President Casey Talks Campus Culture and National Issues


President Brian Casey shares his opinions and insights on Colgate’s future.

The Maroon-News staff sat down with Colgate’s president, Brian Casey, to learn more about his thoughts on his experience so far at Colgate. Casey started his position in July 2016 and was officially inaugurated on September 30, 2016. We asked him a few questions to learn more about his first few months on campus.

Could you reflect on your time as president thus far? Are there things that have surprised you?

“It’s very intense, coming to a place and trying to meet the profound number of groups of students and faculty. It’s very hard. I’ve worked in higher education for 25 years, and this has been the most tumultuous time in the political landscape that I’ve ever experienced and the most tumultuous time on campuses I’ve ever experienced. So, to be new during that period has been complicated. Because you’re trying to communicate to people you’ve never met, or you’re trying to meet. So, it’s been exciting, it’s been exhausting, it’s been thrilling, it’s been complicated. But also joyful. I like it here. A lot.”

Would you say it’s really different from your previous position at DePauw?

“Well, there’s certain things that are similar. The position is similar. The real difference that you can feel – and it’s hard to quantify but it’s real – is Colgate is a major national institution. So, what happens here is noticed by a larger part of the nation. Colgate plays a major role in the conversations about higher education. So, you can tell that what happens here has a wider national footprint … The megaphone that is Colgate is much bigger than my last place. So one of the things you have to do as a president is determine how best to use that megaphone. One of the challenges of being a president is how and when you use your voice. Because everything you say is louder than a person who’s not a president. And, particularly when you’re new, people are trying to figure you out … understand[ing] how to modulate your voice as president here is a very challenging, complicated thing.”

Have you felt like you’ve had any missteps with that?

“I think if you’re a person who doesn’t always think, ‘well, how could I have communicated that better?’ then I don’t think you’re ever going to be good at your job. So sure, I could look back at the first semester and say ‘I wish I did that better.’ But I think mostly my job in the first year was learning as much as I could about this place and letting people learn about me, and I think that went well. That’s what it feels like.”

What are you most excited about with the new campus facilities that Colgate is building?

“With the three new buildings going up? I think they’re going to be striking buildings, just beautiful buildings. They’re going to add incredibly productive spaces into the heart of the campus. I mean, Benton Hall and each of the residence halls are going to bring to the core of the campus about eight of the best new classrooms this campus has ever seen. I just think the quality of the buildings, their attractiveness and the spaces they’re going to provide is pretty exciting.”

What should students look forward to most when it comes to these new facilities?

“The services that are being offered there. For the first time, all those services which are jammed into Spear House are now going to have space that people need, desperately need. I think it’s going to bring a good type of energy around all of these other things.”

Could we skip to graduation? Any thoughts, since this will be your first time going through the process?

“Well, one thing I want to add is a new event to the weekend. We’re organizing an all-campus event to follow Torchlight for the families and for the graduates and their friends on Whitnall Field, which will have music and food and lights, and I think it’s going to be a very joyful event … I’ve never been to [the Torchlight ceremony], but apparently it sort of ends and people just scatter. And the thought is, why don’t we just – while the entire class is there – have the whole class and their families have a time to be together and have some food and local breweries? Just have music and food and some drinks, and have it feel fun.”

There’s been a lot of discussion about supporting faculty and students who might be affected by Donald Trump’s executive order to institute an immigration ban on individuals traveling to the U.S. from several different countries. Can you speak about this?

“Colgate, as with so many campuses, is wrestling with what to do at this moment … everyone is wrestling with it. And what’s been challenging about it is, so far, up until the executive order, it was mostly rhetorical. It was speculative … when the executive order comes out, then all of a sudden you have a situation where you have students and faculty who are now directly affected by this executive order. Colgate happens to have an incredibly small number who are directly impacted. Everyone’s affected because the political climate feels incredibly fraught. But when I compare Colgate to, say, UCLA or Michigan, both of which have gone out and said we have hundreds of faculty members and hundreds of students who are now affected by this. We are very much on the other end of the spectrum.”

“So in some ways, we have an executive order that, in its fundamental implications, is technically only affecting a small number of us. However, we look to have an administration that is espousing values that are anathema to the academy: the free-flow of ideas, the free-flow of people, the support of science. So, you find yourself trying to respond to something atmospheric. And it’s just very hard to get it right. The other thing is that there’s not one Colgate; there’s multiple Colgates. There’s students, there’s faculty, there’s alumni, there’s parents, there’s the Village, there’s the Board. And there are very, very heated feelings about all of this. It’s been a challenging time to navigate all that. So you have to say to yourself – and what I was trying to say yesterday in the email is – ‘okay, let’s just start putting out our values.’”

“We have lawyers here, we have touched base on multiple times to everyone we know who’s affected, and now we are expanding those services to those who have just questions. But you do have to watch out for the tone of the administration and what’s happening politically. And there are clear signs that this is an administration that is doing things that run oppositional to fundamental values of Colgate. These are moments when you choose your voice … you also don’t want to be shouting all of the time. On a weekly basis, I get requests from various students and faculty and alumni to speak on something. I get asked to sign petitions, or what have you, everyday. If I, everyday, sent out e-mails about politics, I would then lose my voice. So, you just have to get it right.”

What are the implications for Colgate if President Trump pulls federal funding from schools that oppose his ban?

“It depends on how you measure it. But, the stakes get very high, very fast. Student loans – federally-supported student loans – just about half the students are walking around with federally-supported student loans. If that were to evaporate, that would fundamentally affect the population. I mean, profoundly. So now you’re talking tens of millions of dollars. We also are reliant on federal funding to support a lot of our research in the sciences. And some of the arts and the humanities. We also rely on the government to subsidize the debt we issue. We are enmeshed in federal regulations. What’s interesting is that people say ‘well, shouldn’t we defy certain federal orders?’ Well, how selective can you be? We also abide by Title IX, which is the rules that govern how we deal with sexual assault. Do we choose to ignore those rules? There’s not an office here that isn’t under some sort of regulatory regime … we are enmeshed in literally thousands of federal regulations, and we are enmeshed, and quite reliant on, federal dollars. So, to say you’re going to walk through those selectively is very complicated. Now, there are moments when you do. And, for Colgate – and I spent a lot of time with the Board on this – to very publically say [in a recent email], ‘we do not agree with the presidential executive order,’ as far as I can tell it’s the first time Colgate has ever publicly said ‘we do not support a white house action.’ That’s a huge moment for an institution.”

Could you speak about the social climate? A lot of what former President Jeffrey Herbst dealt with was whether Greek life had a future here. Can you speak about your stance on that?

“In my mind right now, Colgate has a remarkably uneven set of social situations. We have a residential structure and a housing structure that allows some to have certain social events. Year after year it creates winners and losers, who gets to live where and what. And there’s a strong sense that where you live is very determinant of what your total experience is going to be. What I think the institution has to do is profoundly invest in the totality of the experience … Right now, the way our social hosting policy is set up and the way our housing policy is set up, the only spaces and organizations that can have large social events happen to be six male units. I don’t want to get myself trapped in some sort of binary (this or this) because I don’t think it is a binary. I think Colgate needs to profoundly invest in making the social playing field more level for everybody. So I’m working with Dean of the College Mark Thompson on this, I’m working with SAB (the Student Activities Board) on this, I’m working with the Board on this. How do we allow more people to do more things?”


Do alumni tend to fall on one side or the other – I know it’s not a binary – in terms of their opinions on the

social scene at Colgate?

“Yes, they do. I receive lots of messages from alumni, with lots of opinions on lots of different things. What’s interesting about alumni is their frame is always ‘what were my four years like?’ Institutions always change, and in many ways that is unnerving for any alum. I’m a graduate of my own college, and I look back and I’m like, ‘why are they doing that?’ … So the frame of alumni is a very particular frame. You get a lot of reactions from alumni, on both sides of what seems to be the binary. But I’ve been meeting with a lot of alumni groups, and I say ‘shouldn’t we allow … for more students to live with each other, shouldn’t we invest in more flexible student social spaces?’ And they go, ‘yeah, we should.’ So, the conversation about what do we do about the residential commons, what do we do with how students live in their last two years, I think the trick is always to make the conversation bigger … and I don’t know what those answers are right now. It seems too early.”

The interview ended with Casey reflecting on his overall experience adjusting to Colgate’s atmosphere.

“I will say this about being new here. I tend to get energy from one-on-one engagements … I came from a campus where students were very used to me being present … and just around. And I came here, and students just weren’t used to that. You could feel the campus just trying to understand that and trying to measure authenticity. Having come from a place where I was so well-known among the students to a place where I could feel the students trying to understand that, was an interesting thing to go through. I have a feeling now that students are more used to my being around … but that was a surprise. But new jobs are always surprising – and frightening, and daunting. And you shouldn’t take a job if it isn’t frightening and daunting and exciting. So, it’s been a lot. I’m very happy here.”