Can we talk about how to make Colgate better?

This letter was sent to each Colgate Trustee on January 17. Its purpose is to request a meeting to talk about how we can work together to make Colgate better. Our letter that follows details a few specific concerns.

On February 18, we received this reply from Bob Tyburski, director of Alumni Affairs.

Thanks for sending me the letter. I’ve learned that members of the Board of Trustees did receive it, but they are now focused on many aspects of advancing Colgate during the very important presidential transition. They will determine to respond (or not respond) at a future date. Thank you for your interest in Colgate.

Best regards,
Tybo

January 17, 2015

To the Board of Trustees of Colgate University:

This letter to you has been several weeks in the making with the input of many people.

In 2014 A Better Colgate marked its ten-year anniversary. Since our inception we have earned the support of more than 4,400 alumni – about 13 percent of the alumni body, all interested in our continuing call for greater transparency, fairness, and accountability in governance at Colgate. We earned this significant level of support through honest communication about issues that are important to Colgate’s future, despite repeated mis-characterizations and a persistently disdainful attitude toward our cause from various administrators, staff and others in positions of leadership at Colgate.

We mention this to you in the wake of the well-publicized recent sit-in by some 400 students and faculty members. That particular event calls to mind November 2001, when 70 or so students staged a similar protest. In both cases Colgate’s administrators urgently worked to bridge a clear gap in communication and connectedness expressed by a relatively small group of aggrieved demonstrators – small, we contend, in comparison to our ranks.

Taking a long view of history, we can’t help but notice a discouraging pattern. Decision-makers at Colgate selectively choose to engage in dialogue with some, while other individuals or groups within the Colgate community are routinely patronized or even ignored, depending on whether or not they are deemed to be worthy of the administration’s time and attention. We are not separate from, but are a part of, the Colgate community and we are asking for a respectful dialogue about issues we feel are critically important to the university.

Colgate’s administration worked with the sit-in group, and we understand progress was made. Because this collaboration achieved positive results, we are compelled to ask the obvious question: Why won’t the Colgate Trustees have a real, continuing conversation with a decade-old independent alumni movement that has a support base ten times the size of the sit-in this past semester?

While A Better Colgate had an opportunity to meet with the Board of Trustees during its open session in May, 2008, our lone interaction with you on that date was limited and overly formal, and since then we have had no meaningful dialogue with you. Since that time, a number of disturbing trends have emerged, which makes our current request for dialogue even more urgent. It is time to talk again. We think a serious, ongoing conversation – and not just a one-off, brief appearance on your agenda – needs to happen now more than ever.

What is there to discuss, you may ask?

As it turns out, quite a bit.

We have been monitoring numerous developments we believe significantly impact student life, educational quality and the perception of our alma mater. Taken as a whole, they indicate a larger and troubling trend at Colgate University.

• In the 2015 U.S. News and World Report rankings of liberal arts colleges, Colgate sits at 22, a two-point drop from last year, and a further decline from a 2003 high of 15. Why the steady erosion in our rank in the past decade? Why are other colleges surpassing Colgate? High school guidance counselors give weight to these rankings. In the past, Colgate certainly did not hesitate to trumpet our lofty position in these influential rankings. What should we make of our diminishing position now?

• Tuition and costs at Colgate continue to climb, creating a financial burden on students and their families. There does not appear to be a systematic method in place to address these runaway costs or administrative bloat. Will middle and lower-income students eventually be priced out of a Colgate education, leaving Colgate accessible only to the wealthy, the gifted student-athlete or the high achieving students that fill a minority diversity quota? Rather than simply addressing increases in financial aid, we support a focus on actually controlling costs.

• We have spoken with Justin Altus ‘14, the recent graduate responsible for creating the successful “BusPath” mobile phone app implemented at Colgate. The app tracked exactly when a rider could expect the Colgate Cruiser to appear at a specific place, a very useful feature for Hamilton’s cold weather days.

Justin’s venture was associated with Colgate’s Thought Into Action Institute for aspiring student entrepreneurs (TIA). He spent a large portion of his undergraduate career pouring his own dollars and thousands of hours into BusPath – with no financial help from Colgate. Still, as a Colgate-based TIA entrepreneur, Justin believed he was establishing what he reasonably assumed might become a mutually beneficial long-term business relationship with Colgate. To his dismay, Colgate instead reduced his monumental efforts to nothing more than “starting a conversation,” lied about his product at a technology conference,1 1a  and then allegedly tried to pressure Justin into surrendering his proprietary technology and intellectual property upon graduation.

When he refused, Colgate gave him the cold shoulder and actively pursued a contract with another vendor to replace BusPath. In a lengthy letter he also claims “widespread discontent” among many “appalled” and “disheartened” Colgate students and alumni with the TIA program and its management. Worse, Justin tells us that if he had to do it all over again, he probably would choose not to attend Colgate! He feels he was used for Colgate’s own self-promotion, and came away from his experience feeling that the alleged commitment to entrepreneurship at Colgate is “an empty gesture.”

• The case of Bangladeshi student Abrar Faiaz, who was recently expelled, is particularly troubling. He has filed a legal action against Colgate alleging that he was illegally detained, that out-of-context statements were coerced from his peers, and that he was denied his basic civil rights and due process. We believe that the negative image of Colgate presented as a result of this case is cause for alarm. The scathing piece in Real Clear Politics, “Lawsuit Casts Harsh Light on Due Process at Colgate”2 as well as the extensive and impassioned statement by one of the alleged victims of Faiaz, an ex-girlfriend who fervently pleads for Colgate to reverse its decision, is available to anyone who cares to seek information about Colgate.

Regardless of the outcome of this lawsuit, it seems clear that administrative staff did not manage this particular incident wisely. It’s more than just a bit ironic that at the same time campus was roiling with protests over diversity, intolerance and cultural understanding, Colgate was holding a foreign student in a basement with a guard posted outside the room. (The U.S. District Court dismissed some of the causes of action and some of the defendants were dismissed, but the lawsuit is going forward on grounds of false imprisonment and discrimination based on race and gender as well as respondeat superior (the liability of Colgate as an institution for the actions of its employees). Defendants include the Trustees, and eight administrators, faculty and staff members.

This case is yet another example of the diminution of student’s rights at Colgate.

• In light of the current Faiaz case against Colgate, we strongly urge that every member of Colgate’s Board of Trustees carefully read and discuss the extremely chilling piece written by Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science Michael Johnston, “Watch Yourself at All Times.”3 Johnston explains why he resigned as a newly elected faculty representative on the Student Conduct Board (SCB) after only two hours. His action was prompted by a training session led by an attorney from Colgate’s legal counsel, during which Johnston was advised that the University, as a private institution, can “choose what level of rights to afford students,” regardless of what Constitutional rights and protections or assurances of due process students may think they have. This damning narrative from a well-respected Colgate professor merits serious attention.

• We also find it fascinating that according to the minutes of the Board of Trustees from September 30, 2006, this same law firm met with Trustees to advise them on their duties and responsibilities, and placed special emphasis on “loyalty, obedience and care.” Loyalty and obedience to what? To whom? Could this explain why, in 42 Trustee meetings, we were able to document only one single dissenting vote by one trustee? Loyalty and obedience are not among the first concepts that come to mind when we reflect upon the tenants of the liberal arts education we gained from our years at Colgate, which we so deeply value. Why, then, is this how the body charged with the demanding task of making sound policy decisions for Colgate University directed?

• As a result of Professor Johnston’s editorial, we are now hearing rumblings regarding students who were allegedly abused by both the Student Conduct Board (“SCB”) and Campus Safety. We hear that the Faiaz case may not be the first time an international student was denied due process. We perceive a secretive, unaccountable body with unchecked power and no transparency in its procedures running roughshod over students. We find this deeply troubling and wonder if there is any oversight whatsoever of the Student Conduct Board?

• Yet more disconcerting news involving the Student Conduct Board: in mid-October after an SCB hearing, it was announced in a campus-wide email that the charter of Sigma Chi fraternity had been permanently revoked, and Sigma Chi was no longer recognized at Colgate. Curiously, specific details regarding the exact offenses for which Sigma Chi was summarily ousted are not public knowledge (at least no published reports reveal any details about the accusations against the chapter) – and not even Sigma Chi alumni seem clear on what happened. (Editor’s note: Subsequent to this letter, President Jeffrey Herbst amended the permanent revocation to a 5 1/2-year ban – long enough to be sure no Sigma Chi brothers are students when the ban expires.)

Sigma Chi’s alumni representative, Dick Harder ’76, was not permitted to attend the hearing. Even more disturbing, according to an article in the October 23 issue of the Colgate Maroon-News, “the school cited anonymous sources for its evidence and anonymous witness testimony as well.”4 What happened in that SCB hearing? What evidence and witnesses did the SCB have, and why was it anonymous? How could the undergraduate brothers of Sigma Chi respond in any meaningful way to anonymous witnesses? This lack of transparency is a disturbing theme that continues to emerge.

Colgate recently purchased the farm next to Sigma Chi for obvious expansion purposes. After the “hearing”, the brothers assessed the proceedings as expediency for land development. Without knowing the facts, this does not reflect well on the University.

 We understand there was considerable resentment from local Hamilton residents, as well as faculty members, concerning recent negotiations/plans involving developer Fairmount Properties for a potential student housing development at the Wayne’s Market site.5 Many were offended that once again Colgate was imposing its will on the Village of Hamilton without regard to citizens’ input. We have heard this sentiment repeated numerous times through the years, and it always seems to involve Colgate’s intrusive forays into real estate, more often than not with a negative impact on many of the small, locally owned businesses in downtown Hamilton.

 In spite of Colgate’s ongoing push to discourage Greek life on campus, students want it more than ever. The recent sit-in produced a “demand” for a multicultural fraternity. 6 Colgate has in recent times denied requests for a Jewish fraternity and an additional sorority. By limiting students’ ability to freely form their own social organizations, Colgate has fostered exclusionary practices, creating the effect of actually accentuating class differences and making the remaining Greek houses more elite. (It is also not lost on us that Colgate is eliminating, one way or another, a Greek letter organization every few years.)

 Currently men make up about 45% of the student population, and they have five fraternities (assuming Sigma Chi is now gone). Women comprise 55%, yet only have three sororities. Women are complaining that they are subject to more restrictive rules for member recruitment than men and that the paucity of sororities limits social and leadership options for them and makes for a rather unpleasant, hurried and impersonal rush process for both prospective and current members.7  Why the gender disparity?

 In December death threats against black students were posted on the social network Yik Yak, prompting several frightened students to leave campus. Others held yet another sit-in, demanding Colgate launch an investigation and hold the responsible parties accountable. There appears to have been little, if any, progress to date, and there have been complaints of a lack of transparency on this front. Colgate made sure to sponsor a candlelight vigil, which one source reported was widely seen by many as “a stage-managed public relations stunt.” Why does Colgate respond by organizing candlelight vigils instead of publicly and vigorously working with law enforcement to pursue a criminal investigation?

 We object that you, the Board of Trustees, continue to publish minutes of your meetings that are redacted, sanitized and six months late. In an era where open meetings laws are common, it seems duplicitous that you take extraordinary steps to make it difficult for any interested parties to understand your decision-making process. We realize that Colgate University is a private institution; still, unless you feel that you deal with such an overabundance of highly sensitive confidential matters that you must conduct your entire meeting like a closed door Executive Session, we fail to understand the need for secrecy.

We see several recurring themes: a lack of equality, honesty, fairness, due process, transparency, accountability. Worse, we sense hostility, condescension, and an attitude and actions that oftentimes come across as abusive – toward students, alumni, and townspeople.

The evidence is accumulating that Colgate is morphing into an increasingly expensive excursion into a bizarre Twilight Zone of sorts, where student rights exist on a sliding scale, dictated by the whims of a bloated administrative bureaucracy that smothers students in every aspect of their lives, in and out of the classroom. Entire student organizations can be arbitrarily wiped out and now apparently even individual students themselves can be bullied and intimidated on their way to being suspended or expelled.

And while these and the other problems we have itemized in this letter continue to fester, it looks as if several of our “peer institutions” are leapfrogging us in the national rankings and for whatever reasons are now perceived as better educational options.

How did we allow all this to happen?

As the body that is charged with the oversight of Colgate University, we expect the Board of Trustees to take a more active position in the aforementioned and other pertinent issues. It requires tough management decisions, and perhaps Jeffrey Herbst’s departure is a reflection of that. When you allow the Colgate administration and faculty to set policy for you, it seems often to have a harmful effect.

As a way to enhance fairness and transparency, we continue to seek open election by alumni of one-third of the members of the Board of Trustees.

And so, once again we ask: let’s meet in person. We seek a substantial conversation and an open dialogue on ways we can work together to make Colgate better. As we have before, we ask for you to select a team of three or four folks from the Board of Trustees to meet with a similar number representing our 4,400+ supporters to talk together. And, let’s make a commitment to making this an ongoing dialogue, not a one-and-done session.

With a search for a new president, we all have an opportunity for a fresh start. We are very willing to lend any assistance you request, and we will appreciate being a part of your efforts.

We respectfully request a response from you no later than February 15. After that date, we’d like to give our supporters an update on our plans to work together.

Sincerely,

Gregory J. Narag ‘’89
Director, A Better Colgate

Alumni, what do you think? If you support our efforts, please:
Contact members of the Board of Trustees and ask them to set a meeting with members of a Better Colgate to discuss how we can collectively make Colgate better.
Run as an independent candidate for the Alumni Council. This group is beginning to take a more activist role in recommending positive changes to the Trustees.
Donate to A Better Colgate so we can continue to keep alumni, students, parents and others in the Colgate community informed on trends in higher education and good ideas to make Colgate better. Send a check or donate securely online. Call us to discuss a transfer of stock securities.
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