Columbia and the Economic Outlook

November 11, 2008

Dear fellow member of the Columbia community:

I write to provide an update on what the current economic situation may mean for the University and how we are planning to respond.  In a landscape largely defined by uncertainty, no one can predict what lies ahead, but we know that we are facing difficult times.

Columbia will be moving into this challenging environment from a position of strength after a period of impressive institutional development and improved management across our many schools, campuses, and administration.  Thanks to the generous support of our alumni and friends, our fundraising campaign, which is one of the most ambitious in the country, continues to track ahead of schedule, with gifts and pledges totaling close to $3 billion of our $4 billion goal.

But we are obviously not immune to the problems of the national economy.  We anticipate pressure on endowment support for operations since our endowment -- like those of our peers -- has suffered from the downturn in the markets.   We can also anticipate greater demands on financial aid and the possibility of other losses in tuition revenue.   The grant environment, which has already contracted in recent years, may well deteriorate further.  And we have no way of knowing whether we will be able to maintain our currently robust fund-raising successes.

These economic realities call on us to look more closely at every aspect of our operations, to focus on improving efficiencies wherever we can, and to make some difficult choices about how we allocate our resources.  Our unquestioned priority for the University as a whole is maintaining the excellence of our academic programs and meeting the financial needs of our students.  Under our financial system, each college and school operates with its own budget, and every school will face its own particular challenges.  Provost Alan Brinkley and CFO Anne Sullivan are in the process of meeting with each dean to review their budgets and provide help and guidance.

Within the central administration there are steps we are already taking to reduce our expenses in the months ahead:  a careful review of all expenses is already underway and will intensify as we begin considering next year's budget.  We have instituted a hiring review committee that will look carefully at every new or vacant position in the central administration before allowing it to be filled.  We are also reviewing capital projects.  Projects that are already underway such as the new interdisciplinary science building and the expansion of Arts and Sciences into Knox Hall will continue on schedule.  We will also continue our planning for capital projects that are funded by generous donors, including the Jerome L. Greene Science Center that will house our Mind, Brain and Behavior initiative, and certain projects at the Mailman School of Public Health.  We are committed to continuing progress in improving and expanding our physical space as quickly as our finances permit.

Let me also make clear that we will not permit the economic downturn to affect Columbia's long-standing commitment to need-blind admissions and the meeting of full financial need in student aid for undergraduates in the College and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.  We will also work to sustain, and when possible enhance, current levels of financial aid in other schools and programs.

One week ago, we elected an extraordinary new American President, the first Columbia graduate to hold the office, and we all feel enormous hope in what he and we can accomplish in the face of great challenges.  We do not yet know how difficult our own task may be. What I can and will do is to speak directly and candidly with our community about how our circumstances may change and how we will work together to preserve the academic greatness of this institution.

Columbia University has weathered many ups and downs in its more than 250 years.  I have no doubt that we will be able to continue the momentum we have built as a dynamic engine of education, research, public service, and economic growth for our community, our city, our nation, and our world.


Lee C. Bollinger