The Colgate Scene
September 2002

Chopp takes charge
Colgate's 15th president opens new chapter in the college's history

[Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Three days after Rebecca Chopp took office as Colgate's president, she was riding in Hamilton's Fourth of July Parade, waving to the crowd. That's impressive enough. But what's even more impressive is that students in the crowd were waving back and shouting greetings -- because they had already met the university's 15th president in those first couple of days.

"That's something that's so crucial to a school like Colgate," said Noah Schwarz '02, the former student government president who served on the search committee that selected Chopp last spring. "If we're trying to present Colgate as one community, then it makes sense for the president to be there among the students."

What will work at Colgate, say colleagues, trustees and faculty, is Rebecca Chopp. She brings impeccable academic credentials, well-regarded experience as an administrator and an unshakable commitment to the liberal arts. Perhaps most importantly, she has already brought energy and enthusiasm to the job, be it meeting with students who were on campus for summer programs, discussing downtown renovation plans with Hamilton officials, or immediately tackling issues like the endowment and the Task Force on Campus Culture.

"Ten minutes into our first meeting with her, we could tell she had a real passion for what we needed," said Howard Ellins '73, a member of the Board of Trustees who chaired the 18-member search committee. "It was obvious she had a great, low-key leadership style, and a natural feeling for what a school like Colgate should be like."

Impressive credentials
Talk to people who know Chopp and they say much the same thing. She is more than someone who is in charge; she is a genuine leader.

"Rebecca knows not only her strengths, but also her limitations, and that's a good thing," said Harriet King, Emory University's senior vice provost for academic affairs and Chopp's longtime colleague. "She'll put together a team to complete her own strengths, and in my opinion that's unusual. Too many people don't want suggestions from subordinates about how to improve performance, but Rebecca does. She insists on it."

That has been a hallmark of Chopp's style throughout her four years on the faculty of the University of Chicago Divinity School in the early 1980s, 15 years as a teacher and administrator at Emory University in Atlanta and her tenure as dean of the Yale Divinity School. She is also a past president of the American Academy of Religion.

Chopp's academic interests include rhetoric, pragmatism and feminist theory, and she has written extensively about women's studies, Christian theology and the role of religion in American public life. Chopp edited Differing Horizons: Feminist Theory and Theology (with Sheila Davaney, Fortress Press, 1997) and has held editorial posts at Quarterly Review, Religious Studies Review and the Christian Century.

At Emory, Chopp eventually became provost and executive vice president for academic affairs after joining the faculty in 1986 as an assistant professor in the Candler School of Theology and the Graduate Division of Religion. As provost, she oversaw two colleges of liberal arts and seven professional schools, and led strategic planning for teaching and research, international affairs, university/community relations and information technology.

"A new vision of leadership is going to come from the liberal arts . . ." At Yale, Chopp focused on the curriculum and on community life, expanded efforts in development and alumni affairs and reorganized the areas of finance, facilities and human resources while being active on the university budget committee.

"She will become an excellent university president because she possesses the principal and requisite qualities: a high level of energy, tenacity of purpose and a willingness to engage and to solve tough problems," said Emory President William M. Chace, who noted that Chopp took especially difficult assignments at the Georgia school, including improving undergraduate teaching at Emory and improving cooperation between the school's nine academic deans. "She also possesses intelligence and a devotion to American higher education in all of its complexities."

Those qualities were exactly what the university was looking for, said Board of Trustees Chair John A. Golden '66. Colgate wanted someone to replace Charles Karelis (he resigned in 2001) who would "be able to make a great place even greater," he said. "We have multiple constituencies at Colgate -- the faculty, the town, the alumni and the students -- and we needed someone who could synthesize those points of view."

Golden and Ellins give high marks to consultant Shelly Storbeck of the executive search firm AT Kearney, who played a key role in locating not only Chopp, but several other first-rate candidates. "She was extraordinarily important to the success of the search," said Ellins. "It was like she had a Rolodex in her head of people who might be interested in being [Colgate's] president."

Among the search committee's criteria were:

  • Someone who understood and appreciated Colgate's history. Said Gwendolyn Smith Iloani '77, who owns a private equity firm in Connecticut: "We wanted to find someone who could build on our strengths and conditions and could take Colgate to the next level. That's one of the things I really liked abut her. She is an excellent spokeswoman for the liberal arts mission and the Colgate mission."
  • A top-flight administrator. "We felt she had a broad range of experience," said Connie Soja, professor of geology. "She had a deep background on many issues, and had done very well at Emory. She is a superb leader."
  • A leading member of the academic community. "Right off the bat, that's what impressed me," said Tom Tucker, Charles Hetherington Professor of mathematics. "She is an impressive scholar and educational leader. She has had a large number of books and articles published. She has been the president of her professional society. I thought it was very important for Colgate to have one of the most highly regarded people in his or her field."

President Rebecca Chopp, center, entertains employees from the Buildings and Grounds Department at a morning mixer on the backyard patio at Watson House in August.

The strength of the liberal arts
That assessment extends past Chopp's academic discipline, said Ellen Kraly, a professor of geography and the director of the Division of Social Sciences. "She makes you want to listen to her," said Kraly. "You want to hear her ideas and her perspectives. You get the idea that this is a person from whom you could learn something. She thinks about the issues and she thinks about Colgate in provocative new ways."

And few of Chopp's thoughts are more intriguing than her approach to the liberal arts. Anyone who has maligned it in the past decade, figured it was past its prime, has never listened to Chopp on the subject.

"The liberal arts are more important than ever," Chopp said. "A new vision of leadership is going to come from the liberal arts, a vision that will form the shape of the world. It's about being a human being in the world, about the unique requirements of the world today, and the diversity of the world. It can be tied to the liberal arts college, it can be tied to Colgate, and we can form and shape future leaders.

"Talk to anyone in business or law," she said, warming to her subject, "and they'll tell you the best undergraduate education is a liberal arts education. That's because to you need to understand ideas across disciplines, to communicate with people across disciplines, and that's what the liberal arts teaches."

This is a philosophy that pleases many people in the Colgate community.

"You know, I spent a lot of time talking to Rebecca during the search process," said Schwarz, "and then I graduated and I left campus, and I thought our relationship would end. But it hasn't. We still talk, exchange e-mails. And I'm glad it hasn't. There's something special about her."

And that may be one of Chopp's most enduring qualities as Colgate's new president.

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