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After Nine Years of Proven Success at Columbia, George Rupp Turns to a Global Cause

By Jason Hollander

George Rupp

George Rupp smiles when he talks about sitting in the back of his parents' car while traveling across New Jersey's Pulaski Skyway, into the Holland Tunnel and finally emerging to find the giant spectacle of Manhattan on the other side of the window. The trip was a regular one for him as a child since his parents, both German immigrants, would usually venture into the city to socialize with family and friends.

Because of this early exposure to New York, when Rupp assumed Columbia's presidency in 1993 after eight years of living in Houston as the president of Rice University, he considered the move something of a homecoming. It also happened to be the beginning of a new era at Columbia.

During his tenure, Rupp has helped the University's undergraduate schools reach record levels of applications and admission rates, raised nearly $3 billion in one of higher education's largest ever fund-raising campaigns, built strong relations with the community and brought in a number of world class faculty members.

But Rupp has never been one to limit his vision to an institution or a city or a country. After nine years of proven success at Columbia, he leaves next month to replace Reynold Levy (the new president of Lincoln Center and a1973 Law School graduate) as president of the International Rescue Committee (IRC). The Committee, founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein, is among the world's largest non-sectarian nonprofit agencies providing global emergency relief, rehabilitation, protection and resettlement services for refugees, victims of oppression and violent conflict.

This will not be Rupp's first effort at providing assistance to people in need. He was influenced at a young age by his mother's strong convictions, which he says were "always resistant to unfairness and authoritarian imposition," and as a result, became "very vigorously" involved in social issues as a high school and college student.

Rupp spent two summers working at a predominantly African American church in Jersey City where he was encouraged by the activism of Episcopal priest Robert Castle. He became an early member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and was active in civil rights not only in Jersey City but also in New Haven, Conn., and McComb, Miss. Rupp also found himself protesting the American military buildup in Vietnam years before most people had even heard of the country.

He earned his B.A. from Princeton (where he was a varsity wrestler) in 1964, a B.D. from Yale in 1967 and a Ph.D. in the study of religion from Harvard in 1972. At Harvard, he served as the John Lord O'Brian Professor of Divinity and dean of the Harvard Divinity School. Under his leadership, the school's curriculum was revised to address more directly the pluralistic character of contemporary religious life. He was instrumental in developing new programs in women's studies and religion, Jewish-Christian relations, and religion and medicine.

Rupp took a year off to study Buddhism in Sri Lanka in 1969 before completing work on his Ph.D. It was there that his interests in the struggles of the third world intensified. Since then, he has persistently pressed for American awareness on an international level and a commitment to achieving some semblance of global equality.

"We may begin to take instantaneous communication and ever more insistent integration into an international market economy to be the single culture that unifies the world," said Rupp during his Columbia commencement speech on May 20, 1998. "This tendency is suspect because it is uncritically triumphalist. It simply assumes that the highly individualistic, market-driven society that many Americans take for granted is universally attractive and acceptable."

In a letter to the Columbia community following the September 11 terrorist attacks, Rupp championed the difficult task of remaining united despite the divisive climate:

"As we mourn the victims of an unspeakable tragedy, we must commit ourselves all the more to reach out to each other across the lines of our differences and to work all the harder to realize ideals that so far have been only partially and imperfectly realized. To reach out and to work together to build communities that bridge divisions in our pluralistic world is a challenge worthy of the core values that Columbians over the generations share."

A keen awareness and consideration for others coincided well with addressing what he considered perhaps the most pressing issue at Columbia when he arrived. Rupp discovered a University vast and disjointed, composed of 15 independent schools pushed apart by the "centrifugal force" of greater and greater specialization. He wanted to reverse that tendency and set out to pull the schools back together by reinforcing what all Columbians have in common.

Two examples are The Columbia Earth Institute (CEI) and the increased levels of cooperation among the department of economics, the School of Business and the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

In the past five years, CEI has become a leader in Earth systems science teaching, research and application for the benefit of society. The center counts 800 faculty members from eight research centers, eight academic departments (seven in the Faculty of Arts & Sciences and one at Barnard College) and seven schools among its participants. Research branches include the Biosphere 2 Center, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia, the only urban laboratory of the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA).

When he first arrived, Rupp noted a need to make Columbia's reputation for international finance better reflect the stature of the city that houses it. Currently, programs in international finance and comparative economics utilize strengths of faculty from the Business School, SIPA and the economics department of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The result is a program that comes closer to realizing the potential for such programs located in the country's largest city.

But do these efforts have tangible results? Rupp says the proof is in prominent faculty appointments, like Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, professor of economics, and former Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs, the new director of CEI. But Rupp also believes the real advantage to increasing communication and collaboration on campus is a richer, more productive University community.

"I think what has happened over the last nine years is that we really did turn a corner from being fractious internally, in a counter-productive way, to having a sense that we're all pulling together in the same direction," says Rupp. "I think it has led to a sense of Columbia as a whole that is more than the sum of its parts."

At the IRC, Rupp will work to further the notion that the international community too is more than just a sum of its nations. He knows the task, especially in light of the current global political maelstrom, will not be easy. But Rupp's experience affords him a comfortable degree of patience and confidence.

"I'm willing to take quite a bit of frustration in order to get through to the satisfaction of seeing forward movement," he says. "I enjoy solving problems. I like trying to figure out how to bring people together to make an institution better."

A proven fund-raiser, he will take over the organization amid a $60 million, five-year endowment campaign. Rupp says he will use the same tactics he employed at Columbia and Rice to expand the capabilities of the IRC, which has recently responded to emergencies in Kosovo, East Timor and Afganistan.

"My strategy for building an institution is to identify the core strengths and build upon the comparative advantages that those strengths afford."

He is eager to begin his next endeavor because the work and the cause inspire him. Though, as with any new job, there will be great pressure, Rupp insists that assuming the helm of another institution does not worry him. In fact, he relishes the challenge.

"I guess I would say I don't intimidate easily," he says. "I consider it exciting."

Published: May 30, 2002
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002


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