The President’s Perspective: Chopp Speaks Out on Everything from SGA to Virginia Tech

Recently, Maroon-News Editors-in-Chief Jeff Fein and Sumner Ellsworth sat down with Colgate president Rebecca Chopp for our annual end-of-the-year discussion. Chopp had a lot to say about Colgate’s biggest issues.

On the new library and the Ho Science Center: One highlight this year was getting the library open and making great progress on the science building. The fifth floor [of the library] is not yet open, but it will be for the seniors at commencement. And next year, everyone can enjoy it and the science building should be open as well.

On the revamped SGA Constitution: I think the SGA rewriting their constitution was important because the students have been trying to do that for several years. And I think it’s a big step. I think the changes are good. They’re very fair.

On Diversity: We’ve certainly increased the number of multicultural students. Last year’s entering class was the largest we’ve had in history [in terms of diversity]. So that’s important. It’s important for students. It’s something students really look for, and it’s important for employers. Employers are increasingly telling us they’re looking for people who can work in diverse environments. So that’s good to see, and [there’s] more to come.

On Athletics: It’s been a good year for our sports teams, though not as good as we’ve had in years past. I remember when the current seniors were in their first year and the football team went to the national finals, which was a really special time to be on campus. But our teams have faired well, and we are of course proud of their achievements.

On the new Dean of the College: The Dean of the College is an enormously important position. [For those who don’t know] the dean is in charge of everything outside of the academic sphere. That includes residential life, the counseling center, basically all programs beyond the classroom. Dean Johnson came to us from the University of Michigan. I think she was drawn here because of the quality of the students, something she was used to at her old job. She has really been a pleasure to have on campus. She’ll eat at Frank Dining Hall and the Coop. She’s worked hard to grow the student lecture forum and other initiatives. It’s been great to have a dean that goes out of her way to make herself a part of the community.

On Colgate’s re-accreditation: Accreditation is a process that involves outsiders coming to campus and making sure we’ve got the necessary components in place to be granted status as an academic institution. This is a normal occurrence – it happens every ten years. In our case, the representatives from the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools come and evaluate all aspects of campus life and let us know how we’re doing. This is important because we need our diplomas to be recognized, of course. But no one should be worried about Colgate passing. We’re just curious to hear the areas that they think we need work on.

On Starbucks coffee in the library: It’s true that Starbucks coffee is going to be sold in the library, but we’re not installing a Starbucks franchise, which means we won’t be participating in many of the practices that people have objected to. Students expressed a desire to have a caf?e in the library and many wanted the option of Starbucks coffee. The way we see it, we’re giving students more options. Next year, when you want a cup of coffee on campus, you’ll be able to go to the Coop for Green Mountain coffee or you can go to the library for Starbucks. If you’re downtown, you can go to the Barge. We have no intention of putting the Barge out of business. Through the Hamilton Initiative, the school actually owns the Barge so the Barge won’t be going anywhere any time soon.

On Colgate’s next construction project: Between the library and the science center, we’ve been doing more construction on campus that at any other time in Colgate’s history. We’ve raised a lot of funds and also taken on a lot of debt to make this possible. So I won’t be coming out next year and announcing another major construction project. But there are needs we’ve been meaning to address for quite some time. [The] Reid [Athletic Center], for example, was built in the fifties, when Colgate was half the size it is today. So we want to work on that. And we’re going to need to build a hall for the performing arts at some point. We also want to expand the space of the Picker Gallery – not a huge expansion, but an extension on what we have now.

On Greek life: Greek life is as strong as it’s been since the 1950’s. I won’t go into all the details, but the system has really gained strength over the past few years. And the relationship between Greek organizations and the administration is certainly much better than it’s been since I arrived at Colgate [in 2002]. The thing about the Greek community is all the houses decided to invest in each other. The school decided to invest in the houses, and the fraternities and sororities decided to invest in the system. There are still improvements to be made, of course — plenty of maintenance work to be done on the facilities. But we feel confident in the Greek system and its role in the Colgate community.

On going green: This is an area where we can do much more. We’ve done good things in the past and there have been really wonderful student efforts to make environmental issues a priority. There’s the environmental council [consisting of students and faculty] which has brought about some improvements in how we operate. But we can do more. I want next year to be the year we make a big push in that regard. Something I’ve talked about in the past is encouraging every student to go on an “energy diet.” Compared to our peer schools, Colgate uses more energy per person and this is something that really should change within our culture. Being more environmentally conscious should come from policies through the administration, but they should come from the individual as well.

On the Global Leader Lecture Series: Last week was really very exciting for the campus, with the big lecture – we had about 1800 people in Cotterell Court. Then there was the reception to kick off our fundraising campaign afterwards, and that was great fun. I think it’s important that the seniors have a gift they can take pride in. Right now, we’re at 86 percent [in terms of senior class donations to the gift] and we’re not done yet. It sets the bar high for future classes. I’ve had some seniors come to me and say, “We want to reach 90 percent” to really make it tough for next year’s seniors and other classes to match. It’s also great for the school to bring in big name lecturers. Hopefully next year, we can get an environmentalist to come.

On the Woodruffs speaking at graduation: It’s funny because the suggestion came from two different sources around this time last year. We had a student and an alum, who, on the same day, told us that they wanted the Woodruffs to speak at graduation. We of course thought it was a fantastic idea. I just finished their book [In an Instant] and it’s really powerful and beautifully written. Bob and Lee are both really eloquent writers. Colgate was one of the communities that supported them when they needed a great deal of support. Now, they’re working with veterans who have sustained brain injuries – the Woodruffs are always giving back. So we’re thrilled to have them speaking at commencement.

On the tragedy at Virginia Tech: That was really a terrible thing to happen anywhere, and because it occurred on campus, it’s especially resonant with this community. There are two important issues here. The first is that we’re a very different place than Virginia Tech. We’re much smaller, we’re much less spread out. We like to think we have a much closer-knit community that would never allow someone to become as alienated as that young man became. Hopefully, on this campus, when someone senses something wrong with a friend or a roommate, they report it to the counseling center or the dean’s office. The second issue is communication. We want to work on our communication with students so that in case of emergency, we can get in touch with everyone as quickly as possible. I’m meeting with the new SGA leadership next week, and that’s one issue we’re going to be discussing. It’s extremely important that students get us their cell phone numbers so that we’re all in touch if we need to be. (See Page A-1 for more on this issue).

On the year as a whole: I think this has been a great year, a really terrific year for Colgate. I’ve been telling people, “Have you ever seen the movie Groundhog Day? This is one of those years I’d like to do all over again.”