“Where Are They Now?”: An Interview with Former President Colin Campbell

Wesleying finishes off the year by catching up with the presidents who used to run this place.

President Colin Campbell's portrait on the main floor of Olin.

President Colin Campbell’s portrait on the main floor of Olin.

At 35, Colin Campbell was the youngest president in Wesleyan’s history, and after 18 years at the helm, he became one of its longest-serving leaders. Though he wasn’t a Wesleyan alum and has never earned a Ph.D., President Campbell succesfully presided over some of the most immense change in the University’s history, from coeducation to the construction of the Center for the Arts and the Williams Street apartments. Beloved by a wide range of alumni and faculty, Campbell got to hang out with everyone from Joss Whedon ’87 and Michael Bay ’86 to Bill Belichick ’75 in the process. He left academia in 1988, but if you try to schedule a phone interview with him today you’ll learn that Campbell is Wesleyan’s busiest former president: he serves as president of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which is funny considering a lot of Wesleyan alums end up in Williamsburg, but usually not that Williamsburg.

Back in the fall, Wesleying rather ambitiously set out to catch up with each of the three surviving former occupants of South College and give them a chance to reflect on their time in office. We weren’t entirely successful (we couldn’t get President Bennet ’59 to reply to our emails), but President Campbell enthusiastically replied within the hour to express his delight at the idea. pyrotechnics and I called him up one morning in February and chatted about everything from South African divestment to Das Racist to the time he nearly got pied in the face. Oh, and he also told us about the time a young Michael S. Roth ’78 occupied his office in protest in the 1970s. We found President Campbell to be a remarkably friendly dude. Read on for the interview.

At 35, you were the youngest president in Wesleyan history. What was that like for you?

It felt like on-the-job training. I had a fair amount of experience in leadership responsibility, but nothing of the scope of the Wesleyan job, so I had a lot to learn at my young age when I became president of the University.

What didn’t you know that you had to learn?

Well, it’s probably easier to say what I did know. I’d been at Wesleyan for three years before I became president. In a senior administrative role and spending a lot of time with faculty and with students. I certainly had plenty of exposure to the issues of the University. I had a good background. But I hadn’t had the actual experience of being in charge, and being in charge of the University is different from being in charge of any other kind of institution, because you have constituents that have a major role in the governance of the place. And working through the role of those constituents and figuring out how I wanted to spend my time took some time. But it was worth it.

You had a career on Wall Street before coming to Wesleyan. How did you put that experience to use at Wesleyan?

You know, in some ways, organizations are very similar. They’re quite similar in terms of constituency relationships, for example, and in terms of how you spend your time. I found it quite useful. It’s important to understand that where I was working at the American Stock Exchange was not a financial office. It was a regulatory institution. It was a place that had to deal with the government, had to deal with the members of the exchanges, and had to deal with the financial community in terms of running the institution. I was not in a finance job. I was in a management job.

You were also one of the longest-serving presidents in Wes history. Did you ever expect to stay at Wesleyan for as long as you actually did?

No [laughs]. By the time I became president in 1970, there was a movement around the country—it started with [former Yale president] Kingman Brewster—to have a limited presidential term. And that was a time of tremendous upheaval on the campuses. There had to be some conviction that the leaders could deal with the continuing change that was going and be sure that the constituents and the campus was adopting to the times. So actually the average term for presidents was about four-and-a-half years. Pretty darn brief. I said to our Board at the time I would expect to serve six years. And we agreed there would be essentially a six-year review. And that did occur in 1976, and it was agreed that I would stay, and I stayed for another 12 years.

What aspect of your presidency are you most proud of today?

When I became president, Wesleyan had a national reputation for its wealth because it made its publishing money — it published a biweekly reader and American educational publications. The University had expanded dramatically in every way in the ’60s — the buildings on the campus, increasing the size of the faculty and administration — and we were substantially overextended. It was my job to get us back on track. And we did a very substantial review with the community. We had a series of what we called the “Rainbow Papers,” which was an Argus book in fact. It was a status report on where we were at Wesleyan and why we had to make changes. The second report was a report on options. And the third report was a plan for option. And it was very encouraging to me that we had such broad constituent involvement, that we were able to get the plan improved by the Board with minimum campus stress about it. It involved cutting back on some programs, it involved increasing the student-faculty ratio, it involved things that were not popular but had to be done. And I was very pleased that we were able to achieve that.

I think secondly I had been very committed to Wesleyan’s plan to admit substantial numbers of minority students. When I first came there, the vanguard class — the class of ’69 — was on campus, and it was a class that was 15% black, compared to five years before when it was probably 1% black. So there was already a feature of  change on the campus. It was a very challenging time. But through all that time, we worked hard — students and faculty together — to make it work. And I think it did work extraordinarily well. Not without challenges all along the way, but the fact is that Wesleyan was a leader in this area started in the mid-1960s and continued in that role for the whole time that I was there. As we met financial problems, we realized this could be a challenge to our effort to have substantial numbers of minority students. And we were able to do that, and that is something that probably has a lot to do with the way Wesleyan perceives itself today.

From a physical point of view, we desperately needed new physical education facilities. And my last act was to run the bulldozer that broke the ground for the Freeman Center. That was a very, very important change for the institution. Physically, the library expansion was critical. When I got there everyone was saying it was impossible to add to the library, but we finally did. It was a huge success.

You mentioned some really big changes you needed to make early on in your presidency. What were those major changes and how do you think your administration managed to get the support from the campus community?

The most substantial change was the change in the student-faculty ratio, which was about 9-to-1. It simply had to increase, which meant either the addition of students or the decline of faculty. The major change in Wesleyan during my tenure was first the admission of women, and the first class of women came to Wesleyan in 1970 — first freshman class. So that class was a very important class. Women were admitted.  I didn’t speak to this earlier, but clearly the transition to coeducation at Wesleyan was huge, in my view. The decision was made before I was president to have a ratio of men-to-women, and that was something that had to be changed because we had a strong applicant pool of women and because we were increasing the size of the student body. And we did that in 1974 and we did it again later on. Wesleyan was a school of about, gosh, I think 1,500 when I got there and 2,700 when I left.

Those decisions — to increase size of the student body, to have the student-faculty ratio rise to a higher level — were the most challenging decisions at the beginning of the decade. We also built the Center of the Arts at the time of great concern about budgets. It was my sense and the board’s sense, fortunately, that the Center was so important to the educational direction that we should go ahead and build it.

What is your biggest regret from your time at Wesleyan?

I think we expanded, rapidly and for good reason, but we didn’t adjust to the expansion as effectively as we might have. I think the residential quality of the campus from that end — we were actively seeking ways to improve that situation. The Fauver field dorms, built under Bennet’s administration, were a very important way to earn a higher quality of residential life at Wesleyan. I’m sorry we didn’t get at that, but we did what we did. There was a tremendous amount of change going on the whole time I was there. Keeping up with it from a managerial point of view and a financial point of view and a political point of view was challenging.

 Are there any other ways in which Wesleyan was transformed during that period? 

Well, I think it was transformed into an institution with approximately 50/50 women and men, the continuing participation of minorities in the student body, along with sustaining a really fine faculty during those times was extremely important. It was a critical issue during the time we were adding students, because what we had done was add students but not add any faculty or the support, so we had to get that achieved and we did get it achieved and I think that’s why Wesleyan continues to have such a strong reputation in that area.

We went through the need-blind debate when I was there.  And at that time were able or thought we were able to continue on that basis. And there was student participation in that conversation. Times have changed now, and it’s a different day and different costs. But it was a very important issue in the late 1970s or early 1980s.

I’m sure you know that’s been a really big debate on campus this past year. How were you able to preserve need-blind? 

I remember what we did, but the issue really was whether we were able as an institution to allocate the sufficient resources to continue to support the program. It had a self-help component, including a loan component, and that has become the issue in the 21st  century. I’ve been out for 25 years, so there’ve been a lot of changes externally and internally. One of the great issues now and in the nation is the student debt load. And if you’re going to be committed, as I know President Roth is, to saying student debt is lowered, then you have to make other changes in the program accordingly, and that’s what Wesleyan has now done.

Do you think cutting need-blind was the right decision to make in the late 1970s or early 1980s?

Well, we didn’t cut it.

But you proposed to do so.

Yes! I opened the debate and said, “We need to consider whether we can afford to do this.”  I think it was the right thing to raise it. The Board felt strongly it needed to be raised. We had the debate. And I made the recommendation to the board that we  continue on the terms we’d set, and the Board was good with that and we did it and I think it was the right thing to do. It was a very different time than today.

Have you been following the debate regarding need-blind that has been taking place in the past few months at Wesleyan?

I was at a meeting last spring of former trustees with the president, and he outlined his thinking at that time. And I get the various publications and things from Wesleyan, so I followed it, but not intimately. And I saw a story in the New York Times.

Did you know President Roth [’78] when he was a student?

I did.

Can you tell us about him?

I can tell you that he was part of a group that occupied my office when he was probably in his last year at Wesleyan. And I had to step over his carcass in order to get my work done. And I stepped over it, not on it.

He was a very, very bright undergraduate, finished his career in three years, had a strong social conscience, and I was very aware of it.

What was the purpose of this occupation of your office? 

I’m not sure whether it was South African investments or need-blind [laughs]. I think it was South African investments. But you can ask him. He may remember. [Editor’s note: Shortly after conducting this interview, I learned that a friend’s mother, a member of the Class of 1979, participated in this occupation with President Roth. She confirmed that it was part of the movement to get the University to divest from South Africa during apartheid. Thirty-two years later, President Roth reportedly favored suspending students who occupied a Board of Trustees meeting in support of need-blind.]

What do you think of the job President Roth is doing today? 

[laughs] That’s not really a right question to be asking a former president. Obviously I think very, very highly of Michael and think he’s doing a wonderful job.

Did you also oversee the construction of the Williams Street apartments? How did that change campus life?

Yes. They were apartments for students rather than dormitory. It was anticipated for graduate students and undergraduates that wanted a secure lifestyle. Pretty popular place! One of the things that was important was not having the college on the hill separate from the community but a part of it.

You’ve mentioned one of them, but what were some of the most memorable protests that occurred during your presidency that you can recall? 

Oh, god. So many! I think clearly the most memorable — and there were more than one — were the ones related to South African investments. And there were a lot of other issues that students were probably more active about in those days than they are in these days, or active in different ways at least. So we had plenty of that going on.

Any particular divestment protest that sticks out for you?

I can’t be specific about any particular one. I think I remember Anthony Marx, an undergraduate who became the president of Amherst. And Tony was very knowledgeable about South Africa, had spent time there, and was also active on campus and was very close to me. That was a particularly interesting time. We also had a memorable protest at the beginning of my administration; it was the occupation of Fisk Hall by African-American students.

How did you handle that occupation?

It’s kind of a long story, but the students got into Fisk Hall, spent the day, and then they left. We had a lot of  communication back and forth. And there was a series of demands expressed by the students, and we responded to those and acknowledged some of the shortcomings. For example, one of the issues was the number of African-American faculty. And another issue was African-American Studies. It was really a very important moment, because it was a statement of the concerns, and the institution shared those concerns. The students were looking for a solution and University was only able to move at a slower pace. There were some challenges in achieving what had to be achieved and what the students wanted. It opened a dialogue which continued after that. It was a very memorable moment.

"At 4 a.m. on February 21, 1969, a number of black students occupied Fisk Hall when a petition requesting that the administration suspend all normal University activities on that Friday 'in reverence to El Hajj Malik Shabazz Malcolm X … to observe his death' was defeated by a faculty vote of 60–47."

How did the University respond to protests regarding investments in South Africa? Were there talks of divesting during your presidency?

Oh, yes! But I did not agree with that.

Why did you not agree?

Because I thought engagement through the process of the Sullivan principles — engaging with the corporations and having a voice — was a sounder approach than divestment. And I also believed that the investment portfolio of the institution was what made it possible for us to have the faculty compensation and financial aid that was critical to the institution and that we should not undermine the investment portfolio. President Chase disagreed with that and he took it the Board and they did divest. Shortly after that everything changed in South Africa.

Can you tell us about the South African Research Consortium? 

Now that was a group that was put together at the time of discussion about South Africa to provide the kind of information about behavior in South Africa that was necessary in order to decide what role you wanted to take as a shareholder to change their practices and also whether you felt their behavior was such that you didn’t want to be an owner. That was a very important aspect in the late ’70s and early ’80s of the South African divestment issue. We were very concerned about the issue of South Africa. And we had on the faculty at that time Jeffrey Butler and Rich Elphick, who were extraordinarily knowledgeable about the country. It was very helpful to have their input, also helpful to have the Consortium, particularly as it relates to the role of corporations in South Africa.

What made you decide to leave Wesleyan?

Well, I had been there for 21 years — three years as a senior administrator, 18 as president. It seemed appropriate at my age if I was going to do something different to decide to do it. At that time as I was thinking that through, the Rockefeller Fund came to me and asked if I would consider the presidency of that fund. My wife and I looked at that and decided it was an appropriate time for a change, both for us and for Wesleyan. So I took the job and left the college.

How did you end up getting involved with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation? 

Back in 1989, after I got to the Rockefeller Fund, the president of Colonial Williamsburg was a man named Chuck Longsworth, who was president of Hampshire College before he came here. He’d been at Amherst and then he became president of Hampshire and he asked me to talk about the possibility of going on the board of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which I did in ’89. I became chairman of the board in 1998. And then the foundation began searching for a president and ended up with me!

What do you miss most about Wesleyan today? 

The student involvement. I get some of it now, because William & Mary is across the road from where we are. But I have a 24/7 job with what I’m doing. At Wesleyan my wife and I were very, very much engaged with students — dormitory meals, protests, all kinds of activities that were constantly stimulating. And I miss my faculty colleagues. I’m not a Ph.D. That is a cross to bear, particularly at a place that prides itself on its academic reputation and the number of Ph.D. faculty. But I developed very close relationships with many faculty members. Many of them are now retired. I really valued that as well. But the time that we spent with students was really what made the difference in our Wesleyan career.

Are you in touch with any faculty members who are still at Wesleyan today?

A few. Some of the retirees — Karl Scheibe and I are in touch. I was there last May for reunions and did a panel with the Class of 1972, which was a very activist class, with Karl Scheibe and Andy Feinstein ’72, who was the editor of the Argus at that time. It was really wonderful. A number of faculty did show up for that. I do get in touch with them at holiday time, but there are not that many faculty left at Wesleyan I was involved with. Vera Schwarcz and I together worked to build the East Asian Studies program.

It sounds like you’ve been back to campus a few times.

Oh yes, I’ve been back a number of times, I used to be there quite regularly. And when I came here to Williamsburg, it’s a little less convenient. I’ve been to Commencement a number of times. [Former President] Doug Bennet [’59] asked me to present Jim Lehrer with his honorary degree because Jim Lehrer was a dear friend of mine. And Bill Belichick [’75] was a friend of mine as an undergraduate, so I had a number of reasons to get back there [when Belichick received an honorary degree]. I love the place. And I was back there last May. We like to get back there when we can; it’s just not that easy.

What was [Patriots coach] Bill Belichick ’75 like as a student?

He was a serious student. Just like he’s a serious coach.

Have you been in touch with him since he started his coaching career?

Yes. My nephew went to Wesleyan, and they were co-captains, I believe. We talked quite a lot as an undergraduate and I’ve seen him since that time and I have great respect for him.

You were at Wesleyan while a lot of very prominent alumni passed through. Are they any famous alumni that you knew as students?

I suspect I knew most of them. Not sure who you have in mind.

For example, some very successful alumni in the film industry, like Joss Whedon ’87 and Michael Bay ’86

They were, and I knew them both. Steven Greenhouse [’73] was editor of the Argus and is now at the New York Times. We don’t think of them as famous people. We think of them as friends.

Right. What was Michael Bay like?

I didn’t know Michael well. I did know him. Michael enjoyed life [laughs]. Jeanine Basinger is a faculty member I respect to this day. Of course, most of those people passed through her portals. I just admire enormously what she has achieved in the Film program, which was just a baby when I was there.

How do you think the Internet has changed the nature of leadership at a college level?

It’s changing it as we speak. Not so much the Internet as the teaching capacities over the Internet. There’s a lot being written now — quite a piece in the New York Times — and certainly a lot being discussed about what impact is the use of technology going to have on teaching and on college life. There’s a perception by some that all college courses can be taught on the Internet and therefore there’s no need to have the college. I think that’s a very, very major issue facing colleges and universities going forward. Technology in teaching is a huge issue, and some institutions are much further ahead than others. But nobody’s figured out how you’re going to afford it. You have all these free courses on the Internet, and how is it affordable over time? On the other side of the coin, they’re reaching hundreds and thousands of people who do not have the college opportunity. And that’s a tremendous social change for the nation. Dealing with how to sustain wonderful institutions like Wesleyan and all they bring seems to me a very big question. I’m sure Michael Roth and the Board and everybody is very preoccupied by this issue of the Internet and technology and teaching and sustaining colleges.

Did you teach any courses while you were at Wesleyan?

I did. For a couple of years I taught a course on federal regulation of the securities market. It was an advance course for Economics and Government students. And I taught that first as a tutorial to a man named Steven Pfeiffer [’69], who became chairman of the Board of Trustees much later. And then I taught it as a class, probably to about 15 undergraduates, and I had to teach it at night at my home, and my wife sat down to dinner one night and said, “Class is three seconds behind you and you probably ought to give it up.” That is, I no longer was as current in the field as I was when I got there. Later I taught a single class on higher education policy.

But my major involvement with the academic program was through my advisees. I had advisees every year I was president. That was a good way to get insights into what was going on in attitudes of students, who were not necessarily active students but just students who were my advisees. I still hear from a number of them.

Did you hear about Wesleyan starting to dip into online courses? There are five courses on Coursera; Michael Roth is teaching one.

I was not aware of that, but I’m not at all surprised. The question is what impact is that going to have in the long term on the college. And Michael’s so darn smart, I’m sure he’s thought about that himself.

Was WestCo around during your presidency?

West College? Yes. I don’t know what it’s like today, but it was, uh… out there [laughs]. My wife and I went there for dinner one night and had a wonderful time in West College. We never saw the naked part of it. I don’t know if that still exists or not.

Have you ever seen the movie PCU?

No, I don’t know what that is.

Oh, it’s a movie that was loosely based on Wesleyan. I’ve heard that the Grateful Dead played a concert on Foss Hill in 1970. Do you recall that?

Oh my god, yes! It was at a time of enormous national upset. And there were strike armbands and painted faces. My wife was one. Andy Feinstein [’72], who was a writer for the Argus, painted her face and that gave her some cred. But it was a great event.

There’s a rumor on campus that the Grateful Dead was paid with hallucinogenic drugs that were made by the Chemistry department. Can you speak to that rumor at all?

I’ve never even heard the rumor, but I doubt it [laughs].

Have you ever listened to the band Das Racist?

I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.

A band that was formed by Wesleyan alumni in recent years called Das Racist. Have you listened to them?

I’ve heard of them, yes.

But you’re not familiar with their music?

No. Remember, I’m 77! [laughs]

Reading through old issues of the Argus, it seems the issue of sexual assault was prominent in your time just as it is today. Can you talk a little bit about that?

That was always a concern once we became a coeducational institution. We developed various processes to try to address it. There was a shuttle that went around at night that people could take advantage of. It was an issue and you tell me it’s still an issue. That saddens me, but it doesn’t surprise me.

Do you have any advice for our campus community in today’s world to try and tackle that same issue?

Well, you know Wesleyan has always been a place where the issue is in the open. And where there’s good conversation about it and where steps are taken educationally and with respect to security and I think that’s all you can do. I’m not quite sure what the situation is today. But if it’s a problem, it should be discussed. And that has an impact. When the Argus and when students and faculty and the community addresses issues like, there’s an effect from that.

In 1980 you wrote a letter actively condemning sexual assault and that sort of activity on campus. Do you think that had an impact?

I don’t know. I remember doing that. Things like those letters would not usually have gotten done without some kind of conversation about whether it was necessary and whether it was a good idea. My instinct was that it was felt to be necessary, and I can only help that it was useful. But it is part of the process of getting out and talking about it and trying to have an impact in that sense.

In recent years some people have suggested that one or two students should be able to sit on the Board of Trustees. A Wesleying reader was curious what your thoughts are on that proposal.

I never felt that was a good idea. Students do sit in trustee committees, that was a very good idea, but the Board has an essential governing role, it has decisions to make about the institution, and I feel that way about students and faculty. I think they should be heard and engaged and have a voice — they do at Wesleyan, they always have — but I think at the end of the day, it has to rest with that Board that has a fiduciary responsibility.

Do you think the Board ever had a problem understanding what was happening on campus, since they weren’t on campus for most of their time serving?

I think they had that problem, and the result was the need for very substantial continuing communication with the Board. At the beginning of this conversation we talked about what I learned, and one of the things I always remembered from Wesleyan was the importance of really effective ongoing communication with the Board of Trustees.

A friend of mine was going through some old Arguses and he found an article about a speech that you made and two students threw a pie at you and you managed to duck the pie. Do you remember this incident?

Yes. But it wasn’t me [laughs]. It was the opening convocation in the fall of whatever year it was and Michael Brennan was then the Academic Vice President and got heckled and I think dodged it. Maybe it was me? I remember the pie coming, I remember the pie missing.

Wait, you don’t think it was thrown at you?

Well, it probably was. But it was bad aim.

What advice do you have for current students today? 

Just remember what an extraordinary place they’re part of. And take advantage of it and all the wonderful things that it offers. When they leave, it’s important.

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One thought on ““Where Are They Now?”: An Interview with Former President Colin Campbell

  1. Ron Medley '73

    I can testify to Colin and Nancy’s accessibility.

    Colin was “installed” – not inaugurated – as president on the same weekend the Butterfield dormitories were dedicated. I don’t quite recall the reason why the announcement was worded that way, but it was after a delay of a year after he officially assumed his duties (I suppose you can’t really be _inaugurated_ after you’re already on the job.)

    Not long after that, we invited them to West College for a hot plate dinner on the second floor of Unit3. Fully equipped kitchens were a rarity in those days and students who cooked in their own room did so at their peril. When PSafe investigated why the lights had suddenly gone out all over Westco, the perplexed officer found the president of the university and his first lady calmly seated on a mattress _sans_ frame, leaning against the wall of the outside room of a two-room double.

    Without missing a beat, Colin assessed the situation for the officer’s benefit. “Something blew.”, he said, and the lights were back on in short order.

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