Wm. Brian Little '64 succeeded Van Smith '50 as chairman of the Colgate Board
of Trustees during the board's May meeting on campus (The Scene, July
A trustee since 1987, Little is past chairman of Campaign Colgate. Now a private investor, he concentrated on mergers and acquisitions and the development of new businesses with White, Weld & Company and later Merrill Lynch White Weld before joining with Ted and Nick Forstmann in 1978 to form the investment firm Forstmann Little. Little also holds an MBA from Harvard University Graduate School of Business (1967).
During a summer interview, Little spoke of Colgate, the board, and his new role as chairman.
|What attracted you to service for Colgate?||I was invited to join the board nine years ago. That was a few years after being reconnected to Colgate through the Campaign for Colgate, which was going on in the 1980s. That Campaign had reacquainted me with Colgate, the folks in the administration, and many of the trustees at the time. Before that I had worked with others in our class on our 20th reunion gift in 1984.|
What are the key qualities that you look for in a new trustee?
As chairman of the nominating committee for the past few years,
I have some experience in that area. We look for someone who
is interested in and cares about Colgate, and someone who is willing to give in
a variety of ways. First and foremost of those ways
is time. There is an obligation
to attend, if not all the meetings,
at least most of the meetings. We meet twice a year in New York and twice
in Hamilton, and hold a retreat every other year.
Coming with board membership is the expectation of service in any number of ways. All board members are members of two or three committees. Service on committees is where a trustee really gets involved in greater depth -- whether in building projects, academic affairs, finance, or whatever.
So first it's a willingness to commit time. Then there are specific tasks, such as providing leadership in a capital campaign. That kind of support comes not only from giving personal financial support, but also from a willingness to go out and help sell the need for the Campaign to other alumni.
|What kind of time commitment is necessary to be an effective trustee?||
A board meeting is typically a two-day affair when committee meetings are
included. If you were to add it all up for four or five meetings a year, it
would be ten or more days a year in Colgate-related endeavor -- plus additional
travel days for many trustees. And that doesn't include the time spent reading
the material that's sent to us to keep us current. The Colgate board is one
where you have to be prepared to spend some time.
I was chair of the Campaign for a couple of years, and during that time my contacts with the people at Colgate who are responsible for the Campaign were almost ongoing. There are lots of other trustees who head other committees who have similar relationships with their administrative counterparts.
The special committee that reviewed Colgate's residential life a few years ago (SCRL) was nearly a 15-month commitment.
|What are the special responsibilities of the chairman?||
The chairman has the need, the obligation, and the pleasure to be in almost
constant contact with Colgate's President Neil Grabois and other senior members
of the administrative staff. Not every board member can do that, but clearly
the chairman has to and should. Neil and I speak at least once a week and have
an open agenda.
The other thing is to provide leadership to the other trustees. When issues come up it is the chairman's role to make sure that the trustees understand all aspects before decisions are made, in part by structuring meetings so that important issues receive adequate time for discussion.
|Do you have an agenda or timetable for what might happen during your tenure?||
Colgate recently completed a thorough review of itself by a planning task
force, which involved people on campus as well as trustees. The task force
concluded that Colgate, as it is constituted today in terms of size and what
we offer in a liberal arts education, is what we want to continue being. There
are no dramatic changes that came out of that planning
Instead, there was a reaffirmation of things that we are and want to continue to be, such as being among the finest liberal arts colleges, being competitive in Division I athletics, and providing the financial resources for Colgate to remain affordable to as many deserving students as possible. There was no conclusion or mandate to change directions in a dramatic way. Instead, it was to become even better at what we are now.
I see that as the primary role of the board: to support Colgate in becoming a better and better liberal arts college as we are constituted now.
|What are the differences between chairing a for-profit board and a non-profit board?||Actually, I see more similarities than differences. First and foremost, whether it be a for-profit or not-for-profit board, it is the board's responsibility to oversee the selection of the president or CEO. Another similar role of paramount importance is to oversee the financial well-being of that organization -- in the for-profit area this relates to providing a sound financial structure and making sure it operates at a profitable level, whereas on a not-for-profit board it means maintaining and growing the organization's endowment and operating with a balanced budget. Also, each type of board is charged with seeing that the product or service being offered is the best possible -- whether it be a product sold for profit, or an education offered by a college like Colgate. So, in many ways, the principal roles of directors/trustees are quite similar in the two different sectors.|
|College costs have taken off, both in operating costs and cost to the
consumer. How does the board address costs?
Colgate has a record of operating with a balanced budget for 33 consecutive
years. That is an enviable and unique record, and something that we as a board
want to see continued in the years ahead. It is unacceptable to us to operate
without a balanced budget. Having said that, another important factor these
days is to get control of steadily increasing tuition and other costs of going
to college. For many years colleges were operated on the thought that tuitions
could be the plug factor to allow the college to balance its budget. Colgate
hasn't seen it that way. For the past several years we've become much tougher
on holding down tuition and other cost increases. We raise tuition only in a
very begrudging way after careful analysis to make sure that all costs have
been held down as much as possible -- without in any way diminishing the
quality of the lib-eral arts education we are offering.
Compared to most of the other colleges with which Colgate is competitive, our endowment is quite small. It is improving, both with alumni support and good investment results, but still, in endowment per student, at $77,295, Colgate is well below that of many other similar colleges. That's tough ground to make up, but we have come a long way. The endowment ten and twenty years ago was even less on a per-student basis in comparison to our peers. We're closing the gap, and the Campaign we are in the midst of now will move us even further along.
|What do you see as Colgate's greatest strengths?||
The whole philosophy of Colgate, which is to provide a well-rounded
liberal arts education, starting with the core program in the first two years,
is to me what we are fundamentally all about. Colgate stands out among other
liberal arts colleges in adhering to that philosophy and providing that kind
The college has many other strengths: a top-flight, dedicated, caring faculty; an absolutely wonderful campus; a student body that is truly superb; a varied mix of programs of study abroad; and finally, the ability to make do on less.
|Your professional colleagues describe you as a gifted analyst. If you step back and look at Colgate objectively, what opportunities do you see for the college in the decade ahead?||
In any organization, whether it be for-profit or not-for-profit, selling and
communicating your strengths is essential. Colgate has many strengths, and I'm
not sure they are always as well understood by people who haven't been touched
by the college before. We do very well in recruiting students and faculty when
they actually come
to Hamilton and can see all of Colgate's unique attributes and strengths.
Communications in any business is essential. Colgate is doing a good job in
this area, but we must continue to do an even better job in getting the word
There are so many new means to do that today -- whether on the internet or through videos -- you can touch people in many new ways.
|How would you assess residential life at Colgate following the changes of recent years?||
Residential life is an area where we have made great progress in the
past half-dozen years. Some of that was stimulated by the study that went on
around the Special Committee on Residential Life (SCRL). That has enabled
Colgate to build some wonderful new dormitories and other campus living units
and provide more students the opportunity to live on campus rather than having
to live off campus. That has helped rectify an off-campus living situation that
shouldn't have existed.
Also, we have successfully gone through the transition of moving to sophomore rush. Fraternities and sororities have handled that very well. There is much better balance on campus today for those who choose to be members of the Greek letter system, and those who choose not to. There are really many more options.
|Do you see anything in the environment that threatens Colgate's identity?
One of the most interesting challenges facing all colleges these days, Colgate
among them, is that of information technology and its place on the college
campus. The trustees have just devoted a two-day retreat to this subject. There
are some people in education who predict that colleges in the future will not
be campuses so much as places on the internet where students can plug in and
get their college education via a computer. The Colgate board wanted to be
informed on this subject and spent two days on campus a few weeks ago with
members of the faculty and administration bringing us up to date on where
Colgate stands in regard to information technology. Jim Manzi, a trustee with a
wealth of knowledge in this field, gave a wonderful address about information
technology. I must say that we came away very impressed
with the strides that Colgate has already made to bring information technology
to the campus and its students. A very real challenge for a lot of colleges is
to make sure that the thought that a college could be replaced by an internet
link-up is not the way it's going
to go. We definitely think that Colgate students today and in the future will
want to get some of their education via information technology, but there will
continue to be an essential place for colleges such as Colgate where there will
be an opportunity for interaction among students and faculty. This
is an interesting challenge and one that I am delighted the board has been
Information technology also drives costs these days. Colgate is fully wired in terms of students being able to plug into its information technology system. That cost is behind us, but there are many more ahead as we make sure that we stay up to date.
Division I athletics at Colgate is a challenge. We've made it clear that the board remains committed to a competitive program of Division I athletics, and indeed we are providing that in most sports. We also are committed to improving ourselves in sports where we are less competitive.
Athletics is a tough area these days with many new issues to deal with. Colgate has a history of being an independent. The world has changed, so it is important to us now to be a part of a league. As members of the Patriot League, we regard the ongoing strength of that league as very important.
The other issue in athletics that colleges are contending with is that of the legal challenges brought about by Title IX -- providing equal opportunities for all men and women who wish to play sports. This is an area where we feel we've done a good job, but it is another challenge that we must continue to focus on.
|Do you find yourself having to shift gears between campaign chairman and chairman of the board?||First of all, over the next sixteen months I regard the Campaign and its successful completion as being the most important thing that I as chairman of the board must focus on. I also feel that in John Golden we have an extremely able, devoted, and very energetic Campaign chairman, and I am confident that over these next 16 months he will provide the leadership to get the job done. John succeeded me as chairman of the Campaign and became its third chairman -- the Campaign was kicked off by Van Smith. I and many other trustees will continue to be intensely involved in working with John to see the Campaign reach and then exceed its $130 million goal.|
|Do you see the role of trustee also as solicitor?||
Absolutely. Board leadership in
any campaign, both in giving and getting, is essential. When we kicked off the
public phase of Campaign Colgate in September 1994 with $46 million raised at
that time, past and current board members had provided $20.3 million, or more
than 40 percent of the kickoff level. Today, with $95 million raised to date,
current and former trustees have given $31 million, still above 30 percent. The
Colgate board's leadership role both in the beginning of the Campaign and
ongoing has been magnificent.
Trustees are also among our best solicitors. The Campaign will succeed because there are a number of solicitors all over the country calling on many fellow alumni. We have more than 1,500 volunteers today, and the Campaign wouldn't be anywhere near the level it is without the concerted effort of those volunteers.
|Can you relate how the fitness center came about?||It's a several step story. First, on the occasion of my 50th birthday, now four and a half years ago, some friends made contributions to Colgate. I talked with [vice president for public affairs] Bob Tyburski and we decided that those gifts would be used by Colgate to buy a few pieces of fitness equipment to put in a very small room in Huntington Gym that had previously been used as a dance studio. Those ten or so pieces of equipment were an immediate hit and demonstrated a real interest in having a fitness facility at Colgate, so when the Campaign came along a couple of years later, one of the specific needs for support was a fitness center. Having been involved in the prototype, I became interested in and involved in the discussions of the fitness center as we now know it. I decided to take some of the support that I was prepared to give Colgate and direct it toward the center. Again, we had tremendous support from many others -- some close friends and other people I didn't know -- who saw this fitness center as essential and necessary on a college campus such as Colgate's.|
|Campaign staff talk about your effectiveness in soliciting gifts. What is your approach?||
I've been accused of being a `soft sell' when it comes to approaching
people for gifts. I'd admit that I'm not much of an arm-twister. Instead, I try
to appeal to someone to think of Colgate in terms of what it has done to make
that person's life better or more successful. Most alumni out there respond to
that and once you get them thinking in the direction of what Colgate did for
them, not only in terms of their career progress, but in terms of memories of
those four special years with a group of wonderful people, most alumni respond
to Colgate's needs.
Another point I try to make is that Colgate today, just as it did when we went there, provides all its students more than what the student pays for. Even if you are paying full tuition, you're there because of some people who were there before you and have supported Colgate before you ever showed up. That is a legacy to be passed on from generation to generation, just as people got together and funded Colgate for many years before we arrived. Alumni today have to do the same thing: keep the endowment growing and keep increasing financial support so that the college remains highly competitive and affordable. That to me is the obligation of any alumnus who can afford to give.
|Beyond getting to $130 million, is there a special focus for the last 16 months of the Campaign?||
I see the focus for the last year and a half as one of finally getting to
people who have heard the Campaign message many times. There have been numerous
mailings, more than 25 regional events, and no end of opportunities to learn
why this campaign is important to Colgate. Now it is our task to get
to those alumni who for their own reasons have chosen not to make
a final decision on a campaign gift. We need to reach those people who know
there is a campaign going on, know why it's going on, and have the capacity to
give, but have so far stayed on the sidelines. We've had terrific participation
so far, both from givers and volunteers, but we've got to convert a lot of
people who clearly have the capacity to make gifts during these remaining
months, but have chosen not to so far.
A lot of alumni out there who have already been visited will be visited again and the message will be reinforced as to why we've got to make this campaign a success. Participation has been very good. Annual participation has been at 50 percent or higher these last several years. We think that cumulative participation by the time the Campaign is finished will be over 60 percent of alumni, which is absolutely terrific and would put Colgate at the highest levels of colleges in terms of alumni support.
|You were a challenger in the last campaign. What do you see as the special opportunities that exist with a challenge fund?||
A challenge is meant to do a variety of things. It sends a signal to alumni
that, as successful as the Campaign has been so far, it will require everyone
to dig a little deeper and add to prior gifts. For some people who've heard the
message but haven't yet made a gift, the challenge can provide the impetus for
an initial gift. For others it will lead to increased gifts. Challenges are not
that uncommon in a campaign at this stage, which is meeting all the benchmarks
as it goes along.
The challenge that we have put together is from a group of 13 of us who have already made a Campaign gift. But, to assure that we reach the $130 million goal and, hopefully, exceed it, we have agreed to increase our gifts by an aggregate of $12 million, and in doing so send a message to all other 26,000 alumni that we would like to see them do the same thing. If they come up with an amount similar to what we've pledged, that will double the $12 million and help in a major way to take us to the $130 million goal and beyond.
So the challenge is a device to not only raise more money, but to send a message that, as much as many alumni have already done, there is a need to do more. A lot of people make campaign gifts with the statement that this is what they are doing now, but because the Campaign has a five-year term they would like to consider giving more later. This challenge asks them to consider giving more before the Campaign is over -- to turn some of those thoughts into additional gifts.