The Colgate Scene
September 2001

The opportunity to reaffirm

Jane Pinchin, who has served the college for more than 30 years, steps forward once again.

As interim president, how do you assess the state of the college?

Colgate is in a very healthy place. We are, of course, being looked at closely, externally as well as internally at this moment in time. Change invites questioning -- and an examination of who and what we are. In my mind the answer is clear: we are a vibrant institution but an institution that has gone through a very difficult year. Board Chairman Wm. Brian Little '64 died last September on a day when five Colgate presidents had gathered on campus to memorialize their predecessor Everett Case. That began a cascade of events, both sad and tragic, that weighed on us all.

This fall, this new academic year, we have the opportunity to reaffirm our great buoyancy, our sense of purpose, to move out of neutral into drive, to turn our attention toward changing the mood, the feel of the place. I am an interim president, but I can assure you this will not be an interim year. I have committed myself to expending every bit of energy I can muster and every bit of wisdom I have toward that renewed vigor, and I know that the senior staff shares that commitment. We've worked extraordinarily hard this summer so that when students come back in the fall we will have new opportunities available for them, opportunities that underscore the mission of the college. Colgate has never been complacent; we strive to improve -- it is one of the institution's underlying strengths, always seeing ourselves as poised to get better. We mean to deliver this fall. There is high seriousness in the air, and a sense not only of promise, but of promises to be kept.

When the trustees asked you about the interim presidency, why did you say yes? What were your thoughts?

One of my immediate thoughts was that I have loved my work as provost and dean of the faculty. But there are arcs of time connected to all kinds of enterprises and I felt, perhaps immodestly, that the institution needed me and that I could serve it well. And I have an enormous respect for this board. I felt excited by the prospect of looking at Colgate the same way, but differently. Of course, I felt anxious about the fact that I was leaving a job as dean/provost that I enjoyed every bit as much on June 30, 2001 as I had on July 1, 1994 when I began. It is a rare good fortune to do work that seems as exciting seven years later as it did when you first took it up. We have wonderful faculty and staff, absolutely involved in the institution, feeling themselves stakeholders, all. There's nothing passive about the people who work here. Still there is something extraordinarily good-natured about those same people in their collective selves. They work for a common good and one feels it. Being in a leadership position, one feels the great collective strength of the people who work with you.

So I'd had a wonderful time as provost and dean of the faculty, and the thought of moving down the Hill was strange indeed. At the close of the day when I'd first sat in the president's office, I came home grumpy. I knew that I had really left that other space, more than literally -- metaphorically as well.

Do I like what I'm doing now? I like it enormously. Full stop. Since I'd spent so much time on the president's staff over the years, I had the sense that I knew the job of president, and of course, one never knows a job until one enters it, even on an interim basis. When I first became dean I felt that I was in a place I'd been in as a faculty member for a very long period of time, but it was like standing in a spot where there had been a lot of curtains that were closed, and now they were each one opening up -- allowing you to see parts of the institution that you'd known about but not known well. Once again, since becoming interim president, I feel the circumstance of standing in the same place and seeing it differently, because of an angle of vision. I'm learning every day.

My thoughts when I was asked were also about whether there'd be time to make a difference. I think there will be. We have worked hard this summer as a president's staff to be able to have time to think about the large issues as well as the detail -- to examine the operational and also the institution's dreams.

What makes Colgate distinctive?

It seems to me there are many pieces of that whole. In terms of the curriculum, we have signature programs that clearly differentiate us from other institutions. Since 1928 we have had in place a core curriculum that is, in my opinion, the most elegant in the country. A second signature: Colgate runs 20 to 25 study groups a year. Here we are giving our students more than an experience abroad, we are giving them an experience with our own faculty. We've now begun new shorter travel programs called "extended study" -- month-long travel extending and enriching existing courses -- that also allow student-athletes or students in the sciences, who have more restricted schedules, to go abroad. Colgate is a clear leader in international study. Student research that began here in the sciences 40 years ago and has spread across the institution is another signature program.

Add to that a faculty of teacher/scholars that is the quality of the very best institutions in the country. Second to none. And a curriculum with 62 concentrations and minors. Our size also makes us distinctive. We are Colgate University -- that is in some ways a misnomer -- but in other ways it speaks to the fact that we are a "large" small liberal arts college. We have 700 to 1000 students more than many other residential liberal arts colleges, which means that we have up to 400 additional courses. Our offerings for students are more expansive.

We also have Division I athletics, another great strength of the institution and another defining signature of Colgate that is a source of pride and a source of variety in student opportunities that other institutions like us do not have.

I would also add that there is a distinctive attitude toward the world, marked by both friendliness and modesty, in the collective deportment of the place, that seems to me to be an institutional strength and a part of who we are. A more amorphous, less easy to define characteristic of Colgate is physical beauty. It's just a gem of a physical space.

We've talked about what makes Colgate distinctive. What do you feel are the large issues and needs that the institution faces?

The institution needs to turn its attention, first and foremost, to student life. Here the trustees have acted and empanelled a task force that will recommend improvements in campus culture to enhance the quality of our students' total educational experience -- their time at a fine residential liberal arts college.

Colgate needs to turn its attention to the classroom -- to faculty/student ratios and to the sense of student engagement: student and faculty interaction. The very heart of what we do at Colgate. And also at the top of the list, to the recruitment of fine students through the expansion of financial aid, where we continue to strive to be need blind.

In addition, Colgate needs to turn its attention to how the campus will grow as physical plant, working always to insure that what we build mirrors institutional priorities. And it needs to focus on the village -- on the spirit of place, the environment in which the college itself lives.

We have begun to move on all of the issues I've mentioned.

For example: we have been for the past two years engaged in the expansion of the faculty -- through the generosity of an anonymous gift -- an expansion that will continue over the next three years. The goal is a 10:1 student/faculty ratio. We want to afford students the experience of an intimate classroom. Students now learn in small settings at Colgate, but we want to make this intimacy an even greater part of their experience. So that's something we've been doing and we will continue to do.

The new town/gown effort characterized by the Partnership for Community Development and the Hamilton Initiative is another piece of collective dreaming that is meeting a clear and present need. I've lived in this community for 30 years, but I've seen an excitement in the air in recent days that I've never seen before. Happily, this is a partnership between leaders in the greater Hamilton area and Colgate, where the end result will be a vibrant gem of a community. Even if you consider it, as we should, an initiative that extends beyond the village of Hamilton into Madison County -- you're talking about what is doable for the college, an effort that can be made without cutting into other programs. So I'm very excited by these efforts.

Improving the physical plant is another piece of the plan, another priority, and we have on our plate a number of important projects that we will need to prioritize in the months to come, working with a strong sense of what will allow this college to succeed into the 21st century and keep us on the cutting edge. Here we have to make sure that our library and our science facilities are first-rate. And that we understand the needs of student life and of the performing arts.

We have, of course, done much to be proud of in building over the recent past. We look with enormous excitement at Little Hall, opened last spring: a facility that allows us new possibilities in the fine arts, film and media studies. One walks into that building and just feels both the beauty of the space and the excitement that comes with a factory for making art. Little Hall is the most recent example of a building that changes what we do. Persson Hall is another recent example that changed the nature of what students do in subjects like geography, political science and economics.

I leave for last what is of course not last -- issues of student life. We've been working very hard this summer to present students with a vibrant fall and a plan for a vibrant future.

We see curricular and social initiatives such as service learning -- class work that has a field study component -- coming to the fore. We have devoted enormous attention this summer to expanding such opportunities for our students. I've asked Adam Weinberg, associate professor of sociology and anthropology, to head our new Community Service Center. Adam is working with Marnie Terhune, whose previous experience was in student life. We have an intern who is a 2001 graduate, Betsy Levine, who is part of that mix. We've renovated rooms in East Hall for this purpose and mean to have some of the best service learning opportunities in the country by the end of this year. We want to establish something that will allow students to extend the walls of the classroom and to involve themselves in work that is for the good of an extended community. Expanding student life and student opportunities is clearly not only about giving students things. One more sub shop, one more restaurant, will not change the nature of student life here. Having students involved in the ethical questions of their time, in giving back as well as receiving, is something that will change their lives.

We are also working to bring students and faculty together -- paralleling our new extended study groups, building on the idea that students and faculty, and actually students and students -- can get to know one another well when they are moving together outside of the classroom. Faculty members are having more dinners with students at Merrill House. They will have greater budgets for faculty/student travel to New York, to Boston: to plays, to exhibitions of all sorts. Students can get to know one another in that kind of extended time, whether it's day trips to the city or month-long stays in South Africa.

We're also working on creating spaces where students can socialize with one another across the board. We will be asking parents to become involved in the Palace Theater, a new dance club. It's a major effort -- refurbishing the building will cost $1.4 million -- and we think of it as a place for students to have real fun downtown. I have to say that just as service learning is enormously exciting to students, so too, is the prospect of the Palace Theater, as we learned when we brought student leaders back to campus for a Student Summit this summer, to join in planning all sorts of enterprises and spaces.

In addition, expanded resources for student life include adding an intern and other resources to outdoor education. We feel that's another place where living and learning combine wonderfully.

We've also brought to the table an idea that former President Buddy Karelis introduced to Colgate two years ago: linked classes, where students take several related courses simultaneously. This fall we will link an environmental studies class, a geology class and a class on wilderness ethics. Students will have the opportunity to feel what happens when those pieces come together as a whole, influenced as well by experiences such as outdoor education and living in a residence hall.

What I'm saying is that I don't see issues of student life as divorced from curricular issues or from our educational mission. Nor do I see them divorced from fun. Students want an extracurricular life they've had a hand in creating. And surely what we want to do is trust our students to develop pieces of the whole that have an independence about them -- that are what they planned. We also want to think about student life as one with the mission of a rural, residential college that can be its best self when it thinks of all the pieces as part of the whole.

Are there other immediate goals?

If you're asking me what I myself would like to do in the course of this year, my answer is that I'd like to bring people together who have not been together heretofore. Ours is a small campus with a limited population, and it seems to me we could do more to promote learning that involves getting to know people who are different from oneself. We all reach for the comfort of those like us. To use our students' language, education is also about "taking people out of their comfort zone." We have more of an opportunity to do that here, in a residential setting, than almost anywhere else. And if we don't help to make this happen at this point in students' lives, it's very hard to see how it's going to happen at other points in their future.

So I'd like to spend a lot of time this year with the notion of bringing together groups of people who are not natural cohorts. I'd like to do that in Watson House -- the president's house -- and in Merrill House. I'd like to create parties for the whole campus. I want to ensure that, when major speakers visit, people are talking in groups they had not thought likely before. Part of an educational experience, it seems to me, is bringing people out of their places of comfort, out of what they're used to, and having them get to know one another across all kinds of divides. I don't mean this to be a formulaic answer, it's not about fraternities and sororities, it's not about Harlem Renaissance Center, it's not about faculty clubs. It's about a conscious effort to bring people together in different associations. I think we accomplish that wonderfully well on study groups, for instance, but I'd like to see that happen more and more.

I'd also like to help Colgate to continue the wonderful support it has enjoyed from alumni, parents and friends. Their presence and their gifts to the college sustain all that we do here.

Are there other things that you want to touch on?

Yes. I'd like to say that it's an enormous privilege, an honor, to be serving as interim president of an institution, a community, that I love. I say that wanting to be very careful about the language that I use. I think of Colgate as a whole, a community -- it isn't a family, that metaphor won't do, but it is a place that has a collective spirit and that spirit is one of real generosity, and beauty. I've been here a long time and I know Colgate from a lot of angles of vision. The lens has now changed, but the affection remains steady and the job is a pleasure to hold.

For an update on Colgate's presidential search, see Around the college.

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