Jim Kenyon: A Decade of Progress at Colby-Sawyer

  • Outgoing Colby-Sawyer College President Thomas Galligan in a April 2015 photograph. (Courtesy Colby-Sawyer College)

Published: 5/4/2016 12:05:47 AM
Modified: 5/4/2016 12:17:18 AM

By many of the benchmarks used in higher education, Colby-Sawyer College is in better shape now than it was when President Tom Galligan arrived 10 years ago.

The number of majors offered at the small private liberal arts college has doubled from 13 to 26. The number of full-time faculty has jumped from 55 to 80.

Facilities have been upgraded, as well. Before Galligan arrived, “We had a track team, but we didn’t have a track,” said Board of Trustees Chairman Tom Csatari, a Lebanon attorney.

And then there’s the endowment. Since every institution of higher learning seems to have adopted a Wall Street banker’s you-can-never-have-enough mentality, today’s college presidents are judged largely on their ability to raise money.

Under Galligan’s watch, Colby-Sawyer’s endowment has increased from under $25 million to nearly $40 million. Pocket change by Ivy League standards (Dartmouth’s endowment is roughly $4.7 billion), but a noteworthy accomplishment nonetheless.

On Saturday, Galligan will preside over his final Colby-Sawyer commencement. A lawyer by trade, Galligan will be returning to his roots when he takes over as dean of Louisiana State University’s law school this summer. (Prior to coming to Colby-Sawyer, Galligan was dean of the University of Tennessee’s law school for eight years.)

Looking back on Galligan’s decade in New London, I think his greatest contribution might have been his effort to change the face of the college — literally.

When Galligan arrived, Colby-Sawyer had about three dozen minority students. It now has a couple of hundred. During his presidency, the school’s minority enrollment jumped from 3 percent to 18 percent.

No small feat for a 1,200-student, former all-women’s college in a small town in rural New Hampshire.

“This has been a very positive change for us that is directly attributed to the values that Tom brought here with him,” said Dean of Faculty Deb Taylor, who started out at Colby-Sawyer 40 years ago as a psychology professor. “We are now more representative of what the United States looks like.”

A program called Progressive Scholars has helped. Colby-Sawyer is partnering with inner-city high schools in Boston and Chicago to bring students to New London.

Galligan also made the recruitment of international students, who now make up 8 percent of the student body and represent 34 countries, a priority. A sign of its success: The co-valedictorians of last year’s graduating class were from Nepal and Japan.

“If you’re not learning in a diverse environment in today’s world, you’re not learning,” Galligan told me. “It broadens people’s perspectives, breaks down stereotypes and enhances understanding of other cultures.”

Like other small private colleges that are “tuition-dependent” (another way of saying they don’t have big endowments), Colby-Sawyer is having to find ways to become more affordable. Distance learning is a popular trend, but not one that Galligan naturally embraces. (Colby-Sawyer currently has 40 online students.)

“I’m going to sound like an old man, but there is something about being in a classroom,” he said. “That experience can’t be replaced.”

For student and teacher.

Galligan, 60, was such a classroom regular that when Colby-Sawyer’s admissions officers talked with prospective students they referred to him as a “teaching president.”
He drew upon his legal expertise to teach classes such as the U.S. Constitution and business law. “By teaching, I get a good idea of what students and faculty are going through,” he said.

He also taught a course called “Hollywood History” with Randy Hanson, chairman of the social sciences and education department. The class delves into how movies such as JFK, Lawrence of Arabia and 42, the story of Jackie Robinson, depict history.

“He’s a natural teacher,” Hanson said. So much so that the faculty voted to give him emeritus status. “Most of all it was a way of recognizing that he was one of us,” Hanson said.

One of the things I’ve found refreshing about Galligan over the years is his willingness to talk about the economic challenges facing Colby-Sawyer. In 2013, the college laid off 15 employees, including some who had been at the school for a decade or more.

After hearing the news, I called Galligan’s office to get an explanation. A lot of college presidents (there’s one in Hanover who quickly comes to mind) would have shuffled off a pesky news columnist to the public relations department.

Not Galligan. After we talked, I wrote that I disagreed with how the layoffs were handled, but he continued to take my calls.

When we talked at his office recently, he didn’t sugarcoat the numbers. Only 10 percent of Colby-Sawyer students pay the current sticker price of $52,000 a year.

Everyone else is getting a discount (another word for financial aid) that brings their costs down to between $20,000 and $30,000 a year.

It’s the only way Colby-Sawyer can compete, Galligan said. “Tom is a very enthusiastic proponent of Colby-Sawyer, but he also tells it like it is,” said Taylor, the dean of the faculty who is retiring this year.

Csatari, who joined the board of trustees shortly before Galligan became president, said, “We would have liked him to stay on longer.”

I see why.


Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com

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