickly changed: “Doc passed his audition, for sure,” he says, noting that the president was really good at working the crowd. “He’s just pedal to the metal all the way.”
Underwood soon signed up to play guitar for the band, as have several professors, and staff and their alumni spouses.
When Chip Templeton, a donor to the university, found out about the group, he was instantly enchanted. “I know what music can do,” he says, noting that the university’s music museum is named for one of his family members. “All the walls just go down.” In little time, he signed up to become the musical director and plays keyboard with the group.
Once the members were in place, the ensuing months included lots of practice in a garage a few doors down from Foglesong’s house. “It’s been a lot of fun,” says Foglesong, who tries to get to as many practices as his schedule allows.
The preparation paid off with the band’s big debut at the annual welcome back student pep rally this August, which came of as a success, according to many who attended the event. BARK received even more attention when the band played prior to the first Bulldogs’ football game of the year, against the South Carolina Gamecocks.
“Students really seem to be getting a kick out of it,” says Underwood. “More students already know him than would probably recognize past presidents.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the 61-year-old president's playlist doesn't focus on the latest from MTV, but relies on classic rock, including Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps” and Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville.”
Love doesn’t think that’s much of a problem. “The enthusiasm is what matters,” says the student leader. “And the songs they play are easy to get into.”
The band members insist that there won’t be a dramatic Beatles-like breakup anytime soon. In fact, Foglesong says that he wants to focus next on getting musically-inclined students involved in the band.
“We’d really like to get students to join,” says Templeton. “We’re always looking for guests to perform with the group.”
Band members are happy to report that the growing popularity of BARK hasn’t caused any diva-like behavior by Foglesong. Still, Underwood notes that that they don’t really give the president much advice on how to sing. “Some of us do work for him,” he says with a laugh.
Future performances by BARK are currently being scheduled.
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