Debating the Living the Liberal Arts Initiative

In the spring of 2013, a group of Colgate professors and administrators presented the “Living the Liberal Arts Initiative” (LLAI) to Colgate’s Advisory and Planning Committee. The proposal seeks to transform the Colgate residential experience by stimulating diversity and integration on campus, while also addressing the social importance of alcohol and the “work hard-play hard” culture. The initiative was the subject of public discussion at last week’s LLAI Deliberative Forum.

Led by Assistant Professor in Writing and Rhetoric Ryan Solomon, the April 16 forum was heavily attended. Students in Solomon’s WRIT 354 course (Rhetoric in Public Life) spent the past several weeks planning and preparing for the event by researching the initiative, interviewing faculty, drafting the forum’s framing document and organizing invitations. Three students kicked off the discussion with short speeches on different aspects of the initiative, at which point attendees divided into small discussion groups and began the deliberative process.

In essence, the LLAI is designed to address the disconnect between a Colgate student’s experience inside and outside of the classroom. Most students are thrilled with their academic experience at Colgate, but many, almost 50 percent, are dissatisfied with their residential experience, and their situation may be improved by fostering a stronger relationship between the two. According to the framework document, “the central aim of the LLAI initiative is to attend to some of these problems by providing ways for students to better connect what they are learning in the classroom with what they do outside of it.”

The first problem addressed by the initiative is one of “diversity and integration.” Not only do almost 50 percent of Colgate students feel dissatisfied with their residential experience, but that trend is even more pronounced amongst those defined as students of color, international students and students who receive financial aid. While the initiative acknowledged that diversity on campus has improved in recent years, it also noted that Colgate is “still relatively homogenous in key factors of racial and socioeconomic diversity.” Noticeable barriers exist between social groups on campus, particularly between students affiliated with Greek life organizations and those unaffiliated. Additionally, certain groups hold significant social advantages in their ability to host parties and other social events. As a result, the initiative concluded, some students “feel isolated/excluded from social life on

campus,” which makes for a poor residential experience.

To resolve this problem, the LLAI initiative recommends sweeping changes to the Colgate residential process. Specifically, the group hopes to create mixed-class housing in the form of “Residential Learning Communities” (RLC) that students would join as first-years. Over 400 sophomores would move up the hill to the core of Colgate’s campus, and both sophomores and freshmen would live in these communities. This proposal is designed to ensure that students interact with people of varied backgrounds when they arrive on campus, and to foster relationships that might otherwise not have formed. Upperclassmen, still associated with their RLC, would live on Broad Street, and could coordinate social events and parties, offering new students both a social schedule and a diverse group of friends; students within an RLC could affiliate with whatever student organizations they want to, including Greek life.

The second issue addressed by the LLAI, the “work hard-play hard” culture, is also one that excludes certain students. Drinking plays a central role in the Colgate social scene, and students who don’t drink are often left out. Furthermore, those who drink are often unsafe: a 2012 survey of 652 students found that over 65 percent had participated in binge drinking in the past two weeks. The LLAI concluded that the “work hard-play hard” dynamic is exclusive, promotes unhealthy drinking habits and creates a hookup culture, one commonly marked by sexual assault and other crimes.

In response, the LLAI hopes to create more opportunities for responsible drinking and more alternatives to drinking as a social activity. The 21-year-old drinking age makes it difficult for Colgate to provide underage students, particularly first-years and sophomores, with opportunities for responsible drinking. However, while Colgate cannot openly serve alcohol to minors, the LLAI authors propose that relaxing the alcohol restrictions on campus in order to provide “safer environments” for drinking would create a more open drinking culture and would encourage personal responsibility. Additionally, the LLAI aims to provide “different outlets, outside of Greek life and usual mixers,” for students to drink, which would both encourage diversity and diminish the binge drinking culture at Colgate.

Each discussion group at the forum developed a list of the LLAI’s strengths and weaknesses. The groups then met together and consolidated their ideas.

“Many of the student participants agreed that there were some serious problems with diversity and alcohol on campus and that changes needed to be made. Students expressed concern about the racial, gender and class divisions on campus (students overwhelmingly identified this as a concern),” Solomon said.

However, many students noted flaws in the proposal, particularly within the implementation details. For instance, it is still unclear as to whether or not the proposed RLCs would actually encourage diverse interaction, even among different class years. Senior Hannah Robins found the proposal encouraging but naive in its mixed-class housing arrangement.

“I can see the advantages, but I also feel like there’s a big gap between seniors and freshmen, even just in age,” Robins said.

Seniors associated with an RLC might be unlikely to organize parties for first-years simply because seniors and first-years are so different in age. Other aspects of the LLAI, including how Colgate might relax underage drinking restrictions, drew skepticism from participants.

The forum was an unquestionable success. Student attendees were genuinely passionate about the proposal and its effects on Colgate life. Discussion groups were lively and student mediators confidently engaged participants. The most important outcome, Solomon said, was that students learned the value of public argument. Students in many cases abstain from public discourse, sometimes because they feel they lack a voice or because they don’t wish to change the status quo.

“I wanted them to realize that there are more productive ways to do the work of public argument, and that because public argument is such an important part of democratic life, they can’t avoid doing it,” Solomon said.