The Colgate Scene
May 1999
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Colgate's Next President

Charles "Buddy" Karelis will take office July 1 as the college's 14th president. He was introduced to the press and campus community April 27.
At a campus reception April 27, Trustee Chairman Wm. Brian Little '64 announced that Charles Karelis will succeed Neil R. Grabois as president on July 1. For 13 years a member of the faculty in philosophy at Williams College, Karelis has directed the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) since 1985.

     Little said that Karelis, 53, was the unanimous selection of the board of trustees, whose search committee reviewed the credentials of some 150 candidates.

     "Charles Karelis is distinguished by a career including both college teaching and service as the head of a foundation that funds innovative developments in higher education," said Little. "As a graduate and former member of the faculty at Williams College, he is well grounded in the meaning and philosophy of liberal arts education. As director of FIPSE, he has been at the forefront of efforts to improve the quality and accessibility of higher education in this country. We are confident that he will continue the tradition of outstanding leadership that our college has enjoyed for 180 years. We expect that he will bring many thoughtful and creative ideas to Colgate, which will enable us to continue to improve our standing among the leading liberal arts colleges."

     Karelis holds an undergraduate degree from Williams College (B.A., 1966), and a doctorate from Oxford University (D. Phil., 1972). His philosophical writings have ranged widely, from Plato and Hegel to art, artificial intelligence and distributive justice. His educational speaking and writing explore themes such as the preparation of students for a global economy and the implications of the new technologies for higher education.

     In this interview, conducted at his Washington office in the Department of Education, he looked forward to his new assignment.

What motivated you to want to become a college president?
I wasn't sure I really did want to become a college president until I got involved in the Colgate search and started understanding what a terrific place this is. But I was open to the possibility. I've always been focused on issues of quality and accessibility in higher education, ever since my Williams days and even before. After 13 years on a particular campus, and 14 years of dealing with the national picture in Washington, it made some sense to come back to the real world of students and professors again, hopefully informed by that broader perspective. Besides, I like being around high-powered people.

What about Colgate do you find particularly attractive?
The faculty. The reputation of the Colgate faculty among knowledgeable people is that it's second to none, and that was confirmed to me during the course of the search. The many faculty members I talked to seemed smart, thoughtful, and very dedicated to the institution. You know, there are a lot of talented people competing for just a few jobs in the liberal arts subjects, and this puts colleges in a position to assemble extraordinarily strong faculties. Colgate has done precisely that.

     The student profile is also appealing. Research describes Colgate students as entrepreneurial, creative, tolerant, friendly, smart, loyal, cooperative -- this is a set of qualities of character and personality that is almost irresistible. Some of those traits are not all that commonly combined -- "entrepreneurial" and "loyal," for instance. Again, this is confirmed by my candid chats with students, some of whom didn't know they were talking with a presidential candidate.

     I was drawn to that ineffable thing that is Colgate's spirit. Spirit is a funny word because it is a little unfashionable to be into school spirit. It sounds a little corny. But what I've seen at Colgate is incredible spirit combined with sophistication. People believe in the place, and they should. It's doing an absolutely wonderful job.

     I am an aesthetically sensitive person, interested in art and architecture and visual art, and I am knocked out by the physical beauty of the setting and of the campus in particular. Colgate's campus architecture is some of the most beautiful and successful I have ever seen. The individual buildings impress, and the whole set of them work together and cohere. My heart races when I see the campus, particularly after a drive through the peaceful and harmonious surrounding landscape.

     Another attraction is that a serious core curriculum survives at Colgate. I think you'll see the comparable schools move back in our direction. What's happened is that consumer sovereignty has become such a powerful force in American higher education that most colleges have given up their core curricula. What's on a student's transcript has become largely a function of the student's interests. I'd argue that the pendulum has swung too far. Students' interests need to be taken seriously, but I think students also need some guidance. They need to have some doors opened that they might not know to open for themselves. They need to be confronted with the perennial questions of human existence, and challenged to look at competing answers and then find or construct their own truth. This is especially important today, when surveys tell us that college students are less apt to initiate the search for a meaningful philosophy of life on their own. All this is possible with a core curriculum.

     I am also attracted to Colgate's international emphasis. The world is changing and professions are increasingly going to be practiced globally. People are going to be working in multinational organizations that will want to move them around the world. The European Union is busy lowering barriers to the flow of intellectual capital across borders. We need to prepare Americans for the same kind of opportunity and flexibility. Anything that can get students overseas and acquaint them with foreign languages and cultures is for the good.

     Finally, the search process itself was a positive experience for me. I talked with thoughtful trustees and faculty. Those were considerations. And my predecessor Neil Grabois absolutely raves about Colgate. I've trusted Neil on many things in my life and the enthusiasm that he has for Colgate is contagious.

Where do you see Colgate within higher education today?
Let's start with the category or type of school to which Colgate belongs: the small, private, residential, highly selective liberal arts college. Oddly enough, the public didn't really see these schools as a distinctive type 30 years ago. The schools were there, but people didn't appreciate their distinctiveness. Now people do, and the type is being studied, and empirical evidence suggests that these schools make a huge impact on students and through students on society.

     What are the key features? The fact that students live together on campus is just crucial. One of the leading researchers -- Alexander Astin of UCLA, the parent of a Colgate graduate, incidentally -- sometimes says that the most important educational facility on a campus is the dormitory. Small classes and the personal attention that students get from faculty is a second feature that is associated with the success of liberal arts colleges. The breadth of curriculum that is characteristic of the liberal arts college is important. People specialize late and moderately in a liberal arts setting. Interdisciplinary study is stressed, and that is increasingly vital; reality is interdisciplinary, and curriculum should be, too.

     Another quality of the liberal arts colleges is the emphasis on individual and moral development. The country needs mindful, morally aware leaders, and the liberal arts colleges make a tremendous contribution because of their self-conscious interest in that kind of education. Those are qualities of the type.

At an all-campus reception, the president-elect was introduced by Trustee Chairman Wm. Brian Little '64 (left) and welcomed by a former colleague, Colgate's 13th president, Neil Grabois (right).
Within that type of college, what do you think sets Colgate apart?
Lots of things. People often mention spirit, setting, architecture, the core, the off-campus study groups, student research opportunities. These are all important. But I'd want to add to the list an unusual openness to new ideas about education itself. There seems to be a consensus that, while we would not abandon the liberal arts college paradigm, it is a paradigm that can evolve and we should push to be on the cutting edge of its development. That is where I feel I have a potential role to play. My professional experience is in supporting, encouraging, and occasionally even concocting educational innovations. I think I know something about what makes them work and what makes them fail, about the conditions under which they flourish.

     While I am on the subject of what makes new ideas take root, I would like to stress the importance of faculty ownership. I have seen many good ideas fail to work on particular campuses because they were imposed on faculty, and I don't intend to forget that lesson. I look forward to working with Jane Pinchin and others on the academic side of the house to nurture and support faculty innovation.

     Just to expand on this theme of faculty openness to new ideas, I am encouraged to hear people talking about learning from the successes of other institutions. Higher education in general is bad at learning from its own successes. Almost every challenge and opportunity is being faced brilliantly somewhere. And yet, as a collection, the colleges are slow to take up new ideas that have proven themselves elsewhere. This is particularly true when the pioneering institution is not a prestigious one. There are many colleges that would sooner go down for the third time than accept a life jacket from a place that they consider inferior to themselves. I want to make sure we are alert to good ideas wherever they may be.

     Coming back to distinguishing features, the athletic program is clearly a cornerstone of the institution. The way Colgate runs its Division I athletic program sets the college apart, I think, along with a select group of like-minded institutions. It is more evidence of the spirit that I mentioned. To have such an ambitious program at an academically serious institution, and to stick so faithfully to the ideal of the amateur, has to impress you that the place is daring and spirited -- even nervy. Division I athletics is a signature program that I would cite as a distinguishing feature.

How did you arrive at FIPSE?
I was sitting in my office in Stetson Hall at Williams College, minding my own business in February 1985, when the Secretary of Education called and asked me to come down and work with him. I had not been to Washington since my eighth grade field trip, and I was not a particularly adept political adviser to a cabinet secretary, but I was and am interested in educational improvement. He suggested after a few months that I might like to direct a small agency within the department -- FIPSE. What I found when I got here was that FIPSE was one of the most popular programs in the department. But it hadn't reached its full potential. We brought in some new priorities and attracted some new staff. Now about 2000 colleges a year come forward to propose good ideas for FIPSE support.

Describe your focus at FIPSE over these past 14 years.
We have concentrated on undergraduate general education, access for nontraditional students to higher education, faculty development, international education, and the educational uses of technology. In cooperation with the European Union, we launched a successful program to support new kinds of transatlantic partnerships among colleges, including student exchange, and a similar cooperative program with Mexico and Canada. In addition, we launched a program to support student community service.

How does your experience at FIPSE inform the way you will approach your presidency?
At FIPSE I came to appreciate the importance of faculty ownership, with administrative support, in making positive, constructive change. One thing I've learned well is the dynamics of change and improvement on the campus -- the conditions for success.

     Second, I know lots of things that are happening around the country that are working well. I am not deluded into thinking I know the true path, but I will work to make sure that people have been exposed to the widest range of current thinking on how to do things the best possible way. Here I am thinking not so much of curriculum, but of the art and science of teaching. Curricular discussions are the province of the faculty; they are an important part of faculty development. But I do think that in the area of teaching there are lots of good ideas out there and I want to make sure that faculty are aware of any that might be relevant.

What are the special opportunities open to liberal arts colleges today?
The selective liberal arts colleges are in a unique position of opportunity. Consumer sovereignty is both a good thing and a dangerous thing. I mentioned one of the dangers before -- students insisting on complete discretion in their educational programs. But there is a positive side to consumer sovereignty as well. Over time, rational consumers are going to flock to the high-quality education providers. Colgate has a stake as do the other selective liberal arts colleges in the most informed possible consumer. We like informed consumers. For example, science education: It is easy to look at the big research universities and say, "They have the Nobel Prize winners, so that is where I should go if I want to study science." The reality is that a disproportionate number of the people who turn out to be science researchers start out at liberal arts colleges, including Colgate. People are going to realize increasingly the benefits of small classes, tenured faculty focusing on undergraduates, the cross training that comes from curricular breadth, all of those things that make for wonderful educational preparation. Colgate and the other liberal arts colleges will only benefit as consumers become more and more aware of those facts.

What are the major challenges?
One challenge is the misconception of high sticker price -- that this is for someone else and not for us. Too many families abandon their interest because they don't think colleges like Colgate are affordable institutions. Families should take stock of the value represented in colleges that graduate a large percentage of their students. If you are looking at an institution that graduates 50 percent of its students and you accumulate a $20,000 debt burden, that may not be a very good bet. But if you attend a college that graduates 87 percent and the debt burden averages $13,000 for students who borrow, as it does at Colgate, that shouldn't be ignored. The challenge is to inform parents, particularly parents who aren't themselves graduates of liberal arts colleges, about the advantages and the affordability.

What, if anything, can colleges do about costs?
Colleges need to educate the public about benefits. As an experience that can make a million-dollar difference in lifetime income, college is cheap.

     That doesn't mean there aren't opportunities for efficiency. Discussions of curriculum can sometimes lead to both educational and economic improvement. Just asking the question collectively, "What's most important?" can help focus curriculum on things that are most worth doing for educational reasons, and this can sometimes be cost effective for the institution, as well. Colleges can also do more to share resources -- library resources, for example, though it is harder if you are physically remote. In the area of technology, it's premature to talk about technology as a cost-control strategy. It is an educational enhancement as long as it is being used to facilitate personal interaction.

     In what it charges students, Colgate needs to stay with the pack, to stay in the same range of costs as our comparative colleges. We want to offer the best possible programs, so we aren't going to offer a bargain deal. But we must not become so expensive that we lose people because of price.

How important is the concept of residential life to liberal arts colleges?
Psychiatrists and psychologists tell us that the most healthy development of 17- to 22-year-olds happens when they have the opportunity for social experiences with their peers under the eye of responsible adults who are not their parents or their employers. I am concerned that convenience education -- the modularized, part-time, non-residential experience -- is really not serving this generation of traditional-age students well. I also think that the residential experience is an essential part of retention. Everything points to the significance of the involvement that arises from living in a dorm. Snack bar debates late at night, bull sessions, casual contact with faculty and fellow students, are the joy of involvement, and involvement is the key to retention and psychological growth.

Students turned out to welcome the next president at an all-campus reception.
What are the most important variables determining quality in a liberal arts college?
The best liberal arts colleges have faculty who are simultaneously committed to undergraduate education and to staying intellectually active through research. The liberal arts colleges are unique in managing to combine both a student orientation and a research orientation. The non-selective liberal arts colleges and community colleges do well in student orientation. The research universities do relatively well in the research orientation. But the selective liberal arts colleges seem uniquely successful in doing both. You can't expect students to be active learners unless faculty are themselves professionally and intellectually active.

How will you involve the various Colgate constituencies in the decision-making process?
I have a lot of confidence in the deans, division directors, administrators and chairs, and I intend to learn where I can be useful. Collegiality is an important concept, but I need to talk with the experienced people before I start saying specifically what collegiality will mean.

Who have been the biggest influences on your life in higher education?
First, John Chandler, the former president of Williams. John and I came to Washington the same year. He was the president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities and I was the director of FIPSE, and we worked closely together. John and I traveled to Asia together, and to England, and we are on the board of the USDA Graduate School. He is a close personal friend.

     Second, Johnnetta Cole, the recently retired president of Spel-man College, has been a mentor all along. She was the chair of the board of FIPSE. She reached out to me in that capacity and we had a very successful partnership. I visited Spelman many times.

Who have been the biggest influences on you intellectually?
Plato, Locke, Burke, Kant, Mill and Hegel, that's easy enough. Among 20th century philosophers, I especially like Russell, Ayer, Ryle, Quine, J. L. Mackie, D. M. Armstrong and Paul Churchland. I like the interdisciplinary work of E. H. Gombrich, who synthesizes art history and psychology. Richard Hofstadter's book Anti-intellectualism in American Life is seminal for me. I was influenced by my supervisor at Oxford, Anthony Quinton.

What have been your biggest challenges as an administrator?
Let's not talk about Congress. I think my biggest challenge has been trying to run a collegial organization inside a hierarchy. How do you run a democratic, collegial, consultative organization when forces that are acting on you don't act in a collegial way?

What do you enjoy away from your work?
The thing I find most rewarding is being the parent of two sons. I'm very tight with my kids and that's my greatest joy. I also claim to be the world's best intermediate level guitar player. My 16-year old and I stay up late at night and play blues. He's great on electronic drums, and I'm a middle-level virtuoso on blues guitar.

     I like to ski, and I'm happy to note that the equipment is making it easier at about the same rate my ability is deteriorating. In sleight of hand I'm pretty good with sponge balls, cards and coins, but I don't expect to perform on television any time soon.

Do you plan to teach?
Not right away, but I want to look for ways to have direct contact with students around intellectual things. Teaching may be one of them. The first thing I need to do is to try to understand the personality and character of the institution and make my own assessment of the problems and opportunities it faces.

What is your memory of Neil Grabois as a colleague?
We taught together in the Telluride program for top-scoring high school students. We were running as fast as we could to keep up with our students five days a week. He is devoted to young people. He is marvelously clear, incredibly energetic, good humored, and a paragon of what a college teacher should be. I learned a lot from him, and I think he enjoyed it, too.

What are your initial impressions of Hamilton?
My family came from a small mill town in northern Massachusetts -- Haverhill. Hamilton's more of a country town, but not so different or alien. I think it is a handsome, self-respecting community. I think Colgate's fortunes and the fortunes of Hamilton, NY, are closely linked, and we have a big stake in the health and well-being of this town. We are going to find ways to participate in economic development if we can.

What would you like to say to alumni?
Alumni support and involvement are vital for places like Colgate. Financial support from alumni helps make possible for others the kind of education they themselves enjoyed. But Colgate needs to continue to find ways to involve alumni that go beyond financial support. I have some new ideas in this area that we will be talking about in the coming months. But the general point is that the Colgate community is not just who's on campus at a particular moment. It's extended in time. We have to be alert for ways to bring together the Colgate community in this larger sense.

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