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.
Three years ago this month, Columbia launched its first global centers in Amman and Beijing. Since then, it has launched five more centers—in Istanbul, Mumbai, Nairobi, Paris, and Santiago—and another is planned for Rio de Janeiro.
But despite the initiative’s rapid expansion, it is in some ways a cautious strategy for globalization. Compared to other schools, which have opened satellite campuses in their attempts to globalize—New York University runs a branch campus in Abu Dhabi, and Cornell University runs one in Qatar—the centers give Columbia a great deal of flexibility.
“The global centers … are not very expensive, funded largely by gifts from people in the region, modest in their footprint, and very flexible in terms of commitment, so that if things don’t work out, we can move on to other places,” University President Lee Bollinger said.
Right now, the centers are mostly office spaces, but they have been used in several ways—as regional hubs for research, as staging grounds for alumni events and faculty lectures, and, increasingly, as study abroad bases for students. Although it’s unclear how those uses will evolve in the years to come, Bollinger envisions that the centers will form an interconnected network, through which Columbia can work to confront global problems.
But in the meantime, each center must first learn to operate within local political realities—and that can mean working closely with foreign governments in countries where academic and personal freedoms are not always the norm.
“It’s a lesson in globalization, as we realize how different each country runs its government,” Vice President for Global Centers Ken Prewitt said.
As the global centers expand their operations, administrators say that Columbia must be careful to uphold its principles of academic integrity and non-discrimination. In China, for instance, speech is frequently censored, and Turkey has been criticized for restricting press freedoms. In Kenya, homosexuality is illegal.
“We don’t take it [academic freedom] lightly,” Bollinger said. “This is one of those core principles on which you really can’t compromise. But I think it’s important to be out in the world, even though there are risks.”
All of the centers have worked with local and national governments, which in several cases have given the centers financial support.
Columbia researchers at some of the centers also advise local governments on policy-making. The global center in Nairobi, for example, will work closely with African governments, among other regional institutions, providing “unbiased, science-based policy advice to African political leaders,” its director, Belay Begashaw, said in an email.
The Nairobi and Santiago centers have both signed memoranda of understanding with national governments, which will facilitate closer partnerships between Columbia and the two countries. The Amman center, too, has a particularly close relationship with the national government—Jordan’s king and queen provided Columbia with the facility for the center, and the queen has been active in its programming.
“Her Majesty Queen Rania has been an avid supporter and patron of the center’s work and programming, from very early on,” Amman center director Safwan Masri said in an email. “She sits on the center’s Advisory Board, which meets annually and provides ongoing leadership and counsel regarding the Center’s activities.”
But as it builds relationships with foreign governments, Columbia will sometimes be operating within countries that do not share its commitment to freedom of speech, including China.
Myron Cohen, the director of Columbia’s Weatherhead East Asia Institute, said that researchers must remember that they are guests in another country, and that it is important to act in accordance with local political norms. Cohen said that the Beijing global center has sponsored several meetings in which local government officials have been present, and that when speaking in such meetings, one must “use common sense in terms of what is to be gained and lost.”
“Every country has its own environment. Every country has its own circumstances. You do not go in without a prior understanding of those circumstances,” Cohen said. “There are places in the world to advocate things, but there are also places where you accommodate the circumstances.”
Academic integrity could also prove problematic in Turkey, where several journalists have recently been jailed. Sociology professor Karen Barkey, the director of the Istanbul center’s faculty steering committee, acknowledged that the press is not completely free in Turkey, but she said that this should not be a problem for Columbia.
“We will be working with scholarly communities and universities that operate in a similar fashion to American universities … so there is no issue there right now in the academic world,” she said.
And Barnard history professor Xiaobo Lu, who sits on the Beijing center’s advisory board, said that in his two years as the center’s founding director, its academic integrity was never challenged.
“We have no local money. We don’t receive any local money from China,” Lu said. “So no, in my two years, absolutely no.”
Works in progress
In addition to potential issues with freedoms of speech and the press, Columbia must be careful when opening global centers in countries where discrimination is a concern. Prewitt said that the University will stick to the principle that any student should be able to conduct research in any of the global centers, regardless of his or her background.
“If they [foreign governments] don’t issue a visa, and we think it was because someone was homosexual, or someone was Israeli, or someone was Muslim, or someone was anything, then we would not take them,” Prewitt said. “We would not take some students [to that center] and not other students.”
Prewitt said that academic freedom and discrimination have been key issues during discussions about where to open new centers. While administrators have been working on a possible center in Kazakhstan, Prewitt said that concerns about academic freedom have caused them to hesitate.
“It’s a hard call because in some respects you want a university there, but for research would there be academic freedom? Would they let people into the country without any controls?” he said.
But while Columbia continues to work out how the global centers will handle local conditions, the big question—at least for Bollinger—is how they will connect with one another and with the Columbia campus on an international level.
“You would be able to see the interrelationship of the parts of the whole,” Bollinger said. “You can no longer understand any country or any region without understanding every other region.”
The Istanbul center, for example, recently hosted a forum about free press in a global society, and the center’s director, Ipek Cem Taha, said that Istanbul “will hopefully be a leader among the global centers” on the topic of press freedom.
Sheila Coronel, an investigative journalism professor at Columbia’s Journalism School, was one of the moderators of the free press forum. She said the event was a perfect example of how the centers will bring together scholars from around the world to discuss global issues.
“We wanted to use Turkey as a meeting place to bring people to talk about independent news organizations,” Coronel said. “They’re global centers. They’re supposed to organize dialogue between different centers of academia about issues of different countries.”
Shayna Orens contributed reporting.
Check out the rest of the global centers special issue here.