On Monday, Richard Celeste takes the reins as Colorado College's 12th president. A former two-term Democratic governor of Ohio, and director of the U.S. Peace Corps, the 64-year-old Celeste served as U.S. ambassador to India during the Clinton administration.
As only the second non-academic to head the elite, private college, Celeste replaces Kathryn Mohrman, who is leaving to accept a Fulbright fellowship in Hong Kong after nine years as president.
CC's Board of Trustees elected Celeste to the position in May, following a search process that, according to the college, included some 300 possible candidates. "His life of personal achievement and public service epitomizes our aspirations for every student who graduates from our college of liberal arts and sciences," said the trustees' chairman, Bill Ward, in announcing the choice.
Celeste takes over an institution still reeling from two traumatic events last semester -- the publication of a racist article in a school newspaper, and the brutal, still-unsolved murder of CC radio personality Jocelyn Sandberg.
The Independent recently spoke with Celeste about his new gig.
Indy: Why did you decide that you might want to come to CC?
Celeste: Well, I think there's several reasons. I think that an outstanding liberal-arts education is even more relevant in this 21st century than it has been in the past, because we are going to be confronted with such dramatic changes in the nature of work and the workplace, and the nature of the technology we deal with, and the nature of the world we live in. And so, a broad-based liberal arts education, I think, is vital. The second is, I discovered what I should have known about Colorado College that it's a wonderfully innovative place that really takes teaching and learning very seriously; it celebrates good teaching and celebrates learning.
But part of the challenge was, I think, also clear to me: That is, the story of Colorado College isn't very well known, certainly the further east you go. People who are in the know, know that it is an outstanding institution. But that message needs to be communicated much further.
Indy: What qualifies you to head CC?
Celeste: I think that good leadership skills are pretty transferable, and I've spent much of my life in positions of institutional leadership, from the Peace Corps to being governor to the U.S. embassy in Delhi.
In everything I've done, there's always been an educational component. For example, the Peace Corps -- when I was director, probably 30 percent of our programs were education programs overseas. When I was governor, I visited every state university [in Ohio]. I slept in a dorm at every university. I spent 24 hours on each campus, engaged with students and faculty and others. I recruited faculty for a couple of our universities. In India, we had very keen interaction between U.S. institutions of higher education and Indian institutions of higher education, so I worked closely with visiting college presidents, faculty and administrators who were looking to create partnerships.
Indy: What is the role of CC's president?
Celeste: I think that the president is the catalyst and leader for the college, trying to sharpen the sense of vision and to ensure that we live up to that vision in our efforts, trying to ensure that there's a sense of collegiality or community on campus.
A place like Colorado College, with just under 2,000 students and a couple of hundred faculty, should be a healthy and exciting community for people to live in and learn in and work in, and I think that the president has a substantial responsibility in meeting that.
I think that the college needs to be a good neighbor in Colorado Springs, and I would hope to get better acquainted with the leadership of this community. I want to make sure that we're on target in what we're doing, and that what we're doing reflects a sense of being a good neighbor. This college certainly has benefited from the generosity of people in Colorado Springs since 1874.
Indy: You're a Democrat coming to head a prominent institution in a Republican town. Do you think that will hamper your efforts to build relationships with local movers and shakers?
Celeste: I don't think so. When you're governor of a state, you're governor of all the people in the state. I'm not here to be a Democrat or a Republican. I'm here to be a leader of an outstanding educational institution and try to help it grow to the next level of excellence, and I would hope in that process, I could call on people of good will, whatever their party is.
Indy: Last semester ended on a tragic note, with the murder of Jocelyn Sandberg. Have you had any thoughts or discussions about campus safety in the wake of the murder?
Celeste: It's a big tragedy, particularly for those who were co-workers and friends, [but] I'm not sure that it was, in a sense, "campus related." But any time that something like this happens -- even on, sort of, the edges of the campus -- we should be concerned. One of the things that I will certainly take a look at with other folks is, what steps do we take now to try to ensure the security of people, and what steps might we take that would enhance that security?
Indy: Another incident marring the semester was the publication of a racist article, in the April Fools issue of the student newspaper, the Catalyst. Your predecessor, Mohrman, issued a public apology and pledged to boost efforts to recruit minority students. Do you share that goal, and is such a goal, in itself, enough to combat racism and insensitivity?
Celeste: I certainly felt that Kathryn Mohrman's apology was sincere and merited; it was appropriate. I think that the other steps that she has taken, in response to the concerns that were expressed by some of the African-American students on campus and others, are appropriate responses. This college has had a long-term commitment to increasing the diversity of its student body -- not only in terms of race, but country of origin, religion, economic background. We enjoy the kind of endowment that should permit us to do that. We should be able to recruit outstanding students from a variety of backgrounds and create a climate here, and a community here, where they can learn.
Part of their learning is to understand the challenges of coping with diversity. Again, if you project it on the world we're living in today -- we watch India and Pakistan struggling with their differences; we watch the hotbeds of terrorism, and the anger and pain and frustration that are among the things that breed some of that terrorism -- then a college like Colorado College, that wants to prepare young people for positions of responsibility in that world, and with an ability to handle themselves in that world, needs to be able to wrestle with those issues on campus.
So I think there is work to be done. There's work to be done in recruiting minority students. There's work to be done in making sure that the way we engage with each other on campus is, what I would call, "deeply respectful." By that, I mean we don't ignore differences. Rather, we really explore what it means to be a young African-American woman in the United States today, a young Hispanic man or woman who's here aspiring to a profession or a career. It's kind of a celebration, and it should be kind of a celebration of the world in which we live, and I think it was precisely that spirit that was sort of sandbagged [by the article]. It wasn't funny.
-- Terje Langeland