Throughout the past several months, I have met with alumni in a variety of settings, from small groups on campus to large groups in numerous cities across the country. With the help of the Alumni Council, I will start a new series of conversations with graduates about the future of the university as it looks forward to its bicentennial year. As these discussions continue, I plan on sending out to all graduates a document in which I will set forth what I believe to be the fundamentals for Colgate’s future. It is an important discussion to have as we consider Colgate in the next century of its existence.
The first foundation upon which Colgate’s future rests, I believe, will be the extent to which we continuously strengthen the intellectual reach and impact of the university and nurture a culture in which intellectual rigor marks all of our endeavors.
Simply put, to attract students of the highest potential, faculty of the highest regard, and staff who are leaders in their fields, Colgate must be known, even more than it is today, as an academic institution committed to academic rigor. This lies at the heart of the university’s mission.
We must introduce our students to the challenges and power of rigorous, academic discourse. In an era of heated rhetoric and political divisions, at a time when shouting is prized, we will give our graduates a profound gift should they leave campus with the power to summon reason, gather facts, and engage in a discourse that is sound, fair, and powerful. With those tools, the next generation of Colgate graduates will be able to shape our world as accomplished, empathetic leaders.
I raise this now because Colgate is in the midst of two discussions that will call, deeply, on our ability as a university to engage in debate and conversation marked by such rigor.
First, Colgate, as is the case at many institutions, is having a serious conversation about the role of free speech and discourse on campus. You cannot read the news these days, it seems, without seeing examples of this sort of discussion occurring at several colleges and universities. Few people reject the centrality of free expression on a campus. We must allow opinions to be expressed, ideas to be shared, and facts to be conveyed in clear and forthright manners no matter how difficult they may be to hear. Some argue that limitations or regulations of speech, however, should be considered to ensure that all feel welcomed on the campus and assured of their place in the community. How does one balance these interests in an academic community? Is there a balance to be achieved at all without some fundamental compromise in our values?
Issues surrounding free speech on a campus, or elsewhere, are complex. There is an entire jurisprudence related to cases concerning the operations of free speech in our nation. But in order for Colgate to develop our own understanding of the role of free speech and expression on our campus, I have charged a task force — one composed of trustees, faculty members, and students — to draft a statement of principles regarding free speech that will be taken up by the Board of Trustees, the faculty, and the community as a whole this spring.
What is important, indeed required if we are to be a great university, is that we consider the draft principles produced by the task force with a great and calm seriousness and have a debate about the proposed principles in an intellectually rigorous and respectful manner. People have very strong feelings about issues surrounding free speech, and we must recognize that. We must unpack those feelings so we can come to a set of principles we can all embrace. I look forward to the conversation that the task force’s work will engender.
Second, we will be having many conversations this spring, and surely in the years ahead, about our Torchlight Ceremony. Before I arrived on campus, I had heard there was an ongoing debate about the meaning and symbolism of Torchlight. Last year, even before national events made the matter more acute, I was struck by how intense the conversation was about this ceremony. I was disheartened that much of the discussion about Torchlight had moved onto social media, with people (many from beyond our Colgate community) expressing deeply vitriolic and accusatory statements about what the use of torches in a campus ceremony might mean, or might not. We were shouting at one another, not having a reasoned conversation.
The decision to bring in a visiting artist, one who has earned national and international acclaim for his ceremonies (many involving fire), was made to afford Colgate the opportunity to have a discussion about our commencement rituals. We needed both an academic space and a reasonable venue to have this debate.
We will have these continuing discussions about Torchlight this spring in the way a university must — by gathering facts, looking at history, considering context, listening carefully to the strongly held opinions of members of this academic community, and coming to reasoned conclusions.
People disagree, quite passionately (this is Colgate, after all), about what we should do with this ceremony. Emotions have been running high on this topic for years. We have a rare opportunity now, in the midst of this heat, for Colgate to show — to a world that seems incapable of discussion — how one academic community considers a complicated matter. This is what scholars do, this is what academic communities do, this is what Colgate must do.
I look forward to seeing alumni across the country as I work with the Alumni Council to consider Colgate’s future. And I look forward to these important discussions. We will do well to the extent we approach all of these matters with great respect, intellectual rigor, and a sense of obligation toward one another.
I have been at Colgate, as of this writing, for three semesters. At more moments than I can even now recount, I have found myself proud of this university and honored to walk on the hills of this campus. This spring will afford more of these moments.