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  • Writer's picturePatricia Salkin

After a Start in Big Law, Colgate President Brian W. Casey Switched to Higher Education




By the time Brian Casey was appointed to his second presidency at Colgate University (2016-present) in Hamilton, New York, he had a presidency at DePauw University (2008-2016) under his belt as well as having served as an assistant provost at Brown University (for the legendary E. Gordon Gee) and an associate dean for academic affairs for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard.


After earning a JD from Stanford Law School, Casey worked for the global law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell where he practiced law in New York City and traveled to London and Beijing. After four years, Casey knew he was not happy practicing law. He recalled time spent on the campus of Yale University to watch a swim meet with his dad as a child, and then time observing campuses as a student, all culminating in the realization that higher education was his passion. He decided to leave the practice of law and he attended Harvard University, where he earned his PhD in the history of American civilization focusing on the development of American Colleges. His dissertation examined "Nostalgia and the Campus: Emotion and American Higher Education, 1880-1940." Those that knew Casey well knew that this is where he belonged. In fact, he recalled that for law school graduation, one of his classmate’s gave him a copy of Paul Venable Turner’s tome Campus: An American Planning Tradition.


Among his accomplishments at Brown University, Casey, “…spearheaded an initiative to introduce students to a multidisciplinary approach to the study of commerce and entrepreneurship, and to support faculty research in commerce, organizations, and entrepreneurship. He was also a key figure in efforts to develop academic programs with Brown's institutional neighbor, the Rhode Island School of Design. He also helped to develop a multi-departmental program that brought faculty, students, and visiting fellows together who were involved in the study of America's past via an international seminar that highlighted and strengthened faculty work across Brown's departments of history, English, American civilization, anthropology, Africana studies, and the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America.”


In announcing his appointment at DePauw, the Chair of the Board of Trustees stated, "Brian Casey is a dynamic, thoughtful, energetic and erudite individual. We're confident that, as a leading voice for the virtues and relevance of a liberal arts education, he will bring increasing national recognition to DePauw and Indiana by enhancing our acclaimed programs and building upon our rich traditions."


At DePauw University, among other things, President Casey led, “…an intense, comprehensive, and successful period of growth…efforts to develop a comprehensive campus master plan, and, with the faculty, established a new general education curriculum. Under his leadership, DePauw has made major investments in academic programs, campus projects, student advising and postgraduate planning, as well as DePauw’s home city, Greencastle, Ind., and established and secured more than $56 million for The DePauw Trust, a dedicated endowment to support need-based financial aid.” He proved to be an adept fundraiser, and in less than a year into the public launch of a major capital campaign, the university had raised more than $220 million toward a $300 million goal. He was also credited with six straight years of balanced budgets and a 51 percent increase in the University’s endowment during his tenure.


Casey is fascinated with architecture and landscaping, particularly as it relates to college and university campuses, and he uses his knowledge and love of building design and use and landscaping to create a vision for meaningful growth and development of the campuses he leads. This was evident when he became president of DePauw University as he turned the President’s house into the hub of meaningful academic campus conversation and socialization for faculty, students and other stakeholders.


In describing Brain Casey in the announcement of his appointment at Colgate, the following comments were offered: “…He possesses a strong creative vision, coupled with an extraordinary record of collaborative leadership…” and “He recognizes the opportunities and challenges facing higher education, and he persuasively argues that academic excellence is the cornerstone of Colgate’s future. A strong supporter of faculty, he understands that the symbiotic relationship between teaching and scholarship is the bedrock of that excellence. Brian is a great unifier and creative leader — thoughtful, conversational, connected, and intellectual. He combines a sense of wonderment with a practical, analytical, and realistic understanding of how institutions of higher education operate.”


While President Casey’s legacy is still being written at Colgate, perhaps the boldest initiative he spearheaded is the Colgate Commitment, offering free tuition to eligible students with a family income of less than $80,000; and a sliding scale for students with family income between $80,000 and $125,00. For students with annual family incomes of up to $175,000, their federal student loans will be replaced with grants. Casey’s fundraising acumen, receiving $432.8 million so far for the Campaign for the Third Century, has enabled him to expand the program.

Casey is not the first lawyer president at Colgate. That distinction belongs to Albany Law School graduate George William Smith who served as Colgate’s 5th president from 1895-1897. At the age of 33, Smith was one of the youngest college presidents at the time. He resigned due to an illness at passed away in 1900.

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