March 27, 2012
Jeffrey Fagen, Ph.D., Dean of St.
John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, was raised in
Brooklyn, NY. He joined the
Psychology faculty at St. John’s in 1981 and became Dean in
What was your first career aspiration?
As a teenager, my hobby was operating ham radios, so I was really
into electronics. I had a huge antenna on my parents’ roof and I
built my own transmitter. I would talk to people all over the world
and I would spend hours doing it. So initially, I thought I wanted
to be an electrical engineer.
I graduated from high school and went to engineering school at
City College (CCNY) and quickly realized that I didn’t like it. I
didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I became an “undecided”
sophomore. Then, I discovered psychology and fell in love with
Do you remember your first day at St.
It was 1981, and what I remember most is that they didn’t have an
office for me yet. I had all these boxes of books in the trunk of
my car and no place to put them. It was the same year that Bent
Hall opened, so they finally found some space for me in St. John
Hall where the College of Business Administration (now The
Peter J. Tobin College of Business) had been. I did a little
snooping around and found a much bigger office and grabbed it. I
think it had been a department chair’s office.
If you could be or do anything else, what might that
After I earned my Ph.D., I thought about becoming a pediatrician,
because I love working with kids. There was a medical school in
Florida in those days that would give you advanced standing if you
already had a Ph.D. in psychology. That way, it would take you a
lot less time to finish ‘med’ school. I considered it, but I
obviously chose a different path. Maybe in my next life I’ll be a
If you could live in any other time, when might that
A lot of people think of going backwards when they’re asked that
question. But now that I have grandchildren, I think I would want
to stick around a while longer to see them grow up. I’d love to see
what they are going to be when they are older. It’s fascinating to
think that in just ten years, there will be occupations that don’t
even exist today.
What's the one thing about you few people
Let’s see, I can’t play an instrument and I’ve never gone skydiving
or bungee-jumping. I can’t dance either — except poorly at weddings
— but I am a huge fan of the ballet. I can remember when
my kids were little we would watch The Nutcracker on
Christmas Eve. They would be opening their presents and they’d ask,
“Dad, do we have to watch this?” I love the beauty of the movement
and the story it tells without words.
I drove a taxi in New York City when I was an undergraduate. It
was hard work, but for a college student it was a great way to make
money — certainly better than anything else that was available to
me at the time.
As a Dean, how would you like to be
It’s like asking me what I want on my tombstone: “Here lies Jeff.
He tried.” I always see my job as assisting the faculty in
doing what they do, but I try to balance being student-centered
with being faculty-centered. I’m open and honest in terms of
keeping people in the loop.
What’s your proudest achievement at St.
As a faculty member, I won several grants from the National Institutes of Health and National Institute of
Mental Health to fund my research. The nice thing a about a
research grant is when they award it to you, it’s like they’re
betting money on your success.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in your college
during your time here?
The dorms. I was here long before the dorms, so in those days most
of our students were from Brooklyn and Queens. Now, because of the
dorms, we have people from all over the country and around the
world. The diversity here is huge.
What makes a degree from your college so
It’s the flexibility and the translational skills that students get
in the liberal arts — the heavy emphasis on critical thinking,
writing and speaking. It prepares students not only for careers
today, but for careers that don’t even exist today. My father
worked for the same company his entire life. I’ve been in the
academic world my entire life. Nowadays, they predict that students
will change careers five or six times in their lifetimes. If you
have a liberal arts education, you can easily move from one
discipline to another because you learn how to learn.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give a
Read. Read every day. Read things that you may not even be
interested in. Don’t just accept what you read because an expert
said it — question it. Read diverse opinions. If you’re a liberal,
pay attention to what the conservatives are saying. Don’t just read
the Huffington Post, read Drudge Report, too.
Watch MSNBC as well as FOX News. Don’t be so
dismissive. That’s how you expand your mind.
What’s an important lesson you’ve learned from a
Don’t give up on people. One of the worst things I have to do as
Dean is sign letters of dismissal. I hate doing that. But every
once in a while, a student will come back and ask to be
re-admitted. While they don’t always succeed, there are
some great “second chance” success stories.