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Career in perspective 

Richard Celeste was a young graduate of Yale when offered an opportunity of a lifetime: special assistant to the U.S. ambassador to India. He knew nothing about India, but the door opened and he stepped through it.

In 1967, Celeste spent four days as tour guide in India to Richard Nixon.

"He encouraged me to get into politics. It was sweet of him," he says. "Later he wrote me a letter, in which he reiterated that encouragement in a paragraph, and I used that letter the first time I ran for state representative, and my Republican opponent was dismayed."

Celeste, a Democrat, won his bid for the Ohio House in 1971. He served one term before moving up to lieutenant governor. In 1983, he became Ohio's governor and served for two four-year terms.

In 1997, he came full circle, accepting the ambassadorship to India under President Bill Clinton. During that tenure he was approached with another opportunity: president of Colorado College. He accepted the job and began work in 2002.

Now, nine years later, Celeste is closing this chapter. He will hand over the reigns to the 2,025-student college in June to Dr. Jill Tiefenthaler. (See "The new No. 1" below.)

Celeste and his family still travel to India regularly. In fact, when we catch up with him in late March, he has just returned from a 16-day visit with dozens of CC parents and alums. His right wrist is decorated with a fading henna tattoo.

Indy: Looking over your résumé, the first question that jumps out is, why Colorado Springs?

Richard Celeste: I was invited to be the president of Colorado College, and that's an irresistible invitation. I was attracted by the opportunity afforded by this institution. Then you take that opportunity and put it at the foot of Pikes Peak, and it becomes compelling.

Indy: When compared to the public and private sectors, what challenges are unique to higher education?

RC: The easy answer is faculty. But as I say, that's too easy. In some respects I would say higher education is less complicated than either business or the public arena, but I am not sure that is completely true. Each [educational] institution is a small community ... and like any small community, we have moments when we are all feeling really terrific and moments when people are frustrated.

But the wonderful thing about higher education is that it is a tremendously value-oriented enterprise. It is all about our ability to attract talented young people and to help those young people grow in important ways, in life-changing ways. That's a very different thing from the corporate bottom line or getting re-elected.

Indy: When you first came to CC, what was your vision?

RC: I didn't bring one with me. I wanted to hear what the college aspired to do. We went about a process for a year that articulated the vision for the college. We articulated three overarching themes. One, to enhance the intellectual rigor of the college. Secondly, we need to attract a talented and more diverse community. And third, we need to build a 21st century campus.

We looked at the data and discovered that a third of our courses were being taught by visitors, which was way too many. So, we added 18 new tenure-track faculty, a 10 percent increase. And we've reduced the number of courses taught by visitors to less than 20 percent.

When I got here, that year, we had 3,400 applications for students. We said we need to increase the applicant pool. We need to have more students who are American ethnic minorities, and we need to have international students. This year, we had 4,900 applications, and we went from admitting 53 percent of our applicants to admitting 25 percent ... We've gone from roughly 14 percent American ethnic minorities to roughly 18 percent. We need to do more there; that's an ongoing challenge. We've gone from 1 percent of our student body being international students to 5 percent.

When we look at our faculty, we have attracted a more diverse group. More women, more international faculty, and we've added some, not enough, American ethnic minority faculty. So, I think that it is fair to say that we are enhancing the quality and diversity of the people on campus.

We built a new performing arts center. We've got a plan to hopefully get in the ground a health and fitness center. And we have a plan for a major revision and expansion of Tutt Library.

Indy: What were some controversies that you didn't anticipate?

RC: Having come out of public life, it is hard to say that there is real controversy here. There was a lot of stress on campus when we had to address the recession. We had to reduce our budget by $8 million on a base of $100 million. We ended up eliminating three sports, including football, which was very controversial. The reason we did that was that we are the only Division III school in the time zone, which means whenever our team played it had to get on an airplane to fly someplace. So we made a tough decision there. And we decided to eliminate 70 out of 580 non-teaching positions. We froze pay. In that respect, we weren't any different than most of the world.

Indy: In what directions would you like see CC move over the next 10 years?

RC: It's hard to answer that question, because I haven't thought about an agenda for Colorado College for another 10 years. I don't want to be in a position to try to frame what should happen for my successor.

I think that higher education itself is under stress because many of the longtime assumptions about higher education are being questioned these days. For a long time we felt that higher education was a public good, that investing in highe r education improves the quality of life for the whole country. But in the last decade, more and more people have seen higher education as a private good. In other words, well, higher education is good for me because it improves my quality of life, but it doesn't make a difference in the community...

Higher education in this country has been admired and envied all across the world. It has been a huge money-earner for us. But, post-9/11 we began to tighten up on how we issue visas for students to come here. We have made it very difficult for students who we educate to stay here; we force them to go back home ... to compete with us in China or India.

Our sense of who we are and where we are in this world, and the role that higher education plays in that has, I think, been blurred.

Indy: Your experience certainly gives you a unique perspective...

RC: Students ask me all the time, "How do you plan a career like yours?" I can't claim any plan. Serendipity was the critical ingredient and I am a great believer in serendipity. Many times in life a door will open, and the question is, "Are you ready to go through it?"

Indy: Will you be staying in Colorado Springs?

RC: We own a house in Colorado Springs. We've owned it for six years. My son starts high school in the fall, so we are going to be around for a while.

chet@csindy.com

The new No. 1

  • Beyond public life, Richard Celeste reflects on his years as CC's president.

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