09/24/2014 07:41 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2014

Political Read: The Pain of Change at Colgate


WASHINGTON -- What Daniel Webster said two centuries ago about Dartmouth applies to my own alma mater.

Colgate is "a small college. And yet, there are those who love it."

I am one of them, but I am worried.

I am far away from the Chenango Valley in time and space. I don't pretend to have anything close to a granular sense of what is going on there this week except to say this:

It looks from this distance like a dicey situation, and one that is eerily similar to events at Colgate many years ago, and that I do know a lot about.

This week some 300 students are occupying the Administration Building to protest what they view as lack of sensitivity -- and resources -- to the task of making the place truly and comfortably diverse and inclusive in all ways.

In the spring of 1968 -- a fateful time of social upheaval -- I was one of some 500 students who occupied the Administration Building to protest a case of rank discrimination by one of the many national fraternities on campus.

This was just before a tidal wave of student protests on campuses. The fact that it surfaced at a small, picturesque and rather preppy college in the middle of upstate, dairy-farm country was shocking -- to the alums of course, but also to the national news media down in New York City.

The offending fraternity was shuttered. After another protest the next spring, the college committed to building facilities and programs for minority students that exist to this day.

But that was then, and the world has changed in ways that Colgate once again is struggling -- this time more urgently, knowingly and proactively -- to deal with in an up front way.

Back in the late 1960s, there were barely a handful of minority students on campus; Colgate didn't even "go co-ed" until 1970.

Now the student population is well over 50 percent female, and -- as the result of earnest recruiting and generous scholarship help -- that population is a third persons of color.

The college and its president, Jeffrey Herbst, say all the right things -- all the multi-dimensional, multi-cultural and multi-gender things. And they are spending money to back up the talk.

And yet Colgate proudly has kept many of the institutions and indicia of an earlier cultural time in academic America, especially those of small, preppy liberal arts colleges.

LACs such as Middlebury and Bowdoin have abandoned "Greek" life; not Colgate. Virtually all of Colgate's academic rivals play small-college sports; not Colgate, which is staunchly and proudly the Division I "Little Giants of the Chenango." I can't imagine a Homecoming Weekend bonfire at, say, Oberlin. Colgate has 'em all the time.

Financial aid is generous, and growing, but it isn't quite "need-blind" yet. The result is a slightly exaggerated version of what you see at all elite colleges: a painful gulf between the kids whose parents fly in on private jets (yes, there is a jet-capable airport in Hamilton, NY) and the kids from city projects or small towns in foreign countries.

It's an explosive mix and it is smoldering now.

On Monday, some 300 students occupied the James C. Colgate Administration Building and papered social media wall to wall with their long list of "concerns and action plans," which is far more extensive and all encompassing than those of a generation ago.

I confess to not having heard of "intersectionality" or "micro transgression."

But after doing some reading, I can see how one can lead to the other. And buried inside the social science mumbo jumbo is a profound and justifiable concern about inclusiveness, respect for all, and liberality in the sense that we supposedly mean when we talk about a "liberal arts education."

Unlike many years ago, when a more conservative and guarded administration was almost too freaked out to respond, Herbst has tried to bond with the demonstrators and say that he understands their impatience for more change.

Administrators don't want to get testy, and don't want to take note of the fact that the demonstrators are a minority of a minority, or that the college is already working hard to diversify, or that Herbst has committed Colgate to a need-blind future.

For the kids on campus now, they want life to improve -- fast. They are the deeply intersectional ones who suffering from micro transgressions in real ways. In other words, they are being called racist names, left out of the "Greek" scene, glowered at and dissed on the campus bus, and blindsided on Yik Yak and other anonymous sewage sites.

And all of this is happening on "the most beautiful campus in America," in a small picturesque town that looks like a place where Ozzie and Harriet might have lived long ago.

It's a painful disconnect, I am thinking.

Perhaps the saddest, most telling student "concern" is the lack of free bus service to and from Syracuse for all. "This would work to alleviate the experience of isolation on the basis of socio-economic status," the occupying students wrote in their sincere and very specific manifesto.

At Colgate, I got a great education that still serves and inspires me decades after I left. I go back, mentally and physically, often, and was proud to get an honorary degree. Its intentions are honest, and the commitment to change is real. What we did a generation ago got it all started.

So, I love the place.

But no one called me racist (or anti-Semitic) names. I never felt a gnawing need to flee -- least of all to Syracuse.