A Conversation with the President
Q: How does an incoming president go about acquainting himself with the institution?
The institution is in very good shape and has made enormous progress over the past twenty years. Financially as well as spiritually, the institution is alive and well. I think the thing that has impressed me the most is the dedication of people within Columbia to Columbiaand I include alumni in that. We are in a good position to move even further ahead.
A: Three things: The emphasis on life sciences and the effort to help the institution become a participant in the incredibly exciting discoveries that are happening in that area of knowledgethat would be one of the first. A second would be the effort to enrich the arts and culture on campus and the surrounding region. The thirdnot that Id rank them in this orderwould be the effort to defend affirmative action and diversity as is consistent with a great universitys mission.
Q: Newsweek placed you among a new breed of visionary leaders who are more willing and able to take risky stands on issues that they believe in. Do you consider that role a calling?
A: I wouldnt characterize it in that way. I do believe that university presidents have a responsibility to address the issues of their time, but I especially believe that when there are issues directly involving universities, its critical that we speak to the broader society about those issues and the values that are at stake and that we do so in a way that is understandable.
Private and public universities play a very special role in American society. They are highly regarded and very well supported through a variety of sources. So when an issue arises in this society that concerns university policies or actions, it is a very great responsibility on our part to respond. I dont think that university presidents should go looking for issues to speak to, but if we have expertise, if we have a basis for a public discussion, I think we should participate.
A: I mean several things by that. I think that universities are created around a difficult-to-define, but nevertheless very real, way of thinking that is different from the ways of thinking beyond the university. We have various terms that begin to get at this: a kind of open-mindedness, a tolerance, an attitude of exploration of ideas, a skepticism, a seeking for truth. We can identify a number of facets of this intellectual character, but I dont think any one of them or even most of them put together fully capture whats involved.
Q: A lot of people would say that Columbia does a better job than most universities in providing this intellectual atmosphere.
A: I agree that Columbia has an approach to this that is quite distinctive and special. To me, given my general orientation to intellectual life, I think its the best possible way of thinking about learning.
At Columbia College, of course, that approach is the Core Curriculum. All you have to do is spend some time reading Aristotles Ethics, or an essay by Montaigne or any of the works that we would classify as the great books of our history, and you realize how active your mind suddenly becomes. You are in the presence of a discussion that fully takes you out of the ordinary experience and moves you into a different realm of thinking.
And its no wonder that generation after generation of people return to these great works and find them so engaging. One doesnt read them simply for enlightenment but also for a sense of moving to an entirely different plane of observation about the world. You suddenly become a participant in a centuries-old discussion about things that matter enormously. So much of life is built on routine, and thats understandable. Routine is very much a means of getting through every day as an individual, as an organization, as a society. But routines are built on simplicities and the acceptance of tacit assumptions, and these great works do not operate in those ways. They immediately give you a perspective on things that lead you to think broadly and differently. Now thats what we immerse students in. Thats what I believe living in a great university means.
A: It has to be high on the agenda here; it has to be high at any university. I have the highest regard for the working reality of division of labor, expertise, and specialization. It has brought enormous assets to the world. But its also important to recognize that specialization can become so deep that it cuts off access to other things that we should know.
But there is a still more profound issue: As you dig deeper in some fieldsin many fields, perhapswe find that divisions actually begin to disappear. What began as boundaries between things to think about or ways of thinking eventually dissolve. Only by bringing people together will we realize that.
And the second reason is that teaching is the best way I know to stay in touch emotionallyand physically, for that matterwith what faculty and students are doing. Its very possible, I should add, to become removednot deliberately, but just naturally from the very life of the University. It is possible to be in meeting after meeting, even with faculty and students, and end up having too little idea of what is going on in your institution. And the third reason is that when the day comes that I am no longer president, I want to be ready to return to teaching and research.
But I think most of all they are concerned with preserving a distinctive way of thinking about the world, and there are three main issues that have arisen with respect to these institutions in the past several years. One is: Why should there be public support of cultural institutions, public and private? Thats one issue. A second is: Assuming there should be some public support, should there be recognition of some autonomy for these institutions from state control as a matter of constitutional principle and policy? Just because the state funds universities, should that entitle it to condition that funding on any policy it chooses? The third issue is internal. We all say that it is bad for universities to be politicized. What do we mean by that? When have we crossed the boundary and allowed political culture to dominate?
In order to answer any one of those three issues or all of them, you have to have a general theory of what these institutions do in society. Why should the public support them? Why should they have autonomy? And what is the character that needs to be preserved within them?
There have been, of course, specific controversies about this: the Mapplethorpe issue with respect to the NEA is an example, and I could name many othersbut I think its that collection of issues and that desire to have a theory that has been my principle concern.
When it comes time actually to write, then you need to set aside some concentrated time, and I try to do that when necessary. In the case of lectures or a paper, thats certainly manageable. Theres no doubt that it is harder in the context of a book.
As Lee Bollinger begins his Columbia marathon, we look forward to checking in with him regularly along the way.