President Casey Speaks at Lifelong Learning Program

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President Brian Casey reflects on his transition to Colgate  and offers his hopes for future years.

Veronica Chen, Assistant News Editor

On Thursday, September 7, Lifelong Learning Program invited Colgate’s 17th president Brian W. Casey to the Colgate Inn to reflect on his pledge to American higher education and the state of Colgate. Casey divided his presentation into two categories: first, he offered his impressions and experiences during his first year and then highlighted his hopes and goals for Colgate’s future.  

Before Casey was inaugurated as Colgate’s 17th president, he began his career in law and then earned his doctorate from Harvard University. Due to his background in the history of American higher education and American intellectual history, Casey came into Colgate with a host of experiences that prepared him for the responsibilities of maintaining Colgate’s core identity: honoring its academic excellence and immersive residential program while training its students for versatile lives and careers.

Casey began his speech by candidly talking about what it is like when you are a brand-new president at an old university.

“The worst thing to do when you are a president at an old university is to start making proclamations and telling people what ought to happen. We always have to remember that you have arrived at a place in the middle of the story and the middle of many stories. The first thing you have to do is that you have to learn the history of the institution. But then you also have to spend a lot of time listening to the hidden histories of any place,” Casey said.

“What happens is that when you arrive at a place, people are desperate to tell you what really happens. They think if they get to you first, that’s it. And then the next person comes and there is a slightly different variation. But what is really interesting, in addition to hearing and correcting these stories, is what people don’t tell you about. Places actually overtly tell you certain histories and they overtly don’t tell you certain histories. It actually takes a very long time to listen to the absences in these narratives because there [are] a lot of truths,” he said. 

Coming in as the 17th president, Casey emphasized the importance of establishing trust and respect among the community during his first year.

“To come into a place, you have to be very careful about what you say because if you go back in any way on any part of your word, you have lost trust. So, what’s really interesting is that people often want you to say where we are going, what the most important thing is. They want you to put stakes in the ground very quickly. You are likely to get them all wrong in your first year and then people don’t trust your voice anymore. So, a lot of what your first year is about is resisting the temptation to make lots of proclamations and the matter of speaking about what is true, and what you are certain about,” Casey said.

One of the most significant aspects of Casey’s first year involved the process of building his own team. At Colgate, there are 10 members that report to the president. When Casey arrived, seven of those positions were either empty or occupied by interim individuals.

“If I look at the first 14-15 months, there were seven appointments that were made at this institution. Almost the entire senior administration was new after two to three years ago, which is extremely rare for a university,” Casey said.

Some of the newly appointed administrators include Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration and Chief Investment Officer Joseph S. Hope and Provost and Dean of the Faculty Tracey Hucks, who was recently hired on July 1. According to Casey, once positions like these start working together, progress will eventually take off. If these positions drift apart, trouble is bound to occur.

As a whole, the learning of a place, building trust and constructing a team comprises the machinery through which a university will set its course. Casey ultimately expressed that one must also communicate with the community and its multiple constituencies. Casey’s constituencies include the board, the faculty, the students, the parents and the alumni.

Casey then transitioned into the general topic of higher education. He began by stating that an institution, whether it is a liberal arts college or a research university, operates in one of three different modes: the doldrums/stasis, the decline, or the taking off phase.

In order to experience take off, Casey commented that you must ask yourself a series of questions about how a campus can evolve.

“You have to say to yourself, as a historian and as the leader of this university, ‘What happens? Why do places go through phases where all of a sudden, the applications have increased?’ You have try to find these moments. What are those attributes, and what are the drivers?” Casey said.

When these questions are asked, colleges will then gain a clearer understanding of what distinguishes them from other universities around the country.

“The first is, and the most important, and rarely spoken about, is get a clear sense of who they are. They must understand their unique attributes. Every institution has the ‘I wish I was this place’ phenomena. ‘If only we were this. If only we looked like this.’ These types of places never take off because they are always trying to be something else. The places that look at themselves and say ‘I know who we are’ have a chance of taking off,” Casey said.

Moreover, Casey pointed out that you must also have a consistent administration that is willing to put in the work over the course of many years.

“The next thing they have to have is a consistent administration. And I mean not just a president, but long-serving people in important positions. You cannot do well if you are changing your leadership every two years. The really good places often grow their own leaders.”

Casey stressed that each constituency must be on the same page in order for a university to take off.

“You have to have institutional alignment. All of those constituencies have to be aligned. The board, your parents, your students, your alumni, your locality – all have to understand where you are and where you are going. If one of those constituencies does not line up, then the university will not take off.”

Casey left the audience with one parting question: How can Colgate get itself into that take off phase?

“It definitely has to get over some handicaps. The question I get asked most of the time is ‘Is Colgate more like Williams or Dartmouth?’ I hate that question. ‘Are we a liberal arts college?’ It seems quite off, and we ultimately can’t compare ourselves to anyone. What Colgate has to say is, ‘This is who we are. We are a very large liberal arts college.’ Colgate has to understand that it is large, it has Division 1 athletics, it attracts sociable students who engage in their studies and social life with a type of energy. That’s what we are. So Colgate’s first handicap – it has to learn to understand that it is distinctive and we have to get excited about that” Casey said.

Another handicap is that far too much administrative change and Colgate is currently locked in zero sum battles with itself. Some of these include athletics vs. academics, Greek vs. not Greek, social justice vs. tradition, big vs. little, arts vs. sciences, careerism vs. academics. If you listen to the conversations on campus, often there are a series of battles on campus. If there is anything that I am in charge of in the next two to three years is to say all of these “ors” have to be “ands.” It has to be rephrased in a series of possibilities. We have a remarkable faculty. We have a compelling size. Division 1 Athletics is distinctive – I think that is a source of strength, energy and variety.” Casey said.

In the end, Casey brought forth his goals for what he hopes Colgate will accomplish. 

“I want to put a vision before the faculty, board and alumni – a vision of a distinctive, energetic liberal arts college – and invite all the constituencies back and engage in conversation. When I look at this year, I think and I hope that people will see that this is a person who has found this energy and was able to take it through its take off stage,” Casey said.

Contact Veronica Chen at [email protected]