Colgate University President Brian W. Casey Promotes Social Connectedness and Belonging on Campus

By Mantra Team

Posted: February 09, 2023

President Casey at Colgate University | credit: Colgate University

President Brian W. Casey spends much of his free time on the College University Campus, swimming, attending the institution’s athletic events, hosting dinners, walking his dog through the quad, and conversing with students. He doesn’t have to engage in this way, but Casey loves being a part of the campus community. 

“This is where I belong, on a campus” he says. “When I run into a group of students and they pet my dog and tell me what’s going on, I’m completely energized.”

For many years, before working at Brown University, Harvard University, and DePauw University, where he served as the institution’s 19th president, Casey was an attorney on Wall Street. He was wildly successful, but unsatisfied with the life he had created for himself. Where did he belong? After leaving his law firm, he gave himself one year to answer one basic question: what’s the one thing that’s true about me? 

During this brief time, Casey wrestled with a loss of identity and a newfound understanding that many of his life’s achievements had been, perhaps, driven by the interests of others. Were the achievements driven by an inner interest, or by an effort to please others? While visiting his sister in California and touring some local universities, Casey realized that he was happiest on a college campus and always had been. He knew he belonged on a campus. This simple, yet profound realization – his one true thing – led him back to higher education, first as a PhD student at Harvard University where he earned his doctorate in History, and now, years later, as Colgate’s 17th president.

Recognizing the Importance of the Campus Environment 

Casey believes the beauty of a campus – and its culture – plays an important role in the lives of the students. As the president of Colgate, he aims to “nurture and strengthen the campus, make it more beautiful, make it more redolent of connection, make it a place of belonging, but also exploration for students.”

As an undergraduate student at the University of Notre Dame, where he was a Division I swimmer, Casey felt this sense of community. The beautiful tight-knit campus was infused with rituals and traditions that structured campus life and created instant bonds among the students. This wasn’t always the case, he believes, when he attended Stanford University for law school. As a young twenty-something new graduate student on a sprawling, California  campus, he found it harder to establish a sense of community.

“Notre Dame undergraduate students didn’t have to wonder where to go on Wednesday nights,” Casey recalls, because there were built-in routines which everyone seemed to follow. In many ways, it was comforting falling into such rhythms. At times, though, it could seem to be constraining. As a gay man on a largely conservative campus, finding a distinct identity was challenging at times, but the experience, as a whole, had a positive impact on the president. 

“I remember walking back from the library at Notre Dame, walking through beautiful quadrangles, my mind buzzing from reading and studying. And now I think, this is my job. My job is to make that moment available for Colgate students,” says Casey. “Most people don’t spend their lives in a place where they can walk to libraries at night and read books, but on campus that’s really the student’s job – to read, to think, to connect and to walk under beautiful trees on a beautiful campus.”

In addition to the day-to-day administration tasks, Casey says one of his greatest challenges (and privileges) as the Colgate president is telling students stories of themselves. “You create a space and you tell them it’s a space. You tell them when they arrive, ‘these are four years that will be quite different from the other years of your life. This will be different. But it’s for you to use, to consider, to grow into.’’ Part of my job is to tell them that.” 

During an opening speech to an incoming freshman class, he once said, “If you do nothing else this year but fall in love with one book, that’s all you have to do.” An avid reader himself, Casey admits, “I’ve never met a really good book that didn’t lead me to the next book.” 

Since joining Colgate, Casey has launched a $1 billion Third-Century Plan, created a hub for creativity and innovation, planted over 400 trees, removed student loans from financial aid packages, and increased assistance for all students on financial aid to help pay for their books, among other impactful initiatives. He is working to remove barriers for students, give them safety, support, and resources, but also create beautiful spaces for them to connect with one another and learn.  

“I know there’s a student on campus reading a book right now that Colgate alumnus has made possible – and that makes me very happy,” says Casey. 

Creating a Sense of Belonging Among Students 

With an ongoing rise of anxiety, depression, and suicidality on campus, Casey says it's important for administrators to prioritize student well-being and “take what may seem like student dramas seriously.” It’s easy to say, “it’s silly to be worked up about a test or a romantic breakup,” Casey explains, “but I remember being worked up about these things at their age. This is the oldest our students have ever been and their dramas are quite real for them. When something goes wrong, they feel like their whole world is collapsing.”

Even though Colgate has increased support services and capacity and created more ways for students to reach out, Casey says, “We’re doing a very poor job of teaching students to remove themselves from the endless noise of the world. I worry that we send so many emails and messages to them. Then encourage them to get their resumes in order and their careers started early. These all may be very good and necessary things, but it is rare for us to say, ‘why don't you read tonight? Why don’t you slow down?’” 

In this post-pandemic world, more and more students are missing out on the community aspect of college life. Many forgo shared meals to use the grab-and-go options at the dining hall; some are joining the Greek system, but don’t feel it fully represents who they are. Others are trying to establish themselves without the Greek system, without clear direction or support. This is why Casey continues to ask himself: How do we create a sense of belonging for students and create different, varied spaces on campus? How do we create rituals and diversify them to reach more students? 

One major initiative is expanding and enhancing what was once a simple fraternity row on the campus into a larger and richer new campus neighborhood for Colgate juniors and seniors that gives them places to eat and gather. Fraternities, sororities, and theme houses will be renovated and connected to new courtyards and quadrangles with new apartments and townhouses.  All of this will be knit together with new green space and new gathering places. These changes will create new pathways and spaces for connection, which will promote belonging and help students establish themselves as individuals as well as community members. 

Though this may not seem like a direct tie to mental well-being, promoting social connectedness has proven to be a key component of mental health promotion and suicide prevention – and will aid in the support of student mental health. 

“We’re working to really redefine what the campus is, what it should be physically, and what it should be programmatically,” says Casey. “This is what feels most paramount.” 

Colgate University has partnered with Mantra Health to expand accessibility to high-quality, evidence-based mental health care. To learn more about this partnership and the services being offered to students, email us at

Photo credit: Colgate University