“What did you do in Chinatown, Jake?”

“As little as possible.”

Let it be known that President Bollinger has not modeled his presidency after Jake Gittes, the former Chinatown beat cop turned jaded private eye at the center of the classic neo-noir film Chinatown. Instead of doing as little as possible in a single neighborhood, Bollinger, the idealist to Gittes’s cynic, has attempted to maximize Columbia’s engagement with the entire world.

In his declaration heralding the newly-founded Columbia World Projects—a universitywide initiative that brings together faculty and nonacademics to work on practical, solvable issues—President Bollinger stresses that any project undertaken within this initiative has to have a clearly defined goal which can be attained in “more or less five years.” That’s right, comrades: PrezBo has his own version of the Five Year Plan. Yet, while the USSR’s Five Year Plan had to do with objects of concrete production—such as, say, concrete—CWP has set the altogether more lofty goal of “solving human problems.” Its first project is called ACToday, and it seeks to increase access to accurate weather and climate information to farmers in six different countries that are vulnerable to climate change.

This is a laudable effort, but there is a certain irony in combating climate change by flying American scientists around the world in the very jumbo jets that contribute to it. This points to a larger conceptual paradox of Bollinger’s version of global engagement and development: that the ideal end result is one where the world stays mostly the same—airplanes and all—except, well, better.

The countries ACToday has selected already have meteorological systems in place and CWP steps in to improve them. The goal is to add to, not subtract from, a high tech, liberal world marketplace. Bollinger applies this vision to CWP in the initiative’s mission statement, proclaiming “developments in recent decades of greater and greater interconnectedness … have created or accelerated highly complex problems.” And his answer to problems caused by interconnectedness? More interconnectedness!

Presumably, Bollinger wants to ameliorate the harmful effects of interconnectedness—climate change, inequitable trade, political division, etc.—with the good effects embodied by CWP. But what if the status quo of global interconnection itself is the problem? I’m not saying that all global engagement is bad—that would be absurd. However, interaction of any kind provides the soil in which moral corruption takes root, simply because morality is largely the study of how human interaction ought to work. Unless he spends all day torturing seagulls, a lone man on a desert island lives mostly outside of morality’s precepts, since there’s no one around for him to hurt or help. Conversely, the more human interaction there is, the greater chance there is of both moral triumphs like CWP, and moral slip-ups—like how NYU Abu Dhabi has been accused of mistreating migrant workers—simply because there are more people upon whom actions might be visited.

Ethicist Thomas Pogge transforms this observation into the so-called relational theory of global justice: The reason rich countries should help poor countries with their development is that we share a “global institutional order” that does harm to them through things like climate change and unfair trade. The implication here is that if this order didn’t exist, then neither would the duty of justice. If Columbia and all other global institutions were to pull back from global engagement, the need for initiatives like CWP would decline in kind.

Global expansion creates possibilities for both good deeds and wrongdoing. But the more complex the web of global connections is, the harder it is to tell whether you’re doing the right thing. Is flying on an airplane to attend a climate conference unethical? I honestly don’t know. Chinatown’s screenwriter Robert Towne explained that he came up with that line—“As little as possible”—after talking with a Chinatown beat cop. Giving that same answer, the cop explained that the complex web of gangs and factions in Chinatown “made it impossible for the police to know whether their interventions were helping victims or furthering their exploitation.”

Today’s global citizens are in the very same position.

“What did you do in Chinatown, Jake?”

“As little as possible.”

Let it be known that President Bollinger has not modeled his presidency after Jake Gittes, the former Chinatown beat cop turned jaded private eye at the center of the classic neo-noir film Chinatown. Instead of doing as little as possible in a single neighborhood, Bollinger, the idealist to Gittes’s cynic, has attempted to maximize Columbia’s engagement with the entire world.

Jeremy Mack is a first-year English major at the School of General Studies.

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By JEREMY MACK
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Helen Yang / Staff Illustrator

Discourse & Debate: Should Columbia continue to expand its global influence?

The Office of the President states that during Lee Bollinger’s 16 years as University President he has fostered “an innovative and sustainable approach to global engagement,” despite evidence showing that the university has invested in or partnered with foreign and domestic institutions that have questionable backgrounds. As undergraduates, should we support his efforts to expand Columbia abroad?

Growing up, I attended a series of predominantly white, middle-class Evangelical churches. True to the name, evangelism formed a large part of the churches' focus. As a kid, I was told that if I cared about my friends I needed to tell them about Jesus. My young conscience weighed heavy for being too shy to push my religious beliefs down others' throats, risking their eternal souls in the process. As a teenager, I saw peers who could afford the travel costs take annual mission trips to historically colonized nations to spread the word of God, maybe dig a well, and take pictures with cute Black and Brown orphans before departing after a few weeks.

When I hear about President Bollinger's ambitions to expand Columbia as a global institution through initiatives such as Columbia World Projects and Columbia Global Centers, I remember all the times I was seated in church, listening to a (usually white) missionary couple tell the congregation about their calling to live and preach the Word in Africa, Latin America, or Asia before collecting donations from the faithful. But I've often found that the same people who would travel the world in pursuit of souls to save would then turn a blind eye when those same souls are tear gassed seeking sanctuary at our own borders. This cognitive dissonance—using a humanitarian argument to justify cultural imperialism abroad while denying the humanity of the marginalized at home—is also at the structural foundation of Columbia's interactions with the rest of the world.

In his introduction to Columbia World Projects, President Bollinger asserts the "moral imperative" that universities must become more involved in a world that is in danger of falling apart without our intervention. He invokes concerns about the insecurity of the post-World War II liberal democratic order, noting a "pronounced turn toward authoritarianism" and an "intellectual deficit about how to build a better home for all mankind."

The narrative goes that America, shining city on a hill, has been the champion of liberal democracy in the world for the past few decades. But now, as Donald Trump undermines the benevolent interventionism that had been understood to be America's secular "Great Commission," it is time for universities like Columbia to rise to the challenge of being a global leader.

"Global leader" is a trendy buzzword in our age of connectedness, and it's one that organizations ranging from universities to companies like to appropriate for their image. But the idea that an institution like Columbia should be a global leader is troubling in and of itself. We shouldn't be leading at all. The idea that it is privileged saviors from Western nations who will fix the world by imposing their "superior" ideas and knowledge on others dates back centuries. If Bollinger and Columbia are truly motivated by a desire to solve world problems rather than a desire for prestige, influence, and acclaim, we should take the lead of local organizers living in the areas we're going into who are directly affected by Columbia’s decision-making process.

Privileged elites, especially privileged white elites like President Bollinger, cannot possibly have more than a conceptual understanding of the problems that cause suffering around the world; we should use our power and resources to back up the decisions of the marginalized who have lived with these issues.

We also must use our resources to rectify injustices we ourselves have caused before we try to "save" the world. This often means focusing on issues close to home, such as the gentrification of Harlem and the local housing crisis that we have played a large role in causing. It means paying reparations. It means listening to students of marginalized backgrounds, local residents, and Columbia employees and bringing their voices into the process.

There is a saying I believe originated with intellectual and activist Su'ad Abdul Khabeer: "You don't need to be a voice for the voiceless. Just pass the mic." Crucially, people aren't voiceless; we just aren't listening. If we want to make the world a better place, it's time to pass the mic.

Growing up, I attended a series of predominantly white, middle-class Evangelical churches. True to the name, evangelism formed a large part of the churches' focus. As a kid, I was told that if I cared about my friends I needed to tell them about Jesus. My young conscience weighed heavy for being too shy to push my religious beliefs down others' throats, risking their eternal souls in the process. As a teenager, I saw peers who could afford the travel costs take annual mission trips to historically colonized nations to spread the word of God, maybe dig a well, and take pictures with cute Black and Brown orphans before departing after a few weeks.

When I hear about President Bollinger's ambitions to expand Columbia as a global institution through initiatives such as Columbia World Projects and Columbia Global Centers, I remember all the times I was seated in church, listening to a (usually white) missionary couple tell the congregation about their calling to live and preach the Word in Africa, Latin America, or Asia before collecting donations from the faithful. But I've often found that the same people who would travel the world in pursuit of souls to save would then turn a blind eye when those same souls are tear gassed seeking sanctuary at our own borders. This cognitive dissonance—using a humanitarian argument to justify cultural imperialism abroad while denying the humanity of the marginalized at home—is also at the structural foundation of Columbia's interactions with the rest of the world.

In his introduction to Columbia World Projects, President Bollinger asserts the "moral imperative" that universities must become more involved in a world that is in danger of falling apart without our intervention. He invokes concerns about the insecurity of the post-World War II liberal democratic order, noting a "pronounced turn toward authoritarianism" and an "intellectual deficit about how to build a better home for all mankind."

Tiffany Dimm is a sophomore at Columbia College majoring in English. She’s involved in Student-Worker Solidarity and Columbia Divest for Climate Justice.

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By TIFFANY DIMM
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If one associates Columbia solely with the confines of Morningside Heights, Manhattanville, and other parts of Uptown Manhattan, then they are willfully ignoring the University’s Global Centers. These Global Centers are said to initiate Columbia students and professors into the intellectual and cultural landscape of various countries around the world. In Mumbai, the Center works with students, professors, and environmentally conscious organizations to better air conditions. In Brazil, the Columbia Women’s Leadership Network connects and empowers women in their various career pursuits. Ultimately, it is enticing for students to have chances to explore new places, intern at internationally recognized companies, and cultivate new networks.

The job of the Ivy League is to train leading minds and send them into the real world to solve real world issues. At these Global Centers, this is possible because you are no longer just a Columbia student, but a global scholar.

Yet, as Columbia—a massively endowed and elite educational institution—continues to establish itself in global communities, I am concerned about the social implications of an extensive global outreach. In Columbia’s desire to enhance their international impact by sending students to various countries and partnering with multi-million dollar organizations, does Columbia not also have a responsibility to its surrounding neighborhoods?

While I can see the benefits of traveling the world in an attempt to address the world’s problems, I am a firm believer in resolving structural inequities in one’s own backyard first. For Columbia, this means Harlem, Manhattanville, and other communities Uptown. I think that in order to make transformational change in society, one needs to focus on how inequalities are produced around them, rather than distance oneself from any personal responsibility. As Columbia becomes more active internationally, the University needs to rectify its conflicts with Harlem, as it pertains to the expansion into Manhattanville and other issues.

Therefore, I am juggling several difficult realities as I both recognize students’ global interests and can acknowledge the issues we’re dealing with locally. In the name of global outreach, I do not want to see this school ignore its duty to a neighborhood impacted by institutional forms of oppression.

Columbia’s mission of global outreach appears to convince students that their work can make a difference somewhere other than the neighborhood in which they currently live. And I believe that our academic goals can and should respond to pressing matters in our society—both globally and locally—as our shared histories can be improved through intellectual curiosity and determination. While we should refrain from becoming insular to the point that we never move past our relatively comfortable bubbles in the U.S., we must recognize that elite institutions, like our own, often ignore the people closest to us when attempting to “save the world.”

I believe it is worthwhile to imagine—without a savior complex—how to positively restore American and international communities that have been wronged by our institutions. And as I am oftentimes reminded of the inherent inequities embedded in academia, I think it is important to consider how students, and young people in general, can be ethically and morally responsible thinkers. Additionally, we should contemplate how to use our privileges to give platforms to those disenfranchised by society’s power structures.

If one associates Columbia solely with the confines of Morningside Heights, Manhattanville, and other parts of Uptown Manhattan, then they are willfully ignoring the University’s Global Centers. These Global Centers are said to initiate Columbia students and professors into the intellectual and cultural landscape of various countries around the world. In Mumbai, the Center works with students, professors, and environmentally conscious organizations to better air conditions. In Brazil, the Columbia Women’s Leadership Network connects and empowers women in their various career pursuits. Ultimately, it is enticing for students to have chances to explore new places, intern at internationally recognized companies, and cultivate new networks.

The job of the Ivy League is to train leading minds and send them into the real world to solve real world issues. At these Global Centers, this is possible because you are no longer just a Columbia student, but a global scholar.

Tova Ricardo is a sophomore in Columbia College studying English and sociology.

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By TOVA RICARDO

In his bestseller Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz notes that the modern education system is an uneasy compromise between the English liberal arts college—which prioritizes great books and the big questions—and the German research university, a vocational behemoth that prioritizes measurable results.

Given both the recent popularity of double majors and the high status afforded to careers in consulting and finance, it's clear that the German vocational model is giving the liberal arts a run for its money. President Bollinger has taken this view global in recent years, with new international research programs. Yet the liberal arts model—the one enshrined in the Columbia Core—benefits people our age more than the purely vocational model does.

However, while Columbia undergraduates should recognize the importance of a liberal arts education, they should also consider how Columbia's research-oriented global initiatives will affect their efforts to pursue that education. On the surface, the results-oriented approach advanced through Bollinger’s international projects contradicts the purpose of the liberal arts, but it can also be seen as a means of their defense.

Columbia’s global initiatives comprise two main programs: Columbia Global Centers, which are essentially outposts and research centers in eight cities around the world; and Columbia World Projects, which aims to match the university's research with real-world initiatives that produce tangible results. CWP’s first project, launched this spring, focuses on food security. These programs place an emphasis on research, real world results, and institutional prestige, which are all aspects necessary for the survival of the modern university. In a world hostile to such superfluities as intellectual inquiry, the global projects provide cover for the liberal arts.

There are two threats to academic freedom that we should consider for the purpose of our discussion. First, populists groping for power in the mold of George Wallace castigate today's "pointy-headed college professors." This anti-intellectual compulsion has long been a feature of American politics, but it takes a global dimension in the context of creeping authoritarianism. No two countries' situations are ever identical, but a common thread winds through Erdogan's jailing of academics and Orbán's persecution of a Western-style research university, among other illiberal assaults on the production of knowledge.

The second threat comes from moral relativists who argue that Columbia’s global leadership “could even be called a form of cultural imperialism, in which American ideas are exported and imposed on people internationally.” What makes Columbia better able to solve international problems than politicians, leaders, and researchers in these countries? Does the University not have some obligation to American society?

The premise of these questions apes the logically bankrupt reasoning of “America First” isolationism. In today's world, international problems have international consequences. Action on non-proliferation, climate change, and managing migration flows can only come from cooperation between governments and non-state actors, including universities. (And besides, the global programs don't prevent Columbia from pursuing projects closer to home.) But even more frighteningly, incipient disbelief in the value of liberal principles over their alternatives has gradually taken hold, one could reasonably say, thanks in part to this worldview.

All of this isn’t to argue that Columbia's Global Centers are perfect. The one in Beijing practices self-censorial appeasement of China’s totalitarian overlords. Some fault others for lacking connection to undergraduate student life. Faculty question why resources are diverted to far-flung outposts instead of to buildings on campus.

However, as the proponents of closed societies exploit global anxieties and as relativists protest the spread of "American ideas," the University must hold its ground. The global initiatives can help Columbia do this by producing measurable results that justify university research, and give decision makers the requisite knowledge to confront modern challenges. Even more important, the implementation of solutions based on this research can prove that the University is a force for good, not the navel-gazing clique that its opponents love to hate.

In his bestseller Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz notes that the modern education system is an uneasy compromise between the English liberal arts college—which prioritizes great books and the big questions—and the German research university, a vocational behemoth that prioritizes measurable results.

Given both the recent popularity of double majors and the high status afforded to careers in consulting and finance, it's clear that the German vocational model is giving the liberal arts a run for its money. President Bollinger has taken this view global in recent years, with new international research programs. Yet the liberal arts model—the one enshrined in the Columbia Core—benefits people our age more than the purely vocational model does.

Jimmy Quinn is a junior in the School of General Studies majoring in political science. He’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you disagree. Reach him at jtq2104@columbia.edu or on Twitter @realjimmyquinn.

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By JIMMY QUINN

I’m almost tempted to say we have no obligation to care about Bollinger’s Global mission at all—undergraduates to the University are but mayflies, after all. We will eventually grow to be potentially influential alumni that might serve in the Alumni Recruitment Committee or as professors, or as donors, or as trustees, but the question is should we care now, while we’re more concerned about what we’re going to do when we get out of here? I would say no, but that would undermine the entire point of student council, student representation in the University Senate, and student journalism in one fell swoop, and I have a vested interest in preserving student journalism. So the answer actually has to be yes. In fact, there shouldn’t be any excuse for not caring about this issue as members of the Columbia community.

Indeed, scholarship can’t escape the pressures of globalization. You will cite non-American scholars, and we say we want you to be able to cite non-Western scholars. You’ll read about the tragedy globalization has visited upon the global climate, history, even our ability to understand to what extent we can speak up. You’ll meet and learn under professors who have dedicated part of their lives to understanding and helping other parts of the globe and who take that with them as part of their scholarly mission. So why would we imagine that we could escape into our future careers from responsibility to this question?

The idea of a global Columbia sounds sensible enough. Universities have had study abroad programs for years now. Instead of fighting over the small space SSOL provides for Art and Music Humanities, you can go to Paris and see Reid Hall, the closest thing we have to a foreign campus. In Kenya, we’re helping midwives identify oral cancers, we’re addressing nutritional needs in India, and we’re exporting the University Senate’s resolution on academic freedom to Turkey.

Wait, no. That was wrong. My bad. We certainly collaborate with Turkey on projects through the Global Center in Istanbul. We gave courts in Turkey our first Global Freedom of Expression Prize for freeing up access to the internet. Funny how one year later, Turkey started blocking the internet again. And they started arresting academics. I don’t know how many academics are versed in exercising academic freedom from prison, but maybe that can be a University Seminar. A petition site led by some of the academics asked for comment from the Global Centers and they were told that America would monitor the situation as it develops.

I meant Columbia. I always get those two confused.

Make no mistake: This is a foreign policy question. It asks whether Columbia should, in doing valuable research, conduct affairs through a human rights lens. This is a complicated notion. What does human rights mean in this context? Are academic rights a Western concept that we are imposing unto the world? I thought we all agreed it would be a good thing if everyone respected these basic principles? These are debates that I’ve always wanted to have and that we as students have an immediate connection to—yet recent headlines balk at the low turnout of the easiest election system you’ll ever vote in.

We have as much responsibility to these questions now as we will when we vote on foreign policy issues in the ballot box, and so I see those headlines, and the seeming disinterest some (though not all) students have towards Columbia as a political entity, as boring and passé.

Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to go enjoy the perfectly symmetrical lawn before Columbia covers it up for spring semester.

I’m almost tempted to say we have no obligation to care about Bollinger’s Global mission at all—undergraduates to the University are but mayflies, after all. We will eventually grow to be potentially influential alumni that might serve in the Alumni Recruitment Committee or as professors, or as donors, or as trustees, but the question is should we care now, while we’re more concerned about what we’re going to do when we get out of here? I would say no, but that would undermine the entire point of student council, student representation in the University Senate, and student journalism in one fell swoop, and I have a vested interest in preserving student journalism. So the answer actually has to be yes. In fact, there shouldn’t be any excuse for not caring about this issue as members of the Columbia community.

Indeed, scholarship can’t escape the pressures of globalization. You will cite non-American scholars, and we say we want you to be able to cite non-Western scholars. You’ll read about the tragedy globalization has visited upon the global climate, history, even our ability to understand to what extent we can speak up. You’ll meet and learn under professors who have dedicated part of their lives to understanding and helping other parts of the globe and who take that with them as part of their scholarly mission. So why would we imagine that we could escape into our future careers from responsibility to this question?

Ufon Umanah is the investigations editor for The Blue and White, the undergraduate magazine of Columbia University. You can find him at @ufonumanah or at The Jotting Jay.

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By UFON UMANAH

To respond to this installment of Discourse & Debate, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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