Text of Cole's Letter on Enhancing the Undergraduate Experience

Following is the text of Provost Jonathan R. Cole's letter to the Columbia community on the proposed enhancement and enlargement of Columbia College:

January 31, 1996

Dear Colleague:

For several years, in a variety of forums, Columbia has been studying the ways in which its undergraduate programs can build even further upon its already extraordinary achievements. Today, there is a strong institutional resolve to place Columbia College at the very center of the University. President Rupp expressed this view clearly in his inaugural address in 1993, when he set the enhancement of undergraduate education as one of the main objectives of his presidency:

'Together, we can and will build an even greater Columbia: a Columbia with distinguished graduate and professional programs that nonetheless is devoted to undergraduate education.'

The President's view echoed those expressed by faculty, deans, students, and other University leaders in the 1993 report of the Strategic Planning Committee, which I chaired:

'... there is no question that the undergraduate programs serve as both the academic and financial backbone of the University, and that their reputation, particularly that of Columbia College, affects the perception of the entire University ... [and] that a rebalancing of the University is required to recognize and reflect the centrality of the undergraduate programs, and of Columbia College in particular.'

Largely through the cooperation and patience of its deans, faculty, students, and loyal alumni, Columbia has overcome one of the most turbulent budgetary periods in its recent history. Now is not the time to become complacent about this success, or to close our eyes to the changing economic and political landscape that may continue to adversely affect all major research universities. But neither is it a time to shrink from attempting to fulfill our unmet aspirations. While our achievements have been great over a period of more than two centuries, and they continue to be extraordinary, Columbia College can provide the finest liberal arts experience among the institutions with which we tend to compete for faculty and students: urban-based research universities with a substantial commitment to undergraduate education. This is an important institutional goal that is within our reach. Achieving it, however, will require a multi-dimensional approach involving the collaboration of all who have a stake in the College's--and the Arts and Sciences'--future.

'Columbia is moving forward in exciting ways, and is making the investments and choices that will position it well for the next century.'

A cautionary thought is in order as we consider our strategy at this point in Columbia's history of recognizing the central importance of the College. All too often when we think in ambitious terms of what we ought to be, we forget what we already are. We must not fall into that trap at Columbia. For while we can aspire to be among the top three to five universities in the country in every aspect of teaching and research, we should not forget that Columbia is already a great university, one of a very small number of truly great private universities in the nation. To improve and assure our position in this select company, we must articulate both what we are and what we can be in terms that capture the imagination of our own community and of our alumni and friends beyond Morningside and Washington Heights. Evidence of Columbia's excellence is all around us: an internationally renowned faculty that places us among the elite group of educational programs in the world, and students and alumni of similar quality; libraries and information services that are ranked among the best in the world; a spectacular and historic campus in the midst of the most international city in the world; a nationally earned reputation for excellence in research that resulted in scores of new, pathfinding discoveries and scholarly publications; an undergraduate curriculum that is widely hailed as a model for the nation; and professional schools that produce superb practitioners while also advancing the research and theory base in their respective fields. It is critically important to realize that enhancing the College and undergraduate education does not mean a reduced commitment to Ph.D. and professional education, or to our research mission. We are committed to a "win-win" strategy.

The University is continuing to build upon these and other strengths. A major program to expand, restore, and improve the physical plant is already underway, including a new student center, and a significant upgrade to Butler Library and the physical education and recreational facilities. Distinguished faculty members continue to be successfully recruited from other universities. Major investments in new academic and research endeavors are being made in ways that have not been possible in more than a decade. Alumni giving is up sharply, and an extension of the Campaign for Columbia is already off to a strong start. Services for students are now a primary focus of our attention--the new Student Information System has been installed, undergraduate career services has been transferred to the College, and the centrally-managed student service organization has been restructured. Applications for admission are up in virtually every school, reflecting a renewed interest in New York City, and in Columbia in particular. Columbia College alone will have more than 10,000 applicants for next year's class--a remarkable increase of over 50% in just three years.

'We cannot and will not sacrifice along the way any of the institutional principles that we value so highly.'

In short, Columbia is moving forward in exciting ways, and is making the investments and choices that will position it well for the next century. But to meet our goal of improving the standing of our undergraduate program, much more will need to be done. To make the leap into the very highest rank of undergraduate programs in the nation, additional capital and other resources will be needed to improve facilities, student services, and provide academic enhancements for the arts and sciences faculty who teach and mentor Columbia's undergraduate students. A "business as usual" approach will not be sufficient to bring the resources, and attendant benefits that are needed to accomplish our goal. In recent months, a great deal of work has been done to study the additional resources that could be generated from a 10% to 15% increase in the size of the College. Those resources could be deployed primarily to enhance the academic programs of the College, the arts and sciences faculty and academic programs, and to improve the residential and social environment for students on campus.

When we talk about increasing the size of the College, we should be unequivocal as well as candid regarding a number of important matters. First, although there are compelling merits to the argument that enlarging the College will enable us to enhance it significantly, we cannot and will not sacrifice along the way any of the institutional principles that we value so highly. We will not permit the size of the College to become larger by admitting students of lower quality than are currently admitted. If we cannot attract an increased number of highly-qualified applicants, we will not increase enrollments. We will not undermine our commitment to need-blind admissions and full-need financial aid. There will be no reduction in our commitment to student diversity. We will not permit a larger total enrollment to require changes in the College's unique curriculum, the way it is taught, or class size in the Core. We will not retreat from our long-sought, successful effort to make the College fully residential, and to develop its house system.

Second, we should not think of the financial benefits that result from added College enrollments as flowing only to "the College," narrowly defined. The health and reputation of the College rests to a large extent on the quality of the faculty and graduate student instructors within the twenty-eight arts and sciences departments. It is the faculty and graduate students of the departments who teach the undergraduate curriculum, including the Core. Revenues from tuition, fundraising, and government funding all aid in sustaining and enhancing the departments--and thus the students who enroll in the College.

Third, while significant benefits can accrue to the College and to arts and sciences relatively quickly, many of the benefits are of a long-term, structural nature. Our students rate the condition of our facilities and the services they receive poorly. To the extent that we can produce truly satisfied graduates of Columbia College, the probability is very high that they will become significant benefactors of the institution in the future. Columbia is fortunate to have a great many truly dedicated alumni who have demonstrated their deep devotion to the institution in extraordinary ways. But in truth, proportionally and in absolute numbers, we have had far fewer such alumni than have Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, and Stanford. That must be corrected for the long-term health of Columbia. In addition, although we fully expect that the additional resources will be deployed in order to make advances from where we currently are, they can also be used to better position the arts and sciences to handle potential threats from losses of government funding and from other external factors in the coming years.

The attached report describes the key elements of the model that was developed--in collaboration with the leadership of the College and Arts and Sciences and many participating faculty members--to assess the financial impact of an enrollment increase. When we talk about "modeling" an increase, it means estimating the additional revenues and expenses while preserving the institutional values noted earlier. Thus, to preserve our financial aid policy and small class sizes, some of the additional revenues need to be devoted not to enhancing the whole, but to extending what we already have to the students who are added.

As with most financial models, of course, God is in the details. The enclosed report focuses less on the rationale for enlargement in the pursuit of enhancement, and more on the assumptions and mechanics of the model. Although all of the key assumptions and estimates are described, it is presented (we hope) in plain English and in readable figures--rather than in language and spreadsheets that can only be digested by accountants. Much--but not all--of this was presented to the Executive Committee and Chairs of the Arts and Sciences on December 19, 1995; there was, however, a request for a written report that had somewhat greater detail behind the summary results discussed at that time.

The assistance of--and spirit of collaboration exhibited by--many members of the arts and sciences faculty with regard to this effort, over a period of more than a year, is deeply appreciated. Many members of the administrative staffs of the College, Arts and Sciences, and the central administration contributed significantly to the development of these models. We welcome any further comments or questions that you may have.

With best regards.

Jonathan R. Cole
Provost and Dean of Faculties

Columbia University Record -- February 9, 1996 -- Vol. 21, No. 16