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: The graduate schools are notably international. What about programs for undergraduates other than a year abroad?
Bollinger: We have introduced an interesting certificate program called the Fifth Year, which will focus on globalization. A small group of students who have just received their bachelor degrees from Columbia College, Engineering, and General Studies will each select a global issue with a faculty adviser and then spend the first six weeks of the year on campus taking courses and seminars. They will spend the following six months working at different Columbia Global Centers to pursue research and attend lectures from leading political figures, people in business, and people in NGOs, and then come back and spend the last month or two at Columbia putting it all together in a proseminar. We hope that this may be as significant an opportunity for students and faculty to learn about the world as the Core Curriculum was a hundred years ago.

CM: Have any of Columbia’s Global Centers had problems with academic freedom similar to the troubles that NYU has faced at its campus in Abu Dhabi?
Bollinger: Not in any significant ways. The world is a complicated place, and there are few countries with exactly the same value system as the United States. You have to start from the premise that if you’re going to be out in the broader world, whether with a branch campus or a center or some kind of program, you are going to be in societies that have policies, laws, practices, and customs that are contrary to those that we subscribe to in the United States.

As a beginning proposition, our understanding of the world depends upon our engaging with the world, even in places that are in conflict with our values. The alternative of retreating to your own base or your own country and not engaging with the broader world is a mistake. Every other institution, whether it’s our government, foundations, or business, has taken the path of more engagement rather than less.

The types of things universities do will pose different risks. Setting up a branch campus in places that do not value or respect academic freedom or freedom of expression is more dangerous than setting up a center that is lightly funded and not engaged in bringing in a student body and having a resident faculty. If you had a branch campus and the order came down from a government, “You shall not teach this subject because it might incite students to disrespect the government,” I think no self-respecting American institution would say, “Fine. We acknowledge that and we will conform.” There are some things we simply cannot tolerate.

With a major investment like a branch campus, you are at risk of very big costs of withdrawal, and that is one of the reasons why we have chosen to go the simpler route of Global Centers. In our case, we still have to work out the parameters for ourselves about what we will and will not accept in the way of limitations. But up to this point, we’re feeling good about the role the centers can play. Of course we also are trying to play a productive role in bringing the values of the United States and of American higher education to places that are less accommodating to it.

Of course everything comes down to this: What are we trying to do with the Global Centers, on Morningside Heights, and on the new Manhattanville campus? What are we trying to accomplish with our great missions of research, new knowledge, preserving knowledge, and educating the next generation of students? It is difficult for us to imagine just how great Columbia can be. That may sound strange. But almost every day I spend some time trying to make sure that I haven’t underestimated just how much this place is going to accomplish.

Read Columbia Magazine’s 2010 interview with Lee Bollinger on free speech, an independent press, and an unregulated Internet.

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