Since 2016, my focus as president has been on securing Colgate’s position as a great American university. Reunion 2023 attendees heard me discuss the six steps that any college president must take to accomplish such a task. Through this column, I put those six steps before the entire Colgate community. These are, inevitably, the guiding principles of the Third-Century Plan, which calls on Colgate to renew its campus, attract ever greater levels of talent, invest in academic excellence at every turn, and offer an undergraduate experience equal to the very best in the country. 

These steps are behind the bold decision to raise $1 billion through our Campaign for the Third Century. And they are reflected in the stories you will see in this — and every — edition of Colgate Magazine.

Step 1

Be appointed to a university with a tradition of greatness.

If you hope to guide a college to excellence, it is best to begin in a place where greatness is a tradition. I was fortunate enough to do just that. Every college is distinct, with its own DNA, culture, and personality. The job of the president is to find the innateness of the place and strengthen it. Colgate, thankfully, has a distinctive energy and the will to achieve preeminence.

Step 2

Assemble a strong team.

The public in general, and Colgate alumni in particular, will not often see this presidential function — that is, managing a team — in action. Yet it is possibly the most important thing I do. As president, I must constantly ask, “How do I form a remarkable, ambitious team? How do I encourage them to work together in service of a vision?” It is rarely discussed beyond the walls of the administration building, yet it occupies so much of my day.

Step 3

Focus intensely on the essentials

Staying focused is one of the hardest things to do when you work at a university. These are dynamic places, with many constituencies — faculty and staff members, undergraduates, alumni, parents, local neighbors, the national higher education press — all with their own voices, concerns, needs, and goals. Yet it is the president’s job to hear and acknowledge them while still advancing a unified vision for the achievement of the institution’s mission. That is the function of the Third-Century Plan, and that is why it was formed carefully through campus governance structures, in close consultation with all constituencies. It is our North Star, the long-term road map we agreed to follow together.

Step 4

Demand excellence.

This is hard, too. As a president, one of my responsibilities is to look across the University, from its highest strategic efforts to the most mundane daily operations, and ask, “Are we taking an easy path just because it is easy?” or “Is there a more excellent way to do this?”

Colgate has its rhythms and rituals, and it can fall into patterns that feel comfortable. This is human nature, and Colgate is a place where smart, well-intentioned humans come together in pursuit of a shared mission. And we do most things well. We are, by almost every measure, in an extremely enviable position in the American higher education context. Why not keep things as they are? But every now and then, we must disrupt ourselves — before someone or something else does it for us.

One of the great secrets of American colleges and universities is that they are profoundly resistant to change. Regardless of what you might read in the media, universities are conservative institutions in many ways, seeking constancy. As president, you have to remember this little-known fact. So when you demand excellence, also know that you have an institution that has any number of ingrained patterns and reasons not to change. Every now and then you have to look at those ingrained patterns and demand something new. (By the way, no one likes this … at all. Trust me. But this is completely necessary.)

Step 5

Be bold.

American colleges and universities tend to project a timelessness. We live and work in old stone buildings; we walk across centuries-old quadrangles. We project history and tradition.

But it is fundamentally true that, for all of that conservative instinct, institutions never really stay the same. A university is either improving or declining. Those are the only two directions available, given the remarkably competitive world in which we operate. You have to choose to be bold. It’s a conscious act. (And, by the way, most colleges and universities do not so choose.)

Step 6

Find joy in this work.

I happily say that the job of a college president is difficult and relentless. The meetings start early and the events go late. Something complicated crosses your screen every day. And every decision you make will find its detractors.  

So, in order to be effective in this job, you must find joy in its rhythms, patterns, and requirements. I have seen so many of my peers lose that joy, and the institution suffers as a result.

On a personal note, making the campus beautiful is one source of joy for me. Walking my dog and seeing the students is a completely other source of joy for me. Hosting an event at which people are happy — this is also a source of joy. I used to think these were unimportant things, small private things that I should keep to myself. I was wrong about that.

Where We Are

These six steps are the foundation of my daily routine. But they also provide context for the Third-Century Plan, which is a way for us to maintain focus on — and change — the four most important things about an undergraduate college: attracting talent, whether students, faculty, or staff; strengthening the academic enterprise (the factor that changes an institution’s reputation over time and is the greatest challenge); enriching the student experience; and stewarding the physical campus. In each of these areas, the Plan asks, “Where are we demanding excellence, and how do we become better?”

It turns out that much progress is taking place in each of these areas. This year, more than 800 students are attending Colgate without loans due to the Colgate Commitment, our initiative in access and affordability. We seek to fully endow the current level of support, which removes loans for students with family income below $175,000, makes Colgate tuition-free for students with family income below $80,000, and covers other costs of attendance.

A dozen Colgate faculty members now hold new endowed chairs, answering the question, “How is the institution supporting its faculty?” We will expand that number to 20 during the course of the Campaign for the Third Century.

Construction on the Robert H.N. Ho Mind, Brain, and Behavior Center continues alongside the expansion and renovation of Olin Hall. Mind, Brain, and Behavior Initiative programming, which brings together biology, neurology, psychology, philosophy, and other departments in the humanities and social sciences, is already underway. 

The Benton Center for Creativity and Innovation is also rising — in fact, we shifted the reunion tents to the other side of Taylor Lake this year in order to accommodate the work that limited access to Whitnall Field. This project will ensure that explorations in film and media studies, digital art, computer science, music, dance, and theater all have a common locus on the Middle Campus.

Across Broad Street, we are in the initial phases of shaping the Lower Campus. This University has to make a multi-year, multi-million-dollar investment to ensure that our juniors and seniors live in residences that form and extend community. On a renovated and cohesive Lower Campus, there will be fraternities and sororities, theme houses, apartments — an entire West Row on 30 acres that are currently degraded parking lots. Read more about the development of the Lower Campus in the pages that follow.

Build It and…

This issue of Colgate Magazine reports both on the advances of the University and its community members. In addition to detailing our plans for Lower Campus, the summer edition brings you a conversation with Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon ’80, who represents Pennsylvania’s 5th district — including part of Philadelphia. In true Colgate fashion, she saw a need for leadership in her community, and she stepped forward to take on that role. Today, she represents more than 700,000 constituents and serves on the Judiciary Committee.

You will notice that Mary Gay still draws on Colgate connections. She’s not alone — this University is known as a place where strong relationships develop between professors and their students. It happens particularly when students join faculty members in pursuing scholarly research. Magazine editors were curious to know if research partnerships had an enduring effect, and they asked alumni for the ways in which those experiences shaped their lives. Many wrote in to finish the sentence, “My Colgate research motivated me to become….”

As you read these and other stories, catch up on your alumni news, and enjoy the summer months with family and friends, I hope you will embrace the six steps that can lead to greatness, too. Building on tradition, forming a team, focusing on essentials, demanding excellence, being bold, and finding joy in your work — these are steps that can be applied to any walk of life. Be well.