President’s Message

Summer 2020

On the Importance of a Campus

I am writing this column in early July. A few weeks ago, Colgate announced its plans for the fall semester. But as I write these words, we are watching COVID-19 infection numbers spike across parts of the country. If the first part of this year proves to be a reliable guide, the story is sure to change, perhaps dramatically, over the next few weeks, and the landscape will be different than it is at the moment of this writing.

But one trend that has stayed constant throughout this period of crises (pandemic, economic distress, rising protests against racial injustice) is the sheer amount of attention paid to the nation’s colleges and universities. It is a rare day now when major national news outlets — particularly the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal — do not have a prominent story on American higher education.

The only conclusion one can draw from this much attention and concern is, for a vast part of our society, what happens on a college campus is deeply important. And to contemplate a season in which our campuses are not full is met with a sense of loss, even dread.

There is something to be learned about this level of sustained attention. For decades, the American higher education system — the vast array of colleges and research universities — was regarded as one of the crown jewels of American culture. As engines of social mobility, sources of research breakthroughs, and the places where the arts and humanities were studied and protected, our colleges and universities were thought to be a public good, a trust to be nurtured.

They have never been perfect places, of course. They reflect the world from which they sprang, and thus they suffer from the problems and limitations of that world. Tuition increases, athletics and admissions scandals, and stories of student misbehavior all have further taken the shine off our regard for these institutions. The debates about the state and direction of higher education never abate, and I have never spent a year on a campus when there hasn’t been calls for significant reform and change.

But, through it all, the campus has always remained an unquestionably important place in American life: a place desired and a place where a certain set of irreplaceable memories are to be made. And now the idea of the loss of a time on the American campus seems profound, even as the limitations of the American college system seem more apparent.

And, again, there is something to be learned by this. It’s best to take notice when attention is paid from all corners. There is a truth here worth holding onto: The American campus is an important place. Despite all the criticism of the American college and university in recent years, the legitimate cries for reforms in the university business model as well as changes to admissions and curriculum, we all know there is something about a campus worth fighting for.

The campus is a rare place set aside in a busy world for the nation to think and for people to be changed by thought.

And now we have a duty. We have a duty, as safety allows, to get back to our work with profound determination. Especially now.

Our very own Goldie Blumenstyk ’79, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education on June 3, noted: “Colleges … have a duty to fully examine the fractures in our society — and to give us tools to mend them. It’s a daunting challenge, especially in the midst of a worldwide health and economic crisis. Still, if ever there were a need for colleges to stand up and show the best of what higher education can be, the time is now.” This must be part of our work as we return.

There are a few things Colgate must stand for as we reopen — in whatever ways health advice allows. These are:

  • Being an academic culture committed to rigorous academic discourse and discovery.
  • Being an academic culture committed to the free exchange of ideas in the service of truth, no matter how hard that truth might be to uncover, or see.
  • Being a place where the net is thrown wider to gather, in Hamilton, the most talented students, staff, and faculty in the nation.
  • Being a place marked by a commitment to equity in opportunity and instilled with a sense of humility.
  • Being a place driven by a seriousness of purpose, even as we engage in the joys of campus life.

The first year of Colgate’s third century will be remembered as one of our most challenging times. It also might — should we commit ourselves to our values and our work — be the beginning of a period of great growth, a time when our contributions to the nation and the world are visible and necessary.

Times of great challenge are always times of great opportunity, if you know what you are committed to.