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Presidents-Designate of Columbia and NYU Discuss Higher Education Challenges

Lee Bollinger, president-designate of Columbia, and John Sexton, president-designate of New York University, discussed the challenges facing the nation's higher education system in a forum hosted by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences on Nov. 28.

Lee Bollinger

Columbia president-designate Lee C. Bollinger, President of the University of Michigan and a member of the faculty of the Law School, described the last decade as a "most glorious time" for higher education where new intellectual developments have occurred specifically in biology and students have been engaged outside the classroom including public service. Bollinger continued that there remain, however, problematic issues: the differential of wealth among institutions where public universities are likely to suffer over the next few years, and questions and decisions on diversity and affirmative action in the coming years. Bollinger also discussed the current intellectual issues facing institutions of higher education-the two cultures problem of the sciences and the humanities and arts. Stating that the life sciences have made great intellectual gains, he also said that we must recognize the advances in other areas of human inquiry like poetry, literature and the classics. Bollinger noted that another important consideration remains the university's relationship with public cultural institutions, citing the work between the University of Michigan and the Royal Shakespeare Company as an example of that "inter-relationship of the presentation and creation of culture with what the academy does so well." In concluding with a remark as to how local universities can respond to Sept. 11, Bollinger said, "The best thing that we can do for New York right now is to do what we do better. To take ideas very seriously. To really believe in the virtue of trying to understand. In exploring ... And more practically in the coming years, New York will have questions that will need research. We can act as a clearinghouse, a place to come to if you want certain questions addressed ... that could be an enormous help to society."

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John Sexton

After asserting that "education is one of America's great export commodities," John Sexton, Dean and Professor of Law of New York University School of Law, maintained that there are problems in higher education among elite universities that include an "ethos of contentment," aversion to risk, the "indulged notion of faculty as independent contractors" and a "failure to deploy the human and financial resources at our disposal, losing sight of why we are doing what we are doing." In responding to the possibilities for universities in New York after the attacks of Sept. 11, Sexton said, "If you want to make it anywhere, you've got to understand New York. We can create a venue for a world conversation that cannot take place anywhere else." He noted that he has encountered NYU law students who want to remain in New York to become part of the answer. "What was an opportunity for us before 9/11 to create a special educational enterprise through collaborative effort among our great universities is now a moral imperative, and it's an important part of the answer to the attack on civilization that occurred."

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Published: Dec. 05, 2001
Last modified:Sep 18, 2002