President Herbst Settles Into Life On The Hill

 

 

Mike McMaster and Geoff Gunther

Shortly after assuming the office of the 16th President of Colgate University on July 1, the former Provost, Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and professor of political science at Miami University of Ohio, Dr. Jeffrey Herbst completed his move to Colgate on July 26, taking up residence with his family at Watson House. After being selected by the presidential search committee and unanimously approved by Colgate’s Board of Trustees in November, Herbst made frequent visits to campus in an effort to understand Colgate as a university and the students, faculty and staff who drive it.

 

This week, Herbst sat down with The Maroon-News to discuss his experiences so far as well as his goals for the future.

 

Since her departure in the spring of 2009, there has been much speculation on campus about the legacy of Herbst’s predecessor, President Rebecca Chopp. Now President of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, Chopp’s term at Colgate began in July of 2002 and ended abruptly on July 1, 2009 after an unexpected announcement in February that she would be leaving the university. Pointing specifically to “capital projects” such as the Robert H.N. Ho Science Center and the Case Library and Geyer Center for Information Technology, products of her fundraising campaign, “Passion for the Climb,” Herbst called Chopp’s presidency, “a great success.”

 

“Obviously she came in after there had been some tumult on campus,” Herbst said.

 

Like many aspects of Colgate life, much of Chopp’s presidency was adversely affected by the fallout from the now infamous and tragic car accident that occurred on Oak Drive in the early hours of November 11, 2000. The deaths of four students in a drunk driving accident in which an intoxicated Colgate junior was behind the wheel devastated the Colgate community and shaped much of the policy under Chopp’s administration.

 

“But,” Herbst said, “I think in terms of just about every indicator, the university became significantly stronger under her administration.”

 

Regardless of Chopp’s successes, Herbst stressed that Colgate must continue to improve.

 

“A university is always a work- in-progress and no university is ever going to stop and say ‘oh we’re fine,” Herbst said.

During the presidential search, Herbst said he was impressed that despite the significant achievements of the recent past and the increasingly difficult economic climate, Colgate’s representatives were intent on moving forward. At Colgate, “It’s always a question of how you get even better in the future,” Herbst said.

While his long-term goals may be ambitious, Herbst is also approaching his new appointment with sobering cautiousness and restraint. When asked what his priorities for the upcoming school year were, Herbst answered carefully, saying that he still needs to observe and interact with Colgate before he can understand it fully.

 

“I have to do an enormous amount of learning,” Herbst said. “This is a complex institution with a very important history and it is truly incumbent upon me to be engaged with the faculty, the staff, the students, the 30,000 alumni who constitute an important constituency and then also our neighbors in the village and the surrounding area who have an important relationship with the institution. That is something which I believe is well underway but which is going to take a long time.”  

Beyond learning, Herbst emphasized the importance of fundraising. Passion for the Climb now has raised nearly $390 million of its $400 million target. While he believes that Colgate will reach “the finish line” in the near future, he does not believe that target is enough, saying that going even further is, “an important priority.”

While at Miami University, Herbst added classes to the Miami curriculum and diversified study abroad opportunities in an effort to support internationalization. His vision for Colgate seems to build on those experiences.

 

“I believe that Colgate has had a very progressive approach to internationalization in the past, but we have to do more,” Herbst said. “And we have to think hard about how to promote that [internationalization] by not only looking at study abroad issues but at the increasing number of international students that are coming to campus.”

Herbst also called for reforms to Colgate’s current off-campus study program in an effort to offer students an array of diverse opportunities and widen the scope Colgate students’ unique experiences.

 

“I think we are going to have to look at providing more study abroad opportunities for students outside of Europe,” Herbst said. “That is not to say that we are going to abandon Europe, but we have to look at the roughly 5.5 billion people who live outside of Europe and see what kinds of opportunities make sense given what’s happening, especially in East Asia.”

 

Colgate currently offers semester abroad programs in 13 different countries. Last year, however, trips to Freiburg, Germany and Venice, scheduled to leave in the spring of 2010, were cancelled in the fall of 2009. This year, the Japanese department cancelled its trip to Tokyo.

   

Asked whether it was realistic for Colgate to maintain more off-campus study groups, Herbst responded, “I think that we have to examine different models of operating. I think the study groups have had a very distinguished history but as we diversify geographically I think we are going to have to look at different models.”

For Herbst, “doing more” goes further than simply reforming Colgate’s off-campus study programs. He said that, while “it matters” that the Class of 2014 is arguably the most diverse class in Colgate’s history in terms of the amount of ethnic and racial diversity, diversity is a much more nuanced issue than admission numbers alone.

 

“Because you can have a campus with the numbers,” Herbst noted, “but if people aren’t interacting with each other, if people aren’t learning from their different life experiences, then we’ve wasted the opportunity.”

 

When asked how diverse he believes Colgate is, Herbst noted that the diversity of recent classes poses an enormous opportunity and that he believes Colgate is moving in the right direction. Herbst fell short, however, of calling Colgate a diverse campus, pointing out there is still ample room for improvement.

 

“I think [diversity at Colgate] is improving. But certainly the Campus Climate Survey and discussions around it revealed that even the numerical diversity we achieved, we haven’t realized in terms of actual interactions. And I think we have to do better.”

 

The 2009 Campus Climate Survey exposed some discouraging figures about diversity at Colgate. Among other findings, the survey noted, “white students are more satisfied at Colgate than students of any other race in terms of overall, academic, social and racial climate,” and that “racial gaps in satisfaction are larger in 2009 than the gaps observed in 2003 for African-Americans.”

 

Following the four-year suspension handed to Kappa Alpha Theta sorority in response to an alcohol related hazing violation in the fall of 2008, many women on campus have complained that there are too few sororities. Fairly or unfairly, many students criticized President Chopp for her attitude towards Greek Life. Since her departure, students have speculated what the new administration’s attitude would be towards Greek organizations.

 

Commenting on his attitudes towards Greek life, Herbst noted that he comes from Miami of Ohio, where Greek life is strong.

 

“I want the fraternities and sororities at Colgate to reflect the very best of aspirations in Greek Life,” Herbst said. “I think those are very powerful aspirations in terms of public service, life-long friendships and an energized residential living experience. I also want people who don’t want to opt into Greek Life organizations to have the same kind of experiences.”

 

When asked if he believes that there is a need for another sorority at Colgate, Herbst responded, “I think those are discussions we are going to have at some point.”

 

Herbst has also made efforts recently to reach out to Colgate’s alumni who have chosen to support A Better Colgate (ABC), an organization of alumni with grievances against the university’s governance structure. During her presidency, Chopp was unable to mend the rift between Colgate and ABC but Herbst said, “We are reconciling. That process has begun and we’re going to work constructively with ABC.”

 

He added that the most encouraging aspect of the university’s relationship with ABC is that these alumni care deeply about the institution. “To me, the greatest problem would be indifference,” he said. “The thing that counts most is that people care.”

 

In his first weeks at Colgate, Herbst will be meeting with a variety of different student organizations and faculty organizations in an effort to see how Colgate operates. He also pledges to make himself available to students and will be holding regular office hours throughout the academic year.