Friday, May 10, 2013


Upon returning from today's brunch for the Colgate Class of 2013, I find I cannot in good conscience refrain from expressing my extreme disappointment with the event and in particular the two speakers for the senior class. If their speeches are supposed to be what it is that a Colgate education produces, I am thoroughly ashamed of the institution and regret my part in it. Their behavior was juvenile, vulgar, and embarrassing to all those of us who thought we were celebrating the coming of age of respectable adults. Both X and Y made it clear in their speeches that the most important parts of their Colgate experiences were those that involved drunken (and illegal) revelry. X even indicated that having Campus Safety shut down his party and being put on probation in his first semester were fond memories well above any he might have of a class discussion or intellectual achievement. I kept waiting for the part of the story that would indicate reflection on a sense of having grown from the experience, but there was none. Y meanwhile, got her laughs that did not refer to "nights we don't remember" and "the freshman fifteen" by mocking at least four people by name: two members of her entering class, an employee at the Coop and another downtown. I was unaware that humiliating other people - particularly those not present or with far less social capital- was still considered a rite of passage. Is this the level of maturity and character that is expected in a formal celebration of Colgate achievement? Is this what those of us who were invited with Torch Medals were supposed to be proud of?

The only acts of character I saw the class of 2013 demonstrate were the donation to financial aid and the acknowledgement of Dean Taylor's commitment to a more healthy and respectful community. Neither act was in keeping with the attitude of the rest of the event. I can't have been the only one who winced when X said that first semester was a particularly "good time" for freshmen males -- a reference I sincerely hope was only to drinking. I imagine Dean Taylor could provide some statistics on how good a time freshmen females often have in their first few weeks on campus.

Furthermore, while I recognize that it is perhaps in keeping with Colgate's "branding" to have its guest speaker celebrate financial success without reference to any efforts to improve society beyond "giving back to Colgate," the complete lack of reference whatsoever to anything that could be considered intellectual or even moral growth by the students and alumnus of Colgate was heart-breaking. (No, pointing out that even the tragedy of 9/11 could lead to something as positive as a marriage and child is not particularly inspiring or spiritually deep.) The speaker also referred to how entry to a particular industry was based on nepotism, and despite not having family of his own in it, he was able to speak to a top industry official through the intervention of someone who did. I may have missed the reference to his friend being from Colgate, but presumably this was to emphasize the usefulness of the “Colgate connection.” I had hoped a Colgate graduate would at the very least reflect on the problems associated with the fact that the highest echelons of financial and political opportunities are indeed largely closed to those without powerful patrons; in this case it seemed that Colgate grads were simply told to be glad that their association with the University gives them this access.

Even such laudable a goal as raising money for college scholarships was presented through samples of shampoo placed next to the champagne flutes. The card on the tables explaining the grooming products helpfully pointed out that while these were free, we soon would be able to buy them; it was basically an advertisement disguised as some sort of “gift.” While students may have become "consumers" in the ledgers of the University somewhere, I hope we do not need to enshrine the crass commercialism that even the most irredeemably middle class among us find tacky.

If I were not aware of the many Colgate students and faculty who believe that success is measured by more than a tax bracket and courage by more than risking a comfortable income in order to "provide an excellent product and service" to a luxury industry, I would have left the Senior Brunch today convinced that every negative stereotype of Colgate as the place for the well-heeled country-club set to send their children to drink for four years was accurate. If that were the only example of Colgate I saw, I would never encourage anyone to send their child here.

We are better than this – our students are better than this. I cannot fathom why an event this important did not demonstrate it.


Robert Kraynak said...

I didn't go to the brunch, but I have been to some in the past, and I have some thoughts on the matters discussed above.

1.) There are other students with other stories to tell about their Colgate experience. I just finished a semester in Washington DC with 12 students on the DC study group -- and they were wonderful. They were intellectually serious about studying American politics (from the Founders to today), professional in their internships, engaged in cultural events from Shakespearean theatre to museums, and grateful for everything we did for them. Also, we frequently used the 'Colgate connection' in DC with many accomplished alumni in government, arts, business, & law -- and they were a tremendous help to our students out and the entire study group. There is no shame in exploiting the Colgate connection and their generosity.

2. I think that Colgate faculty are often smug in assuming moral superiority to our students -- when it can also be said that many professors are self-serving and intellectually snobbish. Many of my peers were students in 1960's and 70's and they did drugs and crazy things, and then bragged about them -- while going on to ambitious careers while leaving behind a chaotic cultural climate. Also, bourgeois careerism is admired by many Colgate faculty -- didn't we just invite Sheryl Sandberg to the Colgate campus, to the applause of many. Surely, she is the poster-child for 'spoiled princess feminism' -- it is rather hard to take complaints about unfairness from a multimillionaire corporate executive, Larry Summers protege, and now publicity hound. Is this really any different from the vices condemned above by our anonymous critic of the students?

3. I would also like to point out that the faculty have not provided a real alternative -- any real higher values -- to the dominant culture of drinking,hook-ups, and careerism. Over the last generation, they have 'subverted' the values of high culture, classical learning, and religion with a strange combination of cultural relativism and dogmatic political correctness -- which many of students react to rather skeptically; this may be a sign of health anti-intellectualism among students which irks the faculty.

4. Of course, students are sometimes shallow and smug and irreverent, but that is not the whole story, and the faculty too has many of these flaws. I think the anonymous critic should identify him/herself; and we should have an honest discussion of whether the whole experience of higher education over the last 40 years, since the 1960's, has not debased the entire culture, and whether academics bare much of the responsibility for these problems.

So, let the seniors have their day of irreverent comedy, and take a critical look at the whole of academia instead of just picking on the younger generation.

Professor Robert Kraynak, Political Science Department

Likewise Anonymous said...

When Barbara Regenspan reports having received such hostility from various corners of the campus, I can hardly blame this author for wishing to remain anonymous -- particularly if s/he is untenured. Let us weigh the author's words on their own merit.

David McCabe said...

I was not at the brunch, but I have followed the aftermath and visited some of the websites that made much of the incident and ensuing email exchanges. I'm not broadly familiar with such sites, but like everyone else who saw those posts, I was appalled by the thoughtless vitriol directed at a colleague and good friend. I am quite certain that the anonymity afforded by the internet greatly contributes to the expression of such views, and for this reason I share Robert Kraynak's disappointment that the very carefully thought out contribution published above as "A Faculty View" appeared anonymously. My strong sense is that if we are not willing to speak openly with one another about these matters, to put forth our views in a manner that we are willing publicly to stand behind, then we have very little chance of effecting the changes that many of us would like to bring about. I recognize that, as a professor with tenure, I possess a degree of security that my junior colleagues do not - I cannot deny that. But I think we would do well to emulate Barbara Regenspan's own courageous attempt (available on the Maroon News website) to think through, publicly, these difficult issues.
--David McCabe, Department of Philosophy

Anonymous said...

With all due respect, there is nothing "courageous" about a professor who beats up on a student in a horrifyingly unprofessional manner, and only apologizes when absolutely forced to under pressure. There is also nothing courageous about a university president who, by his silence, implies that such behavior is acceptable.

David McCabe said...

For those who did not read my post carefully, the word "courageous" perfectly describes what I referred to: Barbara's piece on the Maroon News website in which she sets forth her views, her convictions, and her mistakes in a public forum and takes accountability for them. Others can learn from that example.