At great universities such as our own, we celebrate and claim to protect freedom of expression for all. It is therefore surprising that University trustees rarely exercise the vaunted campus right of free expression. They are apparently to speak only behind the veil of closed, formal deliberations; a kind of omertà keeps the individual views of the trustees private. With due acknowledgement for this tradition of silence, I emphasize that the comments below are entirely my own and do not represent the views of the Columbia Trustees as a group. That said, my perspectives on Columbia College, its Core Curriculum, and University governance are matters of public record. I write merely to pose the following questions:
Where are the ongoing discussions about the future of Columbia College and its deanship headed? Toward greater College control of its academic and other resources? Or toward an ever-stronger embrace by the central administration? Who knows? Rest assured, I do not know—and I do not think that any other Columbia Trustee knows the direction in which we are moving (if any).
The resignation in protest by the dean of Columbia College in late August 2011 was abrupt and public. It raised serious allegations that administrative changes contemplated by the University would further diminish the already-attenuated authority of the dean over “crucial policy, fund-raising, and budgetary matters” (“Consultants’ budget, structure recommendations at core of Moody-Adams’ resignation,” Aug. 23).
College alumni were understandably alarmed, and they reacted swiftly, and strongly. They were particularly concerned about the fate of the Core Curriculum in a governance structure in which most budgetary and educational decisions were apparently to be made in Low Library rather than in Hamilton Hall.
College alumni have a special love for the rigorous Core program that seeks to introduce students (in the words of our great scholarly exemplar, Jacques Barzun) to “the three live subject matters in modern life—science, social science, and the humanities.”
Since 1919, the Core has been the hallmark of a Columbia College education and it is arguably the most important contributor to the prestige of the general Columbia “brand.” For College alumni, and perhaps especially for those of us from marginalized minority and colonial communities, the Core provided a general education grounded in the intellectual history of the culture in which we lived. I say grounded in—but not beholden to—because the Core also teaches students to think critically.
Of course, a curriculum grounded in the idea of a common culture rooted in the Western tradition is now an endangered species, subject to the pressures of trendy cultural relativism even at Columbia. Only the continued vigilance of College alumni, outspoken and ever grateful for the blessings of the Core over a lifetime, can secure the identity and autonomy of the College in the years ahead.
In the aftermath of the dean’s resignation, the University administration has been anxious to assuage the concerns of this important and generous constituency. It has undertaken a public and private charm offensive aimed at College alumni, including invitations for “big hitters” to the President’s house. It has reaffirmed to one and all the wonders of the Core Curriculum and asserted that “the ongoing discussions involving faculty, alumni, and administrators”—the very “ongoing discussions” that triggered the resignation of the Dean of the College—were “about how to position the college more centrally in the life of Columbia’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences” (“Dean Moody-Adams steps down,” Aug. 21).
This is the siren call, heard many times over in the months since the dean’s resignation. Despite the warm embrace suggested by a goal of “position[ing] the college more centrally in the life of Columbia’s faculty of arts and sciences,” this is exactly what proponents of Columbia College and the Core should fear most. Indeed, a close reading of that text reveals an encoded restatement of the problem rather than its solution. It should not give College alumni comfort.
As if to confirm this view, we have been afforded instruction on how College alumni ought to behave by the dean of the graduate school, Carlos Alonso.
In a Spectator article this year ("Teaching and research at Columbia," Feb. 17), Dean Alonso deployed the language of postmodernist cultural studies (the “knowledge of the mutual imbrication of all the University’s components ... should be the guiding principle for all of Columbia’s constituencies”) to describe the history of Columbia. Specifically, he claimed that “there was a time when Columbia College and the Graduate Faculties ... hired separate faculty and essentially lived parallel lives.” In those times, Alonso asserted, “the teaching and research functions of the University were divorced,” and teaching, apparently relegated to the College, “acquired a second-class status.”
This jaundiced view of the College’s history will come as a surprise to alumni who were privileged to take courses by eminent professors in all fields, including Nobel laureates who taught Physics 1–2, a serious course for non-majors.
Dean Alonso’s spectacular misunderstanding of Columbia College history prefaced a homily on the interdependence of the various schools of the University, and on the need for “coordination and mobilization of resources in a way that allows for the pursuit of quality on all fronts at once.” College alumni were told that “demanding that Columbia College become or remain autonomous from the rest of the Arts and Sciences or the University,” or “demand[ing] that every dollar that Columbia College collects ... be invested in Columbia College—instead of being used even partially to finance the ‘research’ component of the University—is pernicious for a number of reasons,” including the “fostering [of] fantasies of untrammeled au±tonomy [that] distorts [an] interdependent reality.”
Translation: Kindly back off, and make your contributions to Columbia without “strings” attached, so that we can determine how best to apply your gifts within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
Until the position of dean of Columbia College is no longer merely a dean of students; until the dean of the College is an authentic dean of the faculty, with a significant role in the hiring and promotion of faculty, in capital budget deliberations, and in the various committees that govern the Faculty of Arts and Sciences; until the dean of the College is incorporated fully into the leadership of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the identity and autonomy of the College will continue to erode. Its fate will be in the hands of functionaries for whom the College and the Core are distant concerns.
In sum, until these objectives are achieved, the response of loyal and generous College alumni to suggestions like those of the dean of the graduate school should be, in the spirit of the poet Ogden Nash’s one-liner on my beloved Bronx—“No thonx.”
The author is a graduate of Columbia Class of 1961, a United States Court of Appeals Judge for the Second Circuit, and has served as a trustee of Columbia University since 2000. He delivered the keynote address at the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Core Curriculum in 1994. In addition to his service as a trustee of other institutions, including 12 years as a member of the Yale Corporation, he was a founder of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and chairman of Aspira of New York, an organization seeking to expand opportunities in higher education for urban Hispanic youth.