President Minouche Shafik’s Inaugural Address

A New Social Contract for Universities and Society

October 4, 2023

President Shafik delivers her inaugural address.


I would like to begin by thanking everyone in the Columbia community for the incredibly warm welcome—including this very warm day that has been arranged—as I get to know this institution. Getting to know you, and everyone here has been an incredible privilege and a joy.

I’m grateful to the Trustees for giving me this extraordinary opportunity.

I’m indebted to the students, faculty, and staff who could not be more open and engaging.

I’m thankful to the alumni who have been so welcoming and so eager to help. I have never met a group more passionate about their alma mater.

I am appreciative of our larger community and its leaders, including First Deputy Mayor Wright, Congressman Espaillat, and presidents and representatives from so many universities who are here today. The impact of our neighbors, both in New York and across the world, has shaped Columbia into the incredible institution it has become.

To all the people who worked so hard to make this day and this week possible, I am grateful. None of this would have happened without you.

And I’m deeply appreciative of my friend, Christine Lagarde, for her generous words. Christine, I have learned so much from working alongside you – how to lead with clarity and compassion, how to take incoming fire with grace, and how to always do the right thing, even when it is very hard. Your being here today is incredibly meaningful to me.

Lee, President Bollinger, or should I refer to you by the students’ affectionate moniker PresBo, thank you. Thank you for your leadership, your legacy, and the gracious way that you and Jean have welcomed me and my family here.

In preparing for today I have, of course, read Lee’s inaugural address, and it was full of wisdom, wit, and vision, rooted in warmth and admiration for Columbia’s past and its great history. Lee spoke about Columbia as the “Quintessential Great Urban University,” an institution engaged, international, diverse, rooted in academic excellence and tradition, a place that is both in and of New York.

He pledged to invest in these strengths, and invest he did, in ways that have profoundly shaped the future of the University.

Institutions like Columbia, that have been around for centuries, benefit enormously from different eras of leadership—each of which brings a different set of characteristics. I sometimes think of them like geological strata, each with its own properties. The Bollinger stratum at Columbia will be one of growth, greater diversity, intellectual innovation, and lasting impact on the world.

My mother, Maissa, is here today. I owe so much to her for always supporting me, for being the one who patiently drove me to the various local libraries in my childhood to satisfy my passion for reading and learning. She intuitively understood what that famous Columbian Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said, “Reading shaped my dreams, and more reading helped me make my dreams come true.”

My father, Talaat, is no longer with us. When I was growing up, he was a tough task master. When I came home with straight As from school, he would say, “Is that the best you could do?”

Well, I think if he were here today, my father would certainly agree that this, indeed, is the best I could do.

To my husband Raffael, my big love, thank you for being infinitely supportive while encouraging me to be the best version of myself, and for being a kind sounding board when I am struggling to achieve that.

To my children, thank you for keeping my feet firmly rooted in the ground, and reminding me that no matter what else is going on in the world, the practicalities of life must continue to be addressed—changing diapers, putting food on the table, making visits to the emergency room. And there was, of course, a constant need for what the British call “tidying up.”

But mainly, I want to thank them for the infinite joy they have brought into our lives.

There are also many colleagues, friends, and special guests who have gathered here who played a role in my personal and professional life—you know who you are. I would not be standing here without standing on the shoulders of many giants or, as the Beatles said, “I get by with a little help from my friends.”

How Did I Get Here?

When I was young, if you had told me I would end up becoming President of Columbia University, I would have laughed in disbelief. I am a Leo whose favorite color is blue—but I don’t think that featured in the selection criteria of the search committee.  

One part of the job description that may have worked in my favor was that you were looking for someone who believes, deeply, in the power of education. I am, rather unusually, a third generation PhD. But there was nothing automatic about that outcome. My family started from scratch after losing everything in Egypt in the 1960s and started in the American South. I was a child of the desegregation era and went to more schools than I can remember. Local libraries and a few wonderful teachers were my salvation. From very early in my life, I was acutely aware of the randomness of opportunity.

My husband, Raffael, had a different experience – he was the first in his family to finish high school and by the serendipity of a scientist advising him in a lab he was working in, he went on to do a PhD himself. My mother didn’t go straight to university, but after having children, returned via a community college, and then went back to university, became a teacher and then head of a school. And I often quote my father who always said: “They can take everything away from you except your education.”

My life experience has made me cherish the role education plays in social mobility and spreading opportunity. Education is the foundation on which a just society is built and, as an economist I should add, also the best way to make sure that all of the talent in our societies can flourish to everyone’s benefit. A person’s destiny should not be determined by where and to whom one is born and universities can play a vital role in altering destinies.

What does the world need from a great university in the 21st century?

I want to focus my remarks on the question: What does the world need from a great university in the 21st century?

Let me start by stating the obvious: Columbia is a great university. It is an institution of higher learning that dates back 269 years. We have 17 schools and four affiliates, spread out over four campuses, and a network of global centers around the world.

For centuries, Columbians have ranked among the most celebrated individuals in government, the arts, business, technology, media, the academy. Nearly 90 of us have won Nobel Prizes, and our numbers include even more—today, Professor Emeritus Louis Brus was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery and synthesis of quantum dots. His work, like that of so many other Columbians, has transformed our lives in countless ways, literally illuminating television screens and computer monitors, guiding doctors and biochemists in mapping biological tissue, and enabling the proliferation of LED light bulbs. On behalf of the entire Columbia community, I extend our warmest congratulations to Professor Brus. Our numbers also include five founders of the United States, four US presidents, eight Supreme Court justices, three framers of the constitution, along with the author of the Indian constitution, the remarkable Ambedkar. We are the home of the Pulitzer Prizes.

Columbians are proud to count among our ranks luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Paul Robeson. We are also thrilled to call our own the architects of transformative city projects like the Museum of Modern Art, the High Line, and the revival of Lincoln Center.

In the past three years alone, ten alumni films have been nominated for Oscars, seven for Golden Globes, fifteen for Emmys, and eight for BAFTAs. 19 alumni have worked on Tony award-winning plays.

Columbians have always been pioneers; we’ve always been ahead of the curve.

It was at Columbia that the first medical degree was awarded in the American colonies, that the atom was split, that the first school of social work in the nation was established, that the Apgar score for judging newborn health was created, and that the phrase “global warming” was coined.

It was also at Columbia that the country’s first student-run, gay rights group was founded, that a philosophy lecture stopped traffic on Broadway, and that the first televised sporting event in the United States was broadcast by NBC. It was a baseball game; in case you didn’t know.

Now, we have the opportunity to be pioneers yet again. We can be pioneers in redefining, for a new era, what the role of a great university should be in the 21st century.  

The Role of the University

In the past, universities in the classical world were kept separate from the world around them. The ancient universities of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa have their origins in religious traditions. The academic regalia we wear at ceremonies like this one dates back to Medieval Europe. Gowns and hoods kept the clerics and scholars warm as they went about their studies and also made them separate, and distinct, them from their fellow citizens.

At Columbia, students wore caps and gowns daily until after the American Civil War. It seems that any student caught without their robes in the early days would be fined “two shillings for the first offence.” The regalia was designed to make it easier to identify them and prevent them from being tempted by the many vices of New York City. And so, for much of their history, universities like Columbia were cloistered places, preserving knowledge and passing it on to a select few in the next generation.

It was not until the 19th century that we saw the rise of the modern research university in this country. It was also at this moment that universities became more engaged with the world around them and more intentional about the practical applications of their research.

As many of our own faculty have chronicled, it was at this juncture that American universities locked onto what would make them so successful—that special blend of creating new knowledge, allowing that knowledge to be transferred and developed by new industries, and training scholars to keep the system flourishing. The result is a kind of intellectual perpetual motion machine that is the envy of the world.

And it was a commitment to open inquiry, the rigor of the scientific method, and of competition and the free exchange of ideas that made it all possible. That often came with controversy, which made universities a political target. As was said in the Kalven report in 1967:

“A good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting…The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic…a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures.”

Today, universities have expanded access to more people with different backgrounds and different life experiences than ever before. Columbia started as a university for white, Christian men. For most of its history, it would have been inconceivable for someone who looks like me to be president of this great institution. Today, Columbia includes humanity in all its differentiated glory, and our world is so much richer for it. That commitment to diversity and inclusion has made us stronger and better and is something that we will continue to honor in the future.

A New Social Contract

Which brings me to this moment. What do we want from a great university given the challenges we are facing? And if we were to imagine a new social contract between universities and society, what would it look like?

Let me start with the challenges that we are facing in this moment in history. We are living in a time of great divisions in our societies – between rich and poor, amongst different races and religions, and across fundamental values and principles. We see the rise of truculent nationalism and troubling fault lines in democracies across the world at a time when our most pressing challenges—such as climate change—require more international agreement. We are on the cusp of many technological revolutions in fields like artificial intelligence, neuroscience, quantum and nano technologies. At the same time, we are aging rapidly and coping with mental health challenges and worsening wellbeing.

Educate Citizens and Leaders

In this context, the first job of universities is to educate citizens and leaders who are comfortable with rigorous debate and possess the skills and knowledge to cope with these challenges. At Columbia, our Core curriculum was developed partly in response to the horrors of World War I and the need to build future generations of citizens and leaders. Arguably, we have the most demanding core requirements of any of our peers.

The Core is a shared academic experience for nearly all undergraduates that introduces themto influential books and ideas in literature, philosophy, science, history, art, and music. And they have to grapple with profound questions that have intrigued great minds for millennia.

These questions include:

  • What does it mean to be human?
  • What kind of life is most worth living?
  • What is just?
  • What is good? What is beautiful?
  • What is the nature of political power? What makes it legitimate?
  • What is the relationship between the individual and communal life?—which is the heartof the social contract.

Our students consider these questions, and many more, together, in small classes designed to build community and encourage vigorous debate. And many of them come and do that from different backgrounds and have different ways of looking at the world. I am thinking, in particular, of our students at the School of General Studies, who bring to these discussions a wealth of nontraditional life experiences. And so, the spirit of critical thinking infuses this place, including our teaching of graduate students.

As most of you will know, many of the authors of the Core had profound disagreements. Take Hobbes and Rousseau, who had drastically different conceptions of human nature. Or Adam Smith and Karl Marx, who differed, profoundly, on the marketplace and the role of the government. Or Fanon and Gandhi, who disagreed on the legitimacy of violence in the struggle for freedom. Or Mary Wollstonecraft, who, in large part, wrote her seminal work “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” in response to Rousseau’s backwards views on gender equality.

At a time of great divisions, the experience of reading and debating texts together creates the foundation for informed and enlightened citizens and leaders. Through their teaching, our faculty get to touch the future and shape the people who will determine it.

Ideas to Solve the World’s Challenges

The second part of the social contract between a great university and society is to create the knowledge that will take humanity forward—whether it is finding solutions to global warming or cancer, exploring how new technologies affect us, or finding ways to preserve our social and cultural history. University research has probably done more to advance human progress than anything else.

I would argue that this is grounded in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake driven by curiosity, whether that be in the arts or the sciences. Applied breakthroughs like the miracle of the COVID-19 vaccine, which was developed with amazing speed, were based on decades of foundational research, including the discovery of mRNA, critical advancements in gene therapy, and work on HIV vaccines.

I’ve also learned from my own experience that some of the best research questions come from the so called “real world.” Think of areas like climate, artificial intelligence, and the intersections of neuroscience and mental health. These are fields in which we can show great leadership and contribute in concrete ways to the world beyond the academy, without sacrificing investments in other areas of academic excellence. We can also put into practice what we teach and preach – by operating a sustainable campus, applying new technologies to accelerate discovery and our own operations, and adopting good mental health practices for our own students, faculty, and staff.

Engagement with Communities

The third pillar of a social contract for a great university is a commitment to community, at both the global and local levels. At Columbia, countless faculty, staff, and students are engaged in collaborative efforts both locally, and globally. This includes the umbrella of Columbia Global, with centers in 11 countries and projects dedicated to everything from building more resilient cities in the Dominican Republic to using data to catalyze energy investments in sub-Saharan Africa. It also includes our International Center for AIDs Care and Treatment Programs, which has screened nearly 43 million people for HIV worldwide.

We have also increased our engagement with the communities on our doorstep – across New York City and in Upper Manhattan. My favorite story is that of the Columbia engineering faculty who helped avert a complete shutdown of the L train, when it needed repairs following damage from Hurricane Sandy. I could also point to the clinics run by our medical students who provide free primary care and mental health services to residents in Washington Heights and Harlem.

To be an engaged citizen at Columbia is to be engaged globally AND locally. We need to do more of this, and I am eager to make such local and global engagement core to who we are as a university.

The How – Mycelia, Owls, and Institutions

I hope I have persuaded you that a great university in the 21st century is one that educates citizens and leaders, generates ideas to solve the world’s challenges, and is deeply embedded in local and global communities. But how to achieve it? Let me end with a few words about mushrooms, owls, and institutions.

You may know that mushrooms are the fruiting body of vast underground networks called mycelia. I would like to grow mycelia across Columbia, nurturing the underground roots of learning that connect the University in all of its seemingly disparate parts. Some of you will know that there are many urban myths about tunnels underneath the Columbia campus. Allegedly they were used to transport patients between buildings of the Bloomingdale mental asylum that used to be located here and to move radioactive material during the Manhattan Project.

I have neither of those purposes in mind. What I would like to offer is leadership that provides not only nourishment, but cross-pollination, promoting creativity and flowering in all forms across our great institution. And I ask of you, as part of this new social contract, to engage wholeheartedly in becoming leaders, developing ideas that matter, and engaging locally and globally. We will ensure that the ground is well-fertilized for the future by acting boldly in the present.

Generations of Columbia students have searched for the owl hidden within the folds of alma mater’s gown in the statue behind me. As the legend goes, the first student of each Columbia College graduating class to find the owl should expect academic greatness. Thank goodness I was able to find it when I toured here as an applicant for this job!

But the image of an owl has a deeper significance for me. Like Christine, I too used to be a central banker. And like her, I thought the image of an owl was the best one for thinking about leadership— being observant and trying to be wise. Unlike owls, who tend to be solitary creatures, I want to lead this institution with you, every day. As the African proverb says: “If you want to go far, go together.”  

And finally, let me say something about institutions. My work as an economist, especially in the world’s poorest countries, has made me firmly of the view that what makes a country rich and successful is the effectiveness of its institutions. Jean Monnet, the architect of the European Union, once said “Nothing is possible without people. Nothing is lasting without institutions.”

I know that strong institutions have to be grounded in clear strategies, efficient and fair processes, and strong mechanisms for measuring progress. Some of these things can sound boring. But they are the difference between consistent excellence and haphazard outcomes. I want Columbia to be an even stronger institution that can deliver big, audacious goals with confidence and consistency.

At a time when many are skeptical about institutions, we can build on the concentric rings of familiarity and obligation that make up our world. Universities hold an exceptional place in this order. Our work is to learn and to teach; we dispatch ambassadors of knowledge and talent to the places most in need of it. My vision of Columbia is of an institution that is a friend to our neighbors, an asset to this nation, and a beacon in this world.

So let us forge a new social contract with society and with each other that will make us an exemplar of a great university in the 21st century. We will construct this on a foundation built by the wisdom of our past and forge new frontiers of scholarship and service. The legacy of the Columbians who came before will live on through us, as our legacy will live on through future generations, nurtured by the commitments we reaffirm here today.

Thank you for entrusting me with this institution that is so beloved by all of us.