Columbia University

Communications and Calendars

Letters to the Faculty:

November 12, 2008

Dear Colleagues,

By any measure, it has been a tumultuous two months since the fall semester began. I intended to write a note in early October welcoming you back to campus after a productive and relaxing summer, but we have been struggling since then to keep up with daily events, working together to assess the impact of the recent downturn of world financial markets for the University. As you know from President Bollinger's recent memo, the recession has significant implications for Columbia, even as we are confident that Columbia will continue to be strong. Before I say more about the financial issues confronting the Arts and Sciences, I'd like to begin with some good news.

We are still celebrating the award of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Martin Chalfie, chair of our Department of Biological Sciences. Marty was one of three scientists to receive the award for the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein, which has become one of the most important tools used in contemporary bioscience as it enables researchers to develop ways of watching previously invisible processes, such as the development of nerve cells in the brain or the spread of cancer cells. This breakthrough was only possible because of a commitment to research in basic science, the fundamental value underpinning Arts and Sciences’ support of academic excellence in the sciences.

I am also very pleased to congratulate Wallace Broecker, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, who was awarded the prestigious Balzan Prize. This prize honored his contributions to the study of global climate change. I would also like to congratulate Philip Kim, Associate Professor in the Department of Physics, who was awarded the esteemed Ho-Am prize for his pioneering research in the area of basic science. In addition, I offer kudos to colleagues who have been elected to the most prominent national academies: Paul Olsen (Earth and Environment Sciences) and Carol Prives (Biological Sciences) were both elected to the National Academy of Sciences; and Peter Bearman (Sociology), Richard Friesner (Chemistry), Paul Richards (Earth and Environmental Sciences), and Orhan Pamuk (Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures and the School of the Arts) were elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The key to the excellence of our faculty is its constant renewal through the selection and recruitment of new colleagues. Please join me in extending a warm welcome to our new faculty. We hope that your first months here, while most certainly lively, have introduced you to some of the distinctive strengths of Columbia, as well as the unique advantages of living in New York. If you need information about any aspect of your life here, please do not hesitate to contact me or one of my staff; we have also gathered some useful information on our website at Again, welcome to the Columbia community.

Two decanal searches are well underway in the Arts and Sciences. The search committee for the new Dean of Columbia College has been meeting regularly and hopes to begin creating a short list of candidates within the next month. I’d like to offer special thanks to all of you who have submitted nominations and recommendations for this important position. This is a time of extraordinary change in the relationship between the College and the Arts and Sciences. We have been working to integrate the senior staffs of both units, while changing various titles to reflect new working relationships that signal the central importance of undergraduate education. A new role has been added for the Dean of Columbia College as Vice President for Undergraduate Education in the Arts and Sciences. Austin Quigley has worked steadfastly to make these transformations possible, and we owe him a great debt both for his extraordinary service over fourteen years and for his work to strengthen further the College by positioning it more centrally in the administration of the Arts and Sciences. We are also moving forward on our search for a new Dean of the School of Continuing Education and are extremely grateful for the terrific work of Peter Awn who has been Acting Dean of the School for the past two years. For information about the composition of both search committees please see

Last year, we worked closely with the subcommittee on Curricular Structure, created by the Task Force on Undergraduate Education and chaired by Martha Howell. The subcommittee approached its work with the belief that undergraduate liberal arts education is a central mission of the Arts and Sciences and that the various parts of Arts and Sciences had to be directed to this end to reach their full potential. The committee’s key recommendation was the establishment of an Educational Policy and Planning Committee in the Arts and Sciences, which would be charged with coordinating the existing bodies that manage the curriculum (departmental, institute or program curricular committees, the Committees on Instruction of the respective schools, and the committees that oversee the Core) and faculty planning. Such a committee would be best positioned to collect the information necessary for making informed recommendations to the Vice President concerning the relationship between curricular planning and faculty planning. This committee will significantly enhance our ability to coordinate curricular demands with faculty hiring and retention. We expect that the final report of the Task Force, soon to be issued, will include the creation of this committee as one of its main recommendations.

It is important to pause and consider again the enormous progress we have made over the past four years. Overall, we have increased the size of the Arts and Sciences faculty from 595 in 2004 to 656 in 2008. After a second surge of hiring during the last year, we can now claim spectacular success in the Economics initiative, thanks to support from the central administration and the hard work of the last two chairs of the department, Don Davis and Janet Currie. We have also significantly increased the faculty ranks of our newest department, Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology. Our departments of English and Comparative Literature, Statistics, MEALAC, Spanish and Portuguese, and French have each emerged from varying types of transitions renewed and strengthened. We have seen dramatic gains in our Mathematics department, initiated rebuilding plans in the Departments of Art History and Religion, and secured endowments for two senior positions in Philosophy. We have been working closely with the departments of Biology, Physics and Chemistry in the design and purposing of the new Interdisciplinary Science Building (ISB), even as we are using the building to support interdisciplinary expansion in the sciences. We have seen growth and are participating in new building plans for the School of the Arts and the School of International and Public Affairs, led by our new visionary deans, Carol Becker and John Coatsworth. And we continue to work with the remaining departments – and many of the interdisciplinary institutes and programs as well – to capitalize on existing strengths and take advantage of new opportunities to maintain this exciting momentum. The Arts and Sciences at Columbia have never been stronger.

A critical component of this strengthening is addressing our space constraints over the immediate and longer term. Several capital projects underway this term support new initiatives and faculty appointments in the sciences and humanities. Knox Hall is well into construction and is currently on schedule to be completed by summer 2009. Geothermal wells are being drilled as of this writing, furthering the University’s efforts to achieve a LEEDS certified, green building status for Knox Hall. The Interdisciplinary Science Building has structural steel erected to the 12^th floor while work continues to extend the necessary infrastructure to the site and to upgrade those systems to meet future demands. Concurrently, our science faculty and colleagues from SEAS continue working with the project team to finalize the details of individual research laboratories. The building is currently on schedule with an opening planned for Fall 2010.

This fall will see the completion of three state of the art physics labs in Pupin, bringingexciting new dimensions to the science on the Morningside campus. These research laboratories built in support of new faculty recruitment in Physics were constructed for highly sensitive experiments requiring very tight environmental controls. Projects like this demonstrate a continuing trend in certain science disciplines to require highly controllable environments, something that is difficult to achieve in many of our older buildings. Several other projects were completed this summer that help in incremental ways to ease the severe space problems that continue to challenge us. Renovations made possible new faculty offices for English and Comparative Literature as well as Spanish and Portuguese. Three new Registrar classrooms were added to the inventory and eight classrooms were outfitted with electronic capability. Significant investments were also made as part of the Refresh Program in Philosophy Hall (departments of English and Comparative Literature and Philosophy) and Dodge Hall (School of the Arts and the department of Music) as well as several smaller projects.

The Campaign for Columbia has continued to make excellent progress. As of October 31, the University had received gifts and pledges totaling $2.951 billion toward the overall goal of $4 billion, and the Arts and Sciences had achieved $666 million toward its goal of $1 billion. I am especially happy to report that we made extraordinary progress on the Lenfest Professorship Challenge over the past year. As you may recall, this is a pledge of $37.5 million by Trustee Gerry Lenfest that was intended to motivate other donors to give professorships by providing matching funds for their gifts. We now have gifts and pledges for 24 of the 25 professorships that Mr. Lenfest’s challenge will support, and we are well along in conversations with the expected donor of the final chair. Among other noteworthy campaign commitments, we have received two pledges totaling $30 million for the ISB. The Columbia College Fund and our effort to raise endowment for undergraduate financial aid have also made progress. Looking forward, a new major fundraising initiative in the coming year will be a special project by a number of Trustees and College alumni to build a significant endowment for student advising and career counseling, including internships, in honor of Dean Austin Quigley.

But despite our extraordinary progress, and continued success in the Capital Campaign, we need to prepare ourselves for the imminent consequences of the current financial downturn. While the pace of campaign commitments and gift receipts held up extraordinarily well through the end of October we must be prepared for the possibility of a decrease in future gifts as potential donors face changes in their income and net worth. While investment returns in our endowment have been extraordinarily high during the past five years, we must update our investment income assumptions to reflect recent market performance: the spending distributions on existing endowment funds will be significantly lower next year than the levels we had anticipated when we prepared financial projections last spring. Additionally, given our need-blind admission policy in the College, financial aid costs may increase as family ability to pay declines. Students in other schools of the Arts and Sciences will doubtless face real challenges in the months ahead, potentially including decreased availability of loans, increasingly stringent credit criteria, and higher interest rates, and this may challenge us to maintain the student enrollment upon which the Arts and Sciences budget is so heavily reliant. The competition for sponsored research support remains intense, and many government agencies are increasing substantially the matching support required of us. At the same time these factors impact almost every source of revenue, we must continue our efforts to reduce the central support to the budget of the Arts and Sciences, as the basis of that support will be similarly affected by decreased endowment payouts and other financial challenges.

In light of these economic circumstances, we must face these challenges and make choices without causing irreparable harm to the progress we have made. We need to consider areas where we will be able to implement conservative financial policies and place costly enhancements on hold until we can realign our financial position with new economic realities. In an effort to strike this important balance, we have not withdrawn authorizations for any of the academic positions committed during the last IBS cycle, though we will ask some departments to slow the recruiting cycle down. We are establishing an Arts and Sciences wide hiring review board that will exercise caution in all administrative hiring in the Arts and Sciences and provide a more thoughtful approach to controlling expenses than a hiring freeze would allow. We are also reviewing all capital projects with an eye to defer and/or scale back projects wherever possible. We will need to evaluate all priorities carefully and bring faculty into the policy decisions that will be necessary as we address a tightening budget. We will be working especially closely this year with the Faculty Budget Group (composed of three representatives from the department chairs’ steering committee and three representatives from the Executive Committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences) as well as with all departmental chairs to ensure that faculty are well represented as we seek to maintain our excellence in the difficult times ahead. I will stay in touch as we seek to understand the challenges ahead more clearly.

Sincerely yours,


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