I write this column in the summer following my first year at Colgate. As with anyone looking back at their first year in college — not unlike the reflections I surely must have had after my own freshman year — I am surprised by emotions attendant to being a new person, in a new year, on a new campus. Campuses are always places of strong feelings and intense experiences. My first year at Colgate was, by that measure, perfectly typical.
But we don’t live in typical times. As a nation, we live in an era filled with heated and often divisive rhetoric. And — as has been widely commented on in many books, journal articles, and magazine essays — we seem less capable these days of listening to each other, less understanding of each other. American campuses are, of course, not immune to these circumstances. In fact, given their core work, they face these conditions with particular concern. We are communities engaged in education. And we do this in close proximity, on campuses in which we live and learn with and next to each other. If the basic sense of community is impossible today, how then are we to go about our work as a university?
I think it is wise, at all times, but especially now, to remember two key fundamentals to Colgate, basic principles that can guide us. In the year ahead, as we prepare to celebrate Colgate’s Bicentennial, I plan on speaking about these more in various settings, but in this moment of reflection on the year, it is good to state them in this column.
First, Colgate must always be committed to academic achievement and rigor. No matter what issues of the day might concern us, we must always remember that we have assembled in Hamilton a faculty of first order and a national and international student body of remarkable promise. The only way to gain the most from this convergence of extremely talented people is to demand of that population a type of rigorous academic engagement that is the hallmark of the great colleges and universities in the world. We must be an institution of intellectual examination, free debate, and high expectation. Whatever is said or felt in the heat of any moment, we must return our students and our community to that work.
A recent New York Times column by David Leonhardt used the words of American judicial philosopher Learned Hand from a speech Hand gave in New York’s Central Park in 1944, to remind readers of the need for an openness to the ideas of others. Hand noted, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” He went on to argue that “the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.”
This disciplined and clear engagement with others in an academic setting is extremely hard work, and it requires considerable and consistent support for the work of faculty and students. To lose sight of this, though — to consider the primary mission of the university to be anything other than this sort of academic engagement — would be to have lost our institutional compass.
A second fundamental principle of Colgate — of any truly outstanding residential college — is less tangible than the first set forth above, but it is still essential. It is the duty of the university to understand and nurture meaningful connection and community.
As I meet alumni across the country, so many graduates speak of their love for Colgate. It is clear that the university provided, for decades, a setting and a context that fostered within our students a lasting affection for Colgate and connection with each other.
You might say that Colgate students in past decades had an easier time building such a sense of community with each other because the world was less complex then. But while the forms of community might look different now, strengthening the bonds of those in this university to each other is part of Colgate’s responsibility. We must find ways for students to build and sustain meaningful connections to each other. And to Colgate.
It might seem retrograde, or self-serving, to argue that Colgate should wish that our students develop and sustain a meaningful and heartfelt connection to their alma mater. But I believe that connection to the university — one that makes available the world of ideas and sets the stage for lasting friendships — is a worthy and necessary goal.
In the months and years ahead, I hope to speak to as many alumni as possible about the steps we should take to ensure that Colgate remains an academic institution of the highest academic regard. I will also speak of the steps we should take to ensure that those who come to this campus find the means to connect to one another, and to Colgate, in ways that are sustaining and meaningful. In the most complicated of times, these fundamentals will strengthen Colgate, and help us to move forward with energy and confidence.
I look forward to this work and to the academic year ahead of us.