The Big Idea: Bold Ideas, Real Impact

by Sally Lee Published Summer 2017
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With the opening of the Manhattanville campus and the launch of an ambitious fundraising campaign, President Lee C. Bollinger says Columbia will have the space and resources to turn even more academic breakthroughs into real-world solutions. We asked him to describe a few of the exciting new initiatives that will enable the University to lead the way forward.

Columbia Magazine: The University is a very different institution today than it was when you arrived in 2002, and there’s certainly a new sense of energy and momentum on campus. How has Columbia changed in the time you’ve been here? 
Lee C. Bollinger: When I started at Columbia, I felt there were several matters of profound importance that had to be addressed. First and foremost was space. Universities need to grow as knowledge grows, and there is a real relationship between space and academic distinction. Space allows intellectual life to expand and flourish. It frees up our capacity to think and imagine. When I proposed building a whole new campus in the Manhattanville section of West Harlem, the idea was that we needed space not only for the present but also for future decades. We had to go big to succeed.

The University also needed money and resources. Compared to the other prestigious institutions with which we compete, Columbia was financially stressed. Today, we’re regularly ranked in the top US universities for annual fundraising. Our endowment may never match those of some wealthier institutions, but the gap is closing. And there are assets that Columbia enjoys that nobody else in the world has — most notably our location in New York City.

Of course, space, money, and resources are all related to our focus on academic quality. And we’ve worked hard on the quality of the institution. We’ve recruited many scholars who are at the very top of their fields, we’ve built a more culturally diverse faculty, and we’ve launched several new centers and institutes in areas like climate change, freedom of expression, and genetics. 

Columbia is in a great place. There’s no question that it is one of the top universities in the United States and in the world. And now we must build on these major achievements to do what we do best, which is to discover new knowledge, teach great students, and serve a wider public. 


This emphasis on serving a wider public and solving real-world problems has been the focus of several recent initiatives. 
Yes, this is something that matters enormously. Universities excel at discovering knowledge and teaching new generations, because we are organized in a very unusual way. No other institution recruits extremely talented and creative young people, gives them tenure for life after five or six years, and essentially allows them to explore and write and investigate things that interest them. It’s a highly decentralized system that gives people a lot of autonomy, and it’s been spectacularly successful over decades.

But the traditional structure of a university is not necessarily conducive to taking that knowledge and applying it to the outside world. You have to qualify that, of course, because there are certain parts of academia that do organize themselves around real-world applications and practice. Medicine is a key example. At Columbia, we also have a number of programs, like the Earth Institute, that are designed to bring knowledge into the public sphere. And some faculty members have always viewed this as part of their life’s work. But there’s still a big distance between allowing those sorts of things to happen and accomplishing them systematically with deliberate intent.

One of my goals at Columbia has been to encourage groups of faculty from across the University to come together and apply their expertise to solving complex, real-world problems. Columbia World Projects, an initiative announced this spring, is designed specifically to support these types of endeavors. It will provide an administrative staff and infrastructure to help groups of faculty organize their academic research with outside partners to achieve specific goals on specific deadlines.


Could you tell us more about the type of projects this new initiative might undertake? 
One of the first projects we’re considering focuses on addressing the immediate impacts of climate change with climate adaptation. For example, Columbia’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society currently has a project in Uruguay where scientists are working with the minister of agriculture and with farmers to provide climate monitoring and forecasting to help farmers anticipate and plan better for weather variability. We want to expand that effort by replicating it in other countries and possibly applying it in other sectors like public health. That’s just one example of a major problem where we have intellectual leadership and can work with outside partners to have a real impact, in both the short and long term.


The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University seems to be built on that same model. It’s a partnership set up to identify a problem, affect policy, and create change. 
Exactly, exactly. Its purpose is not only to do research and educate on the issue of freedom of speech and of the press in the digital age, but also to litigate. This is a joint project between the Knight Foundation, which is helping to fund the $60 million effort, and Columbia. Alberto Ibargüen, the president of the foundation, and I both recognized the need to protect and advance First Amendment rights in a constantly changing digital environment. This will involve helping news organizations and journalists define and fight for their rights in court. Litigating these cases can be enormously expensive, and many traditional news organizations do not have the resources they once did to protect their rights. Meanwhile, many new-media outlets do not necessarily have the deeply held journalistic values or ethos that would prompt an organization to fight the government on issues of freedom of speech and of the press. So you need a richly endowed institute within a great university to take up these issues and to fight on everyone’s behalf.

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