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Exploring the Impact of Columbia University on Higher Education and Society

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1. Introduction to Columbia University

In this chapter, we examine Columbia’s primary current contributions to society and highlight key initiatives and the value of public, private, academic, and nonacademic partnerships in a discussion with Dr. Bollinger. Many universities have presented their research results to the broader public and have collaborated with industry. Therefore, readers can use the lessons learned in Columbia’s experience to assess the importance and performance of their local institutions in similar endeavors.

As a Columbia alumna and senior academic administrator, I appreciate the necessity of engaging with strategic partners to achieve more than a single approach would permit in generating knowledge, achieving social justice, and enhancing understanding. Many academic institutions, whether or not serving as exemplars, should be purposefully broad in their reciprocal interactions. The results of scholarly effort, though not wielded by universities alone, offer knowledge and provide impressions of the kind and extent of influences seeded in a collective intellectual enterprise.

Columbia University, according to its President, Dr. Lee Bollinger, has an expanded mission to seek knowledge while being at the very center of University-wide initiatives to address issues such as climate change, food scarcity, technology, the arts, and scholarship. Dr. Bollinger and I had a dialogue during which we sought to understand the full range of interactions in which institutes of higher learning are involved.

One university that has had a deep impact on many facets of society is Columbia University. The impact of an institution of higher education can transcend beyond its immediate students, faculty, and alumni. The results of scientific research can benefit industry, health, the economy, national security, and the individual citizens in countless other ways while training students to be workers, participants in a democracy, and contributing members to the local and world communities. Educating citizens in both liberal arts and sciences prepares graduates to participate in public life, achieve a successful career, and contribute to the public good.

2. Historical Evolution and Founding Principles

Much of the impetus for the creation of the College arose in New York City. The city was a commercial capital, a transit point for goods and ideas, a seaport, and a major population center. It was an intellectual and educational center, being nearer to European thought by a few days of shipboard travel than the rest of the country. There were frequent ship sailings to England, permitting merchants and other gentlemen to visit the mother countries and to import the European edition of books, which immediately were stocked by provincial booksellers. From the time of its establishment, New York City was cosmopolitan, skimming the cream of the estate of Ireland and Scotland from the 1730s and, to a lesser degree, from the wealth of Holland as well. By the time of the American Revolution, fully half of the city’s population was foreign-born, the highest percentage of any city in the nation. New York’s religious vigor cannot be doubted. City churches were landmarks and pivotal institutions; worship within their walls was the foundation of belief for most, support for the poor, the place of refuge in crisis, and the center of social and cultural life.

The founding of the institution was spurred by an increased national demand for specialists in the growing range of knowledge in a country needing to expand its horizons. The founder of Columbia, Samuel Johnson, was imbued with the ideals of the Enlightenment and thought that the College should provide an education based on an understanding of human experience and an intellectual background that would enable graduates to pursue professional studies. He envisioned an institution of higher learning that would provide for its students a philosophical education so that they would have a proper understanding of theory, drawing on the ancient world and the increasingly important modern world so that theory might have practical and social consequences in the present. The fact that he wished Columbia to have specialized professional schools parallel to the university but not limited to its curricula demonstrates Johnson’s multi-mind vision of the modern university.

3. Academic Excellence and Research Innovation

Indeed, some crucial measures of research were introduced by the president in mid-2003. Among these: to increase the support for research across the schools; to provide additional funding for graduate students receiving institutional financial aid; and to endow chairs in research. The “Race to the Top: Research and Graduate Education Initiative” was triggered by a series of academic ratings according to which Columbia University had fallen in research. That a university would seek to remedy an issue such as slipped ratings is not, in fact, surprising. As other higher education leaders have observed, “Colleges and universities serve as anchors for thousands of cities and towns and as catalysts of economic development…while many other actors can work to shore up institutions in their midst, ultimately the institutions are wholly responsible for their core missions of teaching and research.” The teacher-scholar model guides professors so that opportunities for fresh discovery appear at the core of instruction, and students shape rewarding—and submissively challenging—worlds around their intellectual and social pursuits.

Central to the success of Columbia University over the course of its history, and in no small measure to its impact as a leading institution of higher education, is its commitment to academic excellence and research innovation. Columbia University stands among the world’s most premier institutions of research, providing instruction in a broad range of subjects within its 20 undergraduate and 200 graduate programs. It aspires to achieve explicit goals in such critical areas as research funding, faculty recognition, and scholarly productivity.

4. Columbia’s Global Influence and Partnerships

What are the opportunities these experiences raise? Is there potentially a common pedagogical model that could include a global network of partnerships across schools and other Columbia entities? Such a common pedagogical model that could support emergent partner initiatives and current partnerships accordingly would ideally incorporate a balance between shared student experiences and programming across borders, language, and sectors—and yet respect different laws, objectives, and educational system requirements. Most important to campus life is the impact of creating communities in partnerships and student exchanges. Expanding the educational model of what it means to train as a global institution presents authoritative and profound opportunities for lifelong partnerships and friendships and a more socially responsible future leadership for Columbia.

We turn now to the impact and future of the University as a global institution. Columbia University has partnerships with other institutions in more than 150 nations, and students participate with foreign institutions. In 2006, the first cohort of Columbia University students graduated with an M.D. from the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons after spending the academic year at Fundacion Santa Fe de Bogota University Hospital in Colombia. The School of Engineering and Applied Science has partnerships with the National University of Singapore and Hong Kong University for initiatives similar to those with the School of Law and Tel Aviv University and Peking University. In 2004, Columbia University broke with the largely American custom of conferring the doctorate in law by conferring the degree of Juris Doctor instead of the Doctor of Juridical Science. The Mailman School of Public Health administers the American University of Armenia’s Master of Public Health Program, offering tuition assistance along with curriculum assistance. Columbia faculty travel to other universities frequently and receive funding for interdisciplinary research.

5. Conclusion and Future Prospects

Our review of the university has sought to consider some significant aspects of university life while also adhering to the larger frame of thinking about how the university and higher education have tried to position themselves more broadly in society. By functioning as a portent of what experts believe they can achieve, the university sees itself being of considerable service to the outside world. Thus, we have seen the university both reflective and formative of the society it serves. As we conclude, it seems important to ask where does this self-imposed role lead us in the future? What goods, in the end, does the university offer to society in exchange for creating these special values?

In writing about “A Half Century of Higher Education,” Nicholas Murray Butler offers some lessons that the landscape of American higher education and Columbia University might consider as we survey the territory. What, he asks at the end of his journey, does it all mean? The crystalline composition of the historian should reflect, he offers in a kind of summing up. Now is the accepted time, being content with nothing less than the best that you are capable of doing. There is no longer any such thing as quality education which is not universal. Finally, and here he enhanced the idea that the university is not just an entity unto itself but also the lens through which we view the city, the nation, and the age.

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