This is a moment of great humility for me and my family. Especially standing in front of you having accepted the symbols of Colby’s presidency with an appreciation for the depth of this College’s history and your bold expectations for its future. This College, now in its 202nd year, has survived through its most trying moments and has ultimately thrived as one of the world’s great centers for learning because so many have contributed to its progress.
I am especially indebted to my predecessors, Presidents Bro Adams and Bill Cotter, who have guided me personally and set Colby on its enviable trajectory. Although those of us here will author only a short chapter in this important history, we must use our time to lift Colby even higher.
Colby College, in its great liberal arts tradition, stands for learning in its purest, most potent form, with scholar and student joined together in discovery. It is an education that transforms lives. Colby College was for me, growing up in Worcester, Massachusetts, as one of seven children, who are represented here today, something of a lighthouse, a beacon that I knew guided people toward more fulfilling lives. My parents, both teachers, taught my brothers and sisters and me that education helps us fulfill our own dreams, and prepares us to contribute to the world in myriad, meaningful ways. We must do everything possible to ensure Colby remains such a powerful symbol of hope and progress.
My parents, Richard and Dolores Greene, are here today. They are joined by my brothers and sisters and their families and I want to say I owe my parents a great debt for instilling in me the enduring values of family, of education, of hard work (with also had some church and some politics and some Red Sox thrown in there, though not in that order). Your sacrifices in the name of educating your family remind me every day of the importance of this work.
I want to recognize my wife, Carolyn, and my children, Madeline, Nora and Declan. That I am here today is because of their love and support. I feel incredibly privileged to be on this journey with them. We are all thrilled to be joining the Colby family and to have felt the incredible warmth of this close community.
That I am here at all, leading this extraordinary college, is undoubtedly a surprise to some visiting today, especially friends and colleagues I have known for many decades and some who have traveled great distances to be here. You can keep your stories to yourself, but I want to say I am grateful for your presence.
On this platform I am surrounded by so many I admire and respect. It is hard to be anything but optimistic about Colby’s future when joined by Bob Diamond, who has been an unbelievable partner and a great supporter of Colby College and the Board of Trustees, the incredible faculty, students, and alumni of Colby College, and the supportive civic leadership of this region who have more skills than I had ever imagined. It is a privilege to work with such a talented, committed group.
Later in this ceremony we honor four individuals who embody Colby’s highest values and aspirations. Awarding the honorary degrees will be deeply personal to me. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot taught me the tools of scholarship, the beauty in teaching, the elegance in rigor. Bob Zimmer showed me the generosity of friendship and what can be accomplished when expectations are highest. David Axelrod renewed in me the belief that our students are the best antidote to society’s most intractable problems. And Senator Susan Collins, whose family ties to Colby span a century, demonstrates time and again the nobility of serving the public, of compromise for a greater good. You all honor us with your presence.
There are so many who have put Colby in such an enviable position and have made this moment possible. However, this moment does not belong to any one person, and it certainly does not belong to me. This is about Colby’s. This is Colby’s moment. This is Colby’s time.
The Challenge of Our Time
We arrive at this moment when the challenges that threaten not just the mission of this college, but all the institutions seeking to change lives through higher education.
Of course, there are few moments if any when leaders haven’t professed that moment as the one that posed the greatest threat to our system, to our institutions. Surely there is no shortage of challenges today. The cost of education, increased government intervention, declining support for basic research and higher education in general, the rise of globalization, and the advent of technologies that perturb pedagogy and broaden access to information. These will require innovation in thought and action and, in some cases, will bring profound opportunities.
A central challenge, in my view, in the coming years is the likelihood of a sharper bifurcation of our higher education system, with an even smaller group of colleges and universities offering the breadth of excellence to which many of our institutions aspire. Those colleges in this lead group will offer outstanding programs across the disciplines and become the standard bearer for the humanities, which face serious threats around the world. They will facilitate close, personal interaction with leading faculty and students; provide an intensive, purposeful residential educational experience; and adopt a fully global approach to education and research. They will offer access to students most able to benefit from their special educational environment without regard for the student’s financial situation. They will be committed to creating a fully diverse community with an understanding of the critical role that plays in meeting their mission.
The colleges in this group will be the most sought after in the world. Their scarcity will put them in higher demand for the world’s top scholars, teachers, and students. Their reputations will rise; their resources will increase. This small but powerful group of institutions will define a new pinnacle of higher education.
Those not in this group will increasingly rely on standardized practices and the dissemination of curricular materials to a broad group of students through new technology platforms. They will be forced to reduce their commitment to fields of study that are not viewed as economically viable, either because of costs of supporting teaching and scholarship in that area, such as the laboratory sciences, or because of the need to favor fields that offer a gateway to entry-level positions in the labor market. Their educational model will change dramatically as they work to drive down program costs, potentially diminishing access and program quality.
This emerging schism in higher education threatens the historic strengths of the world’s leading system of colleges and universities. We must act with a sense of urgency to address these challenges so that our institutions can continue meeting their important missions and serving the larger society.
Thanks to its careful stewardship for generations, Colby is well situated to carve its own unique path in this changing landscape. We must do this by recommitting ourselves to the broad spectrum of liberal arts, connecting the liberal arts more directly to the world beyond the academy, focusing on the opportunities we provide that improve the life chances of our graduates, reaching and being accessible to the broadest group of talented students, and never, never settling for anything other than true excellence.
A Defining Moment for the Liberal Arts
My view is that this is a defining moment for the liberal arts, and Colby’s commitment to its liberal arts traditions must be unassailable. The liberal arts and sciences have endured for centuries because of their breadth and relevance. There has been no other form of education that has contributed in such meaningful ways to human progress, to our understanding of natural and social phenomena, to the birth of societies and to our appreciation for justice and equality. The liberal arts have illuminated the human condition in all of its miraculous beauty and horrifying flaws.
Defending the liberal arts has become a preoccupation for many, and we are all familiar with the supporting arguments. The liberal arts prepare students to enter a dynamic world where one can expect to have several different jobs and even careers; they provide deep context and effective tools for analyzing problems, synthesizing data, and thinking creatively about solutions; they encourage strong writing and speaking skills; they instill an appreciation for art and ethics; they educate an informed citizenry to participate in governance; they prepare individuals to lead, inspire and innovate.
I find these arguments compelling and accurate. But I differ with those who think the challenges to the liberal arts are simply the result of an ineffective articulation of their value. We should always work to communicate more effectively about the nature and impact of the education we provide. However, that is not enough, and we should not simply be defenders of the status quo. The liberal arts, though ancient in tradition, are always evolving, and it is our obligation to shape that evolution for our time.
In today’s context, we must reject insularity and the propensity of our institutions to gaze inward. This great college, as we heard earlier, moved from its downtown location to this picturesque spot on Mayflower Hill in the 1930s. It was a move that helped catapult Colby to the top tier of U.S. colleges by providing an outstanding setting and infrastructure for teaching, learning, and research. The move fit with a view of college at the time as a largely isolated experience, where students at the cusp of adulthood were to be cloistered with learned women and men and to be shaped by four years of education and maturation to re-enter the world as productive citizens and leaders.
The Colby of today is and must increasingly be a highly networked institution, an intellectual home at the center of a matrix of relationships that facilitates opportunities for our students and faculty and enhances our capacity for education and scholarship.
We do much in this area already, with students curating exhibits in the Colby College Museum of Art, the finest college art museum in the country, and then interning through our dedicated programs at leading cultural and arts organizations. Our science students are in the labs with faculty, writing papers that are published in peer-reviewed journals, presenting at conferences, and spending summers with international science teams on research vessels and in laboratories. Colby students interested in finance and public sector positions work hand and hand with our leading government and economics faculty and enjoy a broad array of internships and experiences with global financial companies, government agencies, and NGOs.
The examples are just as robust if we are talking about classics or philosophy, computer science or psychology. Yet we can take this so much further by systematically organizing our January terms, the summer experiences on campus and away, and semester-time opportunities. We can structure a set of experiences that build on and ultimately enhance our classical, liberal arts education and tie our timeless curriculum to the ever-changing demands of the world beyond Mayflower Hill. We can create partnerships with organizations, corporations, universities, and other institutions around the world that would enrich our programs. We can establish a much stronger culture of support from our alumni and friends that will open strategic affiliations and result in literally thousands of opportunities for Colby students and faculty.
The Colby degree must continue to represent the most rigorous liberal arts training as well as the richest set of experiences that complement our educational programs and prepare students for lives of meaning and impact. Defending the liberal arts need not be our preoccupation; indeed, that defense will be of little necessity if we focus instead on the excellence of our programs, on the connections of the liberal arts to the world beyond the academy, and on how our programs directly contribute to the positive life outcomes of our graduates.
I want to say this about Colby in Waterville. Because as we look beyond Mayflower Hill, we must begin where we began, off this hill, in the center of Waterville. Colby is of the world, but Waterville is our home and we can never forget that we are a Waterville institution first. We are of this place and we were formed by the generosity of its citizens.
In 1813, at the time of the College’s founding, many towns were under consideration as the site for the fledgling Baptist institution, intended as a northern analog to Brown University. That changed when the leaders of Waterville, then an emerging shipbuilding and manufacturing center, pledged land and money to house what was no more than a charter at the time.
The College arose from the generosity and ambitions of Waterville, but it faced many challenges in its first century. The Civil War years took a toll on the College, but it was rescued by the largess of the local community. Gardner Colby, who spent his formative years in Waterville but never attended the College, pledged his fortune as a life-saving donation to the College if it could be matched through additional fundraising. The funds were secured, and in 1866 the Board of Trustees changed the name of Waterville College to honor Gardner Colby.
At the dawn of the Great Depression, the College again needed help from its local citizens. The future was threatened by aging facilities. One thousand Waterville citizens packed the Opera House to persuade the College to remain in town, ultimately providing the first $100,000 toward a new campus on the land we occupy today. In the initial campaign to build this campus, 13,000 people, nearly half with no connection to Colby, contributed funds.
I recite this well-worn history because as Colby College thrives Waterville faces new challenges. The shipbuilding business is long gone, the textile and paper mills that fueled the local economy until the late 20th century have moved away as well. Nevertheless, our local area has remarkable resiliency and resources—three colleges, two medical centers, a thriving arts community, a magnificent natural setting, and a talented, industrious work force. My family and I keep discovering gems in Waterville—dedicated teachers in the schools, restaurants and shops of rare quality, and much more. The ingredients are here for a renaissance of this proud city, and Colby College should partner with and support local leaders to accelerate the pace of improvements and stimulate economic growth and prosperity. Colby is already engaged in successful student-to-student mentoring, early-childhood education, arts programs, and a wide range of other efforts. We should recall the lessons of the past, when Waterville supported Colby at times of need. We should help revitalize Waterville’s historic center and demonstrate what is possible when a city and its anchor institutions join forces for civic progress.
Colby’s Moment, Colby’s Time
I was drawn to Colby because of its many outstanding qualities, but also because it was so apparent to me that this is Colby’s moment to act, this is Colby’s moment to lead.
The challenges Colby and other colleges face are very real, but there has never been a time when our colleges and universities could rest comfortably. In 1870 Colby’s President James Tift Champlin implored the College to focus on progress: “To stand still in such an age and country as this is tantamount to going backward,” he said. Champlin’s words are equally apt today.
Our obligation is to ensure that Colby grows and prospers, that it is ideally positioned to weather any storms ahead. We must foster a culture of innovation and aspiration, with the hope that Colby will constantly renew itself.
This is a moment to invest in Colby. Never has the College been as strong, has its trajectory been so steep for so long. It is from this position of strength that Colby can reach its highest ambitions and set itself apart as one of the world’s truly admired and leading institutions. It is from this foundation that we can prepare our students to head institutions and organizations, reshape fields of knowledge, promote justice, equality, and more civil, progressive societies.
This is Colby’s moment. This is Colby’s time.
It is our time to commit to the highest level of support for our faculty, students, and staff and to have unwavering focus on the excellence of our programs.
It is our time to fully open our campus to the greatest diversity of perspectives and experiences.
It is our time to make the liberal arts more integrated with the world beyond our campus.
It is our time to move Colby to a preeminent position among the world’s liberal arts colleges.
This is Colby’s moment. This is Colby’s time.
And I accept the responsibilities of this presidency by pledging that I will do everything possible to lift this great college to new heights. I ask the Colby community to join me in this important work.