The latest turn of events in the administrative sphere of Columbia College highlights several questions concerning the actual state of our University and the eventual fate of the undergraduate educational experience. On the one hand, there seems to be an undisclosed debate over conflicting priorities concerning the administrative structure of the University. On the other hand, discussions over its economic agenda appear to compromise the principles of individuals involved at the upper levels of University decision making. This debate, although recently heated, is not a new one. We are yet again confronted with a dilemma that mobilized students and academics alike during the age of the radical sixties in both Europe and America: The dilemma of the institutionalization of higher education. The polemic lies in the increasing economic demands of the University and the latest trend of transforming universities into corporate-designed profit-making institutions. The situation is not exclusive to Columbia University: It is a worldwide epidemic. Degrees and enrollment in programs of study are sold as forms of personal investment. In the best case scenario, wealth will pay the miscellaneous costs of tuition and facilities. In other cases, loans may facilitate a relative equal opportunity in the form of postgraduate voluntary servitude to monthly debt repayment. Enthusiastic undergraduates believe that a diploma from a prestigious institution will open doors to coveted professional opportunities or entrance into equally prestigious graduate programs. But are diplomas what matter at the end of university life? Are we measuring institutional success in terms of quantity and reputation? Have we turned the university experience into a brand name?
We might be reaching a moment of necessary introspection. The resignation of former Dean Moody-Adams offers the opportunity to reflect on the conflicting priorities of our university and on the possible need to modify our values as members of Columbia’s educational community. The fate of our alma mater depends on collaboration and constructive criticism that fosters deliberation and a free exchange of ideas. We must be tolerant and we must be respectful. In this moment of debate we should avoid wasting energies in the judgment of personal choices and adopt a new spirit of civil dialogue oriented towards the common wellbeing of our institution. Things might not be perfect in the near future. But we should at least have the modest ambition of aiming for a better and improved undergraduate education, and for the making of a university that encourages quality of life and debate among its diverse members. The soul of our university, best exemplified through the educational program of the College’s Core Curriculum, must be preserved at all costs. We must create the conditions for our students to become free, creative, responsible, and above all virtuous human beings. In our times of crisis and uncertainty, virtue is both a duty and a necessity.
Change can produce fear and instability. But it can also lead to new beginnings. We must leave aside divisiveness and fragmentation. We must work together. For even in an age of uncertainty and dilemma, there is always hope.
The author is a Core lecturer for Contemporary Western Civilizations and specializes in modern European intellectual history.