If there’s such a thing as a populist dean, James Valentini is it.
The chemistry professor—who was thrust into the role of interim dean of Columbia College in September, following the sudden resignation of Michele Moody-Adams—won undergraduates’ admiration by endorsing his student-picked nickname, Deantini, personally matching gifts at the kickoff event for the Senior Fund, supporting the Student Wellness Project, and referring to Harvard as “that school in Cambridge, Mass., that is erroneously considered to be our peer.”
And having shed the interim title last month, Valentini is now moving forward with an ambitious set of long-term, student-focused initiatives.
In an interview in his Hamilton Hall office last month, he spoke eagerly about his goals, including changes to the admissions and financial aid offices, more funding for student-led community-building groups, and new financial support for the Core Curriculum.
All of those goals, Valentini said, stem from a philosophy he’s calling the Horizontal Lines Project. Columbia College’s organizational chart consists mostly of vertical lines, but Valentini wants to de-emphasize passing off work to other people along the chart, creating a more “horizontal” bureaucracy that is easier for students to navigate.
“Even though we’re in an organization chart, we have to be always thinking, ‘How am I going to support students and faculty?’” Valentini said. “Not, ‘Where am I in an organization chart?’”
As interim dean, Valentini said, “there are long-term initiatives that you can’t begin.”
“People won’t sign on to them, because they don’t know if you’re going to be here for three days or 30 days, and they’re pretty convinced that the University hasn’t made a commitment to your leadership for a long time, or you wouldn’t have interim after your name,” he said.
One change that Valentini feels he can now make is moving the admissions and financial aid offices out of the Division of Student Affairs and into his purview. Both offices are responsible for CC and the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
“We’re going to have admissions and financial aid be an office that reports directly to me,” Valentini said. “Admissions and financial aid is a very visible, important part of what we do. Whom we admit to the college really is what determines what the college is like … We have to show how significant that is by having that effort report directly to the dean.”
Additionally, Valentini said, it will be easier to move forward on a campaign to endow the Core Curriculum, a $100 million effort to ensure the sustainability of the college’s nearly century-old academic requirement. The college has struggled to staff the Core, with only a quarter of Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization sections taught by tenured or tenure-track professors in the 2010-11 academic year.
Although they will both be on leave this year, Contemporary Civilization chair Matthew Jones and Lit Hum chair Christia Mercer have already hosted key exploratory discussions with students in those courses. Valentini said he has spoken to faculty and alumni “but in a kind of small-scale, ad hoc way. In the fall, we’ll start a much more organized discussion about this,” one that will involve more students.
“People won’t sign on to a long-term project like that when they don’t know if, well, maybe the project will change in two months when someone else is dean. Now we can start to think about that,” he said.
Listening to student concerns
Valentini has set a good example for the reinforcement of his “horizontal lines” mindset, sitting down with students and attending council meetings far more often than his predecessor did. He also makes a point of trying never to forget a student’s name.
“When I talk to former students—alumni—they say, ‘Well, when I was a student, if you saw the dean it was because you were in trouble,’” he said. “That’s very odd to me.”
In anticipation of the search for a permanent dean, the Columbia College Student Council laid out a set of expectations for the new dean, which included regular meetings with the CCSC president, monthly emails and quarterly addresses to the student body, and a willingness “to meet with students through events such as town halls, discussion groups, etc. to receive feedback and recommendations on relevant CC issues.”
“They clearly stated that they liked having interactions and they’d like to see that continue,” Valentini said. “And I think that’s valuable and should [continue].”
During his conversations with students this year, Valentini said there was a recurring theme: “‘We’d like to have a greater sense of community.’” He cited two student projects as indicative that a dialogue about community-building is already underway: the Student Wellness Project, which was born out of the campus response to the suicide of junior Tina Bu, and the Pub, a proposed lounge-like space, probably located in Lerner Hall, in which students could relax, cook, and play games.
Valentini said he wanted to continue supporting these student efforts in accordance with his horizontal lines philosophy, remaining hands-off in the creative process but hands-on in the administrative process.
“You go design it, I’ll find a place for it, and I’ll find the money to build it,” he said.
For the Pub, “I don’t know exactly where the money will come from,” he added. “It isn’t like we’re going to take away resources from other students to build it, but we’ll find the money.”
Another point of discord in undergraduate life that Valentini wants to address is “about whether you’re all being driven into finance and consulting.” CC students have long expressed their concern that the Center for Career Education caters largely to students looking for jobs in those fields, a concern that received substantial attention this spring when the tendency to go corporate was the central theme of the 118th Annual Varsity Show.
“We have to engage in a discussion about that, because I think student perception doesn’t quite match what’s actually happening,” Valentini said, acknowledging that the Varsity Show is usually an accurate gauge of students’ feelings. “What could we do institutionally, what information can we provide you, how could the career center’s efforts change in order to help students recognize the range of options, opportunities that await them?”
One solution, he said, would be to do a better job of connecting students and alumni.
“If you look at the trajectories of former students, you see that they have lots of twists and turns in their lives, in their careers. They wind up doing things they never would have anticipated doing when they were students,” he said. “Their life stories are so interesting. I think you’d find it reassuring.”
A changing Arts and Sciences
Valentini has taken the helm of Columbia’s most visible school during a period of great structural change. In April, A&S—which is made up of CC and five other schools—completed an administrative restructuring process eight years in the making.
At the heart of the changes was the creation of an executive committee—composed of Executive Vice President for Arts and Sciences Nicholas Dirks, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences dean Carlos Alonso, and Valentini—and the re-establishment of the Planning and Budget Committee.
Valentini said that while the new structure has been in place for only a few months, it’s been smooth sailing so far.
“The trustees approved it in their March meeting, it was started to be implemented in April, the academic year ends in May—it’s just getting going,” he said. “But so far, they’ve all worked. The PPC [Planning and Policy Committee], P&B [Planning and Budget], the Executive Committee—every part I’ve been involved in, it all works.”
The Executive Committee, which meets twice a week, has focused on developing large-scale A&S projects and hiring strategies.
“We’re setting what faculty lines can we recruit into, and in what departments,” Valentini said. “What capital projects can we propel ... like renovations, labs, new facilities? And how are we going to organize our development efforts?”
The membership process has also been established for the Educational Policy and Planning Committee, a new committee designed to discuss academic issues affecting the six A&S schools, Valentini said. Although it was originally intended to be a faculty- and administrators-only committee, Valentini successfully pushed for students to be included. While the faculty on the committee has been set, the students have not been selected, although the process by which they may apply has been established, according to CCSC president Karishma Habbu, CC ’13.
Valentini deferred comment on the EPPC until it has its first meeting in September.
As part of the A&S restructuring process, Columbia commissioned the consulting firm McKinsey & Company to do an analysis. McKinsey recommended several structural changes last summer, among them that the University consolidate some of the power of individual colleges’ deans into the central A&S administration.
While these recommendations likely contributed to Moody-Adams’ resignation, most of them were never implemented.
“I don’t think anyone’s worried about anything we were worried about last August or September,” Valentini said, referring to the concerns raised by McKinsey’s recommendations. “I think we’ve moved beyond that.”
Still, Moody-Adams has not spoken publicly about her resignation, and Valentini has not had a private conversation with her since she resigned. When asked in April why he had not spoken to her, he said only that “legal was the operative word.” Over the last year, he has largely steered clear of discussing Moody-Adams, and he again declined to do so in the June interview.
‘Best job I’ve ever had’
For Valentini, becoming dean of Columbia College marks a high point in an already successful career. Having joined the faculty in 1990, he had previously served as chair of the chemistry department and director of undergraduate studies for chemistry, and as a member of the Committee on the Core Curriculum, the Committee on Instruction, and the University Senate.
“I’m thrilled, honored, excited,” he said. “It’s the best job I've ever had.”
After almost a year on the job, he still gets excited when he talks about working with Columbia students, explaining with genuine enthusiasm what he likes about them most.
“The students of Columbia are just fantastic,” he said. “They’re not aggressive like, ‘Get out of my way, give me what I want, do what I want.' They’re aggressive like, ‘I want to achieve something, I want to accomplish something, how can I work with you to do that? What can we get done? What can I contribute to the University?’”