The Big Idea: Bold Ideas, Real Impact

by Sally Lee Published Summer 2017
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That is a sound principle. But like any principle, it doesn’t cover every possible circumstance. Columbia has its own values to protect: openness, diversity of opinion, and the cultural diversity of our students and faculty, to name a few. We think that affirmative-action policies are necessary to overcome America’s history of racial segregation and to create a great learning environment. When such policies are challenged in courts or in the political sphere, we believe that Columbia should participate in defending them — as I have done by participating in litigation and by speaking and writing on the topic. Another example is federal funding of science. We believe that the US government’s structure for supporting scientific inquiry is a good one, and so we will advocate for it. 

We also fundamentally believe in scientific objectivity; in the pursuit of truth; in reason; and in recognizing the complexity of problems and trying to work through them. When a society begins to turn against these values, we at the University, in my view, have a responsibility to articulate and defend them in the public sphere. Of course, we know that things are constantly being said in the public sphere that are false, unreasonable, hostile, and mean. And we know that the University cannot insert itself into every such episode — we are not naive. But when the manipulation, deception, and distortion in public discourse rises to the level that we’ve seen in the past year, I think we at Columbia are not being political when we say: This is of deepest concern, and we will do our best to try to counteract it.


You’ve spoken out specifically against the Trump administration’s stances on immigration and refugees. What concrete actions is Columbia taking to ensure that international students and researchers feel safe here on campus?
The Trump administration’s executive orders on immigration have caused enormous distress for many, many students. We have seen a decline in applications from international students, which is a phenomenon happening across the United States. We’ve had several instances of faculty from abroad not being able to get here for meetings or not wanting to risk coming. So there’s no question this has had a deep effect on students and faculty. What we’ve done is to prepare for this as much as possible. The University is providing legal services to potentially affected students and trying to make it known to people around the world that Columbia remains open and that we want people to come here. I’ve also made public statements about this, signing letters and petitions that the Association of American Universities and others have issued denouncing the Trump administration’s travel bans. And I have authorized the filing of amicus briefs by Columbia in support of lawsuits against the bans.


All indications are that federal support for science research and arts and humanities programs in higher education will be cut under President Trump. What could this mean for Columbia in practical terms, since nearly 80 percent of the University’s $775 million annual research and development budget comes from government funds?
We are too early in the process to really know what will happen to the budgets, but if this were to happen, the effects could be devastating. The US system of higher education is one of the most successful at discovering new scientific knowledge. If you cut its funding by 10, 20, 30 percent, not only are you sowing chaos at Columbia, but you are undermining something that is a treasure for the world.


Your contract has been extended through 2022. At that point, you will have led Columbia for twenty years, making you the longest-serving Columbia president since Nicholas Murray Butler. Obviously you’ve had a profound impact on the institution. Are there ways that Columbia has changed you?
Oh, I have no doubt of that. It has widened my intellectual horizons in ways that I could not have imagined. Being a part of a great institution puts pressure on you to become a better person, because you are constantly learning and exposing yourself to new experiences and challenges in order to serve the institution better. Certainly this was true for me with globalization: I saw that there was something changing in the world that would soon transform research and teaching. And I knew that I needed to know more about how the world was becoming more interconnected in order to be an effective president. So, yes, it’s had deep and abiding effects on me.


When people in the future discuss your legacy at Columbia, what do you hope they’ll say?
I feel a deep connection to Columbia, and I have tried to do everything I possibly can to help it succeed. It’s an amazing institution, and its potential is just enormous. You would expect me to say that — but I feel it every single day in an unusual and powerful way. If it could be said of me one day that I helped to unleash Columbia’s potential, that would be the ultimate gratification.


Read the related article The Columbia Commitment: A New Kind of Campaignmagazine.columbia.edu/features/summer-2017/columbia-commitment-new-kind-campaign.

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