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Columbia Spectator Staff

Columbia's Italian Academy has perhaps the lowest rent in New York City, paying $100 per year for its building at Amsterdam Avenue and 117th Street. The only catch is that the academy must keep paying that rent to the Italian government for the next 500 years. The Italian government established the academy at Columbia when it bought the building in 1991, and the academy continues to promote advanced Italian research through its fellowship program. But while the academy also holds events on Italian influence and pioneers work that fuses art and science, it is lacking in undergraduate participation, and most undergraduates can't even get into the building, except during events. Italy continues to appoint IA board members, who at times disagree with decisions made by IA administrators, raising questions about the role of a foreign government in a private university. "Sometimes, as in fact this past semester, we have industrialists on our board appointed by the foreign ministry—in fact by the Berlusconi government—who have tried to pressure us," academy director David Freedberg said. 'Different priorities' Columbia appoints six members of the academy's board, and the Italian government appoints the other six. The current Italian members, who were appointed under the government of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, have at times tried to insist that the academy's leadership follow their recommendations, Freedberg said. He added that the Italian Academy is part of an independent American institution and will stay that way. "I received a complaint this semester that the fellowships, which we assigned, had not been in line with the Italian government's policy," he said. "And I have sternly rejected this." Columbia-appointed board member Jonathan Cole, University provost emeritus, said that the attempts at influence are the result of cultural as well as personal differences. "As you might expect," Cole said in an email, "coming from different backgrounds they have different priorities from their own Italian colleagues and occasionally with some of the Columbia guarantors." For Freedberg, these tensions were a feature of the Berlusconi government. The recent shift in leadership—Berlusconi resigned amid economic unrest last month—may alter the way Italian-appointed board members and academy leadership interact. "The Berlusconi government has just fallen," Freedberg said. "And I am looking forward to times in which the board members will be more supportive." An Italy-appointed board member did not respond to a request for comment over the weekend. Undergraduates and the academy The academy is not a cultural house, but rather an institute which supports research fellows. Built in 1927, the neo-Renaissance style building includes a library, exhibition area, salon, theater, and conference room but remains closed to undergraduates except during events. Most undergraduates who try to get in will be told via an intercom that they need an appointment or should join the academy's mailing list. Some undergraduates have expressed interest in spending time at the academy and planning events there. "It's so pretty. I love it. I wish it were open for students to use," Khadi Singh, SEAS '13, said. "If we could use it for free for student events that would be great." Freedberg said that it would be a security issue to allow students to spend free time at the academy, since the space is meant to be used by fellows first and foremost. "The only argument you could make is that maybe it would be nice to hang out," Freedberg said. "But then we would need, A, much more security, and B, we would have to think about the well-being of our 20 fellows every year." "Someday it would be nice if our library could be open to all of Columbia, but that right now the charter asks us to look after the fellows doing advanced studies," IA communications director Abigail Asher said. Freedberg suggested the possibility of setting up guided tours several times a week as a solution, although Yasir Diab, SEAS '12, said tours wouldn't give students enough access to the academy's resources. "I would like to explore more stuff with Italian culture," he said. "I think it should be more accessible to students." Asher said that the academy welcomes undergraduate classes, asking professors who teach Italian-related material to conduct their lectures in public a few times per month. The academy is also using funds from an Italian foundation to fund visiting professors in the art history and Italian departments beginning next spring. "We've managed to bring in funding that benefits not only us in the Italian Academy but also other departments at the university," Asher said. What makes a global center? Columbia has announced or opened eight global centers in the last few years—part of University President Lee Bollinger's push to make Columbia a more international university. None of those centers are in Italy, but Freedberg called the Italian Academy a "global center" in its own right, since it's already a hub of international research and studies. "We bring the globe to Columbia," Freedberg said. "We contribute effectively and locally to the whole project of global centers." The academy regularly hosts Italian leaders and recently brought in the head of the Italian National Bank to discuss the debt crisis in Italy. "I actually think that we are the center of the future of the world economy right here," Freedberg said, regarding this event. "And if students had been attentive they could have seen it all happening here." History professor Victoria de Grazia, a senior fellow at the Italian Academy, foresees a relationship between the IA and the Paris global center, of which she is the director. "No doubt the Academy will work with the new CGC-E," the Columbia Global Center–Europe, de Grazia said in an e-mail, "ideally by building on its own rich contacts with Italian scholarly networks and university institutions, and which represent some very advanced global thinking."

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