The Colgate Scene
July 2005

A message from President Rebecca S. Chopp
Evolving traditions

Singing the alma mater at the Presidents' Club Dinner [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

More than 600 people attended the Presidents' Club Dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City in April.
Editor's note: The following was adapted from President Chopp's speech to members of the Presidents' Club at their annual dinner in New York City in April.

Several months ago I received an email from Allison Posner, a woman from Connecticut, who told me she had discovered her ancestor's handwritten diary of his days as a student in our college. She asked me if I would like a copy. I said yes, without any idea of how moving and provocative this journal would be. The year was 1861, troops were being gathered as the North and South prepared to go to war over slavery, and young John H. Smith came to Madison University from Newark, N.J.

In many ways John Smith was like today's students. He studied, though some days with more appetite for intellectual ideas than others! He played sports, though they called it "athletic games" then. He liked cards and pulling practical jokes. He both revered and poked fun at the faculty. But in many ways his experience -- some 42 years after Colgate tradition began -- is so different from our current students'. His thoughts about war are existential -- students at Madison take up arms, and leave to fight: some to return to school and some to give their lives. The majority of our students approach war as solely a political issue -- debating its merits without personal involvement.

Like some alumni even today, John belonged to the tradition of having no females to distract his mind while in class! Like some, he was also very interested in meeting girls. But with none on campus and road trips out of the question, church would have to do. Though I consider myself a discerning scholar of religion, I could not tell if John's church attendance (twice on Saturday and three times on Sunday) was all about piety or more to do with the fact that so many local girls attended the services!

As John Smith was preparing for his future, so are our students today. That's the wonder of education -- while students are formed in a tradition, they live out that tradition in their own ways, in their own times.

Humans shape the future out of the strengths of the present, which are in turn grounded in our history. Institutions flourish because those within them tend them, prune them occasionally, and shape them for the changing times. The horticultural analogy is not a bad one given Colgate's beauty, but one could also use a building analogy -- appropriate given the fact that we are in the midst of building a new science building, a new library, and a new residential facility! In his book Built to Last, Jim Collins compares companies that thrive to those that don't. Central to his thesis is the realization that the companies that flourish keep their tradition alive by reinventing it in light of new opportunities and challenges. This basic principle is true in all sorts of fields and all types of institutions, and it is certainly true in education.

It is tricky, this business of keeping traditions flourishing. Perhaps as early as the second generation of Colgate alumni, we were asking ourselves questions: What is the essence of tradition? What aspirations can emerge from our traditions? Can we imagine today what Colgate will be like in 25 or 50 years?

Undoubtedly the biggest change in Colgate tradition was the addition of women. I can only imagine the anguish and excitement that the board and key insiders felt in making that decision. An elderly alumnus once told me that at the time he utterly hated the idea, but then wept with joy when some 22 years later his only grandchild, a granddaughter, graduated from Colgate. And we can be sure that 100 years ago our predecessors would not have predicted that today Colgate would have a woman president on a campus that has won awards in academics, international programs, residential life, athletics, and technology!

That possibility within our tradition holds our aspirations.

Our strategic plan shapes our aspirations as our living tradition. The plan for Colgate as a leading liberal arts university is about strengthening our traditions for the 21st century. We want to ensure that current students become professors and finance leaders, businesspersons and artists, doctors, researchers, and lawyers. We feel responsible for preparing our students for service on boards such as those on which our alumni are now represented: the Whitney, Sloan Kettering, Chelsea Football Club in England, the L.A. Arts Institute, the Boy Scouts of America, and Hebrew Union College, to name a few. We want the next generations of Colgate graduates to follow in the footsteps of those before them: to be leading political commentators, to make breakthroughs in science, and to build biotech firms that will solve the health problems of tomorrow.

And so, in this plan, we are shaping our school, pruning it, and building it, in order to make our tradition flourish. A few examples:

  • Knowledge is changing: it continues to be developed in disciplines such as economics, chemistry, and philosophy, but great questions of our day demand the bringing together of these fields and the integration of knowledge from a discovery and problem-based perspective. We will continue to make our disciplines strong by adding faculty in areas of strength and providing spaces to integrate them, supported by academic institutes -- one on upstate New York, one on Creativity, Media, and the Arts, one on Conflict, Ethics, and Global Change, and one in the sciences.
  • We remain loyal to our tradition of the scholar-athlete, but athletics have changed. Athletics scholarships, endowed coaching positions, and enhanced academic support for our student-athletes will ensure our tradition in athletics will be fresh and vibrant in the 21st century.
  • Enormous changes in the law, in liability requirements, and in the skills students need to be successful in their lives have meant we needed to update our residential programs. We will continue to encourage our students to form social organizations and engage in activities that spark their interests and in which they have fun while learning important social and organizational skills. We want all of our students to find communities in which they want to live, and we want these communities to interact within our great Colgate community.

Colgate trustee Dan Benton '80 asked at a recent board meeting: "Are we prepared for success?" It is a wonderful question and, over the course of the next several years, I hope you will join with me in providing the answer by building Colgate's future on the strengths of its tradition.

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