Columbia’s global center in Paris is expanding its academic offerings, forging ties with campus cultural houses, and will soon have its first permanent director.
University President Lee Bollinger announced on Thursday that French literature scholar and former New York City Public Library president Paul LeClerc, GSAS ’69, will direct the center starting in July. He will replace interim director Victoria de Grazia, who has led the center since it opened in 2010.
“The fact that he [LeClerc] wants to become the director of our European center is a very strong signal of how seriously people are now taking our centers,” Vice President of Global Centers Ken Prewitt said.
LeClerc told Spectator that he wants to expand the center’s regional scope, so that students have the chance to reflect on contemporary European issues—such as the debt crisis, demographic shifts, and energy policy—with policy-makers.
“What I would like to think about is how we offer Columbia students a kind of privileged level of access to European thinkers that would be unique to this program,” LeClerc said.
LeClerc said that he would like to develop other new programs by fostering a close relationship between the global center and Columbia’s cultural houses. He currently chairs the advisory board of Maison Française, Columbia’s French cultural house.
Columbia’s other European cultural houses are Casa Italiana, Casa Hispanica, and Deutsches Haus. LeClerc expressed interest in creating closer relationships with those cultural houses as well.
“If the German program is going to be collaborating with us to do things, I hope, in Paris, why don’t we start doing things together here in New York between the language houses?” LeClerc said.
Shanny Peer, the director of Maison Française, hopes to forge ties between the Maison and the global center in Paris. They might increase awareness about their research projects and conferences through the use of technology.
“That [relationship] could take different shapes,” Peer said. “That could be organizing a series of conferences or talks that take place here and there. That could be a conference here that’s Skyped to Paris, and vice versa.”
LeClerc, who was a pioneer of the digital library during his tenure as NYPL president, plans to expand the global center’s digital offerings.
“I want us to have a huge Web presence with as much of what we do there on the Web for people to see,” he said. “Lectures, conferences, all those kinds of things—ideally even someday courses.”
But while the global center in Paris becomes more Eurocentric, Columbia students and faculty continue to show a fascination with Francophone studies.
More Columbia students did study abroad programs in France than in any other country in 2010-2011, and the fascination is mutual—224 French scholars studied at Columbia last year, more than from any other European country. The large number of French students at Columbia is partially due to the Alliance Program, an agreement between Columbia and three French universities—the École Polytechnique, Sciences Po, and the Université of Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne—to encourage scholarly exchange.
And with Columbia students increasingly choosing to study in France, a faculty committee is pursuing the idea of offering Core Curriculum classes at the Paris global center that would connect to French culture and politics.
“The project that is most advanced at this point is in Paris,” Dean of Humanities Pierre Force said, referring to a project to bring the Core Curriculum to the global centers. He noted that Contemporary Civilization, Art Humanities, and African Civilization are three courses that professors might teach in Paris.
“We think that offering Art Humanities in Paris would provide us with many possibilities to take advantage of the local resources, such as the local museums in Paris and trips to places in Paris to see art,” Force said.
Faculty members are also developing courses for the global center in Paris that relate to French and Francophone culture and history. They might start developing programs that address Francophone scholarly interests in West Africa, and the global centers office plans to open a global center in West Africa as well.
“Right now we are expecting to do some West African planning with the global center in Paris, partly because Paris and the French in general have very strong ties with West Africa,” Prewitt said. “Then it may be easier to do it with France as our base of operations, at least until we can open an office there.”
But even as Columbia looks to strengthen its academic relationship with France through the global center and cultural house, that relationship is steeped in history—nearly 100 years’ worth, in fact. La Maison Française was founded in 1913, and it was “the first French academic and cultural center of its kind on an American campus,” Peer said.
The cultural house was part of former University President Nicholas Murray Butler’s vision to make the campus more international a century ago. Butler also created Columbia’s first visiting professorships with France in 1912, according to Peer.
By opening global centers, Columbia is in some ways continuing Butler’s tradition of international education.
“I think there’s an orientation difference between globalization and an international focus,” Peer said. “But still, it’s a continuous line of openness to other countries.”