Low Plaza

New Beginnings for a Columbia Veteran: Alan Brinkley's First Days as Provost

By Katherine Moore

Alan Brinkley

Alan Brinkley has been provost of Columbia University for just over three months and is already juggling a daunting schedule as Columbia's chief academic officer. From early morning budget meetings, to work on search committees for new deans, to presiding over convocation celebrations, the provost plays a major role in the everyday life and future standing of the University.

President Lee C. Bollinger appointed Brinkley, a well-known American historian and former chair of Columbia's history department, to the post last spring. "Throughout his career, he has shown an unwavering commitment to academic excellence," Bollinger noted then.

His colleagues -- although lamenting the loss of a very popular scholar -- agree. "Alan is a superb historian who sincerely values intellectual life and has the respect of the entire faculty," said Eric Foner, Dewitt Clinton Professor of History and a Brinkley friend. "He is conscientious and open-minded, has good judgment, and is a man of infinite patience. These qualities augur well for his term as provost."

Brinkley finds his biggest surprise in his first days to be, "the magnitude of the job." "I knew it was a big job, but knowing it and feeling it are two different things," says the new provost in his Low Library office that overlooks Lewisohn and Earl Halls. "I have been in this office since July 1st and mostly what I am doing so far is trying to learn about other areas in the university."

After a decade as a historian, Brinkley is now working with deans of every school and discipline, and one of his priorities will be determining a newfound direction for science in light of recent advancements and discoveries. With Ira Katznelson, acting vice president for Arts and Sciences and David Hirsh, the new executive vice president for research, the provost is tasked with improving science at Columbia and increasing scientific resources. In 2003-2004, Brinkley will direct campus planning, long-term financial strategy and academic policy initiatives.

"[Everyone] is spending quite a bit of time this year on the campus plan," said Brinkley. "What we envision is a campus that will have a lot more space, which will lead to a lot more opportunities for meeting new academic and research goals." The provost will review strategic proposals for the best use of additional space to meet university needs over the long-term.  

Financial issues and a long-term campaign for viable economic growth are also at the top of his agenda. "I don't think of this as a fundraising job," he notes. But he plans to be very involved in development, which he sees as crucial to ensuring the University can grow, recruit top faculty and students, and remain fiercely competitive in diverse fields in coming decades. He also will focus on shaping faculty appointments and has been an active participant in the recruitment of a new dean of architecture. Brinkley is expected to play a similar role when Columbia begins its search for Business School Dean Meyer Feldberg's replacement.

Alan Brinkley has been at Columbia for 12 years and is the former Allan Nevins Professor of History. A specialist of twentieth-century American history, he frequently appears as a commentator on national news programs, discussing a range of political issues, from the erosion of the New Deal after 1937 to the Bush White House. He is the author of numerous books including, Voices of Protest: Huey Long; Father Coughlin and the Great Depression (1982), which won the 1983 National Book Award, The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People (1992) and Liberalism and Its Discontents (1998). Brinkley taught at M.I.T. and Harvard before coming to Columbia.

The provost, if he can find a few hours, will continue to work on his biography of Henry Luce, founder of Time magazine. Although Brinkley is on teaching leave, he continues to advise his current graduate students and hopes to return to teaching next year.

Six weeks into the new school year, Brinkley is cautiously sanguine about his legacy as Columbia's provost. "I hope to help leave the University a stronger and better place," are Brinkley's final words before he rushes off to another meeting.

Published: Oct 27, 2003
Last modified: Oct 24, 2003

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