The Colgate Scene
January 1999
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Recounting history: a presidential panel

by Patricia Keith '99
[IMAGE] A piece of Colgate's history came alive on October 26 when former presidents Vincent Barnett and Thomas Bartlett joined President Neil Grabois in a panel discussion, titled "The Past as Prologue: How we got where we are."

     The tenure of Presidents Barnett (1963-1969) and Bartlett (1969-1977) spanned a time that was volatile in higher education and left Colgate forever changed.

     "So much was set in motion in the 1960s and 1970s. We were blessed to have them in this formative and transitional period," said Grabois about his predecessors.

     President Barnett began by recalling "Some aspects of Colgate in the 1960s," and the numerous challenges and opportunities that awaited his arrival.

     By 1963, Colgate had never held a "no-holds-barred" all-university fund drive and did not have any fully endowed chairs. Barnett's first goals were to improve the faculty as a whole by creating chairs and increasing what he called "subnormal" faculty salaries. Barnett knew he had to increase the endowment dramatically if Colgate wanted to be competitive in the future.

     Said Barnett, "I wanted to teach, write, take part in curricular discussions. But fundraising had to be done. Our alumni were strong supporters and loyal, but there were not a lot of rich alumni at that time. It was important to jolly up other constituencies, other sources. My fantasy of being a college president was thrown out."

     The physical structure of Colgate changed dramatically during Barnett's tenure. Although Dana Creative Arts Center had been funded, it was up to Barnett to commission the design. In a controversial decision, nationally renowned architect Paul Rudolph was chosen over a local person in the hopes that Rudolph would put Colgate at the forefront of creative thinking.

     "It was an interesting outcome," said Barnett about the resulting structure. "I spent a great deal of time my first year defending the creative arts center."

     Barnett's architectural problems continued when the old administration building was completely destroyed. Recalled Barnett, "I was a guest at the Yale president's home. In the middle of the night, Kingman Brewster woke me up to tell me that my administration building had burned down, and I went back to sleep." According to Barnett, the old building had wooden floors that were heavily oiled. Many of the staff also had hot plates, which the fire inspectors said were dangerous in conjunction with the wooden floors. "So we abolished the hot plates and in the basement put this big machine for hot water. A short in the machine burned the building down," laughed Barnett. The new administration building was created by gutting the old library, now James B. Colgate Hall.

     Barnett also recounted the story of a local supporter, Olive B. O'Connor, whose gift of IBM stock provided Colgate the funding for the A. Lindsay O'Connor Chair, the Olive B. O'Connor Chair, and the financing for the O'Connor Campus Center, now colloquially referred to as the Coop.

     Changing race and gender relations that dominated American society during the 1960s affected Colgate as well. After racial incidents on campus, including a starter's pistol fired from the roof of a fraternity threatening a group of African-American students, students and faculty staged a sit-in, taking over the administration building.

     Said Barnett, "My office floor was carpeted with students and a couple of faculty and I was presented with a list of non-negotiable demands -- which in those days meant I had to negotiate with the non negotiable demands. After some days, we came to some accommodation of their demands. And when they left, they cleaned the building and left vases of flowers on the desks."

     The tumultuous times President Barnett endured would continue throughout President Bartlett's administration. The close-cropped Bartlett recalled that he "was recruited because there was no danger of [his] being a long-haired hippie." Joking aside, he asked, "why did any of the changes happen?" Bartlett believes that the country had "been through 30 years of intense discipline" and was in a period of "extraordinary change." He talked of a campus "caught up in the turmoil and effervescence of the era" and said that, "only those who have been through it can remember."

     The new president felt a noticeable change in the student body when the baby boomer generation entered college. "When those children came to the university, things began to pop. We had to see how we would weather the storm, and the storm had a lot of parts. It was an interesting time to be dealing with alumni," said Bartlett.

     The decision to allow women admittance to Colgate, which was approved under Barnett's leadership, was enacted under Bartlett's administration. Although the initial plan was to integrate women slowly into campus, co-education happened quickly and smoothly at Colgate. Recalled Bartlett, "What we did was create a whole new community of talents. It gave the college a kind of health."

     Of the decision to move to co-education, Barnett added, "I am proud of it. I handed the diploma to the very first woman who ever got a degree in a regular Colgate graduation."

     To accommodate more women on campus, Bartlett had to either build more dormitories or use existing structures more of the time. As a temporary solution to limited funding, Colgate made the switch to year-round schooling.

     A great deal of Bartlett's time was devoted to creating a new multi-layered governance system in order to "reinvent the shape of Colgate education," he noted. "The old notion of Dean's Law was repealed."

     Diversification, which continues to be an issue, was a high priority for Bartlett. "Colgate was very much white middle-class, and we began to work hard on diversifying the student body and did well with it."

     When asked by an audience member what was the most important change made during his administration, Bartlett responded, "the relationship between the student and the institution changed dramatically -- that was the most important."

     Continuing, Bartlett said, "in my sense, the tradition of robustness, people generating their own community, interaction, and sense of place and identity remains at Colgate. That's precious. Those characteristics of the college are going to be very important. They are not out of date. They are just as valuable in the future as they have been up to this time."


Editor's Note: George Langdon, Colgate University president from 1977-1988, was in Turkey during the panel discussion and unable to attend.
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