When University President Lee Bollinger announced the launch of Columbia Commitment in spring 2017, the $5-billion-in-5-year campaign proposed a vision for the University with seven major initiatives specifically geared toward connecting scholarly work with broad, global impact.
Since then, Columbia Commitment has sped past its intended timeline, raising $3 billion in just two years. The campaign has successfully endowed a fund to eliminate student loans for medical students who qualify for financial aid—currently half of the Columbia University Medical School student body. It also provides support for Columbia World Projects, an initiative that intends to connect scholars with global organizations and generate impactful solutions to real-world problems.
On a broader scale, Bollinger’s vision has propelled Columbia into the top three national world universities, as ranked by U.S. News, for the first time ever, where it sits ahead of Stanford and ties with Yale for the third spot.
Columbia Commitment arose amid complaints from faculty over what many feel is a significant lack of support for Arts and Sciences—the budgetary unit that includes Columbia College and the School of General Studies—to cover basic necessities, such as expanding the faculty and maintaining buildings with poor facilities. Out of the $5 billion raised centrally, Bollinger has promised that $1.5 billion will be allocated specifically to A&S in an attempt to address these complaints. Of that amount, $400 million has been raised by Core to Commencement, a campaign specifically launched by Columbia College for the core needs of the undergraduate student body.
Yet, despite significant milestones, A&S faculty still cite the same financial concerns that have persisted for years. While Bollinger touts a University-wide vision of global expansion on a scale meant to place Columbia among the handful of the top educational institutions worldwide, A&S faculty claim that they have not yet seen—and don’t expect to see—funding for basic resources, including new faculty members, functioning facilities, and classroom spaces. Moreover, Arts and Sciences faces particular budgetary challenges this year, according to Maya Tolstoy, interim A&S executive vice president.
In response to these challenges, Bollinger has maintained that donors are hesitant to donate to less visible core needs and prefer broader initiatives that have an impact on the outside world. The job of a central campaign, according to Bollinger, is to connect core values with a broader global vision.
“You actually enhance the giving to the basic core of the institution by having major initiatives,” Bollinger said in an interview with Spectator. “You cover more fundraising bases and are doing more good things for the institution internally by having major initiatives and by trying to raise the underlying money. … Some people stress more of the fundamentals. … I’m not persuaded by that.”
Though Bollinger’s global pitch and carefully executed plans in collaboration with donors have brought in several significant gifts, not all agree with his strategy. Interviews with recent donors show that Columbia’s core values and vision—one centered on a strong liberal arts education with an interdisciplinary approach to the humanities and sciences—can be as appealing as, if not more appealing than, an image of a globally influential university. While other universities tout their global outreach, donors have gravitated to Columbia for its unique emphasis on its humanities core, something many of those other institutions are slowly phasing out.
According to a statement from Amelia Alverson, executive vice president for University development and alumni relations, Columbia Commitment broadly addresses both the University’s strong liberal arts tradition and outward-facing, research-based problem solving. In the statement, Alverson cited close collaboration with administrative faculty of Arts and Sciences in structuring the campaign around the University’s core values.
“The Columbia Commitment is structured around the University's core values and seeks to inspire supporters by celebrating scholarly initiatives emblematic of those values, including, prominently, the work of our Arts and Sciences faculty to stem climate change, advance precision medicine, and promote more just societies,” the statement read.
However, faculty from A&S—many of whom have expressed significant willingness to be more involved in the development processes of fundraising—feel a lack of representation both in terms of the campaign’s broader vision and the behind-the-scenes planning.
According to Peter de Menocal, dean of natural sciences, a discrepancy is particularly clear in regards to faculty participation in development teams for scientific initiatives—across four development teams, only three of twenty faculty come from natural science departments within Arts and Sciences.
“If we were really prioritizing fundraising for the sciences, there would be a development effort that was commensurate with that,” de Menocal said. “That is true for neuroscience, for precision medicine, for data science. But a larger campus initiative, which embraces the core vision of Arts and Sciences—that’s what falls between the cracks of the University initiatives.”
Oliver Simons, chair of the department of Germanic languages, said that the campaign has the potential to increase Arts and Sciences’ presence in global projects and grow its research into these areas. However, he argued that none of these are areas fundamentally connected with the core operations of Arts and Sciences, and, because of the way the campaign is structured, the funds coming into departments will still fail to address basic needs.
“Bollinger wants us to contribute to something that he sees as the future of Columbia. But we won’t get more faculty, we won’t repair many of our facilities, or grow our own vision in that core context,” Simons said. “That was never the idea. It’s about growing in the context of these global projects.”
A&S faculty emphasized that the University’s central fundraising initiatives have focused on broad goals and expansions, particularly large projects—including “Precision Medicine,” “Global Solutions,” and “Data and Society”—that have little connection with basic scientific and humanistic inquiry that lies at the core of a liberal arts education.
Contrary to Bollinger’s proposition, however, Core to Commencement donors, when asked whether they could be convinced to donate to such core needs outside the context of global expansion, expressed enthusiasm about contributing to the fundamental values of the University.
According to Lynn Chen-Zhang, a trustee at Western Michigan University who donated over a million dollars to Core to Commencement, the choice was easy. Citing the broadness of “Global Solutions” and “Precision Medicine” initiatives, Chen-Zhang, whose two sons graduated from Columbia College, said that donors might prefer to know that their money will directly contribute to improving the education of students who attend the University. As such, Chen-Zhang chose to endow a professor in the economics department.
“If you tell me to donate to a cause like fixing the world, like you have in the Columbia Commitment, it sounds good, but very ideal. I think for quite a number of donors like myself, it’s more realistic to focus on fixing the things that we can fix,” Cheng-Zhang said. “I trust the mission of Core to Commencement, because I believe 100 percent that my money would bring the impact I want to bring.”
Paul Brooke, CC ’67, said he donated to Core to Commencement for similar reasons. While Brooke emphasized that global influence is an important aspect of any university, he said that the core values of Columbia are particularly special at a time when other institutions are turning away from basic scientific and humanistic inquiry.
“As universities have deserted this core, I felt it appropriate that this core be protected. I don’t care about making 100 people a little bit of return, I care about making 5 people a great return,” Brooke said. “I think the Core is linked to an educated leadership competent citizenship of which there is a growing need in the world.”
According to Henry Kravis, BS ’69, however, the outward-facing expansion into Manhattanville—one which directly promises opportunities for community outreach as well as greater global influence—inspired his donation of $100 million to support Columbia Business School’s move to the new campus.
“What is most exciting to me about the move to Manhattanville is that it offers increased opportunities for the School to connect with fellow New Yorkers, especially those who own small businesses in the Morningside Heights, West Harlem, and greater New York City communities,” Kravis said in a statement to the Business school alumni website.
David Boies, a lawyer who is unaffiliated with the University but a partner of former board of trustees chair Jonathan Schiller, said that he donated to Core to Commencement because of it provided an avenue through which he could make a direct impact on the education of undergraduate students, and thereby influence future global leaders. While Boies said that he could understand why other donors could find broader, global initiatives more appealing, he emphasized that the core values of Columbia were particularly attractive and unique.
“If you look at the Core Curriculum at Columbia, that’s really a unique contribution to the University and the world. That is something that helps make the institution what it is, and that in turn is something that help make attractive many other global initiatives,” Boies said. “Without the core commitment of Columbia, you don’t have a university at all.”
Citing her collaboration with numerous donors, Chen-Zhang said that if Columbia were to leverage its unique focus on core educational values, a greater vision dependent on core needs could be appealing even to donors who are not affiliated with the University.
“With Columbia you are definitely in a unique position because of the Core Curriculum,” Chen-Zhang said. “Tell potential donors that the University is trying to equip its students with knowledge and depth that isn’t found anywhere else, and I know they will be receptive.”
Drawing from his perspective as a donor, Boies said that the opportunity to interface with faculty members more personally would be greatly attractive to donors in providing a personal connection.
“Faculty at Columbia is a terrifically impressive group. When a donor or potential donor interacts with them, they see in a concrete way what their contribution is helping to sustain,” Boies said. “It is something that gives anybody who is fortunate enough to be able to make a contribution a sense of real satisfaction to see actual embodiment of what they’ve done.”
Bollinger, in an interview with Spectator last spring, acknowledged that there is always more room for faculty involvement in central fundraising initiatives, particularly to generate more visibility and relationships with donors. However, Bollinger said, there are currently more faculty who want to be involved than are ultimately included in development processes.
“It’s absolutely right that you want to try to involve faculty in various settings in order to convey the message of what they’re doing and how great it is and to get people excited,” Bollinger said. “A lot of this fundraising is building relationships, it’s not just saying ‘faculty are doing really interesting things, let’s support them.’”
But most faculty are not consulted or informed during early stages of development planning—when many decisions are made regarding the direction and focus of a campaign—and are therefore not given the opportunity to participate in areas where they should have been able to provide input.
Pointing to the history department’s success in fundraising through individual faculty outreach, Fredrick Harris, dean of social sciences, said that there is definitively more room for broader outreach and engagement from central initiatives on a departmental level.
“Faculty involvement would definitely be a great chance to make our departments more visible, and I know many would be very much happy to do that,” Harris said. “Our faculty should be fundamental in the fundraising process, and it would also help to inform us about what’s going on. Right now, the only thing we’re hearing is ‘we’ve raised x amount of dollars.’”
Sarah Cole, dean of humanities, referred to Harvard and Yale as universities that encourage a culture of fundraising at a faculty level. While Cole said that faculty clearly cannot be involved randomly or at all levels of fundraising, she noted a lack of involvement even at the level of divisional deans.
“For myself, [dean of humanities] hasn’t been a fundraising role,” she said. “Some of my peers at Harvard and Yale are meeting with donors, but some of the culture of fundraising that is permeated throughout the leadership that you do have throughout some of our peer institutions isn’t really the Columbia way.”
Citing a greater level of faculty involvement in fundraising efforts at other universities, Reichman said that Columbia effectively shuts out many voices from the broader conversation by not informing them of many fundraising goals, preventing many aspects of Arts and Sciences’ core vision from gaining greater visibility.
“I have the sense that you’re not supposed to be involved [in central fundraising],” Reichman said. “There’s been a long-term stated desire to fundraise for the core sciences, but I don’t know how that’s going to happen if you don’t let faculty get involved and don’t hear more of their perspectives.”