Columbia will open two more global centers this school year, but plans for another center have been put on hold. Administrators say the University is still developing strategies for collaborating research among centers and involving undergraduates in the University’s growing network of international outposts.
In addition to a global center in Santiago, Chile—which was launched in a ceremony on Tuesday—the University will officially open international outposts in Nairobi, Kenya and Istanbul, Turkey within the next six months, according to Vice President for Global Centers Ken Prewitt. Columbia already has centers in Beijing, Paris, Mumbai, and Amman, in an ongoing initiative to further Columbia’s global presence with satellite research facilities.
There are also plans to start a center in Rio de Janeiro, but momentum for a center in Kazakhstan—something administrators have been discussing since late last year—has ground to a halt.
“There was a major donor who was interested in [Kazakhstan], and that conversation is still ongoing, it just didn’t materialize,” Prewitt said. “We are hoping that that donor will reengage this year.”
But even if Kazakhstan becomes the location of Columbia’s ninth global center, finding ways to engage undergraduates in the centers has been no easy task for administrators.
“We hope undergraduates will engage with us [in our blogs] and start arguing with us,” said Prewitt. “I’m going to start a blog again as soon as we get the site up on the question of whether universities should start thinking about a fifth year.”
The global centers will be open to students from all levels of study, but Prewitt said he hopes to reach out to undergraduates online and through programs specialized to their interests, possibly an oft-discussed fifth-year study abroad program.
This summer, Columbia offered internship programs in three of the locations, as well as language, science, and architecture classes at the Amman center, and the Paris center is currently accepting applications for an undergraduate research program. But even as these programs get started, the global center team has been working to acquire the monetary, legal, and administrative means to work in each country.
“These are offices, basically, that make things happen,” Prewitt said. “Look, there are a lot of barriers to working overseas. … You just can’t suddenly pop up and say, ‘Guess what, I want to open up a global center and I want to rent space.’”
Columbia recently reached an agreement with the government of Kenya to open a center in Nairobi, most likely in March. This will be a regional center—students and faculty members based in Nairobi will conduct research in countries across the continent, especially within rural village areas.
“We’re working in 14 countries in Africa,” Belay Begashaw, director of the Nairobi center, said. “We do some sort of development research work on village levels in many of these countries. We work with 600,000-plus communities directly so far, but starting from next year, this number will be increased to 10 million.”
Researchers at the Nairobi center said they plan to share their work with African policymakers.
“We are synthesizing information, experiences, and putting it in such a way that it can be palatable to policy makers and communicate to government ministers, prime ministers, and presidents,” Begashaw said.
Begashaw said that this new model for advising policymakers, in addition to Columbia’s previous work in Africa through the Earth Institute, the School of Public Health, and the School of Social Work, is what convinced Kenyan leaders to welcome Columbia.
“They have been getting their advisers from organizations like the World Bank, IMF, and others, but over time, African leaders are realizing that none of these organizations are politically neutral,” he said. “So they tend to incline towards hearing from apolitical systems like the university systems.”
The on-campus opening event for Columbia’s global center in Istanbul will take place in October and will be followed by an official opening gathering in Istanbul on Nov. 1. The Istanbul center will focus, at least at first, on journalism and sustainable development.
Administrators envision a network of global centers that will allow for communication among students and professors from myriad corners of the world. Ipek Cem Taha, the interim director of the Istanbul center, said students and faculty in Istanbul might work most closely with their counterparts in Amman and Paris.
“Amman and Paris would initially be the main links, both due to geography and also due to Turkey’s shared heritage and history, in Europe and the Middle East,” Cem Taha said.
Prewitt pointed to how the centers in Istanbul and Paris could communicate about the European Union and the centers in Istanbul and Amman could share research about the Arab Spring.
It remains to be seen how the centers will communicate with one another, but administrators imagine a system in which centers will freely share information through video-chatting, monthly online forums, and the global centers’ website.
“We need to see how it will all link, as it is not just a two-way communication, but a communication process with multiple ports,” Cem Taha said. “In a way it is unchartered territory. In another way it is learning at its best.”