For the past two years, Vice President and Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson has been working with her colleagues and listening to students, faculty and alumni to develop a 5-year plan for Colgate.
“This plan is mostly a strategic one, to clarify our division’s role and help it to prioritize its work in the next couple of years,” Johnson said. Her conclusion? “We want to make out-of-classroom experiences at Colgate help members of the community become better students and better individuals.”
Johnson specified three priorities for her division for the next few years. She wants to help increase intellectual vibrancy outside the classroom, to build an inclusive campus community and to help students reflect on what they want from their Colgate experience and after. Her vision is that outside of the classroom involvement will contribute even more to students’ education.
“I think that the best way to get students engaged is to ask them directly what changes they’d like to make, and try to get their ideas in action” Johnson said. She has acted on this conviction, turning to student leaders from a variety of different groups and initiatives across campus to help brainstorm and develop tentative plans of action.
Senior Conor Tucker, head of the Cushman Academic House and leader in numerous other groups across campus, was one of the students the Dean consulted. “Dean Johnson did a good job asking the student body for their participation in this endeavor—almost all sectors of the campus were represented at two dinner meetings we had at her house. The meetings were cordial, conversational, open and welcoming,” Tucker said.
Johnson also felt that these meetings were constructive, and remarked on how proactive and aware students were about what they want their experiences on campus to look like.
“One thing I’ve learned in these conversations is that we have to concentrate more on the first-year experience as an opportunity to ground students and get them engaged in the community,” Johnson said.
Johnson also remarked on the shared vision that seems to be developing about what students want their community to be.
“We can see evidence of this in the new housing on Broad Street, including Cushman, Wellness housing and a Multiculturalism and Leadership house,” Johnson said.
One of the institutions that the plan will focus on will be Residential Life (ResLife), to try to extend these ideas farther than just the new broad street communities.
“We really want to have all residential living spaces be more than just places for students to study, eat and sleep. We have to make every living space, be it Cutten, Cushman or West, feel like it’s part of the Colgate community and an important center for social belonging,” Johnson said.
Johnson was careful to specify that her plans will not seek to engage in social engineering or impose a lot of restrictions on students. Her conversations with students have shown their dissatisfaction with certain aspects of the culture, in particular alcohol as the central focus of social interactions, the hookup culture and the absence of diverse student interactions especially across ethnic and cultural lines. Taking this into consideration, her goal will primarily be to help students engage with each other in ways that help them get out of their comfort zones.
Although the planning stages of this initiative have been going on for quite some time, “the ink is just drying on the ideas right now, nothing has been implemented yet,” Johnson said.
Tucker hopes that it will have a real impact on Colgate, but has his doubts.
“Do I think changes will be made? I don’t know. There were many good ideas—including creating a ‘college system’ for first years like at Yale—that I think will fall off of the radar. Also, the plan seemed nebulous, almost to the point that you couldn’t disagree with it,” Tucker said.
Although Tucker thinks that there is enormous potential for change, he worries that momentum will die before anything is implemented. In his opinion, the solution to this would be institutional reform to change the way students interact with administration.
“My own suggestion is that SGA gets a voting member permanently on the ResLife board so that decisions can be influenced by the student body and are responsive to the student body,” Tucker said.
This being said, now that Dean Johnson and her team have put quality time in to learning about what changes could be made to better the Colgate community, they should be well prepared to set their plans in action. But changing the structure and pattern of a settled system is far easier said than done. The only question left is will they, and will the Colgate community, succeed.