I. Colgate at 200 Years
Colgate, as it nears its bicentennial, has emerged as both a distinctive and strong national institution. It has, through the decades, seen remarkable changes and developments that have contributed to its unique form and character. To contemplate the future, it is wise, first, to consider this history and the ways in which these unique characteristics of Colgate emerged.
Some of these changes and developments seen at Colgate were part of large, important national trends. First, as was seen at many colleges and universities in the mid- to late 20th century, Colgate adopted coeducation in the early 1970s. Further, as was the case with many leading institutions in the nation during the late 20th century, Colgate diversified both its faculty and student body, leading to an enriched campus culture. Colgate changed, thus, in much the same ways as many elite, private colleges and universities.
A number of other decisions, however, made by the faculty and board during this same period, produced unique characteristics for Colgate.
First, Colgate, following its decision to admit women, significantly grew its student and faculty populations, emerging as one of the largest institutions among liberal arts colleges. Currently, with a student body just under 3,000, Colgate has a scale of activities — as seen in the size of its faculty and number of academic and nonacademic programs — that is unusual among national undergraduate colleges and universities.
Next, when the NCAA reclassified its institutions in 1973, Colgate, together with Ivy League schools and those that would eventually form the Patriot League, chose to join the Division I rank. The presence of a Division I athletics program at the university remains a distinctive attribute of Colgate and sets it apart in important ways from smaller liberal arts colleges that do not compete on the national level.
Less publicly discussed, though undoubtedly as striking, were changes
in the academic life at the university in this period. In the second half
of the 20th century, Colgate vigorously committed itself to developing
and maintaining a research-intensive faculty. The university decreased
the annual course load of the faculty from six courses to five and
began significantly investing in its research infrastructure. Support for
faculty research — in the form of grants, improved leave schedules, and
increased infrastructure support — grew noticeably during the end of
the 20th century. Further, in the first part of the 21st century, Colgate
built facilities directly linked to increasing academic aspirations, most
notably seen with the dramatic improvements to the library (2006)
and the completion of the Ho Science Center (2007). The national
regard for the faculty — in the form of research grants and national
awards won — has risen sharply as a result of these investments.
Much of what is part of Colgate’s distinctive character and quality,
however, did not emerge in the late 20th century but has been
in place for many decades. A number of these features are worth
highlighting as they remain defining attributes for the university.
First, Colgate has long sustained a profound commitment to the
liberal arts. At the heart of the university remains a curriculum
that calls on students to study broadly across the humanities and
arts, the natural sciences, and the social sciences — and, now more
increasingly, encourages students to move across traditional disciplines.
Critical inquiry, effective argumentation and communication,
and creativity remain hallmarks of a Colgate education.
Second, Colgate has retained its general education, or “core”
curriculum, through which all students complete a number of
multidisciplinary courses focused on issues and topics that go beyond
any single academic discipline. This program connects students
in a common academic experience, engages a large proportion of
faculty, and remains a key touchstone for Colgate alumni.
Third, Colgate has sustained a long-standing commitment to international
study. Colgate’s faculty-led study-abroad programs have an illustrious
history. At a time when many institutions
seemed content with an introverted college
experience, Colgate was sending its students
to France, the U.K., and China, among
many other places. The idea of moving
outward — of taking one’s studies to foreign
locations and growing through exposure
to different cultures and ideas — has long
been part of the Colgate experience.
Fourth, another constant feature of the Colgate experience has been its
commitment to having the vast majority of students living in university-owned
or affiliated housing. When Colgate alumni are asked what
prepared them for life after graduation — beyond their professors and
their studies — they cite lessons learned in close community with other
students. This universal residential system includes distinctive sub-communities
such as nationally affiliated fraternities and sororities, or
those found in theme housing in former Greek houses. A larger number
of students live in university-owned apartments and townhouses.
At their best, our student-living patterns provide experiences that
mature the individual, teaching him or her the skills and practices of
empathy, sociability, flexibility, and respect for others. We cannot, of
course, be blind to some of the shortcomings and challenges present
in aspects of the Colgate social system and scene, and the ways where
our local social patterns have not kept up with changes in broader
societal values or the ways in which they can divide students, preventing
them from forming larger class year or university-wide bonds and
sense of affiliation. But a key component to Colgate’s institutional
ethos has long been its commitment to living in close proximity to
one another and within the boundaries of institutional oversight.
This history of Colgate university — the events, choices, and decisions
— has led to the university we now see. Colgate is now a strong
institution, and a distinctive one, with characteristics that define life
on the campus and the reflections and affections of its alumni.
II. The Intangibles of the University
In addition to understanding the unique and specific (and quite
visible) attributes of Colgate — those features that contribute
to its distinctiveness in American higher education — it is
important, as one thinks about the future of Colgate, to understand
other intangible factors that define Colgate University.
A notable characteristic of Colgate is its size. The university has
long had a larger student body and faculty than those institutions
to which it is most often compared. Its cultural feel — based on this
scale and the activities of the campus, including its athletics program
— can often make Colgate seem less like Williams or Swarthmore
colleges and more like Dartmouth College or Duke University.
We should recognize that, due to this scale and the array of activities
on the campus, the university has the possibility, unavailable to
smaller colleges, to be excellent in multiple ways, whether in the
classroom, on the athletics fields, or in artistic production.
The Energy of the Campus
Whether because of its size, its history, or its traditions, Colgate
has a sense of energy. This, too, if developed in thoughtful ways,
can be a powerful source of possibility for its future.
Colgate students are passionate. They engage deeply in their endeavors
and they work together easily. They are not passive in their beliefs or
their aspirations. This energy can be channeled into fruitful means,
both academically and socially. It can also be a source of engagement as
students seek to enter the leading graduate and professional programs,
as they seek prestigious post-baccalaureate fellowships (such as Rhodes,
Marshall, Watson, Truman, and Fulbright), and as they consider how
best to use their time between semesters and in the summers.
A Sense of Place
Finally, and importantly, Colgate has always been a beautiful place. The
beauty of the campus is, and has always been, a defining feature of the
Colgate experience. Visitors notice the striking beauty of the campus
immediately, students are affected by it, and alumni recall with emotion
the beauty of the campus set in the Chenango Valley of central New York.
The quality of the campus shapes the experience of Colgate, and
has been a central ingredient in the campus experience since the
university’s founding. One arrives at Colgate’s campus. Driving from
either the south or the north, the campus emerges strikingly in
the valley, with large buildings set on a hill, arrayed above a small
lake. The campus sets the stage for students, faculty, and staff and
leaves its mark on Colgate graduates who speak emotionally of their
experiences on a striking campus that has long had a sense of place.
There are, of course, many other college campuses that are
beautiful and dramatic. Very few, however, engender the impact
that Colgate’s does. This sense of place should be understood as a
source of possibility, in that it can support a sense of community
and serves as a powerful connection of alumni to their university.
III. The Fundamentals for Colgate’s Future
On the verge of entering its third century, Colgate is a distinctive,
strong national institution. It is one of the most important
undergraduate universities in the nation, if not the world. Its history
has created unique characteristics for the university, and its intangible
qualities make it appealing for leading students, faculty, and staff. It
thus looks toward its third century with enormous possibility.
Our task now is to understand these characteristics and history,
and to push the institution to new heights. This will be achieved
to the extent we are focused on the following fundamentals for
Colgate’s future and are committed to being one of a handful of
leading undergraduate universities in the nation and the world.
Building and Supporting a Culture of Intellectual Rigor
The first foundation upon which Colgate’s future rests will be
the extent to which we continuously strengthen the intellectual
reach and impact of the university and nurture a culture in
which intellectual rigor marks all of our endeavors.
Simply put, to attract students of the highest potential, faculty of
the highest regard, and staff who are leaders in their fields, Colgate
must be known — even more than it is today — as an academic
institution committed to intellectual rigor. This lies at the heart
of the university’s mission and is essential to Colgate’s future.
Colgate needs to focus on building and maintaining a top-tier
faculty. Supporting the creation of knowledge and its
dissemination through teaching, publication, and public
engagement requires significant focus. Colgate must also create
and support a curriculum that is relevant and challenging.
Some believe there is a trade-off between faculty members who are
productive scholars at the forefront of their fields and faculty members who
are good, supportive teachers and community
members. At Colgate, we would not be true
to our institutional ethos if we accepted this
position. The high-quality liberal arts education
that we will offer to future generations of
students must be built upon lively and active
scholars who bring new ideas and perspectives
into the classroom and transform students
with their own enthusiasm for their work.
Related to this, we must introduce our
students to the challenges and power of rigorous, academic discourse.
In an era of heated rhetoric and political divisions in which shouting
is prized, we will give our graduates a profound gift should they leave
the campus with the power to summon reason, to gather facts, and
to engage in a discourse that is sound, fair, and powerful. Through
those tools, we will send into the world the next generation of Colgate
graduates able to shape our world as accomplished, empathetic leaders.
An equally important part of the academic environment at Colgate
is the student culture we build on campus. While our students are at
Colgate, we must ensure that they contribute to an academically dynamic
community. Colgate professors should be as enlivened and motivated
by the interests, passions, and skills of our students as our students are
inspired by our faculty. We need to cultivate a student body that leads
to our reputation as a great place to teach and pursue one’s academic
interests because of the engagement and skill of the students.
In sum, Colgate must be known as an academic institution committed
to intellectual rigor, an academic institution of the first order, an
undergraduate university distinguished by a world-caliber faculty engaged in rigorous scholarship, and a university whose students demonstrate
the habits of thoughtful intellectual engagement. To accept anything
less than this would be to deny the arc of
the long trajectory of Colgate’s history.
Attracting Outstanding Students
A university is, at its most essential,
the product of the people it attracts.
Talented students, a leading faculty, and professional staff all must
be in place on the campus should Colgate wish to be consistently
regarded as among the finest colleges and universities in the nation.
In the arena of admissions, Colgate faces an ever-increasing challenge:
how to attract and enroll students of profound promise and
achievement when faced with increased costs of attendance. Colgate
has long relied on the enrollment of a sizeable portion of the entering
class who can meet the fully stated price of a Colgate education.
While this will remain true for the foreseeable future, Colgate must
seek additional funds to make its education available to all those
who will bring energy, intelligence, and talent to the campus.
Colgate must also seek a student body from a wider geographic footprint,
one that shows the university attracting students from all corners
of the nation and the world. And, of course, Colgate must attract
a student body that reflects the vibrant diversity of our nation.
If we aspire to greatness, we cannot compromise our efforts on this
point. In America today, a great institution is a diverse institution. It is
one that brings students of different socioeconomic backgrounds, races
and ethnicities, and religions to campus. There are myriad reasons for
this to be a priority, not least of which is our obligation to the broader
American community in which we have been permitted to prosper.
But beyond any responsibilities we might feel to the commonweal, or principles by which we might be motivated, is the simple acknowledgment
that an education today is a poor thing if it does not include firsthand
engagement with a wide range of perspectives and experiences. We
simply cannot claim to be a first-tier institution providing a first-tier
education to our students if we do not expose them to a rich diversity of
perspectives and backgrounds in their educational and social experiences.
Creating and Nurturing a Community Marked by Affection,
Ritual, and Pride
Colgate possesses remarkably proud and loyal alumni who, while
at Colgate, developed strikingly strong bonds to each other and to
their alma mater. These connections — these bonds of affection —
have proved to be sustaining for Colgate graduates and a significant
source of strength for the university over many decades. For our
alumni, the ways in which they built their connections proved to be
a valuable and profound complement to their classroom learning.
Of course, times have changed and many of the social patterns of the
Colgate community continue to evolve. As it enters its third century,
Colgate must overtly and explicitly seek to create a deep, clear, and
compelling campus culture — nurtured and expressed through our
residential programs, our athletics program and other student activities,
our ceremonies and traditions, and through the overall campus experience.
This must be a campus culture that fosters bonds among members
of the community and connects, in a meaningful and sustained way,
students, faculty, and staff to the institution itself. Our students and
faculty hunger for this. And Colgate’s long-term vitality requires this.
It may seem that undertaking overt efforts to nurture loyalty, pride, or
affection is hopelessly retrograde. It is not. It may seem that to call for
development of community must come at the expense of individual
development. It does not. When authentic and based on genuine experience, a shared culture can be a source of considerable energy and spirit for any institution. Through these efforts, all will feel included in a greater project that animates the university. They will belong to, and with, Colgate.
Much of this is connected to the residential
and social life of the campus. Colgate has long
offered an extremely wide range of residential
options, unusual among the liberal arts
colleges. The Colgate residential inventory
includes traditional residence halls (e.g.,
Andrews and Stillman halls), a small number
of multiunit residential complexes (e.g., Bryan Complex and 113 Broad
Street), numerous quasi-independent townhouses and apartments, Broad
Street theme houses, and fraternities and sororities. This complexity allows
students to forge their own paths, yet it also tends to divide the campus
and creates systems in which there might appear to be social-residential
“winners” and “losers.” From a residential and social perspective, Colgate —
long a place marked by community and bonding — can often feel divided.
Colgate needs to develop long-term programs to enhance the quality
of student housing and the overall quality of student life. Further,
Colgate should ensure that all students belong to the university
and that they share this institutional bond while they are also
developing those more individual social bonds that sustain them.
It is important to state here that it is not the role of the administration to
engineer all relationships built across our campus. We need to acknowledge
that the character building and maturing that occurs at Colgate occurs
most often in informal ways — between students and faculty, between
students and students, and, indeed, between students and the surrounding
Hamilton community. The role of the administration is to ensure that
settings and contexts exist to facilitate such encounters, and that all
students who come to Colgate have equal opportunities to enjoy the
social dynamics of our institution and be included in all its gifts and opportunities. This involves building out meeting places, living spaces, and
social spaces that give outlet to our students’ innate social tendencies.
There is one additional, deeply important consideration when speaking of
these matters. It is clear today that the future of this country will belong
to those who are culturally dexterous. To be culturally dexterous is to be
able to navigate across diverse cultural perspectives with authenticity and
skill. We would be doing a disservice to our students, and would relinquish
our standing as a leading American institution of higher education, if
we did not take seriously our charge to enhance our students’ cultural
understanding and adroitness. These are qualities that depend not only
upon the classroom but on what happens in our residence halls and social
spaces. It depends upon friendships and authentic intimate contacts
between students of different backgrounds, cultures, and belief systems.
In short, Colgate should take overt steps to nurture a culture where bonds of community are developed and where one develops a sense of institutional pride. These ties should be nurtured and expressed through our residential programs, our athletics program, our ceremonies and traditions, and through the overall experience of the campus.
Sustaining and Improving a Campus of Striking Beauty
Finally, Colgate must carefully steward one of its most precious assets: the beauty of its campus. The experience of the place that is Colgate has shaped the lives of students, faculty, and staff for generations. Ensuring that this beauty is sensitively enhanced and passed on to future generations must remain a university priority.
When graduates from the 1960s and 1970s return to the Colgate campus, they hardly recognize it because there has been such significant building and improvements made. Predictably, there will be more. However, when such buildings and improvements take place, we must ensure that the basic relationship of the campus to the nature that surrounds it, and the group of buildings that define Colgate, are not degraded. We should never let progress detract from that beauty but must be supremely sensitive to the marvels of the place.
We also must make sure that the environs of Colgate and Hamilton provide for our faculty, staff, and students a comfortable as well as engaging place to reside. The livability of the campus and the village will serve Colgate as it will allow us not only to attract leading faculty and students, but will also allow them to work and live in a place that is engaging, connecting, and amenable.
Colgate’s task is to understand the platform its history offers and to take the advantages of this moment in the institution’s timeline as it stands on the cusp of its third century. Should Colgate commit itself to setting a rigorous course of academic achievement, while nurturing both its spirit and its sense of place, it will surely establish itself as one of the premier institutions of the world.
Colgate is, currently, a strong institution. In many ways, it has never been stronger. Its reputation and attributes are the envy of many colleges and universities. It has much to be proud of as it considers its first 200 years and much to be optimistic about as it considers its next century.
In short, the pathway forward for Colgate is to be a place of academic rigor, a place that attracts students and faculty of great achievement and potential, and a university that sends its graduates off into the world with promise for the future and with care and affection for their alma mater. Our future will be built on these foundations.