Conversation with the President


Neil R. Grabois was inaugurated as Colgate's
thirteenth president in October 1988. Seven years later,
in this interview with the Scene, he asseses where the
college stands today and looks to the future.

Scene: During much of your first two years at Colgate the college was focused on an exhaustive study of residential life. As you look back on the work of the Special Committee on Residential Life and consider the changes it brought about, how do you assess residential life on campus today?

NRG:The SCRL recommendations have only begun to be realized. This is our first year of sophomore rush for instance. On the other hand, with the addition of new residential facilities, major improvements in existing residential facilities, and improvements in the social options available to students, we are in a much better place than we were in 1990. We have heard from several students who were once skeptics that sophomore rush has been helpful to them. As long as we vigorously improve residential opportunities for

our students, sophomore rush will create an opportunity for students in their first year to make and keep good friends without the parting of the ways that used to occur with freshman rush.

How are fraternities faring?

Fraternities were a little uneasy at first and one can understand that they might be. My sense now is that they feel pretty good about the new system. The meal plan that we introduced permits new members of houses that have dining facilities to take their evening meal at their houses during the week. That enables them to become incorporated into the life of the house even though they are not living there. Also, rush went well, which means that the number of new members is high at almost every house. In general the fraternities and sororities are in a solid position financially and my sense is that they have come to grips effectively with the implications of sophomore rush. I think sophomore rush will strengthen the houses because the leadership of the houses will pass to seniors and juniors. That will create a much better sense of stability and maturity, which in the long run will strengthen all the houses. Which is exactly what SCRL had in mind.

How effective has the college been in its efforts to remove from fraternities and sororities some of the responsibility for social life on campus?

I don't believe that the improvement of social life should be the responsibility of the fraternities and sororities. It should be the responsibility of the college to provide the best possible opportunities for all students. Fraternities and sororities should be free to create the social life they want without feeling responsibility for the entire campus. The university shouldn't be in the position of cruise director, but it should provide sufficient opportunities for students to use the facilities and to use the talents that are here to ensure that we complement what students might do on their own -- to ensure that there are both places and activities to capture the imagination of any student on campus.

How does Colgate compare with what is happening nationally on issues of race, ethnicity and diversity?

The ethos on campus has improved over the last several years. There are still tensions implicit in America, and it's not surprising that Colgate is not immune to those tensions. But as I walk around campus and see students of different groups engaging one another in very comfortable ways, I'm heartened by where we are. I don't think we've come as far as we must but I do feel very good about our common commitment. In a recent visit by Jesse Jackson and in the forum sponsored this fall by the Maroon-News, students engaged one another and the university on very difficult issues. It is my hope that the security students feel at Colgate and our sense of community make it possible to talk about the hard issues between and among students and faculty. We have more talking to do, but it has to be more spontaneous than structured if it is going to be successful.

Are you comfortable with the size of the minority community on campus?

The size of the minority community has been relatively stable over a rather long period. It goes up and down a little bit from year to year and the relative proportions of different groups changes, but that is more statistical noise than anything else. The admissions office has been doing a very good job in bringing the good news of Colgate across the country. We want to have a community that represents a variety of backgrounds and points of view. It's healthier, especially for an institution that prides itself on the creation of leaders. Those leaders will have to come from all parts of America and we've been extraordinarily successful in training and nurturing leadership potential. We are never going to be satisfied that we have succeeded in attracting all those students we'd like to have come, but I am encouraged that we are moving in a good direction.

The college is $75 million toward a goal of raising $130 million in a campaign that ends two years from now. How will that campaign improve Colgate?

The campaign has already improved Colgate with some new facilities. Persson Hall and the Brian Little Fitness Center, both of which were goals of the campaign, are up and running and are extraordinarily successful. We will have a series of new professorships, some of which are already in place. We have wonderful support for our programs in China and Asian studies. Professorships make a big difference both in enabling us to attract the best faculty and in holding on to people who are very good. The campaign will provide substantially more money for financial aid and that will make a big difference to the university. The campaign will finance new social opportunities for students, enabling us to enhance student activities space.

The library is substantially pressed now and will, in not very many years, run out of space. We have to provide for additions to the collections. But we also have to be mindful that libraries will function technologically in very different ways in the 21st century.

We need much more space for our art students and we look forward to the opportunity to improve Ryan Studio. I look forward to a time when we have artificial turf and can play some of our sports on a surface that is impervious to the Chenango Valley weather.

This campaign will make a big difference to us in many physical ways but in fact its importance is in enabling us to do more of what has made us a special institution.

Colgate is regularly mentioned among the top 20 liberal arts colleges in the country. Within that group, what in your experience distinguishes one college from another?

The differences are often subtle yet occasionally overt. As we look at the group, one of the things that is most evident is that these institutions have been very successful in gaining the support of their alumni and friends. They have endowments that permit them incredible stability and they are less likely to be affected by changes in government financing or even changes in the public's attitude about higher education. They are stable institutions whose strength is not of recent origin and who are likely to proceed with a measure of equanimity whatever happens in the economy.

Colgate is among the largest of those institutions. We are among the very few with Division I sports programs. We are among the few with a Greek letter system. We are certainly among the few with an extraordinary program of study groups and study abroad. We are among the few with a very powerful general education program.

But other institutions bring their own special perspectives and strengths to bear and each of us has over the years made choices that were appropriate to our own culture. The one difficulty with the listings, to my mind, is that they suggest that the order of the listing is all that counts. And I think that being among the very best institutions is what ought to be important to an individual student determining where he or she wishes to go. But the final decision ought to be determined by the strengths of an institution in terms of the interests and needs of the students.

The Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools reviews Colgate's accreditation every decade. You chaired the external committee that reviewed Colgate's accreditation in the 1980s. As you prepare now to lead the college into its next accreditation, what are the constants and where have you seen change?

The constants are a commitment to excellence, a preternatural capacity to turn out leaders, a campus that is exquisite, a faculty that is committed to the education of students and willing to put themselves out to ensure that that happens. Buildings change, some are renovated, others are added, and they contribute to the quality of the institution surely. But it is the students and faculty who are at the heart of the institution. And the culture of the institution that helped create a curriculum that mediates between students and faculty has been relatively unchanged. We have just engaged in an extensive review of Colgate through a planning task force that issued its report to the Board of Trustees. What I found encouraging about that report was its recognition that Colgate is extraordinarily strong; the changes proposed were at the margins. Those strengths were the same strengths I saw in 1987 when I came to campus for the first time to chair the Middle States team for Colgate's reaccreditation.

What characterizes us is that long-term commitment to students, to the life of the mind and to the opportunities we provide for the growth of the whole person. None of those qualities has changed. Indeed, we have enhanced opportunities for students and we continue to be a place of excellence.

When I came, one of my concerns was that Colgate was extraordinarily complicated and doing many more things than I expected an institution of this size to be able to do. The more I understood Colgate, the more I realized that that was one of our distinguishing features and that we aspire far beyond what anybody would think possible. Frankly, I am now committed to those aspirations and unwilling to see us limit our horizons.

What's in the future for college costs?

The next decade or so will see substantial slowing in the rate of increase of college prices. The question ahead for all institutions is how can we become more efficient in the use of resources without undercutting our commitment to our missions. Colgate distinguishes itself by having very close student-faculty relations. That requires a faculty that is large enough to enable students to have ready access to their instructors. Despite its expense, we are an institution with small classes and were we to change that we would harm ourselves.

Are there some things at Colgate that we could do to become more efficient? The answer of course is yes. But we are not going to see any substantial reduction in our costs without doing real violence to the nature of the institution.

I was recently quoted in the Christian Science Monitor as saying that parents have not indicated that they were prepared to give up amenities in exchange for a lower price. Whenever we discuss giving up any amenities, I learn that they are very important to a significant group on campus. As I look over my years in higher education, I realize that people's expectations have grown enormously. Not to appeal to the hoary past but when I was an undergraduate there was practically no counseling; deans' offices were very tiny -- one went to the dean only when one was in danger of being thrown out; there was no career planning; there were no computers; classrooms were far less sophisticated, as were laboratories; social opportunities were limited. We simply did less for our students. We do much more now, contributing to high expectations. But we did educate students very effectively 40 or 50 years ago. Over the last 10 years competition has led to a rapid improvement in opportunities without that much concern for price. More recently, however, concerns about price and value have increased. There are still some pressures to add facilities and programs, but they are less acute. But whatever the pressures to add, there will be a decline in the rate of increase of our price.

Women's ice hockey, a club team, has taken the college to court seeking varsity status. How significant is that suit in determining the scope of Title IX decisions nationally, and how do you think Title IX will change college athletics beyond what we have already seen?

We don't really understand what Title IX will do to intercollegiate athletics generally. That will depend on case law. Title IX is a rather vague statement about citizens' obligations. Its interpretation in the context of intercollegiate athletics will have to come from the courts. We are seeing some straws in the wind but the clear picture has not yet developed.

Colgate has been and continues to be committed to providing opportunities for women and men consistent with their talents and interests. We now have 11 men's and 11 women's varsity sports but Colgate has a larger participation of men than women in intercollegiate athletics. There are cultural and historical reasons for this although it may well change over the years.

The pending suit with the women's ice hockey team has frozen us in a way that is not helpful. We look forward to its resolution so we can do some things that we would like to do but feel that we can't act on until the suit has been resolved. The suit hinges on the construction of the meaning of a feature of Title IX. The suit has, however, been misunderstood to suggest a lack of commitment to athletic opportunities for women. Colgate is committed to the importance of athletic opportunities for women and men. A decision against Colgate might have important implications for other institutions. If Colgate succeeds in the suit, however, I think it will have little landmark weight, partly because I don't think anybody else has been worrying about the particular issue that is addressed in this suit: namely, if a university supports a varsity sport for men, is it obliged to offer the same sport for women.

How well is the college adapting to technological change?

We are adapting very well. We've invested in technology and its applications in a balanced fashion: we will be driven by our capacity to use technology effectively. There are already applications of new technology in teaching, and there will be more. We are using technology to administer the college more effectively and efficiently. But we continually discover that technology enables us to do things we could never do before. Thus we often find ourselves not becoming more efficient in the sense of having a smaller staff, but rather using the same size staff to do much more. Many of the changes to come will be driven by students. They come to Colgate with a new sensibility, one quite different from that of the old folks who were educated at a very different time.

What new building projects will we see on campus in the near term?

No college has ever said that it has built its last building. As I look ahead we will add social space that our students need. The library will continue to press its envelope and there will clearly be a need to expand and adapt to technology. In the years ahead our major responsibility will be to ensure that buildings are kept up, that we don't have the deferred maintenance some colleges have. Our spaces for making art must be enlarged to accommodate student interest. And, finally, we will have an all-weather practice field.

The Class of 1998 was nearly 160 students larger than expected. How has the college adapted to that increase, and what can be done to guard against overen-rollment in future classes?

Our long-term plan for the size of the college is about 2700 students. We are higher than that now as the Class of 1998 with its 160 additional students makes its way through. We adjusted to the larger class first by building Gate House, which accommodates 80 people. We are very pleased with it even though it is not a long-term facility. We engaged temporary faculty to be sure that the experience of the Class of '98 would be comparable academically to the Colgate expectation. Frankly that accommodation will be more difficult as the class moves into their junior/senior years when class size is customarily smaller: we will not be able to accommodate them easily with visiting faculty because that is not the way we teach upperclass students. The faculty has responded wonderfully to the challenge, working to ensure that students have the kind of experience we'd like them to have.

As for guarding against unexpectedly large classes in the future, there are really two ways. One is to under-admit and go to the waitlist. This is a sure-fire way to be successful but we will lose some talented students who won't wait for us. Alternatively, but with less assurance, we can assume the past is a good indicator of the future and we can make effective actuarial projections. After the large class we refined our projection technique but if the college becomes even more popular there will be upward pressure on the yield from admission offers. You simply hope that as that increased enthusiasm for Colgate builds, you recognize it in your projections.

Had you been president of Colgate ten years ago, some observers would have been asking you what you planned to do about a losing basketball team. Meanwhile your football team, captained by a quarterback who would go on to play professionally, would have been 7-3-1. Could you comment on the importance of athletic competitiveness and the pressure to win at this level.

First, the athletic programs at Colgate have always been a very important part of the experience for undergraduates, and for faculty and staff as well. Competitive athletics brings us together as a community, provides spectacles, generates enthusiasm and loyalty. We've had our wonderful days in hockey, advancing to the national championships. We will have them again. We have seen basketball go through a long period of doldrums; now basketball is on a roll. Women's soccer is extraordinary; the team just won the Patriot League regular season and playoff championships, beating Army and Navy, and then taking the ECAC championship, beating Cornell. Clearly football is going through

a very rough period. We look to our new head coach Dick Biddle, a vet-eran of many past Colgate campaigns, to help us improve. And of course he has chosen as his offensive coordinator Fred Dunlap '50, the winningest coach in the college's history. We've examined those features that might have made for change, especially in competitiveness between the Patriot League and the Ivy League. Interestingly, the Ivies have adopted many of the features that enabled the Patriot League and Colgate to be more competitive. We have explored, as a league, athletic scholarships and we continue to feel they are not the appropriate direction for us to take at this time. Colgate is committed to improving the quality of football and we will.

What kind of student enjoys the greatest success at Colgate?

The students who enjoy Colgate most are bright people with inquisitive and wide-ranging minds. The most enthusiastic students are engaged in many activities at Colgate and in the community. So we seek students who are bright, inquisitive, motivated, who reach out to other people within the community and whose interests bring them to positions of leadership. We make it easy for people to be involved. Those who have the enthusiasm and the capacity to lead really do flourish.

What are the most important characteristics of the academic experience at Colgate?

The most important aspects of the academic experience are, first of all, its breadth. Our general education program is extraordinary. We are one of a declining number of institutions that offer a general education program and I think ours, which has been a part of the Colgate experience for some 70 years, is extraordinary.

Our off-campus study program represents another set of opportunities, unmatched by other institutions, providing two dozen locations for students to study away from Hamilton. Study group students are exposed to other ways of understanding the world, and their world view expands as does their self-confidence in being able to function effectively in another environment.

Finally, the intense concentration experience brings students and faculty into close contact -- at the laboratory bench, in a thesis, in a small class in poetry, in musical or theatrical performance, in a small seminar -- and obliges students to engage ideas in a very direct and public way. Those intense academic experiences are crucial in launching students into their future. We want to see two things happen as students come to the end of their Colgate experience. One, that they really do understand how to focus their intellectual capacity on a problem, and two, that they achieve a sense of independence and self-confidence as they enter the world beyond Colgate.

What do you like most about your job?

I delight in the fact that Colgate brings me into contact with imaginative and talented people. I work closely with the faculty, with students, with the staff, with the Board, with alumni, and with the Village. I have the opportunity to persuade interesting people at foundations to support Colgate. I am involved with other universities, either through accreditation visits at which I evaluate those other institutions, or in more political settings such as the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, a lobbying group for private higher education in New York.

I enjoy the variety of issues that I must face. Those issues are analytic, ethical or political but they are never the same from one day to the next. This is the best job I can imagine anybody having.

What is your greatest challenge at Colgate?

My greatest challenge is to lead Colgate forward. Each group at Colgate sees the university in a slightly different way and providing leadership that ensures that everybody is reading off the same page, that we are moving together as the Colgate community, is the real challenge of the position. Of course the environment will change. We are in a period right now of very rapid change. Anticipating change, responding to it and generating forward momentum is the challenge. We are educating students for leadership in the 21st century, and having a clear sense of the skills, knowledge and talents necessary to succeed in a future we can hardly imagine is the challenge that we all face.