Looking to the Future, Remembering the Past

To chart the future, it is useful to understand how the present came to be. Much of the Colgate we see today started the year I first came to Colgate, 1970, a year that in many ways divided the old Colgate from the new. 

If a current Colgate student were to arrive at Colgate as I did, they would at first feel much at home. Although there have been some architectural changes since then, the feel is very much the same, and the differences might not be noticed at first. Within the village, the differences would be still harder to discern, as structurally it has remained virtually unchanged, although it had yet to come into the position of vassal to Colgate and had not yet been reformatted into a tourist town for students.

But as you moved in, the differences would become starkly apparent. The first female freshmen (in those days, even at women’s colleges, first-years were called freshmen,) numbering 150 out of a student body of 2250, had arrived. The alumni were panicked over the fate of the football team, women’s groups worried that the female students might have a hard time among “those aggressive men” and the Colgate 13 held the line, unanimously voting against letting women join their group. Teeth gnashing and off-kilter gender ratio notwithstanding, men and women became friends – the hookup culture was many decades from birth. Actual dating existed. 

The faculty composition (only three women) and attitude were different too. Each professor taught seven courses a year, versus the five of today, plus a January studies project. There was no doubt that teaching was their first priority, with research lagging far behind. It was expected that one would be invited to faculty homes for dinners and parties many times during his or her four years at Colgate. All administration fit neatly into one building instead of four. 

For the first time, freshmen did not have to wear beanies or be subjected to what today would be considered hazing. Rigid conventionalism had given way to more liberal behavior. Students could now walk on the grass in the academic quadrangle without fear of suspension and cut through the remnants of the formal boxwood hedges lining the paths that had been decimated by the strike that shut down the school just the year before. The vestiges of our religious roots had given way, and mandatory Chapel attendance had ended, leaving behind the anomaly of a 20-minute Chapel break at 10 a.m. for decades to come. The legal drinking age was 18, and we drank much less and in a different way. The aim was not to get drunk but to have a good time. No binge drinking. We were never drunk on the way into town, although I confess sometimes on the way back. Every school function had alcohol. Every dorm had an allowance for alcohol at dorm functions. Fraternity parties were open to all. 

Sports were always important but in a much different way. There were no athletic scholarships. It was clearly understood by all that academics came first. Sports and their practice were seasonal. Each coach, therefore, had at least three different sports to manage.

The school was much more economically diverse – many students were the first in their families to attend college – but it wasn’t particularly obvious. A student could not have a car until junior year. No matter how wealthy, at some level we all considered it to be a privilege, not a right, to be at Colgate.

Helicopter parenting had not yet been thought of. Part of the reason for this can be accounted for by the fact that the required technology was not available, but even if it had been, the attitude of parents was different – we were there to become adults. So we solved our own problems: bad grade, talk to a professor; problems with a roommate, work it out with him or her, or deal with Colgate directly; transportation issues were solved by cards posted in the Coop, be it needing a ride home or to Syracuse. 

Socially, we were also different. We had been raised on television that had fed us the pablum of people who were impossibly good, not deplorably bad. Many of us were out to save the world (clearly we did a terrible job there). Money and jobs were not much discussed. Despite preconceptions concerning that time period, not everyone was a hippie. Especially at Colgate there remained a strong core of conservative feeling. The big difference is that we spoke with each other and debated and learned from one another. The poison of political correctness had not yet entered into society. People spoke what they felt so that real, rather than illusionary, discussions could be had. The concept of blue and red states was at least three decades away and would have been anathema to us: we were all citizens of the UNITED States. 

One things that appears to have remained much the same on campus is race relations. 1970 was the first year of a substantial number of minority students. With what I am sure were only the best of intentions, the school set up the Harlem Renaissance Center, and in doing so essentially created a segregated living facility on campus. A recent Colgate President voiced what a terrible mistake it had been and that, if politically acceptable, the Center should be disbanded. 

The recent demand for a minority fraternity speaks to the same philosophy that set up the HRC. To say that race relations during my years at Colgate were bad would not be accurate: they were nonexistent. The concept of the melting pot, a kind of Mendelian hybrid vigor theory, a homogenizing of society, was giving way to the concept of mosaic. Forty plus years later, at Frank one sees the result: eating arrangements are often segregated along every possible line, be it men, women, blacks, whites, Asians, etc. 

As a gay man growing up in the early ’70s, the need for a safe space is clearly understood. For a gay child, even the home was often not safe. But, had I and most gays continued to live in the cocoon of safety the gay community spun for itself, the last two sentences would not have been possible for me to write without dire consequences. Moving forward requires us to venture forth from those safe havens. It is not a comfortable process, but what better place is there than the supportive environment that Colgate provides to take those steps? The sometime harrowing journey is worth the discomfort, as hatred, bigotry and prejudice are harder to harbor or conceal when we know each other.  

If one senses a touch of nostalgia in these reflections, it would not be incorrect. But the past is the past. So what about the future at Colgate?

The decisions to be made are not so complicated. First though, the dialogues must become open once more. The ideological civil wars that exist at Colgate and in the rest of the country must be put to an end. We simply have to stop just hearing and start listening to each other again. Mankind has a bloody history of finding the differences between us. As a species, we excel at that. What we have difficulty in finding is where we are the same. Let’s find those similarities and start working together.

There are a few far-reaching themes that come to mind as warranting discussion.

The Ivory Tower is not what it used to be. There are economic realities that must be recognized. Changes have to be considered. Division I Athletics, a very costly position to maintain, is one. We must look at what it costs, in total, including the some 160 odd scholarships, and then come up with a real total of expenses; then we must assess what we could do with the funds if applied elsewhere and finally make a decision. That is a discussion that has never been had on these terms.  

It is doubtful that anyone is satisfied with race relations on campus. We have tried one path for 40 years with very limited success. Perhaps it’s time to discuss another route. In this discussion, people must not be intimidated into not speaking their minds. I don’t pretend to know the answers, but I know disingenuous discussions will not uncover them.

Colgate should have a hard look at how it treats its own employees and the Village. Despite high-sounding ideals often heard, many employees, for instance, do not have health insurance, and large contractors such as Sodexo are not required to give their employees health insurance. In both of these cases, the law is being circumvented by keeping employees legally defined as “part-time.” With only about 800 households, the Village of Hamilton provides a direct subsidy to the University of several million dollars a year, due to the University’s tax exempt status. Very few residents of the Village could afford tuition at Colgate. These sums are becoming increasingly difficult for many longtime residents of the Village to pay. The tax rate in the Village is twice what it is in other college towns like Lansing, Mich., and Madison, Wis. Dialogue should be opened concerning how to address these issues.

In closing, I would like to add a general philosophical note that perhaps will help dialogues become meaningful. It is knowledge that my generation knew and has forgotten. All people, no matter what background, position, job, wealth religion, ideological position, etc., should be treated with respect and dignity. 

If we begin with this as a premise, our chances are much greater that we will succeed in finding answers that will serve Colgate and the world well. 

My hope is that your generation will do better than mine did in leaving both Colgate and the world in better shape than when you entered it.