The Colgate Scene
Looking back/looking forward
John Golden '66 [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]
At Commencement 2007, John Golden '66, chair of the university's Board of Trustees, was honored with a Doctor of Humane Letters degree. A generous investor in and volunteer for Colgate since his student days, he completed 13 years of dedicated service as a trustee in June.
In presenting his honorary degree, President Rebecca S. Chopp called Golden "a champion of academic excellence and tireless advocate for Colgate."
"You have led Colgate during a time of unprecedented progress as we have significantly enhanced our academic profile, fortifying programs and adding important new space for collaboration and learning," she continued. "You have led Colgate through a transformation of campus life, as Colgate modeled innovative ways to join the in- and out-of-classroom experiences. Colgate's future will be built on the strong foundation you have maintained with your leadership and commitment to affirming our traditions and pursuing our ambitions."
The board's newest chair emeritus looked back at his years of service during a recent interview.
Your election as board chair in 2001 followed the untimely death of your predecessor, Brian Little '64. What guided you and your board colleagues during the early years of that transition?
It was a precarious time for Colgate. A new president was trying to get his footing, Brian died, and two months later a tragic accident on Oak Drive took the lives of four young people.
The board felt that its next chair had to be someone with time to dedicate to Colgate. I got the nod because I had the willingness and ability to do that. I had been on the board since 1994, when Van Smith ['50] was chair and Neil Grabois was president.
I took the chair's job with the understanding that I would involve all 35 members of the board in the governance of the university. I think we all felt it led to the best decisions when we came to consensus.
As to direction: during a retreat that Brian and Neil led in 1998, the board grappled with the question of whether we were content with Colgate being what it was — which was very good — or desirous of being more. We made a commitment to enhance the perception and reality of our academic excellence, respecting the Colgate DNA. That commitment guided us in 2001 and it guides the board today.
During your first year as chair, the college was re-examining campus culture, President Karelis left office, and the nation was faced with the shock of 9/11. How did the board adapt to those extraordinary circumstances?
The accident on Oak Drive was a particularly traumatic event. But we had also had other issues. We appointed a task force to examine campus culture, residential life in particular.
When President Karelis decided to return to Washington, we initiated a search for a new president. We were fortunate that the provost, Jane Pinchin, was especially prepared and capable of leading the university as president in the interim. Among the many excellent qualities that Jane brought to the job: she was magnificent in dealing with the campus and alumni community in the aftermath of 9/11.
It was also during Jane's tenure and at her urging that we decided to move ahead with the much-needed expansion and renovation of the library, incorporating instructional technology under the same roof.
What was the process that led you to selecting President Chopp?
The smartest thing I did was to ask Howard Ellins ['73] to chair the search committee. He did a superb job, involving not only the trustees, but also faculty members and students. Everyone felt the power to be fully engaged in making the choice.
During interviews with candidates we learned that Colgate was extremely well respected as a liberal arts college, and also somewhat of a hidden gem. All the candidates, including several who are presidents at other institutions today, were energized by the trustees' commitment to enhancing Colgate's academic excellence.
We were looking for someone with an analytical mind, a respected and known scholar with executive leadership experience, preferably in a larger institution.
When we interviewed Rebecca, who was then the dean at Yale Divinity School and had been the provost at Emory, there was an almost instantaneous favorable reaction by the search committee. And she was drawn to us by the opportunity to grow. We were saying: "We have things to do."
President Chopp initiated a strategic planning process during her first year in office. How was the board involved with the plan?
In hiring Rebecca we had been clear that we wanted someone with strategic planning experience. So she led this effort, with extensive work by then-Provost Jack Dovidio and a planning committee of senior faculty and staff. The board was involved and had ultimate approval, but we had the benefit of having a leader in Rebecca who was an experienced executive.
One of your earlier leadership roles was chair of Campaign Colgate in the 1990s. How did that campaign compare with the current effort?
Campaign Colgate had the same strong lay and professional staff commitment to success. And we had a strong president in Neil Grabois. I was the third of three chairs, following Van Smith and Brian Little. That campaign had a goal of $130 million and finished more than 25 percent over that goal, close to $160 million.
The current campaign is taking special advantage of President Chopp's leadership. She's an indefatigable fundraiser. And this campaign has the advantage of a clear strategic plan providing a framework to which donors can relate.
With a $400 million goal — one of the largest campaign goals ever for a liberal arts college — Passion for the Climb will take Colgate to even higher levels. With close to half the goal committed as the campaign went public, it's obvious that Colgate's traditional supporters have stepped up. The challenge now is to engage additional and new donors to help us get on that staircase.
You've referred to the retreat in the late '90s when the board committed to improving both the reality and the perception of Colgate's reputation. Assess the college's progress toward that goal.
I'd point to increased attention to Colgate as a top academic institution, for example being cited as a "new Ivy." Both the number and quality of our applicants has risen dramatically. Given the secondary schools kids are applying from, clearly our reputation is growing throughout this country and abroad. And it's growing in areas where we haven't always been as strong, such as urban areas.
Colgate has engendered great support from alumni. Last year we were fourth in total dollars raised by leading liberal arts colleges. I expect we will raise at least that much and possibly more this year.
Underneath all that, everything that we've tried to achieve with the strategic plan in terms of academic excellence was intended also to preserve that special feeling — that spirit — of being a Colgate person.
How do you rate Colgate's town/gown relationships?
Colgate came from the Hamilton community. Those are our roots, and we have a responsibility to be good citizens of Hamilton. We've worked hard to foster those relationships.
It's important for both Colgate and the town for us to be involved in the well-being of the community. As the biggest economic force in the town, we have invested in assets and programs to sustain downtown and the community. Colgate's relationships with the village are excellent, but we always have to be sensitive to the fact that we are the 800-pound gorilla.
My family is fortunate to own a house in Hamilton. Both our kids chose to be married in the back yard. More and more alumni are moving to Hamilton or establishing second homes there. It's a great community.
You've been chair during a period of tremendous growth and development of the physical campus. How is the board involved in overseeing that growth?
The board's concern went beyond whether we needed these projects, or how they would be financed. Rather, facing such large programmatic needs, as stewards we wanted to be certain they would fit into what has been called the most beautiful campus in America. That didn't mean they should look like East and West Hall, but that they should have the same character.
On commencement weekend I stood next to the Student Union, in what has become the lower Quad, and looked up at Persson Hall, Little Hall, and the new library/IT center and marveled at how these buildings complement and tie together the upper and lower campuses. I think alumni will really like it.
But my hope for the new buildings deals more with what they will mean to the life of the campus. [Professor of English] Peter Balakian commented that, just as Little Hall made a statement about Colgate's commitment to the fine arts, the new library is a physical manifestation of the university's commitment to academic excellence in all areas.
Likewise, I hope that the new science building will be not only a magnet for drawing to Colgate more students interested in majoring in the sciences, but that students from all disciplines will be drawn to take courses in the Ho Science Center.
How does it feel to attend an event in Golden Auditorium?
Suzanne and I are fortunate to have our names on such a visible facility. The real joy comes from knowing that there always seems to be something going on there. It's nice to be represented in Little Hall among three succeeding chairs: Little Hall for Brian Little, Clifford Gallery funded by new chair Chris Clifford ['67], and Golden Auditorium. We raised the money for Little Hall in the last campaign and I'm thrilled at how it's used.
How do competitive athletics fit into Colgate today?
We're an outdoor place. We attract athletic people who are comfortable living in that kind of active environment. That's part of who we are. Having top-level competitive sports contributes to that environment and it will continue to be very important in the future. Colgate attracts excellent student-athletes to both its emphasized sports and its less-emphasized sports.
How has Colgate changed as a result of the recommendations of the Task Force on Campus Culture?
The task force of trustees, faculty, staff, and students, led by Ralph Verni ['64], worked for two years and interacted with more than a thousand members of the community while examining all aspects of campus culture. Out of their report, the college developed a new plan, under the leadership of President Chopp and then-Dean Adam Weinberg, that has enhanced residential life in the context of a student's education.
Despite the concerns that many people expressed about the future of the Greek system, my sense is that Greek students are even more involved in the campus experience than they were five years ago. I was a fraternity member and I continue to support the system. At the same time, living options have been enhanced for students who are not attracted to the Greek system, with more options available for group living, such as the new townhouses. Providing a broad range of residential opportunities was an objective of the strategic plan and reflected the commitments we made back in 1998.
How do we know it's working? Nearly 90 percent of this year's senior class contributed to the class gift. I hope that reflects that they've had a good experience educationally and residentially. I think students are ahead of some alumni in seeing the benefits of the new system.
How much of your time has been spent on Colgate's behalf in the past seven years?
Suzanne would tell you that in my first three years it was like a full-time job. It's like putting an addition on your house — you don't really want to know how much it cost. But it has all been a labor of love. At the end of the day, the board is ultimately responsible for the oversight, direction, and well-being of the university. That obviously takes time in troubled times, and it also takes time when you have a president as good as Rebecca.
I've served with more than 90 trustees during my term as chair. They represent a broad spectrum of views and perspectives about what Colgate means and what its place should be as a leading liberal arts university. And they always put Colgate first. We've had a lot of challenges, made a lot of hard decisions, and had a lot of fun over the past 13 years.
I would leave someone out if I tried to name everyone who has been important. But I would like to mention one person. Howard Ellins has been on the board almost as long as I have and has served as vice chair for all but one of the years that I served as chair. He's been a great companion and confidant.
What's ahead for you and for the board?
I'm sure the board will continue to find ways to expand on the great progress that Colgate has made in the past decade, while preserving that Colgate DNA. They are a talented group who are committed to Colgate's excellence. Incoming chair Chris Clifford and his vice chair, Peg Flanagan ['80], are extremely capable people who will provide wonderful leadership.
As former board chairs Duke Drake ['41], Garry Bewkes ['48] and Van Smith were always available to me, I look forward to being on call when I can be of assistance to Chris and Peg, and to Rebecca, as they see fit.
I was recently host to a lunch where Colgate students who have been accepted to Columbia Law, which I attended, had a chance to meet other Colgate alumni who are students there today, or now in practice. That's a wonderful way to stay connected — one that I recommend to other alumni — and I look forward to continuing that kind of activity with all sorts of Colgate people. It was how I reconnected to Colgate years ago.
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