Twelve years after he retired as president of Columbia University, George Rupp returned to campus today as an academic, not an administrator.
Rupp, who served as president from 1993 to 2002, is teaching a new seminar in the religion department. He returns this fall after having led the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian aid and development organization, from 2002 to 2013.
In an interview with Spectator Thursday morning—right before his first class—Rupp said that his decision to return to Columbia was a spontaneous one.
“I thought, Well, what should I do next,' and my colleagues in the religion department put the full court press on me to come teach—Just one more course each semester, it won't be a whole lot of work,'” he said.
Rupp's class this semester, Religion and International Development, is an upper-level seminar open to undergraduate and some graduate students. In the spring, he will teach another course on modern western individualism.
With both courses in the religion department, Rupp's return to Columbia is in many ways a return to his academic roots. After receiving a Ph.D. in religion from Harvard, Rupp has held teaching positions at Harvard, the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay, and the University of Redlands. Prior to becoming president of Columbia, Rupp was president of Rice University from 1985 to 1993.
In the religion department, Rupp is joining colleagues Wayne Proudfoot and Mark Taylor. The three were graduate students at Harvard together, and have remained close friends since.
“George is an extraordinary person,” Taylor said. “I just think it's terrific that having had this extraordinary career, he chooses to wrap it all up by coming and teaching undergraduates.”
Rupp said his current course is greatly influenced by his time at the International Rescue Committee.
“I think that international development cannot work unless the process connects with particular communities in the countries that are being developed, and too often, it doesn't do that,” Rupp said. “But when it does, it's really exciting, and I think the IRC has been more effective than many development organizations in recognizing that fact.”
Taylor said that Rupp's diverse experiences will benefit both him and his students in the classroom.
“A person like George has such extraordinary experience, not only in the world of higher education, but in the world of NGO-type work,” Taylor said. “It's rare to find someone who bridges the academy and the so-called real world that well, and in ways that can expose students to the vital work that needs to be done and the ways in which the knowledge they have can help them do that kind of work.”
“He's always been interested in international questions,” Proudfoot said. “So I think the IRC included both that, and social and political action.”
As University president, Rupp focused his efforts on strengthening undergraduate education, enhancing Columbia's international orientation, and building relationships with the neighborhoods and communities surrounding campus.
Still, on Thursday morning, Rupp didn't focus on his administrative achievements at Columbia.
“One of the great pleasures is that when I walk on campus, starting with the security guards to when I go into buildings, the maintenance people literally come up to me: President Rupp, President Rupp,'” he said. “I feel that there are long-term Columbia people, from the local maintenance people to the security guards to the administrators and others, that actually do remember me, and I remember them, and we enjoy getting together.”
“And I obviously have good friends who are on the faculty, so that's also fun,” Rupp added.
In the year between leaving the IRC and returning to Columbia, Rupp wrote a book titled “Global Quest: Seeking Inclusive Communities” that will be published by the Columbia University Press next year. It's hardly what most would consider a break between jobs, but Rupp's entire career has been a busy one—hence his hesitancy to commit to more than one year of teaching.
“I may teach one or both [courses] again, or I may teach something else, or I may decide I'm going to retire,” Rupp said.
In the meantime, however, his friends are glad to have him back on campus.
“I don't see any particular benefit in having a former president, but in this case, I think it's terrific,” Proudfoot said.