The Big Idea: Bold Ideas, Real Impact

by Sally Lee Published Summer 2017
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This spring, the University launched a five-year, five-billion-dollar fundraising campaign that follows closely on the heels of a record-breaking campaign that ended in 2013. What can you tell us about the decision to launch this new campaign at this moment? 
Columbia cannot rest. There are so many important things to be done, so many areas of knowledge to be explored, so many students to educate. And again, Columbia, relative to its peers, has a greater need for philanthropic support.

Campaigns are not just about money, of course. They also prompt the University to organize its priorities and mobilize the efforts of alumni and others who want to be engaged. So they are beneficial in many ways.

But the bottom line is that Columbia has got to keep moving. 


The new campaign is a little different from previous campaigns in that it focuses on interdisciplinary initiatives in areas like climate change, precision medicine, data science, neuroscience, and the arts. 
Yes, exactly. One of the things that we’ve done very well at Columbia is identifying where knowledge is heading and then organizing our energies in a way that enables us to lead the way forward.


How important will alumni participation be to the new campaign?
One of the things that I’m most proud of is how alumni, parents, students, and others have become deeply engaged in the life of the University. Columbia has undertaken all kinds of efforts to make people feel more a part of this community, and the response has been wonderful. A capital campaign is an opportunity for everyone to get involved. And since the campaign is built around supporting truly groundbreaking new initiatives, I think all alumni will feel that excitement. I think all of us take pride in the ascendency of Columbia and in the impact that our faculty and students are having out in the world. By participating in the capital campaign, everybody can play a role in ensuring that this work continues to happen.


We’ve seen an increasing number of gifts from people who are not alumni. What do you think is motivating these new donors to invest in Columbia? 
I think it’s proof of the intellectual powerhouse that exists here. People want to be part of it. And they believe that they can help improve the world by supporting an institution that is home to the most intellectually capable scholars and scientists. Columbia has certainly developed that reputation. I think everybody realizes that Columbia is an extremely exciting place, and they want to be involved in advancing its mission.

 “One of the things I’m most proud of is how alumni, parents, students and others have become deeply engaged in the life of the University.”

The campaign will also support ongoing commitments like student financial aid and faculty resources. What are your priorities in those areas?
I am very proud that Columbia has one of the most generous financial-aid programs in the world. At the College and the School of Engineering, we have a need-blind system of admissions, which means that undergraduates are admitted without regard to their ability to pay. In addition, undergraduates whose families earn less than $60,000 a year can come to the College or the School of Engineering for free, without taking out any loans. We’re able to do this because alumni and others have given so generously in support of our financial-aid programs. We have an unending need for financial-aid money, both to sustain the College’s and School of Engineering’s need-blind admissions system and to offer better financial-aid packages to students in our professional schools and the School of General Studies. We can’t stop raising money for financial aid. It’s absolutely crucial if we are to live up to the principle that your educational opportunities should not be determined by the wealth of your family, and to maintain a socioeconomically diverse learning environment.

For faculty, one of our ongoing priorities is to improve their facilities. Columbia has opened several new buildings in recent years, but there are some older campus facilities that are in serious need of modernizing and repair. This is true especially for the buildings that house our basic-science departments on Morningside Heights. So raising money for physical renovations is very important. 


Many people are deeply troubled by the current political climate in the US. When you spoke at the College’s Hamilton Award Dinner this past winter, you said that the Trump presidency represents “a challenge to the central idea of a university.” What did you mean by that?

We must always start from the premise that the University is not a political actor. I’ve said this on many occasions. As an institution, Columbia does not endorse candidates or take positions on most policy matters. There are many reasons for this. One is that if the University were to articulate an official position, it might intimidate people with different viewpoints from speaking freely on campus.

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