President’s Message

Autumn 2019

Measuring Colgate

In this issue of Colgate Magazine, in addition to the usual features, profiles, and alumni news columns, there is an extended section on the creation and implications of Colgate’s Third-Century Plan. The development of this long-term plan for Colgate was a lengthy process involving multiple meetings of the Board of Trustees, innumerable meetings with various campus committees, and many drafting and redrafting sessions. While I took the lead on the writing of the plan, in truth, the plan has many authors — as it should. The Office of the Provost and Dean of the Faculty drove much of the academic sections, the admission and financial aid offices took on other sections, and the athletics department weighed in where it should have. 

Beneath crafting the words of the plan was other work. For example, the trustees called for, and received, multiple financial models to better understand the long-term financial implications of the plan and the long-term set of building projects the initiatives would require. They argued, rightfully, that this plan should not only make Colgate academically stronger, but also financially stronger. It is our obligation to leave Colgate stronger, in all ways, than it was when we began this planning process. 

Plans are plans, of course. They aren’t action. And they aren’t guarantees of anything. Most colleges and universities have some form of strategic plan posted somewhere on their webpages. These are usually written when a new president comes in, or when an anniversary looms. Others are written when a fundraising campaign is about to begin. All of these factors were in place as we set out to write our own strategic plan. There was a new administration, the University was planning its Bicentennial celebration, and the trustees were considering the steps Colgate should take for the needed fundraising campaign. All the usual factors were in place. 

But the planning efforts never seemed usual or predictable. At all times there was an unspoken but palpable source of energy. All of us engaged in the drafting knew of Colgate’s strengths. We all knew what makes the University distinct. We were proud of those strengths and those sources of distinction. The writing was not driven by crisis or concern. There was, instead, a sense that Colgate should be — even more clearly than it is today — known as one of the nation’s truly premier institutions of higher education. The idea (a version of which is repeated at the front of the piece on the plan) was that, while alumni knew what makes Colgate strong, the world needed to know this too. There was a sense that this is our time.

There was also a strong sense that Colgate should not develop a short-term plan with priorities that would be replaced in five years. There was instead an awareness that the great colleges and universities have long-term views and a long-term commitment to change. When one looks underneath those stories of institutions that seemed to have suddenly gained strength, increasing in reach or reputation “overnight,” there is almost always years of planning and hard work that took place beforehand. Overnight success in higher education takes years. And patience. And focus.

Colgate has not always had this. Colgate has long enjoyed a privileged place in American higher education. The University has long attracted excellent students, faculty, and staff. It has long enjoyed a beautiful campus. It has always enjoyed a type of uniqueness. We are a liberal arts college, but a large one. We have Division I athletics. We attract a distinct type of student — one who is sociable and engaged, one who wishes to act in the world. These unique factors have made us sui generis, uniquely Colgate. Why, then, plan? Why not simply be Colgate

We needed to plan, simply, because Colgate needs to be Colgate, but it also needs to be a stronger Colgate. A Colgate that attracts more of the best students in the country — Colgate students, for sure — but selected from a larger cohort of applicants so we can be sure to enroll the best of our students. We need to be a Colgate that, when competing with Williams and Duke for new faculty, attracts the leading teachers and scholars to our campus. We need to add those buildings we have been missing for decades (especially in the arts), and we need to take a hard look at those buildings on our campus that detract from its beauty and function (need I mention Gate House?).

We need to seek to be stronger because to fail to do so — to fail to strive — is the most dangerous thing we can do. The world of higher education is extremely competitive. All the leading colleges and universities fight for students, faculty, resources, and regard. To stand still would be to fall behind. And in a world in which the haves and the have-nots of higher education find themselves increasingly separated, we need to consider how best to ensure our place at the table of leading institutions.

This leads me to something else you will not see in this issue’s article on The Third-Century Plan: a discussion on how we will measure success. Or, perhaps more frankly: against whom we measure ourselves.

As I said earlier, and as I say in all settings when I am speaking about Colgate, I have always known Colgate to be distinctive in a world in which few colleges and universities actually are. We are a liberal arts college at our core, but we are a large one, with a unique personality. Alone with perhaps only Davidson College, we are a true undergraduate liberal arts college that hosts Division I athletics. We are rural, but worldly as well. Our students apply to other liberal arts colleges, but also to leading, large, private universities. U.S. News and World Report categorizes us, rightfully, as one of the national colleges. But our faculty members are supported much like those at research universities, with scholarly productivity and tenure expectations seen at these institutions. 

This distinctiveness is a profound source of strength, even if it sometimes means it takes more than a sentence or two to explain to people what Colgate is. Colby College can look to Williams for its aspirational goals. Notre Dame looks at Duke. The University of Chicago keeps an eye on Yale. We, at Colgate, need to keep an eye on a number and a variety of leading colleges and universities to see how we are doing, and to see what we should be doing better.

So The Third-Century Plan seeks to do two things at once. It seeks to understand and celebrate that which makes Colgate unique. And, at the same time, it asks us to look at a number of leading national institutions to see what we can adopt and to see what levels of achievement we can reach as well (if not surpass).

And so we begin this third century at Colgate. We have a road map now; one that should serve us for not only years but also decades. We have things to do. We have faculty to hire and students to attract. We have buildings to restore or build. We have stories to share with the world. But as we know on this campus, and as I hope the alumni know, all of this is possible. 

It is, after all, our time.