The Colgate Scene
November 2004

Energy, enthusiasm, ambition
A conversation with Lyle Roelofs

Lyle Roelofs, new provost and dean of the faculty, mingles at a campuswide summer ice cream social at Merrill House shortly after his arrival at Colgate. Roelofs joined the university this year from Haverford College, where he had served as associate provost for the past three years and was a physics professor and the Haverford Distinguished Professor of computational science. [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Shortly before fall semester classes began, new Provost and Dean of the Faculty Lyle Roelofs shared his thoughts on Colgate, its strengths and aspirations — and a bit about himself and his team, too.

You have said that Colgate's strategic plan to position itself as the country's leading liberal arts university attracted you to this position, as well as to the university. How do you view your role in the pursuit of that goal?

It was clear that the strategic plan had played a major role in energizing people around here. The members of the search committee were very enthusiastic about Colgate's future, and it was evident in talking with Rebecca Chopp and the other members of her staff that there was a sense of excitement and confidence about this place. You don't see that in all academic institutions at this moment in time.

A lot of the plan centers on the faculty. Many of the specific goals flow right out of this office, and we have to work on them directly. Especially important to us this year are the addition of interdisciplinary activities supported by institutes and other entities, and the strategic plan as related to diversity. We will be putting a lot of effort into that and assembling a group of people who have the ability to make some important changes.

How do you see Colgate's liberal arts university approach fitting within the context of higher education today?

We are a true liberal arts institution with all of the strengths and benefits of that approach to education -- the rich interaction between the faculty and students, the fact that education is about connections, so that students are doing research and are involved in the scholarship of their advisers.

In my view, Colgate's greatest opportunity for distinguishing itself from other high-quality liberal arts institutions is our size and the scope of our ambitions. Colgate is one of the biggest of the national liberal arts colleges; thus, we have an ability to offer more connections and opportunities to students. Our academic niche is our size.

What has surprised or impressed you the most about Colgate so far?

I think "pleased" would capture the emotion better. I wasn't anticipating the friendliness and warmth of people at Colgate to the extent that we have experienced it. I think that is the difference between Colgate and a school in a large urban or suburban area. There is a real sense of community about Colgate.

Colgate's Board of Trustees has also been a pleasant surprise. I had the opportunity to see the board in action and meet most of the trustees at their March meeting. It was eye-opening to see how Colgate experiences -- serious academics, rich residential opportunities, and involvement in athletics (as participant or fan) and other extracurriculars -- have contributed to the success of amazing people who are intellectually interesting and so mindful of Colgate traditions.

You have said that among your initial goals were to work with the faculty on developing new institutes, and to examine the faculty governance process. Could you speak a little more to those points?

There is definite movement on new institutes, especially in connection with working out the specific goals of the strategic plan. I have been participating in discussions with other administrators and helping to generate groups of faculty to explore institutes in various areas. Of course, we already have the Upstate Institute, and we are now devoting most of our attention to two more excellent possibilities.

The integrated science building is a similar entity. It is really not an institute, but it will be a way for faculty to come together for interdisciplinary research and instruction. That process is well underway and has so much momentum that I can basically just say to the leadership, keep going, you are doing great.

On the faculty governance issue, the faculty advisory committee put a lot of effort into that last year and made some important progress, and in my first meeting with that committee, one of the agenda items will be to consider how best to return to that particular enterprise.

What other specific priorities for the academic divisions do you have for your first year?

The two biggest things in front of us right now are the strategic plan and campaign planning. Many of the things that I would like to work on have to do with having a role in defining those processes and priorities. President Chopp will be entering an effort to determine the feasibility of different concepts within a fundraising campaign, so we are working very hard to provide her with the various options that could be put in front of potential donors.

My wife, Laurie, and I also need to get to know people as rapidly as we can. We hope to be able to start meeting with departments and programs on an individual basis; one of my own priorities is to get acquainted with the various academic efforts that are going on here.

What are your long-term goals?

If the faculty are to achieve all of the objectives in the strategic plan and help Colgate become one of the leading liberal arts institutions in the country, we will need to obtain and strategically apply additional resources. This has to be done without neglecting the other parts of the institution, which also have to move forward. I am realistic enough to know that generating support for those kinds of enhancements requires the faculty to put extensive effort into advancing their scholarly and research productivity and offering an educational experience second to none. My objectives are to work within the strategic plan and the campaign to produce more resources for the faculty, and to encourage the faculty to work to deserve those resources.

With a new athletics director in place and the first season after implementing an athletics scholarship program underway, what are your thoughts about how athletics fits in today's Colgate education?

None of these recent changes has an effect on my overall philosophy. Athletics goes very well with the educational aims of an academic institution; it is one of the ways that our students grow and develop leadership skills. It happens to generate more excitement for a community than almost any of the other opportunities that we offer students. An additional benefit is that you can generate support and interest in the institution by having a well-run athletics program.

Colgate's prospects for making important progress in this area and doing things the right way were very much strengthened by our success in hiring such a capable and experienced leader as David Roach. The goals and the philosophy do not change, but the confidence with which we can move in those directions has been improved.

The implementation of scholarships was a carefully thought out, data-supported decision done exactly the right way. The faculty was on board, and the coaches knew that not only would this allow them a new way to bring in good players, but that strong academic qualifications had to be met along the way.

The first year of the program thus far has succeeded in precisely the way that it was envisioned. I am very optimistic and I believe this change will help Colgate find its proper place in the Patriot League. It helps us compensate for being more academically selective than some of our competitors in the league, and it does, in my view, allow the possibility of leveling the playing field.

Colgate has created twists on opportunities for professor-student interaction. What are your thoughts on that?

Dean of the College Adam Weinberg and his faculty and staff colleagues deserve credit for the innovative professor-student interactions that are unique to Colgate. They have looked at opportunities and made them work even better, and have developed the new first- and second-year program activities that bring professors and students together in interesting ways that relate to residential education.

Colgate's centers are another primary vehicle for faculty student interaction and academic community. Joining the existing centers are a new center with a political focus, the Center for Freedom and Western Civilization, and two others in the works. It takes money and resources, but the faculty is eagerly expanding these opportunities.

What challenges do you see for the academic program in the coming years?

Colgate runs in a select crowd and competes with institutions that have important advantages in terms of endowment per student and, in some cases, location -- not that a rural location is wrong in itself, but because limited spousal employment opportunities increase the challenge of making strong hires. The second challenge is that education at institutions like Colgate is getting quite expensive. That is beginning to drive changes in the population of students who come, particularly to an institution that can't afford to be need-blind for all of its admitted students. As the demographic shifts, the student population will pose certain challenges for the faculty.

Perhaps the most important immediate issue facing Colgate is diversity. Because it is the right thing to do and because we are educating students for living and working in very diverse settings, it is critical to increase the numbers of both students and faculty members of color at Colgate. We must also work to ensure that students of color and other minorities feel like they can achieve the same level of satisfaction in their educational experience as the majority group. Dean Weinberg and I will be leading a vigorous effort this year to enact the recommendations of a planning group that studied this situation last year.

Let's switch gears to your academic specialty. How did you get interested in surface physics?

Young scientists getting their start are drawn to hot areas — it is about the number of exciting and interesting problems that are available when a field or subfield is young. When I started my graduate study in 1975, surface physics had just gotten to the point where one could do really neat stuff.

The key technological step was the ability to achieve ultra-high vacuum. You might wonder, why do you need vacuum in order to study the surfaces of a material? If you don't put your sample in a situation of almost perfect vacuum, then almost immediately the surface will be covered with air molecules, and if you try to study the surface, you will be studying a hundred layers of oxygen rather than the actual atoms and the surface of the material. Technological development of ultra-high vacuum enabled the field to take off. So, that was a hot field. There were many, many interesting problems that connected all through physics.

Entering the field, I could see 15 years of interesting problems to work on. In fact, I've now been working in the area for nearly twice that long and there are still interesting problems to attack, and most of them are very suitable for undergraduate student collaboration. Senior physics/math major Justin Spencer has already joined my research program.

We hear that you have moved into 116 Broad Street. How do you envision your interaction with students living in that location, as well as more broadly on campus?

That location allows us to interact with students as neighbors, which Laurie and I are already enjoying. Phi Delta Theta is on one side and Asia Interest House is on the other side.

We expect to be good neighbors and to enjoy getting to know the residents of these houses. For the last 20 years at Haverford College, we also lived very close to a student house and had good relationships with the students over the years, so we are confident that we will have a good time with the other residents on Broad Street.

More broadly, Student Government Association President Ram Parimi has already come to see me, and we have talked about ways that faculty and student interaction can be supported by SGA and by this office. I'm thinking about some other ways, revolving around game-playing, to get more individually and personally involved with students.

What are your outside interests?

I have a lot of hobbies that are getting neglected at this time of my life. I like woodworking. I do some needlework. I am a good knitter -- I like to make sweaters, socks, mittens, and hats and I have made a few afghans. (I learned from my mother, who is of Dutch immigrant stock.) I am semi-serious about chess. I run and still play a bit of basketball and soccer.

I also like bird-watching and other kinds of related outdoor activities. We have had one trip to the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge so far.

I also read a lot. I just finished Peter Balakian's The Burning Tigris. I like history, and I collect old fantasies by authors like George McDonald, Lord Dunsany, and Ernest Bramah [Smith], E. Nesbitt, even Spenser, all of whom influenced J.R.R. Tolkien. I find a few mystery authors appealing: Ellis Peters and especially Tony Hillerman. When it comes to reading, I'm basically omnivorous.

Top of page
Table of contents
<< Previous: Teaching the whole person Next: The dean of the faculty team >>