Fireside Chats Installment IV: Changes and Plans

Beginning on October 30, 2014, the Echo began releasing a monthly installment featuring an interview with President David A. Greene. Each interview covers a particular topic or issue related to the Colby community. Fireside Chats is aimed at keeping the Colby community, both on and off campus, informed about Greene’s ideas for the future of the College, as well as to provide a line of communication between Echo readers and the Administration. The editorial staff of the Echo welcomes any topics, issues, or concerns that the Colby community may want Greene to address. To send suggestions, please e-mail Features Editor Simone Leung at skleung@colby.edu.

Echo: I want to talk about the different ways that you’re improving the College, whether it’s …with new buildings or with new policies….Tell me how this year started: with new staff changes, new policies, the softball field, things like that.

President Greene: My sense from the very beginning was that Colby is an extraordinary place, and with the right kind of investments and focus…it can be a place where students have an unlimited set of opportunities while they’re here and, ideally, as they leave here. So, we’ve been thinking in a systematic way about how we’d do this, where we’d need to make improvements, where focus investments would have a major impact….One that was clear was that we were underfunding financial aid and that being able to have a targeted effort around financial aid could help us attract a group of very high-achieving students we weren’t able to attract before. In the same way…we were under investing in our admissions and outreach effort, so we focused in those areas. The results there were promising: we saw a 47 percent rise in the number of applications. It was the most geographically diverse, academically prepared, and diverse pool we’ve ever recruited to Colby. [It] allowed us to admit 150 students who were at the highest end of the achieving pool….We’re also thinking about how we can ensure that students and faculty can do their very best work here and it was clear that one of the areas where we need to make some investments was in the facilities and infrastructure area. So, that’s where we began the process of looking at what the plan would be for performing arts.

Our facilities were not originally built for the programs that are there now and are under-matched with the quality of our programs….Our athletic facilities, which were leading facilities many years ago, have also lived out their usefulness in some circumstances, and we were going to have to invest a lot of money just to keep them going over the next several years….We made some immediate improvements in cases like the baseball and softball field. For me, that was essentially about…being able to provide [students] with the right facilities to perform at a high level…

But, we’re also looking at a number of other issues that are really important to us: our focus on diversity and inclusion was critical in all of this…For example, we started a targeted opportunity program for faculty to be able to recruit more faculty from under represented groups….

There has been a lot of discussion around the future of the library and how we can make sure that continues to be the focus of intellectual life at the College….We’re focused on a set of issues that are related to the student experience overall, that relate to the global experience, internship experience, research experiences, and how those can really help to animate life here in a compelling way. We’re thinking about how the arts and how civic engagement and athletics and healthy living can be a really critical part of life at Colby, and we’re working together with the faculty to think about a long-term plan for investing in our academic programs and ensuring that they are the very best at any liberal arts college….

The last thing I’ll say…is that we’ve thought a lot about the way that the liberal arts connect to the larger world and…our academic programs, student life programs, our internships, and our research and global experiences but also…how we connect locally to Waterville. So, we’ve been working with the city of Waterville and with business leaders and civic leaders and others about how to revitalize the core of this great city, and that process is really moving along in a very encouraging way….

E: I want to ask you about the College’s purchase of the buildings in Waterville over the summer.

PG: I think that the people who have been here for a long time recognize what a great city this is….I certainly have experienced that while living here. But, they’ve also recognized that it’s a city that could use a boost right now….The city’s core—the downtown area—has lost some of its vibrancy….There’s a lot to love about it, but it’s still in need of some investment…. Great cities have great downtowns, and it’s important for Waterville to be one of those places again.

So, we’ve been working with a group of 20 plus civic and business leaders to think about what would be possible, and we’ve had five planning [meetings] with planners and architects to think through what this could become. And it’s been fantastic. There’s been such good will and great creative ideas about how to build on the assets that are here….It was clear that we needed to increase the density downtown and increase the number of people that are living on Main Street, that we need a larger group of attractive retail choices on Main Street to make this a great opportunity, and that we need more people working downtown….

We agreed that Colby would be one of what we hoped would be many investors in Main Street….We think that we can help facilitate, for example, the development of a hotel on Main Street that would provide a great way for people to visit…or just take advantage of this great area. We’ve talked about the idea of potentially building a student apartment complex downtown that would have a civic engagement bend to it, and that has been very well received. We’ve talked about buying up some properties and abandoned buildings that have become problematic on the street. We want to re-do those properties and bring life back to those spots….

E: Are you hoping to bring more people from Waterville to Colby? As in, are you hoping to use the baseball and softball fields as a central focal point for community sports?

PG: That’s a great question—yes. All of the facilities that we’ve just talked about that are on Colby’s property— the athletic facilities, baseball, softball, performing arts—we designed from the very beginning as thinking about having a very strong connection to the local community. That’s very unusual for a college to think that way, and I love that approach that Colby is taking to these facilities. So, the baseball and softball field can be a tremendous resource for local teams…and we’ve told Thomas College that they would be welcome to use that field….If we build a pool, we will likely build a 50 meter pool. It will be the only 50 meter pool in the state of Maine, so that will allow us to be the host for major regional events. This, by the way, could have a very positive effect on economic development in town because we’ll have a lot of people coming here for that.

With the arts, there’s such a strong arts ethos in Waterville and on campus, but also in the city of Waterville, building a performing arts center could be a compliment to what’s happening at the Waterville Opera House and with Waterville Creates. This will start to really build a strong arts program that could exist throughout the city.

So, we’ve been thinking about that from the beginning: how we can use these to strengthen our relationship with the community, how we can drive economic development in Waterville, and how we can enrich the College and the larger area through the arts and athletics and other areas.

E: Looking forward and at the most recent master plan, what are your reflections and thoughts?

PG: …I think what’s most important to me is how we can think about the principles of design to further strengthen our community. So, our master planning process is based, in part, on how we continue to make this a really vibrant, dynamic community where people interact in both structured ways but also in those more serendipitous, happenstance ways that end up  in moments of discovery, moments of meeting people, moments of trying out new ideas, and really using our intellectual mission…in a very purposeful way into the campus design….At the same time we’re thinking through the longer-term needs of our academic programs, our student life needs, and how those will all come together on the campus.