Colby’s long and remarkable history: It’s astonishing. It’s sort of epic, when you think about it. I don’t mean there aren’t other things in the world that epic. There are. The Ford Motor Co. But yeah, these places, it’s really sort of miraculous that from small beginnings and frail places they evolve into these amazing institutions. It’s very true in its own particular way about Colby, but not uniquely true about Colby. As [College Historian] Earl Smith said in the bicentennial documentary, we may have had more than our fair share of challenges but a similar sort of narrative has played out at other places. Harvard in 1650 or 60 must have looked a little bit like this place looked in 1820. A couple of classrooms, a couple of teachers, a couple of students. That they’ve grown into these really impressive, sturdy little places is really amazing. And is kind of epic. I wonder if in a hundred years, they’ll look back at us now and think, “Look at that pipsqueak little place. And how could it ever be that that place became our place.” That’s an interesting thing to imagine. But I do think there’s a fundamental difference now. Even if you go back to 1950, let’s say, post-World War Two, also kind of a traumatic period, and there’s this campus kind of lurching up the hill. It really has no money, or little money, it’s coming out of another war, and it’s got this terrific young president, Seelye Bixler, and managing through the final construction of the campus, even fifty or sixty years ago, it was a pretty different place. Maybe because you can physically see the roots of what’s here now in that place and time, but in other ways it’s very different.
The nature of the Colby community: I admire the mostly very positive way in which people cross lines between faculty and administrators and people that do the hard work, PPD. It’s not perfect, but I think people are paying attention to one another. I’m always struck at the house when I see somebody like Sheila [Ratte] in dining services, who has been here, what, fifty-five years, I guess, and how many people know her and how many people like her and how easy it is for her to engage with people. And I know that those differences aren’t completely elided, that there are divisions and separations. But there’s a nice quality of genuine interaction, I think, between people of different levels and rank and work.
How Colby’s evolution reflects changes in society at large: Twenty, thirty years ago, the environment and sustainability wouldn’t have been nearly as important or as much on people’s minds, not nearly as interesting to students or prospective students. The visual arts is maybe a little more timeless. Even though teaching art in the country has been kind of compromised and threatened in the public school system, there’s a lot of high-level cultural excitement around art and the visual arts in the world at large. But also certainly public affairs and civic engagement were part of a larger social and political context that made those things easier and gave us more traction. I don’t know if there was a crystallizing event, but a part of Colby’s profile that I’m very proud of, that I think my predecessor Bill Cotter, and his colleagues really brought to the forefront of Colby’s profile, was and is the natural sciences, which have been marching steadily along in an interesting way. That’s something that Bill really set his mind to, and that developed a huge amount of momentum that we’ve been able to take advantage of, and we recruit a surprisingly large number of students who are interested in the sciences relative to our liberal arts peers. But that was something that started beforehand. I think we’ve taken advantage of it. We’ve added resources to the natural sciences, particularly environmental science, but that was certainly already well underway, and I’m glad it was because I think it distinguishes Colby in yet another way. The diversity issue has been difficult, challenging, at times disappointing, but at other times encouraging. That’s a long march sort of thing. It’s been accompanied by pretty significant growth in financial aid. I think when I came we had about one-hundred and fifty grants per class, and now we’re almost at two-hundred , so that’s a fifty-student increase. That’s a huge change.
The genesis of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement: One of the first things that got laid in front of me when I came [to Colby], and it was by way of comments from both faculty and trustees, was this—I’m sure carefully prepared—speech about how Colby had a chance of doing really interesting in the social sciences, particularly in politics, government, as we call it, and economics, where there was a yearning for a kind of public policy formation. I was kind of intrigued by that because public life and public policy is very interesting to me. So I spent a lot of time talking to people, and I was listening to a lot of faculty and Bill Goldfarb [’68] and other people who were really eager on this topic. So I brought together a group of faculty, and we sat down and I got them to start thinking about it, talking about it. Even though there was a lot of energy for this, it was also clear to me that the energy was somewhat narrow and confined. So there was a lot of back and forth, a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, but what finally emerged from all of this was the Goldfarb Center, and it was one of the first things I was preoccupied with here, and it’s one of the most satisfying of all. It was just a way of corralling energy and expertise and expressing it in a new way that hadn’t been expressed here before. And there it is. It’s chugging along, and it came into being before there was a Diamond Building, so it’s not a place. It’s just a certain kind of commitment of faculty and students to a certain kind of involvement with public life. Right from the first day that seemed to work. I give [Professor] Sandy [Maisel] a lot of credit for that, but it was also an idea whose time had come, and it sort of meshed with what students were eager to do and what faculty were eager to do, and it really worked. So the execution of that was exciting to watch, but it wasn’t sticky. There wasn’t a lot of resistance or difficulty there. Similarly, I think, the conversations that we’ve had about environmental studies and sustainability, those have all been exciting conversations. Again, they took a lot of work, but it wasn’t a struggle to get people to buy into them or to be persuaded about them. Of course another crystallizing moment was the Lunder Collection gift and the way that, I think, demonstrated how Colby’s version of the liberal arts, at least, could take on a dimension in the visual arts that was pretty unusual, I think, in a school like this.
The impact of Colby’s relationship with the United World College system: Shelby [Davis] had made his commitment to that in 1999, and so the first cohort came my first year, and I would say almost single-handedly—well, that’s not quite the right phrase—in one stroke of shift and support, the demographics of the student body changed dramatically. So Shelby’s gift—and I tell this to him all the time—was transformative in a way that I think very few other gifts have been because its effects on the student body were so large. And now we’re in this interesting situation where we’re starting to see dramatic increases in applications coming from full-paying students from China and India and Korea, and that phenomenon will continue to grow. So I don’t know where that goes ultimately, but it certainly provides an opening or an opportunity to effect yet another change in the nature of the student body. I think that’s a big question that’s out there, and my successor and his colleagues will have to answer the question of how far Colby wants to go there and is willing to go. These students are very qualified, they obviously have the resources to attend, but they’re from mainland China and India and Korea, so that’s a big deal. That would take us another big step into a kind of an international diversity that we’ve never experienced before.
The future place of highly selective liberal arts colleges like Colby: I agree with [author] Bill Bowen that there will always be a role for these very, very good, highly selective liberal arts colleges—that they will not only endure but they will thrive. I think it’s important for Colby to maintain its position as an institution of choice among those kinds of places because I think places of less powerful attraction will struggle as the price becomes more prohibitive. I don’t think Colby will struggle in a deep way. I think it will be challenged to keep making the case, and certainly the liberal arts is under a lot of pressure. That goes back to making the case that this kind of education raises questions and helps develop aptitudes and capacities that matter, that are important, and that society should care about them generally as well as institutions caring about them. So we’ll see where that goes. You know, I do think it will be more and more challenging to make the case. Or at least as challenging to make the case. And there’ll be lots of additional handwringing and consternation about it. And that’s why we keep having to be working over this curriculum to make sure that we’re making the strongest possible case by the nature of what we do and what we offer. I said in my bicentennial address that this has to be everybody’s concern and interest and just to sort of pretend it’s not there would be a mistake. So we’ve all got to internalize this. It can’t be just presidents that worry about it. We had some interesting conversations a few years ago with faculty about this, prompted by this national concern about the humanities particularly, and we’ll probably be having to do more to make sure that faculty are fully engaged in this. I was very pleased though by this thing—speaking of moments—this very recent coming together of a group of people interested in the humanities center, understood as a kind of an intellectual space for the humanities in a liberal arts context, and to get faculty thinking aggressively and boldly and to stimulate that thinking within the institutions. I think that’s what the Center for the Humanities will do, is trying to do, is to engage faculty, broadly speaking, in that effort.
How students have changed since he arrived at Colby in 2000: They absolutely have, along several dimensions. One of the most obvious things to say is that the way in which student lives are mediated by technology is vastly different even in this fourteen years. I don’t remember what we were doing with technology in 2000. We were doing e-mail, and we were doing more and more sophisticated forms of research with the aid of technology in the sciences and the social sciences. But social networking technology didn’t exist. Now it’s the next frontier. When I first came—I don’t remember the numbers, but most of our applications were not filed electronically. They actually came in the mail. And we used to send out the viewbooks, which were the printed materials, and then everything shifted to the web, so the way students were learning about us was then shifting into a technological universe, which is now ubiquitous and has already gone through some transformations, with social media not replacing the web but augmenting it in a serious way. I think their social relationships are mediated by this stuff in ways that are new.There are faculty I know who feel that students have sort of spiritual problems negotiating that world. I think they’re much more—even as they, as we all do, make sort of blunders along the way—I think they’re much more interested in a much more cosmopolitan sort of Colby, and they expect a more cosmopolitan Colby. By that I mean more diverse, more reflective of the world. I find them enormously impressive in terms of their aptitudes and intellectual capacity. They seem to me to be getting better and better. I look at some of these students and think back to what I was like when I was nineteen or twenty, and it’s very hard for me to see myself in them. They’re quite a bit more worldly. I suppose there are ways in which they’re not. They’re still just nineteen, twenty-year-olds. Well, you see them. Precocious is the right word. I suppose some of that has to do with the fact that, like the evolution of things here at Colby, they’ve been exposed in their secondary schools to many more opportunities, much more stimulation, much more resource-rich, intensive forms of education. I do worry about the residential college phenomenon in the sense that on the one hand it’s the reason this kind of education is so powerful because students are just completely—it’s like intensive language study—they’re completely immersed in this culture. So that immersion and that intimacy accounts for a lot of why what we do has such a deep effect and impact. On the other hand, it’s a hothouse. Its intimacy and its relentlessness, if you will, can be kind of a problem because… things happen, you know, that could only happen in a place like this, and it feels a little like a padded cell sometimes. So it’s not ventilated quite as much as you might want it to be sometimes. But that’s the price of admission, I think. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have all the good things about intimacy and enclosure and not have the some of the bad things. But yeah, I think they’ve changed a lot in the fifteen years. And I think going back to when you were here, the changes are even more obvious and significant.
The rewards of raising resources for Colby: It is rewarding. It’s not rewarding getting on and off planes. What’s really rewarding and very focused is getting into a conversation with somebody about something that matters to them and seeing it realized. We just closed a gift with a donor last June who had a very powerful attachment to a professor, wanted to do something to honor him but wanted it to help students with financial need. So we came up with a very creative program of need-based financial aid in honor of this person that we’re going to roll out in the next couple of months. Stuff like that is really satisfying. I’ll tell you this confidentially; I know you’ll keep it confidential. Wednesday at the faculty meeting I’m going to announce the naming gift for the science building. That conversation, which evolved rather quickly, was just incredibly thrilling, and you can imagine how thrilling it was to talk to the [Peter and Paula] Lunders about what they were doing. So yeah, those things are great and really humanly satisfying. We had a gift—I don’t know why I didn’t say this first—we just closed a two-million-dollar solicitation for financial aid from another anonymous donor who just wants to make sure that Colby’s accessible to people and who lived his life in a way that made it possible for him to have these resources, which he didn’t spend on himself, though he could have. Again, an anonymous gift. Those things are just magical when they work. That kind of reciprocity of commitment and obligation—it’s a pretty beautiful thing when it happens. And it happens all the time.
On incoming President David Greene: I know his resume and he seems to be really well suited to what he’s got to do. In terms of all of the formal preparation, he’s got a really nice array of experiences. My sense of him is that he’s very smart, he seems to me to be a very good listener. He seems to me to be appropriately— cautious is not quite the right word—he seems to be savvy and aware of what he doesn’t know. That’s sort of a strange thing to say but it’s a true thing. You can be aware of many things you don’t know, and be open and listening. He seems to me to be very engaging in a way that I think I’m not. I think he’s got a kind of energy. I think I’m a little more introspective or reserved, maybe. I’m guessing, but I think he’s more naturally extroverted in ways we were talking about before. So I think he’ll bring a different kind of energy to the job. I don’t mean more energy. I mean a different kind of energy. And I think that’s probably good.
On his ongoing book project, which includes exploration of the work of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the life of the painter Paul Cezanne, and writing such a work now vs. as a young academic: This project has been interesting that way. Merleau-Ponty was fifty-seven when he died. I’m sixty-seven. He was a famous philosopher when he died, but there was something hugely unfinished in his life. Well, I don’t know if he felt that way. People feel that way on his behalf now. You know, when you’re ten years older than the person who, to you at another time in your life, was this kind of monumental figure of advanced age and learning, (laughs) you’re now on the other side of that, it’s, in several senses, it’s a little bit arresting. You know, this question that people have to go through, how do you sum up your life? How do you come to terms with what you’ve done and who you’ve been? Do you ever get to a place where you feel, okay, that was my life, that was great, and now I know what it all meant? I don’t think anyone ever gets to that point. I think there’s a sense of incompletion that’s sort of fundamental no matter how old you are and no matter how much you’ve done. Those sorts of thoughts that have been collecting as I’ve thought about him. And Cezanne, too, these amazing statements that he made. He was closer to sixty-five or sixty-seven when he died, kind of finally feeling like he was making progress. That’s an extraordinary statement for somebody like that.
On his definition of Colby’s mission, and the risks of losing focus on that mission: The mission is connecting powerfully to these young people and changing them in certain definite ways that we believe are consistent with an educational purpose. Bigger, fuller minds with more capacity to think and create and imagine in all kinds of ways and directions and who have a breadth of intelligence, a creativity of intelligence, and a sort of a sense of moral order that enables them to be difference makers in their lives. So it’s that whole enterprise of expanding their fundamental capacities and making them bigger people—bigger, richer, more complex, more capacious people. Which has a purely intellectual component, I think, but it’s got a moral component in the sense of a deeper appreciation for the trials and tribulations and the agony and the ecstasy of living a human life. We are preparing people for jobs here, but we’re also preparing them to be husbands and wives and fathers and mothers and aunts and uncles and business colleagues, to negotiate all of that interesting terrain that life gives us to negotiate. It’s a very simple and clean sense of a purpose, and that’s what’s great about it. … We’re in this very pure space. But that’s what I meant by externalities versus mission-oriented. If you become too preoccupied with what your score is against Bowdoin, in whatever way you measure scores, you stop asking penetrating questions about what the hell you’re doing, and how do you know that you’re doing what you’re saying you’re doing, and how you can do it better. It’s fun to talk about the endowment. It really is. And, you know, it’s great to look at the Museum of Art, and it’s great to beat Bowdoin in hockey as we did the other night. Those are all exciting things, and we ought to care about them. But we have to care just as often and deeply about the guts of this thing, which is not comparative, I don’t think. It may be measurable, or parts of it may be measurable, but it’s not comparative, because you’re really looking at what you’re doing and trying to focus on that. Presidents, boards—not so much faculty because they’re in contact with it so regularly that I don’t think they can forget it—but boards and presidents can forget it. What I will say to this board when I walk out of the College in June is exactly that. I’m going to make a little speech. “Don’t take your eye off the ball.” I think they understand that; it’s not like I think they’re deaf to that. I just think it’s important to remind them.
On his service in Vietnam and how it shaped his life: I’m not sure I know all the ways. I’ve been thinking a lot about it because the first part of my book opens with a chapter, “Coming Home.” Certainly I grew up enormously quickly in that period of time. I became kind of serious, maybe a little grave, I think. I’ve never felt like I had anything chronic, like PTSD but I think I developed a kind of vigilant and anxious personality. Which I probably had a lot of anyway. It made me much more hyper-vigilant, hyper-anxious in some ways.I do think it did some positive things. In addition to growing up very quickly, I became capable in new ways that I don’t think I ever would have experienced without that. Responsible. I was a senior advisor in a small military unit in a remote part of the Mekong Delta. And I was responsible for coordinating American assets and resources. Like fighter strikes and artillery strikes. So I wasn’t in a command position though I did have people reporting to me. So I learned a lot about myself and my capacities. And I got really interested in a lot of things. My whole decision to become an academic and to go into philosophy was driven by that experience. So I wouldn’t have been an academic, for sure. Hence I wouldn’t be here.
On what is distinguishing about Colby: I struggle with articulating it, the way everybody does. It’s got to do with the physical location and a sense of place. It’s got to do with the particular groups that interact here in the particular ways that they do—the international component, the diversity component with students from Maine—which is related to the sense of place. It does have, for me, to do with the still really strong and, in some ways, unique culture of teaching here, which is informed by the actual personalities and the history of those personalities over time. You think of the gigantic figures here in the teaching framework, and all of these characters that we’ve had who spent most, if not every single year, of their career here. There’s a kind of a warmth about that and a directness about that. I think within that culture there’s also a kind of humility. I don’t find this place to be in any way tempted by ostentation, by arrogance, and I know some other institutions that have a note of that. (laughs). I feel our self-regard to be somewhat contained here in a nice way. Some people lament that because they think we should be more powerfully communicating our worth than we do. Maybe that’s true but I kind of admire the reserve about it.