In 2009, Jim Yong Kim assumed the role of Dartmouth College President amidst intense debates over the roles of Greek Life and athletics at Dartmouth that had strained the college’s relations with its alumni. Kim’s predecessor, James Wright, had been criticized for several decisions which allegedly devalued the importance of Greek Life and athletics at Dartmouth, including putting an end to single-sex housing and eliminating the swim teams for budgetary reasons. Although the Dartmouth swim program was revived by alumni donations, Wright’s decisions were enough to sour alumni relations with the administration. Those feelings manifested themselves in decreased alumni giving and as support for the college waned, Kim inherited a precarious position as President.
However unfairly, the seventeenth President of Dartmouth College did not enter Hanover, New Hampshire with a blank slate. Despite having never visited the college before 2008, some alumni had already developed prejudices against Kim that had nothing to do with his past work. As a result of his predecessor’s unpopularity in alumni circles, the former Professor of Medicine and Social Medicine and Chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School was forced to take a firm stance on divisive issues at Dartmouth quickly if he was to begin healing the relationship between the college and its alumni.
In March, Kim seized an opportunity to address the grievances against Dartmouth’s administration when he traveled to New York City and delivered a speech in front of more than 600 Dartmouth alumni. In his talk, Kim affirmed the importance of Greek organizations and athletics at Dartmouth while reemphasizing the importance of a strong alumni base at a top tier institution. He left the lecture hall to thundering applause.
After spending only a year on Dartmouth’s campus, this simple act of good faith was enough to capture the attention of alumni who had felt underappreciated by the administration for years. Without making any concrete promises, Kim assured alumni that he understood the complexity of the institution and that he did not intend to “change the culture” of the institution. Rather, he said, “I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand the culture and trying to understand what disaffected alums are so upset about.” As it turns out, many alumni were just excited that someone was finally listening to them.
At Colgate, President Jeffrey Herbst has already taken similar steps towards repairing the university’s relations with the alumni organization, A Better Colgate (ABC). The organization, which is led by a group of prominent alumni, lists grievances against Colgate ranging from high tuition costs to representation on the Board of Trustees to high spending on capital projects, such as the Case Library and Geyer Center for Information Technology. The organization demands that the Board of Trustees allow alumni to vote on policy makers for Colgate and calls for, “better transparency, better accountability and better alumni participation.” More than 1,400 alumni have signed the petition for ABC citing various reasons, not the least of which is Colgate’s 2005 decision to buy back all Greek houses on Broad Street. Many alumni who have signed the petition will withhold donations from Colgate each year until they feel that their questions and concerns about the University have been sufficiently answered.
Former President Rebecca Chopp failed to mend relations with disgruntled alumni, despite meeting with leaders from ABC on several occasions. The reconciliation of Colgate with its alumni is imperative if Colgate wants to be competitive as one of America’s elite educational institutions. Colgate already has a significantly smaller endowment when compared with its peer schools and cannot afford any lapse in alumni giving. Prolonged fights with large groups of alumni, who care enough about their alma mater to contribute to a rival organization, can be deadly for a small, rural university such as Colgate. In recent years, tuition has slowly but surely risen while the national ranking of our university has fallen. While this trend continues, Colgate must realize that the time for reconciliation is now and delays could be costly.
In the Herbst era, there is new reason for hope. The reconciliation process with ABC has finally begun. In an interview with the Maroon-News in August, Herbst reported that constructive talks with ABC have begun, saying, “We are reconciling. That process has begun and we are going to work constructively with ABC.”
Thankfully, the ABC website’s front page echoes Herbst’s sentiment, welcoming him while boasting, “We have a special person as our new president who is not afraid to embrace this new frontier and make the changes necessary to strengthen Colgate’s competitive position.”
While this initial confidence on both sides is a promising sign of progress, real action needs to be taken to ensure that these positive first impressions are not wasted. Alumni do not have the right to dictate how Colgate is run after receiving a diploma, but their opinions and their valuable gifts to Colgate must be taken into greater consideration by the University’s administration. Better communication between Colgate’s administration and its alumni on policy matters will be a crucial step towards this compromise.
While Colgate cannot make every concession to ABC, most of the organization’s grievances do have valid foundations and the concerns of alumni should be taken seriously. By creating a means through which Colgate alumni can better voice their concerns on a wide range of policy issues, the administration could provide a useful outlet for its passionate alumni base to maintain an active role in the Colgate community. Colgate seniors are told repeatedly that the Colgate bond is one that students will experience for life. Ignoring the concerns of alumni who value that relationship wastes the efforts of a passionate group of bright and motivated people who truly want what is best for our educational institution.
When Jim Yong Kim arrived at Dartmouth, he recognized that his window of opportunity to repair the relationship with Dartmouth’s alumni was quickly closing as his presidency matured. Herbst’s presidency may be defined by the same standards. With a new bright and charismatic President, Colgate has been afforded an opportunity to strengthen its community and its alumni connectedness, and this is not an opportunity that Colgate can afford to miss.