Is Columbia an American University? Should it be?

Jan 26 2012 - 12:21pm

Ask yourself a different question: Is New York an American city? Should it be? The answer: yes and yes. Is New York a typical American city? Should it be? The answer shifts: no and no. Of particular interest in this essay is how New York is atypical (after all, any American city can lay claim to some form of atypicality—it is a mile high; it is unusually windy; it is perched at the edge of San Francisco Bay.)

In a major way New York is a global city—in its demography and its connectivity. It has been so since it was called New Amsterdam. Founded by a stream of immigrants—with their languages, cultures, religions, cuisines, arts, and sports—more varied than Boston or Philadelphia, and a stream that intensified and diversified across the 19th and now into the 21st century, New York has been uniquely global without losing its particular brand of Americanness. In the earliest period New York was more a destination city, where immigrants came to stay. That has somewhat changed. Today thousands of students and artists and workers come to New York to study, practice, or earn, and then go elsewhere—perhaps back home but often to some other spot on the globe. This demographic churning makes for many of us a city that is a more interesting place to live, work, study, or just hang out than any other city in America.

Let’s apply the same logic to Columbia. Is it an American university? Should it be? We answer: yes and yes. Is it a typical American university? Should it be? Now we answer: no and no.

What is the nature of Columbia’s atypicality? Let’s begin with its history. We think of Columbia as today being rooted in two places: Morningside Heights and the uptown Medical School campus, and soon a third place, Manhattanville. (The Lamont-Doherty campus is a fourth campus, unfortunately not known to many undergraduates.) These New York sites follow earlier ones, downtown and midtown. It is in these physical places that Columbia continuously reinvented itself. It started as a small college teaching the liberal arts. Across its more than two and one-half centuries, it added graduate and postgraduate students, disciplines and departments (19th century), nearly a dozen professional schools (19th and 20th centuries), and more recently hundreds of interdisciplinary centers and institutes (late 20th and early 21st centuries). In the process Columbia steadily enlarged its vision—from a city college to a regional, then national, then international university. It is not atypical in that sense—Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Michigan, Chicago, Stanford, UCLA, and dozens of other great American universities lay claim to a similar transformation.

Has Columbia stopped reinventing itself? Not at all. In the last few years Columbia has moved outside its home city, opening Global Centers in Amman, Beijing, Istanbul, Mumbai, Nairobi, Paris, Santiago, and, later in 2012, in Rio. This is the beginning of a new kind of “American” university—yes, still here in New York—but not only here. In this it is like its home city. The dense connections linking New York’s families, banks, museums, NGOs, and universities to places around the world shows how New York is here but not only here—and the “not only here” matters in the ways in which we all experience the city.

For a university “not only here” means being more than American without ceasing to be American. It means Columbia is transformed because it is not only here in New York, but also seamlessly in every world region. I expect that by mid-century all Columbia students will take courses that require spending time in places other than New York; all Columbia faculty will be frequently adding pages to their passports; all Columbia administrators will be managing a university located around the world; all alumni will be attuned to global forces, challenges, and opportunities.

This will happen gradually, even as the shift from an 18th-century city college to a 20th-century international university happened gradually. But it will happen. Columbia will be global: in its physical locations; in how it functions; in what it teaches and studies; and, most importantly, in what it imagines itself to be. It will think of itself as a global university still located here in New York, “but not only here”—and that adds up to big change in what we think Columbia University is about. In this, I believe, Columbia will become as atypical as the city it now calls home: American but only in a special way.


Here are a few thoughts in response to Ken Prewitt’s challenge and his suggestion that globalization might put the humanities at risk. I appreciate his concern, especially coming from a very distinguished social scientist. I should add that many humanists and many of the most eloquent cheerleaders for the humanities feel compelled to start any discussion by saying that the humanities are under threat and must be defended. My own view of the humanities is expansive, inclusive, and sees a fundamental convergence between globalization and humanistic work. Of course, as Ken Prewitt puts it, the humanities “are necessarily and intently intellectually engaged with local particularities--languages, literatures, histories, cultures, civilizations.” In that sense, there is a tension between globalization as standardization, and the humanities that stand for what is local, diverse, and particular. Fundamentally however, to be trained as a humanist is to learn how to find universal viewpoints. This is not done by asserting an abstract understanding of the world, but by experiencing linguistic, cultural, and temporal distance, and learning from the tension between our expectations and the reality of what is other. It is in the confrontation between the familiar and the alien that more universal points of view can emerge. I wholeheartedly agree with Rosalind Morris that “what the global university needs to produce is a pedagogy in which students not only learn about other ways of doing and being, but learn to learn from them.” I would simply add that the 1754 mission statement of Columbia College should be understood in this way. It reads as “the education and instruction of youth in the learned languages and the liberal arts and sciences.” Latin and Greek are no longer required, but the general intent is the same: we learn difficult languages, we study customs and ways of thinking that are alien to our own (think of all the different ways of being human explored in the Core Curriculum readings), not simply out of curiosity, but because this experience will take us outside of our comfort zone and will teach us that our familiar view of the global is a decidedly narrow and particular one. --Pierre Force Professor of French and Romance Philology; Dean for Humanities, Faculty of Arts and Sciences