For Brian W. Casey, Colgate is more than a place.
It’s a calling.
One early morning in the fall of 2016, newly inaugurated Colgate President Brian W. Casey walked out of James B. Colgate Hall, through the parking lot, and across Campus Drive. The hill was awakening. Cars delivered faculty and students to class, prospects to tours, staff to work. Birds sang in the slowly swaying branches of the stately old Norway spruce outside Merrill House.
Casey strolled up Alumni Drive toward the future home of Benton Hall, at this point occupied only by a sign, a few wooden stakes, a trio of young maple trees … and a man with a chain saw.
The president called out, “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to cut down these trees,” the man replied.
“No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I am. Here’s my card.”
“No, you’re not. Here’s my card.”
The maples were pardoned. They can be seen today in their new home on the other side of Alumni Drive, in front of Merrill House.
For Colgate’s 17th president, protecting individual maples isn’t micromanagement. Quite the contrary, it’s an act of what can only be thought of as macromanagement. “As a president, one of your jobs is to shape the institution, and to have a sense of the length of time affected by major decisions,” Casey said. “You plant trees that won’t be at their full maturity for 70 years, because the beauty of the campus is quite important. You build large and complex buildings — and when you do that, you have made a 100- to 200-year decision. And there are few things that impact the institution more than the faculty you hire. When a faculty member is hired, and granted tenure, that’s a 40- to 45-year decision for the university.”
Casey’s love affair with the American college has been a 40- to 45-year obsession, fed by education and inclination. After a year at Colgate, he is drawing on his experience, applying his eye for detail, and embracing long arcs of time as he begins to invest in the faculty, focus the university on the academic experience, enhance student life, and usher in the greatest building boom on campus since 1960.
A campus odyssey
As Casey himself tells the story, his father, Don, took him to a swim meet at Yale University back in the mid-1970s. Lost and late, they parked on the wrong side of campus and ended up sprinting together from one quadrangle to the next, searching for the pool. With each passing Gothic building, the younger Casey became less interested in the swim meet, more interested in the place in which he found himself. What did people do here? Why does this place look like this? It was nothing like anything he had ever seen before, and he didn’t want to leave.
Those swim meets paid off, and Casey was accepted as a varsity swimmer at Notre Dame, where he majored in economics to please his father and philosophy to please himself. He studied for his courses, and he also spent considerable time studying the college. By his own admission, he knew every construction site on campus, and he used to sneak in to see what was happening, track progress, and ponder why certain things were done certain ways.
Casey graduated in 1985 and headed to Stanford Law School. “It wasn’t because I wanted to be a lawyer,” he told members of the Ciccone Commons during a visit last year. “I thought it was just more school. I was getting my Master’s in School.” But three years later, whether he wanted to be a lawyer or not, Casey landed a coveted position as an associate at the prestigious Wall Street firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell, and his school days were over. He traveled between the firm’s offices in New York City, London, and Beijing, sealing financial deals. He was living a life full of social and financial capital, but he wasn’t enjoying it. “I kept thinking that I would come around, that I would fall into this work with passion. I thought that maybe I wasn’t working hard enough or, maybe in another couple of months, I would figure out what it was that I liked about the job.”
“You plant trees that won’t be at their full maturity for 70 years, because the beauty of the campus is quite important.”
A couple of months stretched into four years before Casey finally admitted that he was deeply unhappy as a lawyer and needed to make a career change. He took a soul-searching sabbatical, and he slowly realized that he had belonged on a university campus since the day he and his father lost themselves on the way to the swim meet. (This fact was long apparent to many people who knew Casey. A law school classmate gave him a copy of Paul Venable Turner’s tome Campus: An American Planning Tradition as a graduation present.) He needed to head back to college for the long haul. “It was visceral,” Casey said. “I’m happiest on a campus. I’m fascinated by them. I just had to be back there.”
He went off to Harvard to earn a PhD in history, focusing on the intellectual history of the United States and particularly on the development of American colleges. Meanwhile, he began commuting to Brown University, where he worked as a special assistant to its new president, the legendary Gordon Gee. “I was writing a dissertation about American higher education in the mornings, and then I would go and be in a president’s office at Brown in the afternoons,” Casey said. “So, my administrative life began early and intensely.”
After completing his dissertation in 2001, Casey joined the administration at Brown as assistant provost. He was back at Harvard in 2005, appointed associate dean for academic affairs in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. DePauw University found him there in 2008 and invited him to take on the presidency, which he held until his arrival in Hamilton in 2016.
Creating a leader
Casey’s father, Don, was more than a swim-meet chauffeur. He was TWA’s senior vice president of marketing with executive experience at firms like Exxon, Procter & Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson.
While Brian’s schoolmates in Holmdel, N.J., were going down the shore for summer break, he and his siblings were planning extensive trips with Don and their mother, Carole, to Madrid or Moscow. These weren’t just sightseeing excursions, either. Don and Carole required that each Casey child draft a report on an interesting aspect of the locale to which they would be traveling, and those reports were due prior to boarding. The Caseys might meet with the pope during a layover in Rome. Or Ralph Lauren in New York City — Don hired Lauren in the early days of the designer’s career to reimagine the look of TWA, from the upholstery on the aircraft seats to the flight attendants’ uniforms.
Back on the ground, Brian and his father took long drives to look at architecture and foliage. On these drives, and in his travels during the years that followed, Brian developed a love for the American elm. The tree of the college campus was brought down by Dutch elm disease, which spread across the country in the ’60s and ’70s. Before the blight, the elm had a lot going for it. According to experts at Harvard — where elms once dominated the august yard — it was ideal because it was abundant, fast growing, transplantable, and tall. Its canopy started high on the trunk and created a natural roof over the lawn, where students could sit, study, debate, and read. As a graduate student at Harvard in the late-1990s, Brian watched the university undertake an ambitious replanting of the yard. He paid close attention to the varieties of trees selected and the way that landscape architects ensured that the replacement trees had no limbs below 7 feet — an accurate reproduction of the elm canopy, under which deep thoughts and conversations took root.
Trips and talks with his dad trained Brian, from his earliest childhood, to observe details like these in his environment. Don helped him to understand that seemingly small touches, like the height of a tree limb or the colors of a uniform, can have an impact on people and on the outcomes of their work. Parts should create harmonious wholes. Beauty is not a luxury on a university quad, which is the heart of a campus. It is a vital component in an intentional design that furthers important intellectual work.
“Beauty is not a luxury on a university quad, which is the heart of a campus. It is a vital component in an intentional design that furthers important intellectual work.”
By coincidence or good fortune, some two decades after watching the replanting of Harvard Yard, Brian Casey was appointed to the Colgate presidency. Architects were finishing designs for three new buildings: Benton Hall on the edge of the academic quadrangle and two new residence halls on what is commonly known as the old golf course. The new president trained his eye on the plans and realized that the university was about to disrupt the architectural cohesion of the campus’s historic center. “I’m proud that, in some of my first moments as president, I was able to change the designs of these buildings that were going to be radical departures from the traditional look of the campus,” he said. “Every now and then you should have buildings that are provocative and look different, but I think in the historic core of campus you have to be deeply respectful of context.”
Embracing complexity, retaining focus
In February of 2017, four months after his inauguration, Casey gathered university staff in Memorial Chapel for a meeting. “To be at Colgate,” he said, “there is an obligation — to those who went before us, and to the nation — to ask how best to produce the most excellent version of Colgate possible.”
Like the NCAA Division I swimmer that he is, he has broken the obligation into a series of four strokes that the university must hone to achieve victory. He is determined to keep Colgate’s focus on its academic program, the quality of the student body, their campus experience, and the campus itself. The headers are straightforward, but the task is complex.
For starters, more than half of Casey’s initial cabinet members — the leadership team responsible for advancing his agenda — were serving on an interim basis when he arrived on campus in July 2016. Since his first day in James B. Colgate Hall, he has hired a new provost, dean of the college, chief information officer, vice president for communications, and vice president for finance and administration.
The categories also have many constituent parts. When Casey speaks of the academic program, he means everything from faculty recruitment and retention to the course load that each professor bears while conducting groundbreaking research. He means financial resources available to fund the research, and he also wants to ensure that the courses the university offers are evolving to fit the needs of today’s undergraduates. “The most important thing for a president to do is to support the academic mission of the institution,” Casey said. “Students generate a lot of lovely and joyful noise, and you listen to it. But great presidents must have an intellectual vision, and they must ruthlessly and perpetually and persistently pursue it.”
Time and tide wait for …
Ruthless and perpetual. The words also apply to a college president’s schedule. It’s tempting to think that there was a time when college presidents sat in mahogany-paneled, book-filled offices and thought deep thoughts. “That’s not true,” Casey said with a laugh. “I don’t think there ever was such a time.” Yes, thanks to social media and other technological advances, the pace of a presidency has increased, but its rigorous schedule is timeless.
Every Friday, on his way out of the office door, Casey receives two cards. One contains his schedule for Saturday, the other for Sunday. “There are times when you are working seven days a week for weeks on end,” Casey said. “There are times when you just feel like you aren’t sleeping.”
The president’s tactics for combatting job stress are becoming the stuff of campus legend. He does laps each morning with the varsity swim team. There are the walks with his dog, Emrys, around the Quad every evening. On airplanes, flying toward his destination, he reads Colgate memos and writes e-mails to Colgate faculty and staff; on the way home, he reads for pleasure. And every night at 10 p.m., he tries to shut down his e-mail.
“The biggest challenge of this job,” Casey said, “is that you have very little time that is under your control. You go from place to place, from meeting to meeting. So, you have to force yourself to back off and think about bigger things, because the job does not lend itself to long-term thinking.”
Here’s another misconception that Casey studied in detail while researching his dissertation at Harvard: “Institutions like to promulgate the notion that they are timeless,” Casey said. “In fact, they are always changing. Some of those changes are slow moving, but they are always changing.”
“The biggest challenge of this job is that you have very little time that is under your control. You go from place to place, from meeting to meeting. So, you have to force yourself to back off and think about bigger things, because the job does not lend itself to long-term thinking.”
A university’s place in time is a bit like a Cracker Jack hologram card: depending on perspective, you see the old or the new. Stand in the middle of the academic quadrangle and focus on Memorial Chapel, and you will enjoy roughly the same view as a member of the Class of 1935. But rotate 180 degrees, and you will spy some of the most advanced science facilities in the nation.
Benton Hall, the new home of career services, will feature local stone of the same variety used in the university’s oldest buildings. Its interior features reflect the motifs of James C. Colgate Hall, and its front portico, looking out at Hascall Hall from between Olin and McGregory halls, invokes the Robert H.N. Ho Science Center. Yet, activities inside the building will be completely modern. Similarly, Colgate’s new residence halls will mirror East and West halls in form while being entirely up to date in function. “Our architects were challenged to create brand-new buildings that instantly look 100 years old,” Casey said.
Inside classrooms, the core curriculum still bonds generations, but course topics, syllabi, and educational technologies — guided by the interests and curiosity of today’s faculty as well as the needs of 21st-century students — are constantly evolving.
Embracing the university’s past and learning from history while moving relentlessly forward — it’s more than academic. “There are a small number of truly national, important colleges and universities like Colgate,” Casey told staff that day in the chapel. “These institutions produce an overwhelming majority of our leaders and thinkers. What these institutions do shapes the nature of education in America. Along with our great industries and other cultural institutions, these colleges and universities are foundational to the nation. Colgate is one of these institutions.”
Colgate’s value(s) proposition
Casey will readily admit that the excitement of scrutinizing architectural renderings and recruiting a new management team masks something that, in his words, can sound “incredibly dull” to those who don’t live and breathe the American university.
“We are creating processes and governing structures so that people understand that Colgate is well managed, so that people understand how decisions are made,” Casey said. “Whether you agree with them or not, you can understand that the decisions were legitimate.”
“How do you focus the institution on larger values, goals, and missions that will free you from this zero-sum, either/or thinking?”
As he creates processes, Casey is also delving into an issue that became apparent to him during his earliest conversations with the Presidential Search Committee. “I believe that Colgate has allowed itself to think in terms of oppositional postures, outlooks, and perspectives that are, by definition, zero sum — whether it’s Greek life versus non–Greek life, academics versus athletics, sciences versus the humanities, tradition versus social justice,” Casey said. So, when he’s not reviewing faculty tenure cases, listening to that joyful noise from students, or making sure that the university’s pool of undergraduate applicants is growing in strength and numbers, he’s asking himself, “How do you focus the institution on larger values, goals, and missions that will free you from this zero-sum, either/or thinking?” According to Casey, great universities throughout history find clarity by identifying aspirations and characteristics that are, instead, unifying. “One of my jobs,” Casey said, “is to help people recognize those deeper values of the institution, values that belong to all of us on this campus.”
Right place, right time
It’s tempting to wonder: Did Casey always know he wanted to be a college president? Maybe not consciously. Maybe not when he was sitting in that office on Wall Street. But what about when he went to Harvard? Did he sit under an elm and think about being president of a college? People frequently ask.
“That question — did you always want to be a college president? — is, I think, a real misframing of what is at stake,” he said. “When I began the interview process, I was interested in being president of Colgate, of this place, at this time, facing these issues.”
Colgate features the characteristics that Casey loves most in an American university. It is small enough that he can know the faculty and the students personally. It is big enough to support robust faculty-student research, Division I athletics, and a top-tier infrastructure. The university has a long history and a compelling mission. And it has, at its core, the liberal arts. “I believe in the liberal arts,” Casey said. “That’s not just rhetoric. I actually do think it’s the best way to educate people.”
Beyond knowing what Colgate is, Casey knows what it could become. “I had the sense that Colgate has this remarkable history and remarkable characteristics, but somehow the narrative had become blurry. It needed someone to come in and say, ‘There are greater aspects of this institution that we can all embrace together to move the institution forward.’
“Historians always write in terms of presidencies, whether I like it or not. I dream that, at the end of my time here, they will write ‘Due to his leadership and his work with many constituencies, Colgate became profoundly stronger.’”
Q&A with President Brian W. Casey
SCENE: What kind of advice did you receive from various members of the Colgate community during your first year as president?
BWC: Be present. Be visible. It was clearly a signal that the school was hungry for someone to represent the institution. One of my responsibilities — and one of the natural attributes of this job — is to represent Colgate, to embody the institution. So you need to be present; you have to have really good ears; you have to walk around the campus and feel what’s going on and understand it.
SCENE: As you met with alumni, parents, and friends of the university last year, did any questions come up with regularity?
BWC: “Is Colgate more like Williams or Dartmouth?”
And I have to admit that I find that question a bit irksome. My job is not to make Colgate more like Williams or more like Dartmouth. My job is to make Colgate the best version of itself. There are certain intrinsic qualities of this place, and its excellence will be built on those things.
When I look at what Colgate does, it’s larger than most liberal arts colleges. So I think whatever happens with Colgate, it has to recognize that scale. There’s something else about Colgate: it tends to be a place where people connect. Colgate students tend to move in groups, and they are doers. Colgate has a type of energy, a spirit.
SCENE: How do your conversations with Colgate students differ from the discussions you’ve had at Brown, Harvard, DePauw, and elsewhere?
BWC: Colgate students speak of faculty more readily than students at other places, absolutely. If I were at another institution, they would say, “Well, I’m in microeconomics, and I’m learning about …” They define their courses in terms of a larger subject. Here, when you ask students to tell you about their classes, they will very quickly say, “Oh, I’m in Professor ______’s course.” They label the course by the faculty member, not by the topic, and that’s something that cuts across all student groups here. It’s a source of incredible power and joy.
Learn more about President Brian W. Casey, Colgate’s 17th president.