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Chatting by the Fireside with PrezBo

Last night President Lee C. Bollinger held his Fireside Chat in his home for the undergraduate students who were fortunate enough to win the lottery for this event. Also in attendance were Tom Harford, Dean of Students in the School of General Studies; Cristen Kromm, Dean of Undergraduate Student Life for Columbia College and SEAS; Suzanne Goldberg, Executive Vice President for University Life and Professor of Law; Jewelnel Davis, University Chaplain and Associate Provost; and Caroline Adelman, Director of Media Relations with the Columbia University Office of Communications and Public Affairs.

The night focused on addressing the concerns of the university in an informal Q&A manner with President Bollinger, and occasionally the other faculty and administration members in attendance,  answering students’ questions and responding to their comments and concerns. A wide variety of subjects were brought up, some easier to address than others.

While Columbia University does pride themselves on having global connections, the University has “no immediate plans to establish relationships” with academic institutions in Iran. While it is something that President Bollinger “would like to see” happening soon, as Iran and their relations with the international community have undergone “very significant changes”, it is something that Columbia wishes to wait on institutionally initiating until they see how things unfold. Bollinger, however, does think it is “great” for  individual faculty members to engage with intellectual colleagues in Iran.

The ever-present problem of finding community at Columbia came up next. Bollinger did admit that this is an issue, specifically one that “higher power”  learning institutions tend to face, and stated that “anytime you’re in a really high-power intellectual environment… inevitably you end up spending a lot of time alone because a huge amount of learning is you and the book.” The isolation and stress studying can cause, coupled with the fact that Columbia’s New York location can “pull you away from the campus”, are the two main factors that affect community here in Bollinger’s eyes. He does believe, however, that the spirit of community has improved since he first arrived at Columbia fifteen years ago. With the founding of the Office of University Life, the establishment of university content and events (such as the World Leaders Forum), the building of Lerner, the creation of the Arts Initiative, and the improvement of Athletics, Bollinger claims that measures to build community have been succeeding. He did emphasize, however,  that any suggestions or ideas students might have are welcomed. Goldberg added that by creating community and intellectual events, such as the “Awakening Our Democracy” speaker series and Yoga Tuesdays, and establishing the Race, Ethnicity and Inclusion task force, as well as the Gender Based Misconduct Prevention task force, Columbia has made strides towards bringing the community together. Chaplain Davis also mentioned students can take initiative to get involved by attending open lectures and events at the Law and Medical Schools. Lastly, Kromm reminded everyone that one of the primary issues of building community is having adequate spaces in which to do so and that there are creative solutions to this space problem, such as holding events on the lawns and in the plazas.

Addressing another aspect of the university, its responsibility to prepare us for the outside world, Bollinger commented that he is “extremely interested in, and working on all the time, how to to make it more possible for students and faculty and the university to engage with the world.”  Believing “that your time here, especially as undergraduates, is utterly unique in your lives”, Bollinger claimed now is the time to “think about fundamental ideas and fundamental knowledge” as later when we “go into the world” there will be “a premium on narrowing down what it is that you know and do.” Columbia provides a liberal arts education, not a pre-professional one, and so they try to provide ways to prepare us for a world that the university “will not change fast enough for”, due to “the interconnection of the global economy”, the Internet, and “the mobility of people.” They have tried to do so by opening global centers to help students who are abroad and hope efforts such as these will “fill in opportunities for you to learn about your world because we can’t fully teach you about it.”

Bollinger’s mention of “the mobility of people” led to the discussion of the complex problem of the student refugees and how the university plans to cope with it. Acknowledging that it is an issue that the university cannot influence as much as they would like, Bollinger does hope that it is something faculty and students can focus on and understand better and would like to find ways for Columbia to “have a bigger impact on significant world problems, of which the refugees are a prime example.” Bollinger does not know how the university will handle refugee students exactly, as there is no system in place, but thinks we might be able to get ideas of how to cope with it by looking at Canada’s programs, which are already in use.

The topic of discussion switched gears as a student asked Bollinger if he, as a scholar of the First Amendment, was worried about free speech in the context of universities. Bollinger responded that he was “not deeply worried” as there is “a huge amount of debate and discussion on campuses.” He rejected “the view that American campuses are just liberal bastions who are politically correct and won’t allow other points of view.” Acknowledging that issues do exist with this, Bollinger went on to say “that if somebody is offended by something they should be protected by the institution … [but] that is not the principle that this university lives by.” Columbia, instead, has a tradition of “openness”. Recognizing that some types of speech are not protected, such as threats and harassments based on race, ethnicity, or gender, Bollinger conceded that there should be places where people can “escape the debate … [such as] the home,” but maintained that “even highly, highly offensive and ridiculous words and hurtful words” are allowed to “be expressed.” To Bollinger, the problem is not “one of safe spaces” as that “oversimplifies the matters”; it is the matter of “how you conduct that free speech, how you interact with each other, [that] is enormously important.”

Another controversial issue which came up during the Fireside Chat was the stress culture and mental health issues of the Columbia community and how faculty pressure, prescription drug abuse, and insufficient access to resources tie into that. While Bollinger said that he was “not uncomfortable by it [the subject of the question],” he asked the student who posed the question if she “really feel[s] that way” and decided to “take a little survey” of the room to see who felt “that the academic space or zone has too much pressure.” Let it be noted that he did not do the same for the issue of community at Columbia. Bollinger then used his own class and teaching method of calling on two students for the majority of the class as an example of a class that places pressure on students to perform well, claiming that “that’s part of the teaching method.” He continued his survey by asking students to raise their hands if they thought faculty members “should step back and ask themselves, ‘Maybe I’m putting too much pressure?’” When hands were raised, Bollinger mentioned that he heard “that you take too many classes” and pondered why that occurs, if  “that [was] because of faculty or graduation requirements.” A student brought up that at Columbia one cannot take the minimum amount of credits for full-time students (12) and graduate on time, which was an issue this student was personally dealing with as a junior forced to take a heavier courseload in order to graduate on time. A first-year chimed in that she could not take five classes due to her teacher. The student had been sick and missed a few classes (and had gotten the notes from Health services to prove it), and while four of her teachers were supportive, one was not. This teacher told her that she “shouldn’t expect to get a good grade on this test”, refused to give her a one day extension, and said “this is what you should expect going to this type of school.” Her comment was not addressed as Bollinger decided to cover the other two aspects of the topic question instead. He said that “if you have an emergency, you should be able to see somebody right away” and that “if we don’t do that, you should let us know.” Bollinger then moved on to the topic of prescription drugs, saying that they “are terrible.”

Goldberg then also spoke on the topic of stress and stated that “stress comes from many places” and one’s changing relation to stress “is part of growing up.” She mentioned that the Mental Health task force is working to help students as well and that CPS has grown “in response to student need.” Harford mentioned that the school does recognize that GS students do have additional stresses as they pay tuition based on the number of credits they take and can’t necessarily get a refund for a class they paid for and dropped.

A student then asked if Uris would potentially be utilized to provide services such as daycare to GS students who have these additional stressors, but Bollinger said that Uris has already been slated to be given to the College of Arts and Sciences.

The last question posed to Bollinger had to do with the sustainability of restructuring faculty employment so that there are less faculty receiving tenure and a heavier reliance on adjunct professors–a problem which is spreading across the country. Bollinger went on to explain that “Columbia is going through a process of trying to recapture its institutional capacities” and is essentially still trying to make up for lost time when Harvard and other universities continued to grow while Columbia floundered. Columbia has done this, in Bollinger’s opinion, with the expansion of campus, construction of new buildings, successful fundraising, addition of University Life, and improved financial aid practices. To him, “Columbia can be, and in many ways is today, the greatest university in the world.” As “we live in a competitive world,” Columbia must recruit students and faculty and “make do” with the money it has. Bollinger doesn’t think less faculty tenure is a problem at Columbia, or at least not an intentional one; though he does acknowledge that it is a national problem.

Interested in the opinions of the students, Bollinger decided to pose a few of his own questions to the room during the last ten minutes of the talk. He asked students what they thought of the election, if it was a subject that came up often, and how students view America. Students discussed how they do or do not know people with opposing opinions to their own, the role of selection bias and the media in the election, what led to people supporting Trump, and how values have appeared to shift in society.

Ultimately, the Fireside Chat had a lot of material that was good tinder and sparked discussion and interesting responses from President Bollinger, and it will be interesting to see what (if anything) occurs due to the matters discussed.

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