Walking the Walk

As Lee C. Bollinger begins his second decade as University president, he discusses some of his favorite topics: the new Manhattanville campus, Columbia’s Global Centers, and a Supreme Court case at the intersection of his work in law and higher education.

Published Fall 2012
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CM: What role does financial aid play in that?
Bollinger: In 2008 I announced that if your family makes less than $60,000 a year, you come free to Columbia College or the engineering school. That’s amazing. If you are entitled under our formulas, we will not expect you to take loans. We will give grants. This was a major reach for Columbia to build on the extraordinary financial-aid commitments that we have had for a long time. These are very generous terms, and they are consistent with the American ideal that the education of a young person should not depend on the wealth of his family or his circumstances; that it’s too important a pivot point in a person’s life to make wealth the determining factor of where one goes for an education and what kind of education he or she gets.

There are very few universities in the United States that live closer to that ideal than Columbia. Seventeen percent of the students in last year’s College and engineering undergraduate classes received federally funded Pell Grants, the highest number in the Ivy League. That is one sign of our commitment to socioeconomic diversity.

CM: That still leaves a large percentage of students who either pay full fare or have to take out loans.
Bollinger: Yes, it is important to recognize that for someone who is not qualified for financial aid and pays the full amount, it costs a large sum of money to attend Columbia. I don’t mean in any way to minimize the number of students who graduate with significant loans and indebtedness. But the opportunities they will have over a lifetime because of what they received at Columbia make those burdens well worth that.

I work all the time trying to increase our financial aid, and I think we’re doing very well in that, thanks in large measure to the success of the campaign. We’re also trying to raise funds for those students, especially in the School of General Studies and the professional schools, who want to pursue careers in public service and need loan forgiveness in order to make those choices.

Without new space, universities wither. They don't die, but they do become less than what they could be.

CM: It is rare that you speak publicly without talking about globalization and its implications.
Bollinger: In the space of a decade, the world has become a different place. Anyone who has gone to China over a period of decades, for example, knows how much that country has done to change itself. The same goes for Russia, India, Brazil, and so on. The staggering change in the world is a result of the embrace of forms of capitalism and the flows of international finance, business, trade, and investment. This is the driving force of enormous transformation in the world, a transformation that is as great and as fundamental as any other age you can think of.

We have seen a near collapse of the world’s financial system. One of the things that has come out of that is a recognition that we simply do not understand how the world financial system really works. The resources of the world are finite, and the environment is under threat. What do we really understand about the policies that should be put in place? What about the global institutions that were created largely out of the Second World War era? Are they adequate to this new world? These are questions that people in law, political science, science, engineering, the humanities, and public health are facing, and universities need to explore them. As the world raced by in the past ten years, we have not adjusted fast enough. It is not in the nature of universities to move as quickly as the outside world does. We tend to think more deeply about problems, and that means that the time we have to adjust to a new world is different.

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