The Colgate Scene
July 2002

Rebecca S. Chopp named 15th president of Colgate
"I believe that Colgate can be the leader in reframing liberal arts education for the 21st century."
[Photos by Shannon McAvoy]

Rebecca S. Chopp assumed her duties as the 15th president of Colgate University on July 1. Chopp comes to Colgate from the Yale University Divinity School, where she served as dean. She is the former provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Emory University and a well-known scholar of religion and American culture.

While at Emory, Chopp oversaw two colleges of liberal arts and seven professional schools and led strategic planning in areas such as teaching and research, international affairs, university/community relations and information technology.

She joined the Emory faculty in 1986 as an assistant professor in the Candler School of Theology and the Graduate Division of Religion, after four years on the faculty of the University of Chicago Divinity School. She held several posts during her 15-year tenure at Emory, including director of graduate studies for the Institute of Women's Studies, dean of faculty and academic affairs at the Candler School and Charles Howard Candler Professor of Theology.

While at Yale, Chopp led a planning effort focusing on the curriculum and on community life, expanded efforts in development and alumni affairs and reorganized the areas of finance, facilities and human resources while being active on the university budget committee.

Chopp follows former Colgate Provost and Dean of the Faculty Jane L. Pinchin, who served as interim president during the 2001-2002 academic year.

Shortly after the announcement of her appointment, The Scene spoke with Chopp about her new tasks as president of Colgate.

What attracted you to Colgate University?
I've long been interested in the liberal arts, and I think with the needs we have in the 21st century to form world citizens, liberal arts education is even more important than before. When I started to understand the riches of Colgate's educational perspectives, the interdisciplinary core, the ability to innovate around that core, the incredible study abroad program, the commitment to undergraduate research, I began to realize that Colgate stands alone in liberal arts education. In addition to the excellence of its curriculum, Colgate offers Division I athletics as well as a variety of outdoor recreational opportunities. And Colgate provides a wonderful living and learning environment by providing an array of social opportunities in gorgeous setting. The richness of the Colgate experience is demonstrated by the fact that the students who apply to Colgate realize the value of learning in the intimacy of the small liberal arts culture as well as reaping the benefits provided through the diverse setting of a research university. Applicants, as well as those who matriculate, understand that Colgate offers the best of both worlds, maybe the best of all worlds for the student. I was also attracted to the institution because of its reputation for excellence in managing its resources. Colgate is one of the most well-managed institutions I know; the fact of having 39 consecutive years of balanced budgets is one sign of its ability to use its resources well.

What are the challenges currently facing liberal arts colleges?
I think the first challenge is to make sure that we are shaping productive citizens for a century that will be characterized as ever-changing and dominated by immense social and ethical issues. For the past 30 or 40 years, many in our society have assumed that the best way to train leaders in business, law, civic service or medicine was to put them in pre-professional programs and fast track students into a pre-determined profession that would retain its basic form across the many years of a career. But we live in a world in which the best training for our professions and for leadership in civic society is the formative experience of the distinguished tradition of the liberal arts. With its long commitment to the liberal arts and its many innovated programs, Colgate is positioned to give a new shape to this type of transforming education -- one that combines the ability to relate forms of knowing and be-longing with the virtues and skills necessary to build flourishing communities in our neighborhoods and nation, in our world and at work.

What about the challenges specific to Colgate in the coming years?
I look forward to listening carefully to faculty, alumni, students, parents and friends to learn more about the challenges and opportunities specific for Colgate in the coming years. Let me identify just some of what I have heard from conversations I have had so far. The greatest opportunity Colgate has is to continue the breadth and depth of its fine educational program. At Colgate students gain expertise in a concentration through classwork and the excellent program in undergraduate research. Through the interdisciplinary core, students also experience how to connect ideas, knowledge, culture and they learn how traditions and change intermingle. Colgate must continue to offer students a breadth of social opportunities and continue using its beautiful setting to teach students both the enjoyment of and the ethical responsibility for the environment and for the physical world. Colgate sends many of its students to study abroad. A Colgate faculty member leads most of these programs.

The challenge and the opportunity will be to continue to offer those kinds of rich educational experiences. One of the most pressing challenges in the world right now is to educate our future leaders to build strong and healthy communities. We used to live in a world where a sense of community was assumed; communities endured through time with slow, incremental change. We now live in a highly transient society that is global and that -- through the rapid changes in digital information, knowledge, politics and culture -- requires new forms of substantive community. So, one of the opportunities and challenges for liberal arts is to make sure that each student learns how to respect a variety of communities, how to form and shape community, and how to lead not as a lone individual, but in the midst of diverse communities.

Institutionally, the challenge Colgate will have is to continue providing an excellent education while containing costs. Colgate has a smaller endowment than many of its peers and so its challenge will be to increase its resources as it continues its best practices approach to management.

How will you bring your experience as an educator and administrator to bear in your new duties at Colgate?
I think of my background as really living in two worlds at the same time. I have studied higher education and been involved in higher education since the early days of my career. Before coming to Yale I was provost for four years at Emory and oversaw two undergraduate programs; one was a small liberal arts environment and the other a 4,000-student undergraduate college. So, I've been involved in a variety of activities connected to building an institution, amplifying its intellectual message, working with faculty to continue strengthening their teaching and research, helping build the infrastructure and also helping the world learn about that institution, Emory. The other aspect of my career is that I have for many years studied how people live in communities. I focused on religious communities, so I have a great deal of experience and knowledge about the kinds of issues that communities face: the importance of effective infrastructures, how cultures change, and the qualities and virtues that create strong and healthy communities. I've looked a great deal at the role of leadership in communities and how leadership wears different shapes and operates at different levels. I will bring my scholarship as an intellectual to bear in my administrative role as the president of Colgate.

At a recent reception to welcome you to Colgate, you outlined some qualities that were specific to the university. Could you elaborate on those qualities?
One of the great characteristics about Colgate is its community, and by community I first of all mean that people belong. It's really striking, but from the first time I interviewed with the search committee for the presidency, to my first opportunities to meet with staff from facilities, grounds, dining services, etc., to my discussions with members of the board of trustees, the faculty and the students, there's a sense of deep belonging at Colgate. I have received several e-mails from parents and alumni, and every one of those e-mails talks about the importance of belonging to this community. There is a deep, deep feeling of belonging to the Colgate family.

At the heart of this community is the teaching and research of the faculty, which keeps the community renewed in order to live into the future. In order for communities to be vital, they have to endure through time, they have to remake themselves. One of the things that keeps that community alive and vital and fresh -- a living community -- is that the research of the faculty continually feeds their teaching, and knowledge is changing rapidly. If faculty members are not also researchers they will become outdated as teachers.

I keep hearing about the spirit of Colgate. One alumnus very powerfully wrote me that Colgate graduates are people who love life, and he talked about the joy that is the spirit they call Colgate. I've begun to experience that and I think it's a very important quality. It's not a quality that isn't criticized or unexamined, but there is a kind of spirit of belonging and love of life here that's crucial for education.

Colgate's involvement with the village of Hamilton and the surrounding area is also evolving. Do you have any notion yet of what shape that involvement will take in the near future?
I hope it will continue what I take to be the present trend, which is a very close and strong partnership. When I was in Hamilton before the announcement of my appointment, I had the pleasure of meeting the mayor, the town supervisor and the director of the Partnership for Community Development. We had a wonderful breakfast together where we outlined the issues of partnership with the town and the village. We talked about the importance of continuing that partnership and helping sustained economic and cultural growth in Madison County. I think that's very important. It's to Colgate's advantage and it's certainly to Hamilton's advantage, so I intend to be as active as I can be in fostering that partnership. I also had an opportunity to see how the Hamilton Initiative is restoring historic buildings downtown. Hamilton will be my home and my husband, Fred, and I look forward to contributing to Hamilton and to enjoying the village and town.

Do you have hopes of furthering or strengthening the multicultural programs and diversity at Colgate?
Yes. Again, given my stress on citizenship and my stress on living in the world, I think we have to. We have to remember that the best education now has to reflect the world at large, so I would add to that not only multicultural but also international programs. Given Colgate's geographical location, diversifying our community at all levels may be a challenge. But the 21st century needs new ways of strengthening multicultural education and democracy and, perhaps, Colgate can contribute to new forms of multiculturalism. I'm not prepared enough to give specifics yet, but I think that's an extremely important aspect of a liberal arts education today.

What do you see as the challenges and opportunities in fostering alumni relations at Colgate?
Alumni simply love this place, so I'm not sure there is a challenge; I think there may only be opportunities. I have seen few colleges and universities with the level of alumni interest, care and devotion to the place that exists at Colgate. I believe that education should be judged by the quality of its alumni and, if I am right, Colgate is extremely successful in producing alumni who contribute to their communities, who excel in their professions, and who love and belong to Colgate. So I think our goal there is to make sure we're using that energy, commitment and sense of belonging in the right way. Career networks, communication, making sure they're informed about what's going on, getting alumni advice about what should go on at Colgate, certainly issues in development and outreach. I think there are all sorts of opportunities for continuing the work. My sense is that there is already a very strong foundation in alumni relations and I look forward to going out and meeting alumni. I will devote considerable time to that.

Who are the major role models or influences in your life?
Oh my goodness, no one has ever asked me that question! Well, very important for me is James Laney, the former president of Emory. Like myself, Laney came out of a world of both leadership in higher education and leadership in theological education. He was able, I think, to create momentum at Emory, to amplify its intellectual message and to build its national and international reputation. Laney wrote a wonderful book called Education of the Heart, where he talks about his deep commitment to the liberal arts and the formation of the whole person. Jim Laney's ability and his leadership style are magnificent influences to me.

William Lee, a professor I had during my masters program, will always serve as a role model who examined every question and issue from many sides in order to reframe the questions and lead to new answers. Jim Waits, the dean who hired me at Emory, taught me about the importance of the arts to education and showed me that an interest in individual students and individual faculty members is a top priority in education. My parents are role models who taught me to combine hard work, high ideals and ethical practices. My parents both combined an artistic vision of the world with pragmatic attitude of "Let's fix it." As an avid reader, I have all sorts of role models from literature and history as well.

Who are some of those role models?
Emily Dickinson, because of her love of words and simplicity and her ability to think outside of the box about the ordinary as well as the extraordinary. I'm a devoted Jeffersonian because Thomas Jefferson understood the importance of education. John Dewey, because he understood that democracy and education were intertwined and you can't have a democracy without a system of education for all people. Maxine Green, who studied John Dewey's work, has been a huge influence on my life. She talks about "futuring," that education is how society ensures its future. And Hannah Arendt, a wonderful political theorist who is very influential to me in her notion that education is about making sure our children can renew and remake the world they will inherit because the world is always fallible and falling out of shape. I'm influenced by Colin Powell, because I've studied much of his work on leadership. He has done a lot of writing and lecturing on leadership and I think he has some incredible key insights about the role of facts, and that leaders need to have facts and data and then make judgments in a team situation. I could list many other authors who have influenced me greatly: St. Augustine, Aristotle, Emerson, W.E.B. Dubois, Paul Ricoeur, Terrence Des Pres -- who taught at Colgate -- Charles Sanders Pierce, Jim Collins, Margaret Peircy and Paul Tillich, to name a few.

What was the last book you read?
Fred Busch's Girls -- it's wonderful. I'm going from Fred Busch to James Fenimore Cooper's The Pathfinders and The Pioneers. I've read Cooper before, but I thought I would re-read him because he gives such wonderful descriptions of central New York.

What is your vision for the future of Colgate University?
I believe that Colgate can be the leader in reframing liberal arts education for the 21st century. I think it can be -- it's got the right components for being a leadership school for the liberal arts, a powerful faculty, devoted alumni and I think it's exactly the right size.

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