Message from Interim President Jill Harsin

Interim President Harsin

Interim President Jill Harsin (Photo by Andrew Daddio)

Twelve professors retired from Colgate this year — the largest number of retirements ever in a single year. Their number includes founding members of our programs in film and media studies, women’s studies, writing and rhetoric, and environmental studies; leaders of study groups; nationally and internationally recognized scholars; and a former dean of the faculty and interim president.

In the feature article, these beloved teacher-scholars share their thoughts and memories about their lives at Colgate.

Every retirement is both a loss and a gain. The losses include experience, institutional knowledge, stability, and leadership. Potential gains are obvious, as well: new colleagues, the development of innovative courses, the possibility of new collaborations between programs and departments — in short, the renewal that occurs whenever people with fresh ideas join a group.

Academic departments, when faced with the need to replace a colleague, approach this task by looking at their course offerings and the current state of their field of study. Are there new subfields, new partnerships that might be made with interdisciplinary programs and other departments, a reshuffling of existing courses so that the new position can be reconfigured?

This process of redefinition is also a part of the life of individual faculty members. My own course portfolio is very different today from what it was 33 years ago. I, like so many others, have gone through numerous transitions as a teacher because of changing departmental needs, the hiring of new colleagues to whom I was happy to cede certain courses, and my changing research interests that allowed me to develop expertise in different fields.

Among this year’s emeriti are many who went through such reinventions: for example, trained to teach English or economics, then going on to develop courses in the emerging field of women’s studies. All of us on the faculty are also aided by an institutional structure at Colgate that values and encourages interdisciplinary and the breaking down of walls. An annual gathering sponsored by the liberal arts core program brings together a substantial number of professors for two days of active panel discussions about teaching — always informed by careful attention to current issues on campus — during the week before commencement.

Proponents of the liberal arts do not always explain themselves very effectively in the face of challenges from those who support only the teaching of skill sets currently needed by employers. We mutter something about “critical thinking,” and we sense that we have already lost our audience.

But let me offer up the following: I wrote my dissertation on an old Smith-Corona. It and the typewriter of my dreams, the IBM Selectric with the ball cartridge, are both for sale on eBay as “vintage” machines. I used gallons of Wite-Out — still around, though its glory days are long past. I had an immovable wooden piece of television-furniture turned on to one of its three channels for background noise; I saw many late-night commercials inviting me to sign up for a credential in TV and VCR repair. (At the time, it sounded tempting.) I am currently writing on a device that would have seemed utopian 30 years ago, and that I now take completely for granted.

Transitions of another kind are an annual event. Every year, we say goodbye to the senior class, applaud our favorite students as they get their diplomas, and eagerly keep track of their progress for subsequent years. Many of the students in our Class of 2015, those who just left us, may well end their careers in fields that do not yet exist; they will joyously reinvent themselves, and will have the conceptual tools to do it.

A Colgate education is defined by depth, in the form of immersion in a particular discipline, finished by a capstone project or seminar; and by breadth, in the form of our liberal arts core courses and distribution requirements. Even if you aren’t going to be a scientist, we believe, you should know how a scientist approaches the world — or how the social sciences turn an analytical eye on human societies of the past and present, or how the humanities evaluate and make art. All students should have the experience of trying to master things they are less than confident about, and should have the opportunity to fall in love with a field they never would otherwise have considered. The liberal arts provide them with critical thinking, yes, but also with that spark of intellectual curiosity that is needed for creativity in all fields.

So farewell to our 12 colleagues; and farewell to the Class of 2015. We will miss your daily presence, but will look forward to seeing what you make of yourselves.