Alumni Column – A Better Colgate: Change for the Worse

Ronald A. Joyce '73

My time as president of Colgate’s Alumni Council ends soon. The perspective I am sharing is based on my eight years as a Council member (four as an officer), and my two stints as a Colgate administrator totaling 20 years, including seven as Vice President for Advancement. Add to this my administrative experience at Grinnell, Bates and now Trinity Colleges and I think it is reasonable to say that I have an educated view of Colgate, both as a volunteer and as a key decision influencer. I have also had an intimate look at how other colleges operate, especially those considered to be among the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges.

With that as background, I am writing to express my disappointment with how the leadership of “A Better Colgate,” (ABC) a descendant of SA4C (Students and Alumni for Colgate), is conducting its business. I respect the fact that those who have signed their petition have dissenting views about Colgate. Given our educations here, I would neither imagine, nor expect, a universal view of all things Colgate. What I find troubling, offensive really, is ABC’s repeated promotion of mistruths, distortions of fact and exaggerations in its claims. Such tactics reflect badly on ABC’s leadership and, as a result, erode our ability to have a direct, productive conversation about the health and future of alma mater.

ABC would tell us that Colgate is in poor health and the only elixir is a more active alumni voice on the Board of Trustees. Their answer? A majority of alumni “elected” to board seats. As Alumni Council President, I sit, ex-officio, on the Board of Trustees. So allow me to provide an insider’s perspective.

Thirty-one of the 35 Board members are Colgate alumni, three are Colgate parents and the President sits on the board ex-officio. Colgate’s alumni trustees represent a panoply of professional careers, from finance to medicine and religion. Their personal political views seem to me to be as varied as their backgrounds. They are smart people — not perfect, mind you, but very bright.

From best I can tell, their personal ideologies seem remarkably unimportant as they do their business of holding the University in trust. For those who work on other not for profit boards, it will come as no surprise that it is not solely an honor to be a Trustee at Colgate. It is hard work, takes substantial time (and travel) and requires a disproportionate dispensing of their charitable resources, regardless of their individual means. Yes, the Board of Trustees has a discernable leaning — it is leaning forward, not left or right. Do ABC’s directors check their ideological views at the door as they pursue their work?

And what about Colgate’s administration? Granted, a Colgate graduate, at least in modern times, has never served as President despite repeated attempts to encourage qualified alums to pursue that position. But for as long as I can remember, the senior administration has benefited from the hard work of many smart alumni. Hoddy Jones ’39, Dick Cheshire ’58, Lee Woltman ’65 and Fred Dunlap ’50 come quickly to mind, but there are many others. Today, the tradition continues, with more alumni in key roles than I can recall from any other prior time. Gary Ross ’77, Bob Tyburski ’74, David Hale ’84, Murray Decock ’80, Kim Waldron ’81, and Ruth Ann Loveless MA ’72, all serve on the president’s cabinet. Their institutional memory respects Colgate traditions and their strategic focus is valued by the president and the Trustees.

And finally, the Alumni Council itself is as diverse and varied in its views and ambitions for Colgate as the 31,000 living alumni whose perspectives we value. We are 55 graduates with representation from the classes of the ’40s to the millennium classes. We are women and men, persons of color, financiers and teachers, whose advice is sought and whose opinions are eclectic.

I have just cited nearly 100 alumni with different levels of engagement in helping to advance Colgate. It sure doesn’t seem to me that the alumni point of view is missing in the calculus of strategic decisions and governing Colgate. Isn’t it interesting, by the way, that the ABC Executive Administrator is not a Colgate alum?

Finally, I must take issue with ABC’s assertion that Colgate is decaying and losing ground. Do ABC’s “facts” hold up? They claim that new staff have been hired to produce the Colgate Scene. Wrong. The magazine is produced by the same staff with the same resources as before. They claim that Colgate now has 674 majors. Wrong. Colgate has 51 majors. I could go on, but the point is that their “facts” do not hold water. Clearly they do not, and, in fact, much of what they state in their communications is so outrageous that its only intent could be to harm the credibility of the university. As an alum, I find this type of behavior embarrassing and disgraceful.

While I would be happy to use a future letter to counter ABC’s points chapter and verse, the facts are that Colgate in the past seven years has improved itself on most of the key indicators that are used to judge the quality of liberal arts colleges, yet ABC’s leadership continues its campaign of misinformation at this critical time for Colgate. Surely there is a better way to advance a conversation about Colgate’s future than by seeking to undermine confidence in the university’s leadership.

There is an old aphorism I once heard Doc Reading repeat from his historian’s perspective. “Institutions never stay the same. They either advance or decline.” ABC’s distorted perspective not withstanding, Colgate has advanced itself in demonstrable, data supported ways. I can produce the evidence and would be pleased to do so.

At a time when the nation’s private liberal arts colleges are more stressed than ever, on endowments and finances, on price and cost, on admissions demographics and yes, on the relevancy and value of a liberal education, Colgate and colleges that compare themselves to us need constructive engagement by their alumni. That does not suggest mindless consent. Differences must be encouraged and valued. But the sternest test is that such dialogues on Colgate’s future require rational discourse, valuing honesty, ethical fair play and attention to facts. So far, ABC has failed to pass the test of those requirements.

As I leave this position as President, I am ever hopeful that alumni who are truly committed to a vibrant, relevant university and the excellences required will act constructively in support of its long-term aspirations.