Research and education continue to be the idealistic focus for administrations at higher educational institutions. Staying ahead of the pack in education in unstable economic times has led to financial strength and brand value assuming greater importance than ever before.
The importance of building and sustaining the Columbia brand is difficult to dismiss for even the staunchest of academic purists. We pride ourselves on Columbia being one of the very best, and such prestige is accompanied by the responsibility to maintain these standards of excellence. These standards extend beyond academics: A university’s public perception is influenced by its financial strength, research facilities, athletics, graduates’ success, and alumni networks. As long as academic quality is not compromised, however, the increased focus on these considerations eventually benefits students.
Under University President Lee Bollinger, Columbia has made significant strides financially and also in positioning itself as a premier global university. Endowments are at an all-time high, alumni giving is on the rise, and—if it matters—Columbia has held its own at fourth place in the U.S. News and World Report rankings. The recent record-breaking capital campaign that raised $6.1 billion with an incredible 128,000 new donors is a testament to the momentum Bollinger has successfully built—momentum built largely on the promise of furthering Columbia’s academic goals and research with the construction of the Manhattanville campus. When these long-term goals come to fruition, I have no doubt that the Columbia community and students will benefit significantly. How we reach these goals, however, may be cause for concern.
A business-based approach to financial growth and brand-building, though well-intentioned, has the potential to undermine student interests and academic values. Moreover, a substantial disconnect between students and the administration is a root cause for the popular perception of Columbia as an efficiently run business first, student and faculty-focused university second.
This issue came into focus after Michele Moody-Adams’ resignation as dean of Columbia College in the fall of 2011. The publicly available information from the controversial McKinsey report, as well as faculty comments surrounding Moody-Adams’ resignation, raised some potentially alarming concerns.
In order to streamline administrative processes, McKinsey recommended several structural changes, the most controversial of which involved reducing financial aid and increasing enrollment in more revenue-generating programs. Moody-Adams believed these changes could potentially “compromise the college’s academic quality and financial health,” she wrote in her resignation letter.
Given the sheer size of a university with three undergraduate and 15 graduate schools, a smoothly functioning structural framework is imperative. However, when an external management-consulting firm hired by the University instigates public response from senior faculty as drastic as that of Moody-Adams’, it is difficult to ignore the business-first approach it seems to reflect. The fact that only a select few members of the administration were privy to this report and consequent deliberations also raises questions about transparency and the role of faculty in major decisions. By many metrics, Bollinger has been successful in centralizing Columbia’s administration, but things get problematic when the role of faculty is diminished in University-wide decisions. In 2012, Jonathan Cole, provost of Columbia from 1989 to 2003, told Capital New York, “No one knows how Columbia works. ... No one knows where money is and where it goes, and decisions are not being made by academics.”
The concern that student interest may take a back seat is also legitimate. As an international student myself, I take immense pride in Columbia’s commitment to diversity and providing an affordable education to deserving students. It is for this very reason that even the consideration of reducing financial aid to cut costs is a highly disturbing one. A shortage of Core instructors despite plans for increased enrollment also highlights the need to preserve academic quality when making expansion-based decisions. Financial growth doesn’t sound quite as exciting when such unpleasant realities that may accompany it come to the fore.
A large part of the perception of Columbia as a corporation also stems from the student-administrator divide at Columbia. Many students go through their four years here with a resigned obliviousness to how the University is run, and move on. But for those invested in the University and its future, the administration can do a lot more to foster involvement—or at the very least, conversation. Daphne Chen’s op-ed (“Bollinger: Speak up when we need to hear from you,” Nov. 26) addressed to PrezBo puts it perfectly: We simply need to hear from him more often as he takes the University (and us) forward. Barring that, it is easy to sometimes feel like the undervalued yet indispensable cog in a well-oiled corporate machine.
I believe that President Bollinger and the administration probably have a wonderful vision for the future of Columbia. But consideration of faculty and student interests in larger decisions is not only imperative for greater transparency, but also vital in the actualization of the university vision itself. I have no qualms if Columbia adopts a businesslike approach. But any successful business prioritizes its stakeholders, and Columbia simply needs to ensure it doesn’t alienate its most important ones.
Anirban Poddar is a Columbia College senior majoring in economics-philosophy. He contributes regularly to The Canon.
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