Columbia University

Communications and Calendars

Letters to the Faculty:

December 21, 2010

Dear Colleagues: 

We have embarked this fall on an important new experiment in faculty governance in the Arts and Sciences.  After two years of reviewing the role of the faculty in decision making around academic planning and policy, we have begun at last to realize the administrative aspirations not just of my predecessors in this office, but also of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.  This is still a work in progress, but we are committed to giving the Faculty of Arts and Sciences a genuine voice and role in the conduct of our business across the constituent schools and offices of the Arts and Sciences, while finally crafting the Arts and Sciences “construct” as a coherent and well functioning unit befitting its centrality in the University at large. 

Throughout the fall I have been meeting with the new Policy and Planning Committee (PPC), the group of nine faculty elected and appointed to promote faculty governance in Arts & Sciences. Inaugural chair Teodalinda Barolini has been instrumental in articulating faculty concerns and helping us shape and manage our rigorous weekly agenda; last week she presented the PPC's tenure recommendations for revising the A&S tenure review process during one of the most well-attended faculty meetings in recent history.

As you know, the Provost announced earlier in the year a proposal to move from the current ad hoc system to a standing committee system. The PPC tenure subcommittee members, Jean Howard and Mike Riordan, in consultation with the PPC and the Chairs, and building on the recommendations that came out of a special committee last spring, drafted a new A&S tenure review process meant to preserve valuable features of the old system while adapting to the new system at the provostial level. These recommendations have been discussed with chairs, faculty, deans, and now the Provost, with whom we will continue to coordinate as the new system takes shape at all levels.  If all goes according to plan, we will form and then convene a new Promotion and Tenure Committee next year in the Arts and Sciences. 

The PPC has been gaining familiarity with the intricacies – and notorious challenges – of the A&S budget, and it will continue to be part of discussions with Scott Norum, me, my staff, and the A&S Deans as we begin to model the FY12 budget in earnest beginning in January of 2011.  Meanwhile, we are also planning to conduct a thorough review of the financial, organizational, and administrative structure of the Arts and Sciences.  We worked with the PPC and the Provost to develop an RFP, and have been hearing the proposals of four consulting firms that might work with us in the review.  A special PPC subcommittee (Wayne Proudfoot, Peter Bearman, and Bill Zajc) has been delegated to meet with the firms along with me, the Provost, and other deans and senior administrators.  We will also be developing a strategic plan for the Arts and Sciences in concert with this review, and in this the PPC will play a central role.  The Provost has assured us that this exercise will result in a better University-wide understanding of the budgetary challenges faced by the Arts and Sciences as we seek to maintain, and enhance, the excellence of our faculty, students, research, and programs.

This review takes place at a time when we have had to work very hard to maintain a balanced budget.  As you already know, the 2010-11 budget was challenged by a number of unfavorable trends. Due to investment losses in 2008-09, the trustees reduced endowment payout by 5% this year, following an 8% reduction in 2009-10. When we submitted the budget in the spring of 2010, the trend in current use gifts was flat and we were hard-pressed to assume any growth for 2010-11. Rapidly rising health care costs required an increase in the fringe benefits rates by a full percentage point. Common costs (paid to the central University for both shared operating costs and special initiatives, as well as to replace lost endowment income in the central budget) grew by 5%. Financial aid costs were forecast to grow by 11%, mainly due to the need-based policies in the College that have resulted in continued success in attracting students from families of all income bands.

Even with aggressive enrollment targets, and continued constraints on expense growth (including a 2% salary pool and a freeze on non-salary expenses), a gap of $23 million remained. This was significantly higher than the $15 million target set by the Provost and CFO. We closed all but 6 of the remaining $8 million of this gap by tapping accumulated reserves in the Graduate School, deferring half of the Masters tuition revenue due to academic departments, and the last of three transition payments negotiated with SIPA within the School’s new financial relationship with A&S. As of today, we have reduced the final gap, thus balancing our budget, mainly because of higher student enrollment in each of the A&S schools.  Although we have not yet received the official budget parameters for 2011-12, it is likely that the next two to three years will be nearly as challenging as the current one. Eventually, payments from the Kluge estate will add substantial endowment income to the budget, and the payout rate is expected to recover as early as next year due to the excellent endowment returns Columbia posted last year.

We are very grateful to Jean Howard, who has done extraordinary work leading a Classroom Committee of A&S and SEAS faculty charged with the assessment of the physical condition of classrooms, and the match between supply and demand for classrooms of particular sizes and technological needs. In addition, the committee was asked to review scheduling issues, including ways to alleviate the scarcity of classrooms at times of heavy use. The Classroom Committee followed the Krauss Morningside Classroom report of more than a decade ago. The work of the committee is in its final stages; the report is being vetted by various groups of faculty and administrators and will be available in early spring.

On December 10th, the University opened the spectacular new Northwest Corner Building. When fully occupied, the new building will provide space for research, teaching and study for a community of faculty members and students working in 21 different laboratories, shared between Arts and Sciences and the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science.  Seven A&S and four SEAS scientists are the first to relocate to the building and will be working in areas of research in nanotechnology, single molecule physics and chemistry, biophysics, and biochemistry and synthetic chemistry. The laboratories dedicated to biophysics and imaging will conduct research that could lead to a better understanding of the pathophysiology of epilepsy. In the lab dedicated to biochemistry and synthetic chemistry, researchers will be using state of the art tools to better understand the mechanisms of cell death involved in cancer and neurodegeneration. The seven Arts and Sciences scientists are Luis Campos, Virginia Cornish, and Wei Min of the department of Chemistry; Julio Fernandez, Rafael Yuste, and Brent Stockwell of the department of Biological Sciences; and Philip Kim of the department of Physics.

Two new classrooms in the Northwest Corner Building will expand the pool of available classrooms this spring: a 30 seat classroom and a much-needed 164 seat lecture hall. A café and an integrated science library, both of which will open in January, round out the new rooms available to the Columbia community.

Because of their regular meetings with A&S deans, the Planning and Policy Committee has also been able to begin to contribute to school-level discussions. With Acting Dean Carlos Alonso, the PPC served as a sounding board for modeling GSAS financial aid enhancements intended to increase Columbia’s competitiveness in the recruiting and retention of the best graduate students. The PPC is also engaged on the undergraduate level, working with the deans of the undergraduate colleges and the Committee on Instruction of Columbia College and General Studies to set curricular priorities and consider a range of issues of concern to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at large.  We will soon be turning to the recommendations of the Presidential Task Force on Undergraduate Education to consider how best to continue the work, and act on some of the recommendations, of that important committee.

I would like to congratulate the eight new winners of the Columbia Distinguished Faculty Award, made possible through the generosity of Trustee Gerry Lenfest:

Rachel Adams, English; Stuart Firestein, Biological Sciences; Mahmood Mamdani, Anthropology and Mesaas; Stephen Murray, Art History and Archaeology; Paul Olsen, Earth and Environmental Sciences; Susan Pedersen, History; Achille Varzi, Philosophy; and Katharina Volk, Classics.

May I take this opportunity to wish you all a very happy holiday and new year.

All best,


Nicholas B. Dirks
Franz Boas Professor of
Anthropology and History
Executive Vice President for Arts and Sciences