The Colgate Scene
November 2007

Q & A
A conversation with Colgate's new board chair

Chris Clifford '67
[Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

In June 2007, Chris Clifford '67, P'93, and Peg Flanagan '80 stepped into their roles as chair and vice chair of Colgate's Board of Trustees. In October, the Scene talked with Clifford, who is managing director of the Boston-based private equity firm Berkshire Partners. A history major while at Colgate, Clifford went on to earn his MBA from Harvard University. His daughter Caroline is a member of the Class of '93.

What drew you to Colgate as an undergraduate?

My father's business took my family to Paris and I spent my teenage years living there, so I actually didn't know much about colleges in the U.S. I went to another college and, while I enjoyed elements of it, I was left wondering whether I was really being challenged and whether I was getting the best possible education. I started thinking of transferring and read up on several colleges.

Colgate's description stressed its strong academics and its beautiful setting. I made the decision to come here and, after being dropped off by a bus in front of the Colgate Inn, I, candidly, wondered whether I made a mistake. Ultimately, however, it became clear I made a great decision. The education I obtained was outstanding. Specifically, the core courses were tremendously compelling. I was introduced to subjects that I probably would have never taken on my own. The professors were engaging, and took the time to get to know me as an individual.

You mention faculty — did any in particular make an impact on you?

Absolutely. I had the good fortune of taking classes with Doc Reading, Hunt Terrell, and Warren Ramshaw, and went on the Dijon Study Group with Jim Nicholls. These names just scratch the surface. So many faculty members had a passion for their disciplines and were just wonderful teachers. This has always stuck with me — and I continue to see it today. Our faculty is a treasure, and I repeatedly hear about their dedication and helpfulness from students.

Over the course of any given three-year period, about one-third of Colgate's 35-member Board of Trustees turns over. This keeps the board fresh, and ensures a diversity of perspectives and opinions. It also means that the nominating committee is always looking for new candidates.

"Each year we have slots to fill, and we are always mindful of not only the skills needed to effectively govern, but also the perspectives necessary to be sure that our conversations and deliberations are productive and represent a wide variety of opinions," said Trustee Toby Wesson '64, who has chaired the nominations committee for the past two years. "Trustees have to be passionate, but not focused on a single issue. Having perspective on the whole Colgate experience broadens all of our points of view and keeps us focused on the most important thing, our students."

Wesson's committee accepts nominations from current and former trustees, alumni, and others as they seek to find candidates who bring both experience in an important area of need — be it finance, construction, education, legal affairs, or public service — and a deep commitment to Colgate. This is important because of the board's responsibilities, which include establishing the university's annual budget, reviewing Colgate's basic educational programs and policies, overseeing the endowment, authorizing construction and major building renovations, and promoting and supporting major fundraising efforts.

Beyond oversight of the university's operations, the board also must stay current on issues that impact higher education and the learning environment. They do this primarily through committees on student affairs and academic and faculty affairs that engage trustees in the discussions of the day, from the importance of interdisciplinary research in undergraduate education to how best to blend the academic and residential programs. They frequently invite students, faculty, administrators, and outside speakers to their meetings to help them work through key issues. Members of the board also spend time on campus, talking with students in the library or Frank Dining Hall, and attending classes and events to get a sense of what is happening on campus. All of this helps them get a true sense of the Colgate experience.

"A good trustee immerses him or herself in the life of the university and draws on their conversations and experiences during our meetings," said board chair Chris Clifford '67. "There has to be an understanding that we all come from different backgrounds and hold sometimes very different personal opinions — the common factor has to be our students. In order to best serve their interests, and the interests of future generations, we all have to work together to shape the best possible residential liberal arts university experience."

Alumni are encouraged to submit nominations for board membership by sending names and accompanying rationale for the submission to Kim Waldron, Secretary of the College, Colgate University, 13 Oak Drive, Hamilton, N.Y. 13346, or e-mail kwaldron@mail.colgate.edu.

Forty years later, can you point to ways in which your Colgate education impacted your thinking?

There was a depth and breadth of subjects available to all of us as students, which made me understand how much there is to learn. It was a humbling and yet motivating experience. Colgate also introduced me to a healthy skepticism and the discipline of critical thinking that has endured. That was part of the academic DNA of Colgate. As students, we had two choices — read the assignments and then just sit in class to listen to the lecture, or do the work and really think about what you are hearing and reading and consider all the different interpretations of the facts as presented. Doc Reading always said, "Remember that history is written by the victors." That thought, the discipline of understanding — that there are always other interpretations — has been the cornerstone of how I have pursued my business career, being open to multiple interpretations of the facts and constantly digging to make informed decisions.

What about the Colgate "personality" or identity?

There has always been a sense that we can do more than anyone would logically expect of us. You see it athletically. You see it in the spirit of the student body, in that they have a lot of confidence in their abilities and understand that if they really put their minds and energy into things, there is really nothing that they can't accomplish.

I think that there is also a healthy ability not to take ourselves too seriously. I don't lose sleep worrying about whether Colgate students know how to have fun.

This is a good place to talk about the "town/gown" relationship. Why would you say that the Colgate-Hamilton relationship is important?

When you go back to the strategic plan, one of our key goals is to continue to advance our academic excellence. Our reality is that we compete globally for the best faculty, students, and staff, and they want to be part of a community that is vital, interesting, and supportive of their intellectual pursuits. We are physically isolated, so what we have in our community, including the village, is critically important to our mission.

The home run in education is when you can take some of the things that you have learned in the classroom and either apply them in your everyday environment or observe your everyday environment and see how everyday events relate to the subject matter that you are pursuing in your studies. Colgate understands this and is designed to allow students to engage with both their peers on campus and with the wider community beyond campus, through the COVE and the Upstate Institute, for example.

There are many positive things happening in Hamilton and in the region. Last month, I visited with the village mayor and town officials and was impressed with their desire to see the university succeed and to work effectively with Colgate. The distinction between campus and town is already blurred, and rightfully so; we are in the same "lifeboat."

The issue for Hamilton and Colgate is to find more ways to partner with a shared vision that celebrates our rural location and builds on all of the strengths of this small town. I am always amazed when I walk around the town by what a great place this is to live in and visit.

The arts play an important role in Colgate's campus life. What do you believe is the role of the arts in the liberal arts?

The arts are such an effective vehicle for communicating around profound human issues. Everyone can benefit from exposure to the arts. At its core, art is about creativity and communication. These are attributes that really transcend any particular discipline. They provide common ground for people to come together and engage in dialogue about what artists are doing, how individuals respond to particular pieces of art.

I am proud to have my family's name on the Clifford art gallery, but I didn't make that gift as a way of singularly supporting the arts; rather, I wanted to invest in an idea that would have a significant impact on the Colgate education as a whole. It was the university's administration that identified the arts program and this space, and clearly, it was money well spent.

This is an area of opportunity for Colgate. We need to build our arts program and invest in this area, which is a clear priority for the university.

What do you say about the role athletics and fitness play at Colgate?

I don't know where it comes from, but I spend a lot of time outdoors — fishing, camping, and horseback riding in the Rocky Mountains. Being active, being fit, and enjoying the outdoors have been important throughout my life. This was part of what drew me here. I remember when I was looking at Colgate, I was told that it is a place that focuses on lifetime sports. These sports have provided me with great fun and healthy activity over the past 40 years. The fact that Colgate is so focused on physical fitness is a wonderful attribute. Just like lifelong learning, our graduates should be focused on wellness and remaining physically fit throughout their lives.

If you had to put your finger on Colgate's greatest strength, what would it be?

The essence of any educational enterprise is the faculty and the quality of the students.

We are blessed with a world-class faculty that is passionate both about scholarship in their disciplines and teaching — and that is why they are drawn to Colgate. We provide them the opportunity to work at the highest level in both areas.

We've always had a lot of very good students and, if anything, that percentage has increased over the years. It's a virtuous cycle, as world-class faculty want to be mentoring and teaching world-class students — those who are a cut above most others in terms of their academic capabilities and seriousness of purpose.

So, how do we sustain the momentum of that "virtuous cycle?"

Treading water is not a viable option for any institution. It's like high jumping. We always set the bar very high, jump over it, and raise it again. Colgate has a tradition of educational innovation starting with its core courses. The Ho Science Center, the Case Library and Geyer Center for Information Technology, and our new institutes of advanced study are examples of how we are continuing to innovate.

Globally, a liberal arts education is being recognized as an important vehicle for future success as advancements in all areas — the sciences, the arts, social sciences — are happening at the edges of disciplines. To be successful, people need an understanding of the full scope of disciplines in order to effectively apply one's depth of knowledge in a specific area. Faculty and students appreciate this reality and are drawn more and more to schools such as Colgate.

What challenges do you see for Colgate in the next several years?

The major challenges and opportunities faced by higher education are not unique to Colgate. Cost, for example, is one of the major challenges. Private colleges need to find ways to remain accessible to the middle class. Colleges — particularly residential colleges — need to be sure that they have a diverse student body and mechanisms whereby all students benefit from the opportunities that diversity can provide.

We also need to continually think about how we effectively utilize the residential component of our institutions. Our students spend only 12 to 16 hours a week in class. What happens outside of the classroom has to be every bit as important as what goes on inside the classroom. The residential program has to be supportive of the academic program.

The increasing diversity of Colgate is a wonderful opportunity, but it is also a challenge. Superior educational institutions care about diversity because it provides a fertile seedbed in which students can learn to transcend and embrace differences, not fear them.

Like other college campuses, Colgate is much more diverse in terms of numbers than it was 40 years ago and even just five years ago. But I am not interested in statistical diversity — just achieving numbers doesn't do much for the educational process. The real challenge is to translate statistical diversity into an educational benefit that allows all students to experience the benefits of diversity.

A related issue is globalization. Everyone in higher education is talking about how we prepare students to be impactful in a society that is becoming dramatically more global. This wasn't even a concept when I was at Colgate, but it is very much a reality in the lives that we all live today.

Does the university's $400 million fundraising effort position Colgate to address some of these issues?

It does. This campaign builds on all of Colgate's strengths and channels resources to key areas. Take the cost and access issue: we are looking to raise $87.5 million in endowment funding to address this problem. We are seeking funds that will support all four years of the Residential Education Program, athletics programs, institutes, and centers. This campaign is all about capitalizing on our strengths and building in key areas of need.

This is a comprehensive campaign, both in terms of its breadth and in terms of its appeal to all alumni. There really is something in this effort for everyone who loves Colgate, something that will resonate with them and their experiences here.

In his remarks at the dedication of the new science center, Robert Ho '56 recalled a Chinese proverb that goes, "Drink the water, remember the source." I think that all alumni recognize that Colgate has played an important part in their personal development — it has provided the water, if you will. In my case, I feel that I gained a very good education at Colgate and my giving back is an affirmation of my gratitude to the faculty and to the important role a liberal arts education plays in today's society. All of us benefit from the critical thinking, cultural sensitivity, and truth seeking that is the core of a liberal arts education.

A campaign is a wonderful thing — it gives all of us the opportunity to express our thanks and gratitude and tangibly provide the opportunity for future generations to have the same kind of quality experience that we all enjoyed. It's a smart investment.

Shifting to your board responsibilities, why did you agree to serve on the board?

I have always been willing to contribute to Colgate, as an affirmation of the value of a liberal arts education and a tribute to the men and women in higher education and their importance in our society.

Sitting members of the board told me about the exciting projects that the university was taking on and I made the decision to join. I quickly found that the board is made up of a large group of people who check their egos at the door and are only interested in serving the university and advancing the institution. This has continuously impressed me during my eight years as a board member.

Now, as chair, what is your role on the board?

I see my role as one of facilitator. I am focused on strategic planning and organizing the board in a manner that allows us to utilize the skill sets of the trustees as effectively as possible. My agenda is to continue to advance the institution, be conscious of the traditions and values that have served us so well, and continue to enhance the valuable interaction between Colgate, its students, and alumni.

How do you work with the university's president, Rebecca Chopp?

The most important thing that a board does is select the university's president. Fortunately, the board did a tremendous job under John Golden '66 and Howard Ellins '73 in selecting Rebecca Chopp.

We work together to prioritize the needs of the university and ensure that the proper resources are available for Colgate to succeed. That's the basis of our partnership. Rebecca is a world-class leader at the top of her profession who thinks strategically and has great management skills.

The campus, under Rebecca's leadership, is stronger than ever. All aspects, from academics, to the arts, to athletics, to the climate on campus, are outstanding. There is a very healthy interest, shared by Rebecca and the board, in constant improvement and analysis. So, while Colgate is in a strong position, there is a desire to always ask good questions, develop new ideas, and always get better. This is a great Colgate quality.

Alumni engagement is another Colgate quality and long-standing strength. Why is this important to Colgate moving forward?

The health of Colgate — any university, for that matter — is dependent upon the emotional investment of those people whom the university has touched — alumni, parents, and families. I really believe that what Colgate offers is valuable to individuals throughout their lives, and that the relationship between Colgate and its students should be lifelong.

As an example, I was just talking with some alumni who are in their 20s who said they wish that they could come back to Colgate. They said that, after working for a few years, they would now have a greater appreciation for some of the material and bring different perspectives and questions. This happens to all of us over the course of our lives.

How can Colgate get alumni reengaged in the intellectual life of the campus?

The good news is that we are already seeing good initiatives. Take Tony Aveni, who is leading an alumni study group trip to the Yucatan in March. Look at the overflow crowd for one of Jerry Balmuth's courses at Reunion College. Professor Tim Byrnes was just in Boston talking with alumni about the primary election process. This is just a small example. All of these types of events earn rave reviews.

We need to build on these good efforts. They reinforce the bond that has been built with alumni and help people understand the current life of the university. Alumni benefit from an evolving understanding of what is going on at the university. All vibrant, successful organizations evolve over time, and Colgate is no exception. We are different than we were 25 or 50 years ago, but we also adhere to many key values that have been at the core of the institution from its founding. I am hopeful that, over the next few years, we will identify more opportunities to bring alumni and faculty together, to engage with the intellectual life on campus, and to learn about what is happening at Colgate.

How does the Colgate Alumni Council fit in?

We are working more closely with the council than ever before. The alumni council is very effective as an intermediary between alumni and the board, so we are looking for new ways to be sure that the lines of communication are clear and open, and to enhance them. This should help stimulate good conversation and benefit our collective community.

My tenure on the board has reminded me how much Colgate has to offer and how important our mission is.

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