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A Conversation with President Lee C. Bollinger

Columbia College Today

A Conversation with President Lee C. Bollinger

Winter 2013-14

Lee C. Bollinger became president of Columbia University on June 1, 2002. Under his leadership, the University has expanded its international presence with the creation of eight Columbia Global Centers. In this interview with CCT Editor Alex Sachare ’71, Bollinger talks about the philosophy behind the Global Centers, their impact on our students and faculty now and in the future, and what it means to be a global citizen in the 21st century.

How has the way you think about higher education and the mission of a university like Columbia evolved over the course of your tenure as president?

In the last decade, maybe decade and a half, the world as we have known it has changed and begun to change radically. There are many reasons for this, but there are two primary ones. One is the development of the global economy, the opening of markets all over the world in countries that before this were closed to the capitalist economy, and that brings not only trade but also foreign investment and movement of capital. There are many problems and many challenges posed by this, but it is a fact that economic forces are driving enormous changes in the world. The second major development is the expansion of new technologies of communication — the Internet and to some extent also satellite communications — that have made it possible for the first time in human history to communicate instantaneously all over the globe. I have been a scholar of free speech, free press and the First Amendment for all my life, and every time a major new communication technology is invented the world changes significantly, as it did in the United States in the 1930s through the ’60s and ’70s with radio and television broadcasting. So the development of these two forces is making the world a very different and much more integrated place.

There always have been global issues, but the prevalence of them now, the centrality of them for basic life in any society, is much greater. We have a global economy, but we don’t have a means of regulating that global economy, of organizing the elements of it. Climate change, issues of censorship globally, everything you look to now has a global character to it. That new world, and the changes that are being wrought by these forces, means you have to step back and think about the fields and the subjects that you do research in, the classes that you teach, the knowledge that you want to impart to young people. I think everything needs to be reconsidered, rethought and planned for this world, which appears to be the course the world would take over the next several decades and beyond. One never knows, of course, but that’s the trajectory we’re on.

Universities always stand in a somewhat removed relationship with the external world. That’s by design, because we want to be able to reflect on major issues and do so independently over quite a period of time. We’re different from other institutions in those ways. You don’t want to get too removed, so removed that you’re not thinking about real issues for humanity, but you don’t want to become so close to the issues of the moment that you lose sight of the bigger questions that really are our bailiwick. When the world shifts in this magnitude, you then have to step back as an institution and rethink things.

What role do the eight Columbia Global Centers play in this rethinking of teaching and research at the University?

It’s my belief that we need to help our faculty, our schools, our departments and our students learn more about this world and see how it will affect their fields, the subjects of their research, the lives of our students, and therefore the education they will receive. We need to have bases around the world to aid in this pursuit. We need to think of ourselves as explorers. We have to regain a sense of what the new reality is, because it’s on top of that sense of reality that you then begin to come up with the questions that academic institutions are designed to try to address.

Obviously, Columbia is already one of the most global universities with a student body that is among the most international in the country and a faculty filled with eminent experts in all areas of the world. But when you talk to these faculty, they are among the first to say, I need to understand not only my area better, but I need to understand my area more in relationship to other areas. In order to understand China, you need to understand South America, and vice versa, and the role of countries in Africa in the emerging trade and so on. So even though we’re extremely international to start with, and that’s been part of Columbia’s great identity and great character, that doesn’t mean that we can sit back and just continue thinking as we have. So I set out four years ago to build up these centers, and many faculty and people in the administration have helped. As of last spring we had all eight of them launched with very, very distinguished leaders in each one. This had been worked on by Ken Prewitt, who was in charge of developing the Global Centers, followed by Safwan Masri, who is now in charge of them.

Why Global Centers and not branch campuses, specifically?

Keep in mind that these are not individual centers. That’s not the right way to think of them. They’re really a network, and that’s part of the understanding of the global interconnections.

We were approached to set up a school or schools in various places around the world. I decided not to do that, and I think that was a decision that was reflective of the institution’s desire. Very few people at Columbia, very few faculty favored setting up branch campuses. There are several reasons why I think that’s not the right course, at least not for Columbia. First of all, it’s very difficult to maintain quality. Remember, by definition a branch campus is a kind of separate faculty and a separate student body. You hope that there will be some intermingling of faculty and perhaps of students, but actually the way these things work 99 times out of 100, there tends to be a discrete faculty and students. So it’s very hard to maintain quality control.

The second reason relates to academic freedom. We cannot disengage with the world, but we have to be very careful that we don’t sacrifice our core principles. So you need a strategy that allows you to leave a given place in the world if your core principles are threatened. If you have invested in a branch campus, with all the reliance that takes place by faculty, students and staff, that’s very hard to do. So ease of exit is a second reason. A third reason is that what tends to happen when you do branch campuses is that you only go to places that have enormous wealth, and I think that tends to skew the experience that you’re having. It’s extremely expensive to set up a branch campus, so even very wealthy universities are not going to do it on their own. And the last reason, which is really, I think, the most important, is that you’re not going to have the impact on your own teaching and research through branch campuses that you will with something like the Global Centers. In my view, it’s our faculty and our students who need to have the opportunities to learn what the issues are, learn what they need to know, develop research programs, develop classes and courses, and that’s not going to happen if you have a branch campus. I don’t think it fulfills the philosophy needed.

How do the Global Centers inform and enrich the teaching and learning that is going at Columbia University in the City of New York?

It can happen in many, many ways. We recruit students from around the world, and the Global Centers are going to help with that. We want to connect with our alumni, and they can help with that. We want to do public outreach, and they help with that. But the key is the teaching and research. Take the example of the faculty from the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, who decided two summers ago that they would take a group of undergraduate students and study urban planning, rural migration, and issues of extreme poverty in the development of cities. They utilized the Global Centers in Beijing and Mumbai, conducting their courses there. The Global Centers were not only able to provide space for this but also arrange for lectures and experts and outings and so on. This past summer they went to Beijing and Santiago, again a comparative approach. That’s precisely the kind of experience that becomes transformative, both for students and also even for faculty. Holger Klein [see “Global Columbia,” page 20] is a great example of someone who can talk eloquently about how the Global Centers helped his work. He was able to do things through the help of the Global Centers that he wasn’t otherwise able to do. Women Creating Change, a group set up by many of the faculty in the Institute for Women and Gender, is looking at women’s issues, gender issues, all over the world. The group has used the centers to hold meetings and conferences to experience a comparative global perspective on these issues and to figure out what research projects to pursue.

If you’re a faculty member, in many ways you already have international colleagues and you’re probably working on some issues that are global in dimension. But this can ease and enhance your ability to do that, and that’s the key. For a student, it opens up a whole new way of experiencing the world in addition to the classic forms. Such an experience for a student in a foreign country, looking at a serious issue such as urban development or clean water, really can be transformational. My view is, if we’re going to have our students educated for the world they will inhabit and lead, they should be familiar now with China, they should visit and work in countries in Africa, they should have been to India and done some of their coursework there, they should have a feel for South America. A lot of this is just introducing young people to this very interconnected world that is now, in a way, the source of the issues and problems and potential that we need to focus on.

How can the Global Centers influence undergraduate applications from those regions, and how can they benefit alumni who live or work there?

The number of international students in the College has gone up significantly in the past five years, and I think this is a really important development. We need to both help recruit and to decide who to bring to our campus and our global education. Just like 50 years ago Columbia was largely a New York City/Northeast university and eventually people from the West Coast started coming to Columbia and we ended up trying to make sure that we recruited the best students from all over the country, now we need to do that globally. That’s the future for Columbia — a much more international student body. I don’t want to overstate that, because there always is going to be a tension between being an American university and a global university, and that will have to be sorted out over time. But, in the end, you want to recruit the right students from the United States and from all over the world.

Whenever I present this to alumni, they are eager and enthusiastic about being able to take advantage of the Global Centers. I was at the Global Center in Istanbul this fall and we had a reception, and alumni who had been in the area traveling or working came to the reception. We’re thrilled to be able to do this. The sense of having actual Columbia places all over the world that are open to you and are willing to embrace you is meaningful to most alumni. Then, on top of that, I’m sure that over time we will develop programs for alumni involving the Global Centers.

Can you talk about initiatives involving the centers, such as the Presidential Global Fellowships?

I’ve authorized two funds to help faculty and students utilize the Global Centers. One, which Provost John Coatsworth set up, is called the President’s Global Innovation Fund. It underwrites groups of faculty working on global issues. About 20 groups received grants for this year, and we’ll continue that and it will grow. That’s for faculty, although there will be students involved in those projects, I’m sure. And then for students, I’ve asked [Dean] Jim Valentini to develop a program to help students use the Global Centers and be introduced to and work on the global issues of their time. We’re still refining that, but Jim has made a lot of progress, having just announced the first such set of fellowships to students. This is for all undergraduates to apply. It is starting with grants to students for doing academic work in the summer after their first year. But it may also be expanded to provide funds for students in courses to, as I mentioned a while ago, just go off for a short period of time and do work related to their courses on a global basis.

What we’re going to find is that as the technology of communication gets better and better, it’s going to be easy to have courses where faculty and students are at any place on the globe at any given time and yet able to continue having a “course.” It will just become easier and easier to do, and more and more important to do. And then these very significant centers may also become places where we might even offer some courses. But we’ll see — that’s in the future.

In summation, could you address the question of what it means to be a “global citizen”? Is it an awareness, is it a different way of thinking — what is a global citizen?

I think it’s a somewhat difficult term. We’re all citizens of our individual countries, and nobody is trying to say we should give up our sense of national identity and only become some kind of floating global citizen. One has to be careful about that. But to me it points in directions that are really important. I think you need a basic sense of the world, a kind of feel of the world. You have to have been places, seen cultures; you have to have experienced them both as a traveler but I think even more importantly as somebody thinking and learning about what the world is like. Then you have to be aware of what the issues are, what matters to people and what matters to the future of the world both in its physical sense and in terms of its peoples.

One hundred years ago, we could be very comfortable in individual states in the United States. The economy was quite local, people’s lives were quite local, they didn’t move around very much. Over the course of the 20th century, that all changed. We developed a national economy, people routinely moved around the United States and we developed issues that were national in scope — civil rights, environmental issues, financial — and everything became increasingly national, including my own field, freedom of speech and press. At the beginning of the century, individual states determined their own rules about free speech and free press, and by the end of the century it was a national First Amendment set of principles. Now that’s all happening on a global basis, and we’re just at the beginning of it. While I don’t want to overstate it, I do feel that we’re on the cusp of a much, much more integrated, interconnected universe. That means that it becomes increasingly unacceptable for someone to be an educated person and not to have been to other places around the world and to develop a sense of the world.

The person who in the past used to think of himself or herself as a citizen of California and then became a citizen of the United States, now has to become a global citizen. And students, young people, know this. Every time I have a meeting with them, a fireside chat, in my course or other ways, I ask these questions and it’s clear that Columbia students know that their world is this bigger world, and they are really incredibly excited about experiencing it.