Alumni Column – Colgate Governance Under Fire

Greg Narag '89

Should Colgate allow its 30,000-plus alumni to elect a portion of Colgate’s Board of Trustees in open elections? Should alumni directly have a voice in the search for Colgate’s next president? You’ll recall recent letters published in The Maroon-News addressing these questions, written by two of my fellow board members from A Better Colgate, an independent alumni group.

As current students your reaction may be “why should I care?” We understand. We were once in your shoes. But one day soon, you too will come to ponder that great irony of Colgate alumni: while relentlessly asked for money, you will never be asked for your input regarding how Colgate is governed or operated. Only the trustees and administration decide how Colgate spends your money. Trustees have no accountability to alumni and alumni have no vote on who will be elected to the Board of Trustees.

Here’s why this matters to us — and why it should matter to you. Ironically, the growing global economic meltdown adds an entirely new dimension to our longstanding concerns about Colgate. In lean times like these, people naturally become more vigilant. We scrutinize where every dollar is spent. So we seek from Colgate the same accountability and transparency we’re demanding from our federal government, auto manufacturers, financial institutions and other entities that now receive — and spend — enormous amounts of our money. With Colgate intensifying its requests for donations we’d like to ask where our money is going — especially in light of the news that Colgate is among the top five most expensive universities in America. We think that’s a fair question.

Apparently so do others. Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, wrote Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much. In it, he cites U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures showing that, every year since 1982, the cost of higher education has risen about twice the overall rate of inflation. At the same time, only 21 cents of every higher education dollar have actually gone toward student instruction.

Vedder’s research further reveals the greatest job growth on college campuses is not in new faculty, but in non-teaching bureaucrats. More alarming is a massive shift in spending toward non-educational activities. He chronicles what he calls the “academic arms race” — competing colleges trying to outdo one another by erecting ever more luxurious and expensive campus facilities.

The troubling thing is Vedder’s analysis depicts a school just like…Colgate. Consider: In 1989, Colgate cost about $18,000 per year. In 1999, costs approached $30,000. In 2009, they exceed $51,000. In the past decade, Colgate’s costs have gone up nearly twice the rate of inflation — consistent with Vedder’s findings.

Since 1989, Colgate’s student population has remained relatively steady at 2,750 while Colgate’s administration, since 1989, has spiked by 51 percent! Colgate professors are paid about 20 percent higher than the national average, yet there is evidence that some are not teaching a full course load of five classes over two semesters.

Colgate spent $13 million in its quest to acquire the fraternity and sorority houses; it spent another $13 million buying numerous pieces of private property in downtown Hamilton. The renovation of Case Library went $20.4 million or 51 percent over budget; the Ho Science Center was 29 percent over budget. We see a glut of curious administrative jobs: Sustainability Coordinator, Dean of Diversity, Special Assistant to the VP of Campus Safety, Dean of the Sophomore Year Experience and deans for every special interest group, among them.

Yet despite a larger administration more directly involved in student life, we notice significant pushback from students. For example, who was responsible for a reservations-only gourmet bistro that sat largely empty while students crammed the existing overcrowded dining hall? Why do students parking at the new townhouses routinely receive parking tickets in a lot with inadequate spaces for the registered cars? Was instituting a “Bias Incident Report” policy necessary?

Some of you may be planning to apply to graduate school. Despite everything you’ve just read, you can at least rely on Colgate’s reputation to get you into a top program, right? It might surprise you to learn — as we did — that according to the Wall Street Journal, Colgate is not among the top 50 colleges supplying students to the nation’s leading graduate programs for law, medicine or business.

We alumni wonder what happened. Could it be the self-selected Board of Trustees got caught up in that “arms race” mentality, straying from its core educational mission? Has our antiquated governing structure lost touch with its alumni, failing to realize the impact these changes are having on our competitive position?

Until now one could only watch in frustration. But we’re pleased to report that over 1,600 alumni have voiced support of A Better Colgate and its goal of reforming the governance of our alma mater through Trustee elections. We invite you — our future fellow alumni — to join us.