Monday, August 25, 2014

The Common Good

by Lynn Staley
Harring and Shirley Drake Professor of the Humanities and Medieval and Renaissance Studies

The western idea or ideal of a common good has its roots in classical philosophy, in ancient literary texts, and in the traditions that radiate from Abraham, father of those three often contentious children. 

The tension between personal pleasure, fulfillment, and enlightenment and the common good is inherent in those works we teach in CORE 151.  Gilgamesh is chastened for his focus upon himself and his princely “rights” to enjoy the bride before her husband does; the Iliad begins with a conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles that points up the dangers to the community of individual passions, as, indeed, the Trojan War pits private gratification against the common goods of peace.  Nathan tells King David the story of the man who seized and ate the beloved lamb of the poor man, the lamb who had been cherished like a child in the poor man’s bosom.  Ahab commandeers Nabaoth’s vineyard, thus depriving him of peace in the cool of the evening.  Jove rapes any beautiful woman he sees, leaving them to the wrath of Juno, the sorrow of their parents.   Terrible ego-driven anger or ambition burns up an earth that once flourished.  The texts taught in CORE 151 are powerful evidence of ancient inquiries into the nature of community and thus into the need to reconcile individual desires with a common good.  As these texts (and history) amply demonstrate, when it goes the other way and a common good is reconciled to an individual desire, the results are disastrous.   The ethics of a common good underpin efforts to make just societies, to create solutions to war and savagery, to make and maintain places like Colgate where learning can happen, where growth in self-understanding and mutual understanding can flourish.

(We can all fill in this picture from our knowledge of our own disciplines.  I have chosen CORE 151 because I teach it and because all students take it.  It is one of the threads binding this campus in a common endeavor.)

I turn now to Colgate in the summer of 2014 and what seems to me like a new set of realities that both have an impact upon our lives within the Colgate community and upon the village in which this university is set.  Both Deborah Knuth and Mary Moran have earlier posts about the loss of community within Colgate, and I urge you to go back in this blog and read them.  Here, I would like to call attention to the issue of “outsourcing” that threatens to turn both university and village into a corporation, if not an ethical wasteland based only upon fiscal exigency.

During this year, we have outsourced the golf course, segments of Human Relations, the Barge, and Salvage and tried to outsource student housing.   Does this mean positions formerly occupied by local people are no longer needed and are phased out while administrative positions seem to multiply?    I was on leave last year and did not attend meetings.  When I came up for air, I found a new Colgate, much of which seems to be directed by outside corporations.  In all sectors of campus/village life people have lost jobs or people have left because they find these new policies untenable.   

We hear about lost jobs as “retirements” and are invited to receptions to “celebrate” the achievements of those retiring, or we simply hear that someone has decided to “retire.”  Where we as faculty members mourn a lost sense of community, some mourn lost incomes, lost ways of life.  We are told that these changes reflect “best practices” in the business world.  Whose best practices?  What does “best” mean here?  Such practices leave us increasingly without people who have a stake in both the university and village communities.  

Who made these decisions?  Where did these new policies come from?  Are there checks on figures who plan and make such policy changes?  Why has no one realized that in so doing we send money out of the village, in effect bankrupt it and make it vulnerable to more outside investors who can then “cherry-pick” its properties, offer us a false dream of economic growth?

The concept of a common good has at its core the recognition that we should not harm our neighbor.  We should not kill his “ewe lamb,” seize his vineyard, deprive her of the possibility of a future, destroy her efforts to  live justly and harmoniously. 

What can we do?

1)      We can pay attention to committee composition.  Which committees sign off on these deals?  Are the faculty representatives on those committees not in a position to critique those in power?  If so, we need to insist on faculty representatives who can vote against what I will call corporate moves and alert the AAUP to policy changes.

2)  We can demand to know the nature of contracts the university makes with outside vendors and if those contracts harm village merchants. 
We can make sure that we support community vendors of food and wine when we organize events for departments or programs.   

3)    Many people have already been hurt. What efforts can we take to remedy the situations? 
We can insist upon a review of all outsourcing contracts with an eye to reversing current trends.

4    We can insist that the status of the movie theater and the Palace theater should be sent through the governance system for review.  Again, there are good local people involved who may not be able to speak out.

5)     We can insist upon the primacy of the governance system.  Extracurricular meeting have no consequences.  It is through the governance system that we are partners in a shared endeavor.

The number-crunchers will tell me I am unrealistic, that there is money to be saved, that this is the way things are.  Many of us remember when students and faculty at universities all over the country protested against university investments in South Africa.  They argued that universities supposedly devoted to the pursuit of wisdom should not support a nation founded upon unjust social principles.  The number crunchers replied with their economic “wisdom.” 

I believe that no system founded solely upon a species of economic “wisdom” can stand.  I believe that we have a responsibility to our neighbor.  I teach in a university whose tenets are those of intellectual inquiry and of equity.  Both students and faculty devote much energy to the subject and the reality of community.  I would like to extend our understanding of community to a consideration of the ways in which we can increase the possibilities for those in the village who right now see Colgate as predator rather than neighbor.  Colgate does much good in this area, but are our current fiscal policies threatening the ethical fabric of our community? 

The roots of the word “corporation” are from the Latin, to make into a body, and today the word is frequently used to indicate a body that is multi-national or, at least, national and far removed from community concerns.  I suggest that we, as discerning and involved faculty members of this university, act to return us to a way of thinking of our corporate body as belonging to each of us, as a body composed of many and inter-dependent parts, each working for the well-being of the whole.   Let us not acquiesce in a future where the body has grown heads so far removed that we find our future foreclosed by the economic “necessity” of satisfying their omnivorous mouths. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Thoughts about sustainability for Hamilton and for Colgate

by Jessica Graybill
Associate Professor of Geography

How are other towns with liberal arts colleges addressing economic, social and environmental sustainability? Perhaps it is time for a Hamilton-Colgate Project? 

From the Oberlin Project website: 

"Oberlin Project, created in 2009, is a joint effort of the City and the College to develop a model of “full spectrum sustainability.” In plain English, those words mean something like a jailbreak from the conventional silos, boundaries, pigeonholes, disciplines, and bureaucracies by which we have organized governments, economies, education, social movements, and entire worldviews. It is an attempt to “connect the dots” between the various parts of sustainability and thereby give form and operational vitality to the word “systems” in the public realm, and to extend the time horizon by which we judge our successes and failures and our profits and losses. In practical terms, it means having lunch with many different kinds of people and attending lots of meetings to bridge the chasms that divide us by issue-areas, race, class, and political affiliation. In short, we assume that systemic failures that have led us to the present crisis will require systems-level responses, smarter policies, and alert citizens acting with foresight and civic acumen." 

Read more at 

I am interested in pursuing such synthetic ideas for great coexistence before Hamilton acquires a built urban environment that is unfulfilling for multiple kinds of residents. Let’s start talking about how we might work towards a more sustainable and desirable long-term future for many people in the region, from the ground up. This kind of thinking follows the tradition of inclusive, community-driven and sustainable urban planning that the town of Hamilton deserves and for which the Colgate community should strive.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Whither Hamilton?

by Michael Johnston

Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science

In one key respect I haven’t really got the standing to weigh in on the Fairmount Properties debate. I live in Earlville, where proposals to build anything of any sort are sorely lacking. Still, I’ve worked in Hamilton since 1986, have a stake in the way Colgate makes decisions and pursues its goals, and have taught a seminar on “urbanism” for the last several years. That course considers the social sources of viable communities and the ways seemingly mundane choices and activities shape and reshape our cities.

And besides, keeping quiet has never been my forte. So here goes.

            I’ve never been a NIMBY type, nor have I ever been part of the BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) Brigade. Change and renewal can be good for a community when done right, and when they reflect and serve the needs and wishes of large segments of the community. A critical mass in a town or village—a certain amount of density—can be essential, particularly in a rural village that has to contend with the many forces drawing people and commercial activity away to The Bright Lights of Syracuse, and beyond.

            And—here’s a view that I know many will dispute—Hamilton really does need help. Pleasant as it is in many respects, as college towns go it’s a fairly poky little joint sorely lacking in a variety of areas. (I know: Mr. Earlville – look who’s talking. But anyway…) If Fairmount proposed to replace the old Wayne’s World with commercial space and housing for the broader community—crucially, for a mix of incomes and household types—I would probably support the idea. Hamilton does need to be more open to change than it has typically been: a few years ago the idea of widening the sidewalk a few feet where Lebanon and Broad Streets come together, across the street from the Colgate Bookstore, touched off an almost-comical level of contention. Other possible developments that might have enlivened the village have drawn almost reflexive opposition over the years.

            But the Fairmount/Colgate proposal, to the extent that we even know what it will be, is seriously unsettling for at least three big, and interrelated, reasons. It is a bad idea to concentrate students in the center of the village; that idea is part of a larger Colgate strategy that harms the village far more than it helps; and it reflects a style of governance that suggests we will see many other bad ideas in the future.

            Concentrating a large number of students, their guests, their loud music, their broken bottles, and their carousing within staggering distance of all the town’s bars and its one liquor store is such a bad idea that it falls into the “What were they thinking?” category. As noted, I don’t live in Hamilton, but I recall several nights on which I’ve driven through the village on my way home from late flights into Syracuse, and have seen what sorts of hell are routinely being raised. Colleagues who do live in the village can describe that particular Colgate scene far better than I can. On this issue the Hamilton Police are right on target: the proposal is a bloody brawl just waiting to happen. Yes, it’s true that many, perhaps most, of our students don’t fit the profile sketched out here – thank goodness -- and yes, it’s true that the others who do fit it live on the hill and around the village already. But the proposed new residence is a good bet to become Party Central, and precedent suggests that some of those affairs will turn ugly. What the village might gain depends upon the sorts of retail businesses willing to set up shop below a dormitory, but the biggest likely effect is an additional boost to the beer-and-pizza sector of the local economy.

            That brings up the second point, which is the larger vision that the University seems to be pursuing for the village. Here, Colgate gets things exactly wrong. Jane Jacobs wasn’t writing about Hamilton by any means, but she was right in observing that vibrant communities derive their vitality from the fact that people want to be there—people who pursue diverse agendas and activities at a variety of times in a variety of ways. Communities that offer those many day-to-day uses, particularly where there is a broader pool of social and economic resources, are likely to thrive. Those that become over-specialized and one-dimensional will not. If there are decent places to shop for daily needs, if there are a variety of services (How about catering! Right next to the movie theatre… oh, yeah -- sorry…)—in other words, if there are good reasons for all sorts of people to come to the center of the village on a regular basis to do all sorts of things, Hamilton will do just fine.

            But concentrating a large group of students in the center of Hamilton is about as un-diverse as it gets in terms of the ways people use public space. Similarly, Colgate’s agenda of turning the village into a Potemkin version of The American College Town largely, it would seem, for the benefit of visiting parents is a poor way to attract a diverse and reliable stream of everyday activity. Many notable college towns are indeed sorta cute: Princeton in particular has suffered a large number of Cutesy attacks, with Cutesy typically winning by several touchdowns. But those sorts of attractions survive and retain their interest because they grow up on the foundations, and in the nooks and crannies, of a viable city and region. Using cutesy as a starting point is to confuse cause and effect: it’s a lot like pushing on one end of a string.

            Hamilton’s problems have a lot more to do with the general economic weakness of its surrounding area than with any lack of a fine-arts center or a shortage of students in bar district. Colgate cannot revive the region by itself, but it could help Hamilton develop the sorts of businesses that would offer something every day to our neighbors in these parts of Madison and Chenango counties. The area is not wealthy by any means, but Hamilton would have surprisingly little competition as a kind of regional market town. A place to buy a shirt or a pair of shoes, a pharmacy—it would all be pretty mundane, but it could be the basis of a more viable community. As matters stand, Colgate has been taking away the reasons why people from around the region might want to come to town. Then, our administrators wonder why retailers are not lining up for our vacant storefronts.

            The final issue is governance: who decides what Hamilton should be, whose interests are to be served, and who gets a place at the table when those decisions are made? I will admit that while I had heard rumors about the future of the old Wayne’s location I had not realized Colgate was so deeply involved. But the way the proposal came to the surface was telling: a meeting that, according to the Mid-York Weekly, was expected to deal with preliminaries was instead confronted with a full-blown proposal—one that may be opened to a little discussion now that the developer and University have seized the momentum, but one for which no changes are contemplated in the immediate future. That sort of now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t, take-it-or-leave-it proposal, rolled out during the downtime of summer, is becoming a hallmark of this administration.

            I don’t know: perhaps when it comes to making Hamilton a viable multi-purpose village again, all the relevant ships have long since sailed. Perhaps our administration will have second thoughts about the dormitory idea and the steamroller tactics used to promote it so far. Stranger things have happened, although I can’t quite recall when. But the basic point is that while Colgate’s and Hamilton’s interests line up in some respects, they aren’t identical. A long, complex, and inclusive conversation is in order as to just what Hamilton’s strengths and weaknesses might be, and about a variety of visions of what the town could become. The Fairmount/Colgate approach not only raises real concerns about that future; it also leaves many of us pessimistic as to whether that essential conversation can ever take place.    

Monday, August 4, 2014

On the Fairmount Properties and the Email from Pres. Herbst

by Margaret Maurer
William Henry Crawshaw Professor of Literature

“Fairmount will not be submitting new materials to the Planning Board by this coming Monday as originally planned, but rather, they want to take next week to talk to various members of the community about the things they heard and want to try to work through. 

“I will hold two campus forums for Colgate faculty and staff about this project, and I am also happy to talk with individuals outside of these forums if these times are not convenient.”

                         -- from an email sent by President Herbst to Colgate employees on August 1

            President Herbst’s generous offer to meet with colleagues on August 10 and 11 will doubtless stimulate productive discussions, and I for one will be part of one of them.  All of us who are concerned about this should be.  But at this time of year and with so little notice, there can be no expectation that the issues surrounding the Fairmont Properties proposal for the Wayne property can be resolved.  This is especially the case because of two important facts:

  • However the Fairmont Properties proposal is amended, the only reasonable course of action for the village to take at this point is to deny to issue the special permit.  To grant the permit will set a precedent for further arrangements of this kind being approved and will tacitly endorse behind-the-scenes deal-making in advance of any public proposal.  Amendments and guarantees will have no legal force, certainly not for the proposed structure and even less for structures that might be proposed in the future, citing this proposed one as a precedent.  If dormitory-style student housing is going to be built in the village, the procedures for contracting with developers to do so have to be set out in advance in accordance with some village discussions of the parameters of such a permit.  What Fairmont Properties is proposing to build is clearly prohibited by the zoning ordinance which Fairmont Properties is seeking to circumvent by special permit; and it would be unseemly for Colgate employees to be perceived as taking an active role helping the developer frame guarantees that will have no legal force.  I hope that whatever transpires at the meetings on August 10 and 11, it will be very clear that Colgate employees are not being enlisted to assist Fairmont Properties in persuading the village to take an action so very much against the long-term interests of the village.  Some of us live in the village, and so have a double interest in preserving its integrity; but all of us need to respect the village and resist being part of the “you” in what a non-Colgate villager said to me this morning:  “Of course it will happen; you guys can do whatever you want.
  • One category of Colgate employees, the faculty, have a subset of concerns relating to the strategic plan, which it helped to formulate, and other recent discussions about student life.  These concerns can certainly not be allayed in meetings of Colgate employees convened at a point in the summer when many faculty are away.  

Friday, August 1, 2014

Putting the Community in Community Development: A View on the Fairmount Proposal

by Chris Henke
Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology

During the time I have taught at Colgate, the institution has become more and more active in terms of its engagement with our local community in Hamilton and Central NY.  Through local partnerships and campus organizations, Colgate has done many positive things to stimulate development, promote civic engagement, and to help our students get out into the community to learn from and help our neighbors

With that perhaps overly-earnest preamble stated, the recent news about the Fairmount Properties proposal to build a student housing unit downtown seems entirely out of step with the kinds of development practices that help to build goodwill and good neighbors with Colgate’s community.  Rather than working with existing community partners to help find a way to develop more affordable and attractive housing options in the village, Colgate faculty and the larger Hamilton community have been caught entirely off guard by the Fairmount proposal.  Other posts here describe very well how this proposal violates many principles of our recent strategic planning initiatives.  But the proposal is also just plain bad in terms of Colgate’s commitment to developing strong community relationships---in fact, it seems custom designed to antagonize our neighbors and provide ever more fuel for those who unreflectively blame the university for every problem facing Hamilton. 

To date, none of the arguments advanced in support of the Fairmount proposal by the university administration---especially in terms of community development---seem to add up.  Here are a few key points I believe need much more detailed justification before the proposed development will make sense for Colgate and the Hamilton community:

  • A recent email from President Herbst explains the rationale behind the Fairmount project, claiming that, “the university can no longer be the primary economic driver for this community.”  If that is the case, then why is the university promising Fairmount full capacity with Colgate students for TWENTY YEARS?  Rather than offloading some of the financial burden for housing in the community, we have made a sweetheart deal with an out-of-state developer, a deal which commits the university for many thousands of dollars of revenue each year.  How does this take Colgate out of the economic driver’s seat?
  • In that same communication, the President also claims that the Fairmount project will “increase the housing stock available to families and individuals moving to the community, and reclaim some of the neighborhoods where increased student housing has changed the character and quality of life.”  But it is not clear how or if this change will happen.  Will current property owners be able and willing to convert off-campus student housing stock to properties suitable for non-student rentals?  Is Colgate planning to provide incentives for existing owners to retool their properties or for new staff, faculty, or other interested new homeowners to buy fixer-uppers in the village?  If that is the case, then how, again, does this take Colgate out of the driver’s seat for Hamilton’s economic engine?
  • Finally, how do we know that our students actually want to live in the building proposed by Fairmount?  The 250 Colgate seniors who are approved to live in off-campus housing each year want to experience the independence of renting a home in the community and begin their transition to post-graduate life.  If those seniors wish to live in a more dorm-like setting, isn’t that exactly what we currently have in the campus townhouses south of campus on Route 12B?  Those townhouses were identified as undesirable and inconsistent with our strategic goals in the recent campus master planning process.

Ultimately, effective communication is essential for good relationships with our community neighbors and partners.  I urge President Herbst and the Colgate administration to make a more detailed and coherent case for the Fairmount proposal or to withdraw the university’s support for the project.