There is no small irony in the fact that, although Colgate has just completed
one of the most successful of its 179 years, those of us charged with ensuring
the college's continuing strength are confronted with urgent issues at the
heart of the institution that are certain to influence its future.|
An impressive record of achievements for the college and its people over the past year was headed by a glowing affirmation from our accrediting group -- the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools -- and a final tally of nearly $158 million contributed to the effort to raise $130 million in support of essential programs.
But there is hardly time to reflect on those successes as we consider issues that concern higher education in general and Colgate in particular.
This year in July the trustees spent two days on retreat discussing what lies ahead. Several of us contributed essays and background readings for the trustee retreat, and I was invited to share my vision for Colgate and respond to trustee questions. The issues that preoccupied my remarks were:
The retreat was an important step in setting the agenda for dis-cussions about the college's future -- discussions that will involve all our constituents. In the interest of sharing that thinking with you, I offer this summary of my July remarks and invite your reactions.
Building on success|
The college looks to the future from a position of strength. Students, faculty, staff and alumni are proud of what they have accomplished. Our financial condition, bolstered by the campaign and a strong economy, has further enhanced morale across the college.
But our current strength alone is not enough to carry the college forward: there are signs of fundamental change ahead. Largely as the result of the widespread acceptance of new ways of transmitting and storing knowledge, the world is changing rapidly. At the same time, the public view of higher education -- and the liberal arts in particular -- is changing; witness what is being written and said about college costs, curricular relevance, political correctness, affirmative action, alcohol use and the balance between college and parental responsibility. On cost alone, considering the way tuitions have escalated, it is possible the public may one day judge us to be doing an excellent job, giving good value for money, yet be unwilling to pay the price.
At Colgate we are constantly aware of maintaining our admissions success in the face of increasing competition. Key to that success is how the public views us in comparison to other colleges: What distinguishes a Colgate education from what is available elsewhere?
To ensure that we are making wise strategic choices we will continue to conduct research among our important constituents, examine the strengths of our programs in view of the needs of society and describe the college in the clearest possible terms. We will invest more in understanding ourselves and projecting that understanding to the public, recognizing that the benefit from such efforts is quite different in higher education than it is in for-profit corporations. Our financial condition will not change as we divert more resources to this effort; but if we are successful we will continue to attract the best students and faculty -- in short, we will maintain, indeed enhance, our place as one of the country's best colleges.
In recent years families have become more aware of the value they receive for their educational dollar. Still, the public continues to demand more in the way of facilities and programs. The best colleges offer a range of support services and physical amenities quite separate from the curriculum, but still a consideration to families. Students and their parents have become comparison shoppers.
The public's concerns about price -- reflected, for example, in families attempting to negotiate financial aid packages -- are beginning to generate cracks in the accepted wisdom on the way we aid students. We risk weakening or even losing some institutions -- perhaps many -- in their effort to hold down prices while at the same time remaining competitive in salaries they pay and aid they award. As the pressures on tuition continue to increase, even successful institutions will need to find alternative ways of generating the wealth that supports quality education. Colgate has not been immune to these concerns. We have been changing, but in ways that we have learned to manage over the years -- responding to stresses, problems and opportunities as they arose, or as economists say, "at the margin." In curriculum we have reviewed and revised the core and added options in environmental studies that capitalize on strengths in existing departments. We have examined social and residential life, implementing sophomore rush, improving residential conditions on campus, enhancing social programming, opening the Barge Canal Coffee Company downtown. We have steadily improved and upgraded our facilities, and enhanced our communications with prospective students, alumni and the general public.
Now there are indications that we may have to go beyond changes at the margin to maintain and enhance Colgate's position in the education marketplace. That could be particularly difficult for us because Colgate does not have the wealth to compete with some status institutions on their grounds. We must be thoughtful in picking our opportunities and consider bold moves only when the potential payoff exceeds the risk of changing an evidently successful approach.
Where we are and where we're headed|
Three challenges are of critical importance:
All three must be considered in the context of current conditions, locally and nationally.
The pressure of costs
Improving efficiency is one way of containing costs, but among its peers Colgate is already acknowledged as a model of efficiency, especially for the way it allocates its resources to enhance student access to faculty. Indeed, efficiencies achieved in the classroom by increasing the student-to-faculty ratio would only undercut the close interaction between teachers and students that is one of our core values and one of the principal reasons students choose to attend.
The business solution of reducing personnel in areas of least demand has limited application in the classroom. For one reason, we manage our faculty resources very efficiently; for another, students often change interests; and for yet another, having a range of expertise represented in the faculty ensures the breadth that students and their families expect from this kind of education. Education in the liberal arts is wonderful preparation for life, but there is no getting around the fact that it is expensive to provide.
Competing in quality
Our strategy must be to become more effective by providing more education and learning for the dollars families spend. We need more learning per faculty member, not more students per faculty member. The strategy must also recognize that not all learning at Colgate takes place in the classroom, and that there are many more of life's lessons to learn during four years in this invigorating environment. Nothing is straightforward here; all the challenges and responses interact with one another.
Technology can increase the quality of student learning, but the technology to support learning in the liberal arts is only just being developed. Moving to the leading edge of that development would require a massive investment in equipment and the faculty. Being a "close follower" may be our wisest course; as Alexander Pope wrote: "Be not the first by whom the new are tried nor yet the last to lay the old aside."
More attractive than competing at the frontier of technology may be reconceiving ourselves from a teaching college to a learning college, something like the Hutchins approach at the University of Chicago in the 1930s, emphasizing knowledge and skills acquired rather than numbers of courses completed. As a learning college, Colgate should be particularly imaginative in its pedagogical approach. Lecturing, no matter how good, is not enough, although it should not be forsaken. The key is that the more students are engaged in their academic and social experiences, the greater their acquisition of knowledge and thus cognitive development. The Lakota Sioux expressed this notion clearly:
"Tell me, and I will forget.
Connecting to the world
We know from regular surveys that students do not expect to do only one thing throughout their lifetimes; they need to be able to reinvent their workselves every few years. We must give them the tools.
Adding global awareness to the traditional literacies our graduates need, the intellectual inventory we provide our students should include foreign language skills, understanding the differences and commonalities of peoples, verbal skills, technical sophistication, problem solving skills, ability to work in teams, the capacity to learn independently. We have a mission to help students learn those things of interest to them, but also those things necessary to their success as functioning citizens.
Colgate's identity should be determined by innovation in the ways that enhance student learning, as well as by the curricular programs that place us among the best liberal arts colleges. Increasingly, I see the college emphasizing learning that is problem-based, collaborative and grounded in service to the community; we will continue to increase opportunities for student research and exposure to other cultures -- already signatures of the college. Technology will complement these approaches, but it cannot replace the personal engagement between students and teachers without violating the fundamental values that distinguish Colgate.
Admission and aid
While Colgate remains committed to a need-based standard in distributing its available aid (indeed attracted a talented Class of 2002 while holding to that standard), we should reexamine our practices as some of our peers begin to offer merit aid or otherwise restructure their aid packages to attract top-quality students. Like Princeton, some of the nation's top universities are redefining the way they assess need in developing financial aid packages. While their policies remain need-based, they are retooling their programs to become even more competitive for the best students.
The shifting aid market puts Colgate in a hard spot: we do not have the resources to compete with offers of merit aid, even if we wanted to, yet one of the measures of our quality is threatened if we cannot attract the best students. Nevertheless, we must reassess the way we structure aid, even as we know that some proposals for change are in tension with other Colgate values.
Aid and admission are inextricably linked, but there are admission considerations that extend beyond aid, as well. The cohort of college-aged Americans has rebounded in size from a low point in the early to mid '90s, but the composition of the group is also shifting, with larger percentages from lower income and non-white households. As those groups continue to grow through 2000 and beyond we will seek to develop new strategies that identify and attract the top students from across the nation and address their needs.
We have launched new marketing initiatives in admissions with goals of attracting a strong pool of applicants, remaining highly selective in our choices, and yielding a higher percentage of our offers to top quality students. We seek to attract more students of color and a larger representation of students from foreign cultures. Indeed, the data demonstrate conclusively that the best students seek diverse institutions that mirror the societies in which they will live and lead.
While curricular and pedagogical issues are at our core, residential liberal arts colleges are structured to support other learning experiences, as well.
Intercollegiate athletics has been an important element of Colgate's identity for more than a century. Conditions in the athletic arena are more changeable today than at any point in our history and they demand our thoughtful consideration to ensure that our program continues to serve our goals and the needs of our students. Our athletic affiliation with many of our traditional opponents, especially in the Patriot and Ivy Leagues, has extended beyond the playing fields and been an important part of who we are. But intercollegiate competition at our level is being redefined in ways that make these two leagues stand out. The question of whether we are exemplars or anomalies extends beyond the philosophical to the economic and practical. Issues of gender equity, competitiveness and league stability are among the complicating factors of any discussion of athletics, but they are issues we must confront if we are to continue to control our own destiny.
Residential life presents its own set of issues, as does extracurricular life. Greek letter societies have been a part of Colgate's residential and social makeup throughout the lifetime memories of our oldest alumni. While we may think of fraternities and sororities as unchanged and unchanging, they too are evolving; in the year 2000, for example, several national fraternities will become "dry," banning alcohol from their houses. Where these groups once shouldered the largest share of the responsibility for housing students and providing campus social life, economic and liability considerations have redefined that role. In the meantime, colleges are spending more of their resources to provide enhanced residential and social options in response to student expectations. We will continue to work with alumni and undergraduates to achieve a balance that meets the needs of our community.
One of the most perplexing issues on college campuses across the nation is alcohol abuse. National studies and a seemingly endless string of tragedies have made campus alcohol abuse a serialized story that has commanded the front page. We have many programs in place to address drinking on campus, but I know of no college, including ours, that can say it has the problem solved. Responding to concerns about alcohol abuse, a handful of institutions have recently gone so far as to actually ban alcohol from all residential units.
Beyond the immediate campus we have a responsibility to our hometown of Hamilton. Our fortunes are intertwined with those of the village, and we continue to examine new ways to enhance a partnership that has served both town and gown through the years. We will find ways to expand our global awareness from our center in this wonderful rural community.
While we all left the retreat knowing that this was only the first paragraph in a continuing story, we were also heartened by the fact that we are building on a strong foundation, thanks to those who preceded us. There are challenges ahead, and they will lead us to understand ourselves even better. We are certain to adjust and forge new directions in ways that we cannot yet know. But in the end we will be guided by the determination to continue to be a premier institution educating the most talented young women and men to enrich their lives, enhance their humanity, develop lifelong skills and assume their responsibilities as productive citizens in our society.