Opening of Spring Semester
Dear Campus Community,
In my convocation address at the start of the academic year, I spoke of an emerging and serious set of challenges facing American higher education. Some of the challenges are coming from outside the academy, such as eroding public support for higher education, and others have been generated internally. These include a wavering commitment to free expression on campuses, difficulty creating equitable and inclusive environments for changing campus populations, and broken business and enrollment models that are leaving many institutions struggling.
It is easy to imagine these as distant problems, unlikely to impact colleges like Colby. The reality is different. We see many of our peer institutions, places of real distinction and substantial resources, confronting serious threats to their futures. We face our own challenges at Colby, which need ongoing attention, but I am very encouraged by the way this community has worked together over the last few years to choose a path for Colby that is demonstrating the possibility of positive change despite a difficult climate.
We knew, for example, that broadening our outreach for talented students would strengthen our intellectual culture on campus and provide the very best environment for learning and discovery. At the same time, demographic shifts in the high-school-aged population made broader outreach a practical necessity. It was gratifying to see that more than 3,000 additional high schools are represented in this year’s applicant pool compared to four years ago, and these schools are typically from regions where Colby’s visibility was limited in the past. It is also encouraging to see the number of enrolling students of color and the number of Pell Grant-eligible students double in recent years.
Accessibility to Colby for deserving students, no matter their background or financial situation, is essential. With that in mind, we have created a new program, beginning with the Class of 2022, that will eliminate the parent contribution for families with annual incomes of $60,000 or less and typical assets—that is, half the families in the United States and more than half of those in our home state of Maine.
It has been an absolute priority for us that, as we open the doors to Colby more widely, we also ensure equitable access to the opportunities afforded here. The DavisConnects program is one key effort in that area. While it is being implemented and fully funded over five years, we are seeing the potential of the program in this inaugural year. The College was able to provide funding to more than 130 students during Jan Plan, many for global study and research to students who have never been out of the country and who otherwise would not have been able to afford these experiences. Having the opportunity to work with professors like Philip Nyhus on elephant conservation in Sri Lanka or Laura Seay on economic and community development in Uganda, as many students did last month, can deepen understanding of global issues and broaden the scope of challenges our students might seek to address throughout their lives.
Our alumni and parents have been so supportive in creating opportunities for our students that our goal of offering funded and facilitated global, research, and internship experiences to all students is within reach. I am more convinced than ever of the value of these experiences after hearing from our students who were on the Hill to Hill program in Washington, D.C., working in biomedical research labs in Boston, interning with theaters in New York, and job shadowing with startup companies in San Francisco.
These programs are making a difference for our students, but we can never forget that real culture change on campus, the kind of change that allows everyone to reach their full potential, is hard, day-to-day work. Our recent climate survey showed us that we must further our efforts if we are to fully live up to our values. The survey pointed out many areas where we must do better, such as eliminating gender, gender identity, and racial disparities on campus as well as sexual assault and violence. You will soon be receiving a more detailed communication from Provost Margaret McFadden and Dean of the College Karlene Burrell-McRae on these issues.
The climate survey also made clear of the need to create a better environment on campus for expressing our views and listening to one another across our differences. This is true for political thought, religious beliefs, and viewpoints shaped by our experiences and identities, among many others. Great centers of learning (and personal growth) are dependent on the habits of respectful discourse, evidence-based arguments, and free expression and inquiry. Professors Cheryl Townsend Gilkes and Joseph Reisert are leading a task force on this topic, and I encourage you to participate in their open sessions where they will seek your thoughts on this important issue.
It is fitting that our faculty lead this process, as it is their work that defines the greatness of the College over time. Colby is fortunate to have an exceptional group of scholars who have an unparalleled commitment to the craft of teaching. The demands on faculty time have been shifting over the last generation, and it is incumbent upon us to optimize the ability of faculty to teach at the highest levels, to work individually with students on research and other projects, to undertake groundbreaking scholarship, and to participate in the life and leadership of the College. With that in mind, we have expanded the size of the faculty by the equivalent of 10 full-time members over the last few years, and we are working to change the required teaching load for faculty from five courses per year to 4.5 courses per year, beginning in September.
Our faculty has been active in rethinking curricular requirements and developing new courses of study that ensure our liberal arts education is relevant and leading among our peer group. Among the many recent enhancements have been the establishment of programs in data science, computational biology, and genomics; five faculty appointments in disciplines related to the study of the environment and climate change; new efforts in arts and innovation; and a proposed public policy program currently under review.
Remaining relevant, in my view, also means being deeply integrated into our local community and a partner in supporting economic and social progress in Waterville. Our efforts on Main Street and in the broader region are showing real signs of progress. We have a commitment of hundreds of new jobs coming to our city (many of which are already filled), we are seeing a population influx to Waterville that puts the city at a population level it hasn’t seen in 20 years, and a real estate trade magazine in Maine just named Waterville the “hottest” residential real estate market in the state based on figures from 2017. Enhanced civic partnership and engagement programs will be of significant benefit to our students and this community.
While we have much more work to do, and while the winds of change are creating tough going for many institutions, Colby has never been stronger in its 205-year history. That would not be the case without the incredible financial support from our alumni and friends. Every fundraising campaign is open to criticism, and ours is no exception. But when I see the dramatic improvements we have made in financial aid and how they have improved access to the College; the opportunities inside and outside the classroom that are transforming a Colby education as well as post-graduate career and graduate school options; increased staffing, from faculty to coaches to counselors to better meet our mission; new partnerships that are extending our reach and capacity in multiple fields; improved facilities and infrastructure to strengthen our curricular, cocurricular, and athletic programs; and so much more, I am grateful to those who see Colby as worthy of their giving. This College, like all of America’s great educational and cultural institutions, would wither without philanthropic support. We are fortunate that those who came before us continue to reach back to make sure Colby is vibrant and that our students, faculty, and staff are supported so generously in their work.
I look forward to the semester ahead with all of you. Being part of this amazing community is one of the great joys of my life, and leading this institution at such an important moment is both humbling and sustaining.
Best wishes for a great semester, and I welcome your thoughts on how we can work together to strengthen Colby.
David A. Greene