Seeking to expand its international reach, Columbia is now looking to secure funds and space for new research centers across four continents.
As part of an ongoing initiative, the University hopes to open four more global centers, which are satellite research facilities, in Turkey, Kazakhstan, Kenya, and Brazil, Kenneth Prewitt, the vice president for global centers, said.
Over the last year and a half, Columbia has opened centers in Amman, Jordan; Beijing, China; Paris, France; and Mumbai, India, and administrators hope to implement four new programs by the end of the 2011-2012 academic year—which Prewitt said would complete Columbia’s international network.
Though the new centers are in different stages—with Turkey’s closest to completion—Prewitt said that this latest push is about both extending Columbia globally and also building a structure for the new centers within the University.
DEFINING THE VISION
“All the centers are supposed to be reflective of the entire University,” Prewitt said in a recent interview. “I think of the centers as sort of taking a miniaturized version of this place [the campus in Morningside Heights] and putting it in other places.”
The University has raised about $4 million through alumni and trustee donations for the global center network, Prewitt said. “Our alumni really like these things,” he said, adding that many international alumni from these regions are glad to see centers open close to home.
In addition to securing necessary funds, Prewitt said that Columbia is working to establish a clear vision.
“It takes a long time to figure out how to pull them into the fabric of the University,” he said.
Over the next few years, Prewitt said that he wants to implement a clearer structure.
Now, he said there is only a small staff working on the centers at Columbia, and it is currently spread out in multiple buildings on campus. Ideally, he said there should be an office for the global centers. And with a bigger staff, he said organizers could work on all four potential centers simultaneously.
Organizers are also actively exploring how the program could benefit students directly, since the centers are research-based and not satellite campuses for study abroad.
For Prewitt, setting up an international network is important because it exposes the University to new ideas and ways of thinking.
“I think if the whole concept works the way we hope it does, it’s not about Columbia changing the world, it’s about letting the world change Columbia,” he said.
INTERSECTIONS AT TURKEY
Columbia has obtained roughly half the necessary funding and a small space to launch a center in Istanbul, which could open in the coming spring or fall semester, Prewitt said. The University will likely start discussing leadership of the center and the program’s activities this spring.
Experts say that Turkey is a meeting place of diverse cultures and religions that make it an appropriate location for academic study.
“It is an intellectually … very important connecting link between the Christian world and the Islamic world, the European world and the Asian world,” Prewitt said.
Karen Barkey, a sociology and history professor and academic advisor for the center—whose research often brings her to Istanbul—said that the center is in the early planning stages.
“Istanbul is a really, really vibrant society where a lot of changes are happening,” she said. “If there is a way to both contribute to Turkey and open up a dialogue between Columbia and Turkish scholars, that would be fantastic.”
Kayla Daly, CC ’12, who plans to study abroad at Bogazici University in Istanbul next semester, said she would be interested in exploring work opportunities the center could provide, or even an opportunity to practice Turkish.
“Turkey is such a pivotal location between Europe and the Middle East,” she said. “Especially now that it’s increasing its influence on the Middle East, it could play a big role in global politics.”
So far, Prewitt said that the School of the Arts and the Columbia Journalism School have both shown interest in utilizing a center in Turkey. Columbia has also been discussing possible activities connecting the Paris and Istanbul centers, he said.
For professors who study the surrounding region, he added, Turkey is an ideal location. “People here who have worked on things in that part of the world think that’s the only place to be if you want to be in that.”
BUILDING ON SOCIAL WORK AT KAZAKHSTAN
Columbia is considering opening up a center in Kazakhstan as well, Prewitt said, though the city where it will open is not yet decided.
The global center, which could possibly open next fall, would build on the School of Social Work’s Global Health Research Center of Central Asia, which is based in Almaty, Kazakhstan. GHRCCA, established in 2007, seeks to produce sustainable solutions to the region’s public health and social problems.
Although Prewitt emphasized that these global centers are not about one school, he said that established programs, such as GHRCCA, can help ground the new center, which could also be housed in the country’s capital of Astana.
Nabila El-Bassel, the director of the GHRCCA, said a global center would increase the communication between Columbia, the region, and the other global centers.
Prewitt said that Columbia has a strong relationship with the nation’s government. “The leadership of Kazakhstan would like more of Columbia to be there.”
Two centers in Nairobi, Kenya and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil are also currently in discussion, Prewitt said, although the ideas for these centers are much less developed than the ones in Turkey and Kazakhstan.
Both centers are in consideration because of existing Columbia programs in the regions. Columbia’s Earth Institute is already working in Nairobi, while the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation has a presence in Rio.
“Nairobi is absolutely a key place strategically in terms of East Africa,” said Elliott Sclar, the director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at the Earth Institute.
Sclar, whose seven-member team has been working in Nairobi for five years, said that a global center would make their work there much easier—they would no longer need to work out of hotels or temporary apartments.
“It would be nice to have a more identifiable place,” he said.
Jane Clayton, an adjunct assistant professor in Middle East, South Asia, and African Studies who teaches Swahili, said that a center in Kenya would give African studies and Swahili students opportunities to learn in the heart of East Africa.
“Students will have unparalleled opportunities to examine the challenges facing one of Africa’s most diverse and prosperous nations as it strives to preserve its cultural heritage,” she said in an email.
A global center in Nairobi would also supplement the limited Swahili study abroad programs, Clayton said.
In Rio, a global center would build on a pre-existing GSAPP program, which opened this year. The school recently launched a branch of its urban studies research network called Studio-X, which has locations in Amman, Beijing, Mumbai, and Moscow.
Still, Prewitt said, it would probably be about a year before they would begin discussions for a new global center.
Henrique Maia, CC ’14, who is from Brazil, said that it made sense to expand Columbia’s reach in the center of South America’s economic growth.
“We are a growing nation in power, and we’ve always been such a large influence on other cultures,” he said. “It’d also be good to learn from a unique nation like Brazil. ... We don’t take sides on global issues—we’re usually the moderator.”
THE LONG HAUL
Though Prewitt hopes to have all eight centers operating with full staff and programming by the end of the 2011-2012 academic year, it’s possible that one of the projects could fall through.
“I don’t know if that is too ambitious. We started this in the middle of one of the largest financial meltdowns in this century,” he said, adding that the University is also focused on other large initiatives, like its 17-acre campus expansion in Manhattanville.
But, he said, “This is for the long haul. This is what kind of place we are going to be [as a University] in 25 years, not what kind of place we are going to be in two years.”
“We are learning as we grow,” he said. “We know it is important for Columbia to have a global footprint.”