Columbia’s mission is to be “one of the world’s most important centers of research” with the goal to “support research and teaching on global issues.” It is with this global institutional mission in mind that President Lee Bollinger announced the creation of the Columbia Global Centers in 2009. Since this announcement, Columbia has opened nine global centers across the world in Aman, Beijing, Istanbul, Mumbai, Nairobi, Paris, Rio, Santiago, and Tunis. Bollinger, alongside professor Safwan Masri, the executive vice president for Global Centers, and various global center directors explained in a promotional video that these centers are meant to foster “global conversation on key issues that affect all of us and need to be solved” and to provide “real lessons from the ground to policy makers” that put Columbia “in a position to influence events” in cities globally.
Yet, despite the grand vision outlined by Bollinger in his glossy promotional video, it is unclear whether these global centers are actually producing their desired effect. Most of these centers consist of little more than a small staff located in nondescript office buildings in international cities. Many host few programs and do little more than provide basic support for faculty research in the area. In addition, they rarely provide support or services to undergraduates at all. An article in The Eye noted that only 169 students interacted with the Istanbul Global Center over its lifetime (including multiple interactions per student).
A particularly damning report, released by the Educational Policy and Planning Committee Task Force on Global Education in the Arts and Sciences in 2016, found that “Columbia University undergraduates appear to desire more, and more diverse, opportunities than are currently available ... [and] seem not to study abroad either at rates that are comparable to the student populations of many of our peers, or at the rates at which our own graduate students did so when they were at college.”
All of this raises the question: What, then, do these global centers actually achieve? Bollinger argues that they work to expand the reach of the University and help transform it into a global institution. However, if these global centers fail to engage meaningfully with undergraduates, host much programming, or provide much support for research, are they anything more than a marketing gimmick?
Bollinger recently announced the newest addition to his global vision for Columbia, the Columbia World Projects. The role of the program is to generate projects that solve real-world global problems. Yet, this premise raises an important question: What makes Columbia better able to solve international problems than politicians, leaders, and researchers in these countries? Given the sprawling inefficiency of Columbia’s bureaucracy, it is unclear to me that we have even managed to solve basic problems on our own campus.
This neoliberal vision of global leadership is at odds with how we should be showing leadership abroad. The very idea of attempting to “influence events” globally could even be called a form of cultural imperialism, in which American ideas are exported and imposed on people internationally. Perhaps rather than attempting to solve problems in other countries, we should begin by attempting to solve problems in the United States. Columbia’s neglect of national problems seems especially hypocritical when considering the amount of investment they receive from the federal government. Columbia receives large amounts of money, in the form of research grants, financial aid grants, and not paying taxes on property. With so much federal money helping underwrite the very existence of the University, does the University not have some obligation to American society?
Instead of prioritizing international efforts, Columbia should focus on training leaders at home. The few programs that do exist, like the Eric Holder Initiative which works to include undergraduates in conversations of domestic importance, are a step in the right direction. However, much more is needed. Another option would be to expand funding and programming for undergraduates in the new Manhattanville campus. Rather than having centers in cities like Tunis and Beijing, Columbia could open new centers in cities such as Memphis or Cincinnati. These centers could serve as hubs for alumni connection, faculty research, and work to create change in the area.
I chose to attend Columbia for its reputation as the activist Ivy and the place where passionate students who want to create change go to school. Yet, it is this very aspect of the Columbia student body that is so at odds with what the Columbia administration seems most interested in prioritizing. Columbia cannot claim to want to attract the activists and future leaders of the world if it is not willing to ensure that it has the resources and support necessary to prepare them to create this change. Perhaps instead of looking to create international projects, Columbia should focus on training the local leaders of tomorrow.
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