Spring break has come to a close, and all I can hope is that you’ve forgotten all the mistakes I’ve made since January. The inarticulate comments, the problematic midterms, that one week where I didn’t really go to class—my sincerest wish is that you’ve taken this warm, mostly sunny week to let those black marks fade from the grade-book of your memory. I begin each semester with high hopes, and yet each spring, when March rolls around, I’m glad to have a fresh start. Spring break is a week-long hedge against my shortcomings so far. Which brings me to saving Columbia College.
When Michele Moody-Adams resigned as dean of Columbia College last fall because she felt the school was under institutional attack, it began a serious discussion of the future of the school and its place in the University. Who would control hiring and promotion of professors? Who would set the undergraduate curriculum? Would academic budgets—the ones that decide the future of the Core Curriculum, financial aid, and other important programs—be decided by Columbia College, the larger Faculty of Arts and Sciences, or someone else? No administrators would clearly say, nobody else really knew, but everyone wanted to find out.
And then, nothing happened. After a brief period of interest, it seemed like everyone had settled into the swampy new status quo. That’s why I’ve been so pleased to see a small revival of concern over the uncertain future of the school to which I belong. On March 6, University Trustee José Cabranes published an op-ed in this newspaper (“No to the siren song aimed at Columbia College”) that expressed his alarm at Columbia College’s continued slide into irrelevance. On March 9, Robert Pollack, former dean of Columbia College, agreed in a letter to the editor that “the current fragile and new structure of the Arts and Sciences” threatens the health of the Core.
What is to be done? I hope that Judge Cabranes made his point of view forcefully felt at this month’s meeting of the Board of Trustees, but what we really need is a cultural shift. And that, Professor, is where you come in.
Frankly, Columbia College is under threat in part because it has been decided that you don’t care about it. When Columbia College had its own faculty, academics sat on committees that decided policies for admissions, financial aid, the curriculum, and other crucial elements of undergraduate life. Senior faculty taught introductory classes, not to mention the Core. Professors were connected to the lives of students in a real and meaningful way, perhaps even at a cost to their own studies and leisure.
You didn’t choose for all of that to go away, but you haven’t really been behaving like you want it back. When it seemed like Columbia College was under attack, you were somewhat upset. When your own fringe benefits were to be reduced, on the other hand, you nearly revolted. That tells the University how to prioritize its concerns. Carlos Alonso, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, recently wrote that “it is almost predictable that in a situation in which the teaching and the research functions of the University were divorced, teaching would have acquired second-class status”—that is, shaping young minds is ok, but let’s talk about my book.
Any discussion of the future of the Core, including Pollack’s, begins with the question of how to reward faculty “for the additional effort and for the risk to an academic career that goes with teaching outside of one’s field of expertise.” In other words, you’re hedging your bets. Getting to know students in small Core classes and being involved with the future of a unique undergraduate institution might prove rewarding. But spending time in your own bubbles, on your own work, guarantees that you can get a good job somewhere else.
Look, I understand that you’ve worked long and hard on important subjects to reach your current posts, that you’re battered about by a complicated and overbearing tenure system, that you have a family that deserves your fullest possible support. But when it seems like faculty could care less what happens to Columbia College and its programs, that’s a green light to the administration to dispose of them as they please. This column is about community at Columbia, and I’m asking you, more than for some forgiveness on the botched midterm, to join a community of students and alumni that greatly needs you.
Columbia College committees may be gone, but speak on the issues that matter, and you will be listened to. Teach the Core, even without special compensation, and I promise you’ll find it worthwhile. Try to get involved in students’ lives and problems, and I think you’ll find yourself at a healthier University.
Break’s over. I, for one, have left my winter clothes at home. I’m done hedging my bets.
Samuel E. Roth is a Columbia College senior majoring in history and political science. He is a former Spectator editor in chief. We Are Not Alone runs alternate Thursdays.