This story is part of a special issue examining Columbia's global centers, three years after the first two centers launched in Amman, Jordan and Beijing, China. Check out the rest of the issue here.
Columbia is opening offices around the world, but so far, at least, their cost to the University has been minimal. The global centers have been funded mostly by gifts, in an effort to make them “close to revenue neutral,” University President Lee Bollinger said.
Vice President for Global Centers Ken Prewitt estimated that, on average, it takes $600,000 to $700,000 per year to operate each center. In a time of limited resources, Prewitt said, it makes sense for Columbia to use the centers to attract donations.
“There’s a lot of competition for the University’s resources,” Prewitt said. “Every major part of the University that’s trying to do something new is trying to get funded.”
While the centers will serve as links to alumni around the world, they will also be interconnected by technology, and setting up that technology could prove expensive as well.
Bollinger said that the his goal is to support the center through gifts—specifically, through gifts “that would not come otherwise to the University.”
“This is one of the great, great good things of the theory of the centers,” Bollinger said. “They link us up with alums in areas of the world where we have not previously had strong links.”
Columbia has raised a total of $30 million for the global centers so far. Not all donations are made in the form of money—some of the centers’ physical locations have been gifts.
Executive Vice President for University Development and Alumni Relations Fred Van Sickle said that fundraising techniques have varied from center to center, but he cited top administrators, including Bollinger, as key figures across the board.
“To date, fundraising has centered around launching individual centers and specific programmatic efforts,” Van Sickle said in an email. “Notable successes include centers where a syndicate of alumni came together to fully fund the enterprise, to cases where one or two individuals have made a center possible, to partnerships between U.S. and local donors.”
For instance, the Istanbul center—which was launched in November and became fully operational in January—has largely been funded by a gift from Emre Kurttepeli, SEAS ’90, who is from Istanbul.
“Columbia has always been a unique institution in its ability to cultivate an international flavor in its culture,” he said in an email. “I have always been an advocate of the ‘think globally, act locally’ approach, and with the Global Centers, Columbia has laid down the foundation for an international network that places ideas, people and projects truly in sync with the local environment.”
Kurttepeli said that it was Columbia’s ability to present itself as a global university that drew him to donate.
“Moving forward, I hope to see the Istanbul center tackle big issues of our time within the framework of the region, allocate resources to research and to involve the region’s people with creating solutions,” he said.
Van Sickle said he hopes that more alumni will donate to the global centers as the centers become more specialized in their research initiatives.
“Looking ahead we anticipate the centers will be developing more compelling student and research programming, and look forward to network-wide educational programs where each of the centers works collaboratively a on a network theme such as water or inequality,” he said in an email. “We find Columbia alumni, parents, and friends increasingly intrigued by Columbia’s global strategy and that alumni in the center cities are particularly energized by our presence in their hometowns.”
Another fundraising question is that of technology for the global centers. Barnard political science professor Xiaobo Lu—who directed the Beijing center from 2008 through 2010—said that while all the centers have made an effort to install video conferencing equipment, this equipment is expensive. He thinks that the Beijing center has recently installed video conferencing equipment, but while he was its director, it only had audio conferencing.
“If we put in money to buy it, which costs quite a bit—you need a screen, you need a video camera, and also you needed high-speed internet ... and also the audio video conference equipment—that costs a lot,” he said. “And if you don’t use it a lot—and that’s the question, what do you use it for?”
Still, Lu said he is supportive of the global centers using such technology, as did Safwan Masri, the director of the Amman center.
“Technology is, of course, important to the success and integration of the network of CGCs [Columbia Global Centers],” Masri said. “The ability of the centers to connect with one another is made much easier with the Internet.”
Masri said that people at different centers often communicate with one another through video chatting applications such as Skype. While Columbia University Information Technology said in a statement that it has worked to ensure that the centers maintain “standard operating procedures” that are important for steady communication, much of the technology that the centers use is left up to their directors and researchers.
Additionally, Susan Glancy, Bollinger’s chief of staff, said that administrators are planning a “Columbia Global Commons” website that would link the global centers together by theme instead of by geographic location. The current global centers website is fragmented and somewhat difficult to navigate, and while it is often updated with news about the centers, several features—including a student blog—are updated infrequently.
“Columbia Global Commons is really meant to convey a spirit of community,” Glancy said. “The idea is really to develop a website as an engaging presence for sharing global ideas, and it’s a virtual space where all of our global thinking can live together with the hope that the outcome is obviously a better informed community.”
Glancy said that while the website is still “in its infancy,” she hopes that it “will very much be alive” by the fall.
“I’m hoping that CGC [Columbia Global Centers] will start to show not only the Columbia community, but a larger community, that we are potentially the most global university in the world,” she said. “By having a place that we can see global activities in one space, we can actualize that.”
Check out the rest of the global centers special issue here.