Spectator sat down with University President Lee Bollinger on Friday to discuss the government shutdown, the Arts and Sciences’ budget, construction in Manhattanville, dean searches, his tenure, and more.
Q. What are your thoughts on the government shutdown and how it’s affecting Columbia?
A. Executive Vice President for Research Mike Purdy’s judgment is that as long it stays short term—that’s one to two weeks—there will not be major consequences for the University. So that’s that. Obviously, the debt ceiling is a different story, but that’s a different story for the world. We all know that’s catastrophic. As of right now, there are not significant impacts on the University.
Q. Have you been involved in any conversations about Frontiers of Science lately?
A. No. People—Columbia College Dean Jim Valentini, Executive Vice President for Arts and Sciences David Madigan, others—regularly tell me where this issue is, but I’m not playing any role in its resolution.
Q. Some have criticized the Global Core’s reach and scope. Is this a concern of yours?
A. One of the things I’m most concerned with is orienting the University more towards global issues. Work has been done to get some funding from Mellon for work on a global core. My own personal belief is you can take any set of texts of the great texts—any of them—and you can talk about them richly as part of a global understanding. That’s why they’re so great.
Q. What’s happening with the Fifth-Year Fellows Program?
A. We suspended it for this year—in the sense that we took a pause. I loved the idea of the Fifth-Year Fellows Program. You would have the option to stay and have a group of faculty work with you to understand global issues and then go off to the global centers. It did work for one year, but we want to think about it some more. I’m sure we’ll reintroduce it, because I really believe in it.
The limitation of the idea is that these are students who obviously have left and are leaving. What you want, ideally, is students who come back from an experience like that and are then in classes that mean more to them because of that experience and they contribute in ways that are different because of the fact that they’ve had that experience. It’s much harder to introduce reforms in your standard four-year curriculum.
Looking forward, you’ll have a class on migration, and in the course of that, students all leave at different times and you’re able to connect by virtual class meetings via Skype, and you really feel that you’re part of a global discussion. We’re not there.
Q. In terms of Manhattanville, how are you feeling at the topping out of the Jerome L. Greene Science Center?
A. For me, this is a huge moment, all these steps along the way. When I started this, it was the idea that Columbia absolutely needed space for an entire half-century or more to grow. It could not thrive and was not thriving in circumstances where it had to expand building by building, block by block. There’s just too much energy, too much frustration in adding physical space to the University. It became my first priority.
We could create something in Harlem—our home—that could be different from a regular university campus in many respects: no gates, more welcoming, more integrated, with absolutely beautiful buildings and grounds and a 21st-century sense of that.
That was the dream. It’s a great thing for the institution. It will be a mental change, it will be a spatial change, it will be a very different feel.
Q. What about fundraising for the Business School’s buildings in Manhattanville?
A. The Business School project is still underway. They have not reached their goal yet, but I’m confident they will.
Q. And what about the Lenfest Center for the Arts?
A. All the faculty is hard at work. This will be a spectacular hub. It will have an absolutely magnificent screening room for films, a black box theatre, the Wallach Gallery will be there. It will have public spaces that can be used for artistic activities.
Q. On to dean searches, what’s happening with the search for a new Law School dean? Have you met with the search committee yet?
A. I met with the co-chairs in July and I’ll meet with the search committee in a week or two. The process is underway.
Q. What’s next for the Law School?
A. I think there are several things. One—you would expect me to say this—is the question of changes in the global economy and the legal landscape. You just need to have more work done on international problems because they’re so significant.
I also think you have to figure out what legal education is going to be—its form, its structure, its years. The third year is a real issue, and there have been a number of commentaries that you should eliminate the third year. I would keep the third year, and I would provide more experimental forms of learning. Obviously, things like the global centers are there to use them, and there are many ways to do this.
I think also there is a very great need for more funds for students to choose non-traditional career paths. Law school has a very, very fine pool of funds—relative to other schools—for loan forgiveness, but it’s not nearly enough. It’s a common experience for people who go to law school to say they’re not going to work in big firms and do good work for the world, but by the second or third year, they’ve changed their mind. And that’s fine, people should be able to change their mind and work in big firms. But, we should want as a society to make it possible, easier for more students to perform less lucrative, more meaningful legal careers.
Q. Are you willing to consider internal and external candidates for the deanship?
A. Yes, absolutely.
Q. What about the search for a new dean for the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation? What’s next for that school?
A. Mark Wigley, who will step down at the end of the academic year, has been a great dean and a very good friend. And he’s done a wonderful job in making the place an intellectual beehive and taking the school to the world and bringing the school to the world with Studio-X, which is done in collaboration with the global centers. I think more of that has to happen. I have the sense that the school is very much academically and intellectually alive and vital. They’re very eager to embrace technology, and have a culture of experimentation, and even radicalism, and very much engaged with practical things around the world. There’s a foundation there for someone to continue these things and have a very big impact.
Q. Last week, Spectator talked to Madigan about the Arts and Sciences budget. How can we solidify that budget?
A: I appointed David, I think the world of him, and I think he’s going to be great. I share his and others’ concerns that we need to get the Arts and Sciences budget richer. The Arts and Sciences at any university will never fund itself, at least at the level that we all want it to be, because the Arts and Sciences never generates the kind of resources that other schools are able to generate. We stretched this budget, and we have been putting very large amounts of money into the Arts and Sciences over the past decade.
We’re hopeful then, through greater collaboration with the college, which is happening, and greater resources coming through other means—fundraising is the principle one—that we are able to increase that budget. Arts and Sciences now has a budget, it is a good budget, it is a solid budget, but we need more funding and we’ve got ways to work on that.
Q. Madigan also said that attendance at Arts and Sciences faculty meetings has been low. How can attendance at these meetings be increased?
A. The way we’re going to get better attendance is to have serious issues raised. An example is the creation of the educational policy committee. That committee will focus on serious questions of courses, majors, undergraduate education, science, any number of issues. You want a system where a committee works on these things, investigates these things, writes a report, and it comes to the faculty for the decision. The expectation is that we’ll bring more and more substantive issues to the faculty for advice, but mostly for decision-making.
Q. Have you seen the results for the $30 million diversity initiative the University is pursuing to hire more diverse faculty?
A. One of the first things I said to David when I offered him the position, and he accepted, was that we still have to work on diversifying the faculty. It’s not just diversity in terms of a $30 million second- or third-phase program. It’s also the culture of the place, the kinds of subjects we value, the supports we give to people in a variety of ways. And we still have to work on this. We’re a long ways away from where we should be.
Q. Are you looking right now to hire a chief digital officer to replace Sree Sreenivasan?
A. Yes—that reports to Provost John Coatsworth.
Q. How would you say that structure of having a digital officer is working out in terms of online initiatives? As far as we could tell, there wasn’t a lot going on.
A. Well, I think it’s just right. I really mean that. This is probably an area that will be of great significance for universities and the world. I don’t have any doubt that this is an area of major change. This is not something that you want to underestimate, in the way that the press underestimated it 10 years ago, and arguably it’s paying a high cost.
On the other hand, you don’t want to jump into these things and spend an enormous amount of resources and energy when you can be just a little bit behind and watch other people and learn from their mistakes and successes. If you were to name the top places in the country that were experimenting with online education, you know, Columbia wouldn’t be in that top-five list. There’s actually a lot more going on here.
Q. So what’s going on?
A. Well, the big thing is the School of Continuing Education, which has developed this very successful hybrid model—come to the campus and then go off and do things online. This is a big change, there’s no doubt about it. You don’t want to underestimate it, but you can also waste a lot of money in it.
Q. You’re now the Seth Low Professor of the University. Why did that come up right now, 11 years into your tenure? Does it change anything for you?
A. It doesn’t. It’s a very nice, wonderful honor. The trustees wanted to do this and do it now, after 11 years. It does many things; I like the association with Seth Low.
But, most importantly, it gives me the freedom to teach in any place in the University. I’ve had that freedom as president, but this gives me the freedom after I step down.
This has nothing to do with when I’m stepping down, which remains in the future at some point. I’m making no plans about when that will be. I’m continuing to act as if I’ll do this forever, which, obviously, is not true. But the kind of illusion that this goes on and on is the right way to approach this job. It’s a great honor and I’m very appreciative.
Q. So you’ve thought about staying on past 2016, when your current contract expires?
A. Yeah. I’m not setting any date at this point.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Bollinger's contract expires in 2015. His contract expires in 2016. Spectator regrets the error.