The Colgate Scene
March 2005

A message from President Rebecca S. Chopp
Real measures of quality




At the annual Green Summit, students have the opportunity to brainstorm solutions to important campus environmental issues with members of the faculty and staff. From left, Chris Henke, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology; Avery Woods '05, Green Summit Host Crew, Sam Martinez, administrative assistant in the educational studies department; and Phil Sweeney, manager of Frank Dining Hall. [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

This column focuses on the real measures of Colgate's quality.

Recently an alumnus who opposes the trustees' decision to have the university own fraternity and sorority houses has attempted to link that decision to questions about the quality of our programs and people. He is entitled to his opinions, of course, but as president I need to respond with the facts about Colgate's quality -- quality that is a source of pride for many of us whose credentials include serving or attending Colgate.

Liberal arts institutions exist to help students develop both core knowledge of the world and the skills and habits they need to lead examined lives. We teach people how to think and communicate -- how to work their way thoughtfully through the many questions they will confront in their personal lives and careers.

Of the many liberal arts institutions in this country, Colgate is widely considered to be among the best. The university's core curriculum has been in continuous existence since the 1920s. That is not to say that Colgate has been offering the same core curriculum for all these years, but rather that the university has had a commitment to the core that is one of the deepest on record.

Colgate's core has gone through many revisions. Professor Tony Aveni chaired one of those revisions in the early 1980s. He and his committee produced a core of courses that created a common conversation on campus. That revision was part of the body of work that earned Professor Aveni the singular honor of National Professor of the Year, bestowed by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education in 1982. Professor Jack Dovidio, one of the country's acclaimed social psychologists, chaired another revision in 1995. The members of the core faculty, who include some of our most experienced professors, constantly review and revise the core curriculum to ensure that it provides our students with an intellectual base from which to consider life in the modern world. Colgate faculty members take the core seriously.

Comparing Colgate's core with curricula from around the country, the Association of American Colleges and Universities in 2001 cited our program as a national model. Our core has just undergone a peer review by a panel of experts from other colleges and universities who confirmed the fundamental strength of Colgate's program.

The four-course core provides all Colgate students with grounding in Western thought (readings include Homer, Plato, Darwin, Du Bois, and many others), introduces them to another culture, and helps them to understand how science and technology shape the world. Our six-course distribution requirement, taken in addition to the core, ensures that all of our students will have exposure to the natural sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences. The one other course that we require -- a first-year seminar -- introduces students to the process of learning at the university level.

When combined with coursework in one of our more than 50 academic concentrations, the core provides Colgate graduates with an elegant foundation for life after the Chenango Valley, whatever their choice of a career.

While the core has been a constant source of Colgate's excellence for many years, the university has always been known as well for the quality of its faculty. At the January meeting of the Board of Trustees, two members of the faculty described their daily routines. These scholars, both of whom have young families, balance their lives in ways that bring students into so much of what they do, not only in the classroom, but in their research and other interests, and indeed in their families' lives.

Physicist Beth Parks, who described the challenge of preparing for class ("...a performance every time I teach"), keeping office hours ("...it's easier to tell students to just drop in"), keeping up with the literature ("...science is a collective enterprise"), grading ("...at this level it's really correcting"), writing recommendations, and performing university service ("...advising, hosting, meeting parents and alumni; it's all important stuff"), responded to a trustee's question about the balance of teaching and research by saying, "I don't know anyone at Colgate who isn't here to be a teacher." Her colleague, economist Kevin Rask, who, like Parks, engages students in his research, added that "teaching is a given; research fits in where it will."

Beth and Kevin were invited to address the trustees not because they stand out from their colleagues on the faculty, but because they are representative. The high standards of our faculty are a traditional strength of Colgate. It may come from our close community (85 percent of our faculty members live within ten minutes of campus), or from the proud traditions passed down through the years from Kistler and Reading to Pinchin and Aveni to Parks and Rask, but there is an expectation of university service, scholarship, and dedication to students at Colgate that is rare in my experience in higher education. It makes this an exciting place to work and, more important, to study.

Which brings me to the quality of who we teach -- our students. In building its student body, Colgate chooses among the best prospective students in the country. Those students are attracted to Colgate for many reasons, but surveys of our applicants show that the academic excellence of the institution is always at the top of their list of criteria. Were Colgate not considered among the best liberal arts institutions in the country -- a fact that is confirmed by any number of independent ranking services and guides -- we would not attract the applicants that we do.

Applications to Colgate have set a record this year, up more than 20 percent. That is heartening, but it also means we will face some very difficult decisions. As we work to build this class we will be forced to say "no" to nearly three of every four applicants -- students who in many cases could succeed on any college campus in the country. We will select the class as we select the faculty, with great care, looking more for difference than similarity, to find persons who will thrive in a campus community that, like our world, is populated by individuals of goodwill from many backgrounds who see the world from all points of view.

And during their four years living among one another on this campus, with the curriculum as their map and the members of the faculty as their guides, they will acquire an education that is among the finest available anywhere.

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