Remarks at the Opening of The Forum

September 26, 2018

Today we formally open The Forum, the third of the new buildings on the new Columbia campus in Manhattanville in West Harlem—the third child, so to speak, who is accompanied by the older family members of Prentis, Studebaker, and Nash. This comes some sixteen years into the making of our new Morningside Heights, whose own origins date back just over one hundred years to the beginning of the last century, and which was the Manhattanville of that time, following upon Columbia’s earlier homes at midtown and then originally at the birthplace in Lower Manhattan. To describe this moment in this larger context is to acknowledge that we are only a part of a long trail of efforts to create and then to pass on to succeeding generations one of the greatest academic institutions in the world. 

I have to say that this building, The Forum, is in many ways my favorite, and that is for several reasons. In my life, I have come to understand that to be the third among several siblings gives one some very special qualities, really quite lovable qualities. You have to struggle with and negotiate your way up and down the ladder of relationships, to fight for your rights, and to stand up for what you believe in. This confers on the child enormous capacities of empathy, unique abilities to cope with difficult and often self-centered older siblings and to nurture those below who are even more neglected, a determination to speak up for yourself, and many other irresistible charms. You might ask, “How do I know this, as a first born child?” The answer is because I have spent pretty much my whole life in the company of a third born, namely my wonderful wife, Jean, who shares all of these qualities and many others with The Forum.  

The Forum is also my favorite because it is three that begins to make a bigger whole, and, therefore, now, for the first time, we will have a true sense of a new campus.

The Forum is also my favorite because it stands for something I cherish and believe in. Its name, its identity, and its functions within the University—as the forum—all connote the mind at work, freedom of thought and speech, dialogue and debate, listening and speaking. And, importantly, a forum also indicates the taking of decisions, the making of choices, and the commitment to action. The idea of a forum, of course, is connected to an ancient idea of a sacred space where the realization of a collective existence—a community, in the true sense—is manifest. All of this also makes this space the perfect home for the new Columbia World Projects, which embodies this spirit and seeks to fill out a larger purpose of the University to engage with the world.   

Finally, I love The Forum because it feels like a ship, and I have come in the second half of my life to belong to that community of people who love ships, which of course connects us to Renzo Piano and which, of course, is precisely what Renzo means for us to feel in this building. Honest to God, to be in the building is to feel as if it is moving. Renzo has said to me that the ship, meaning this building, is ready for navigation, and it is. 

Photo of Forum signage

So here we are. The Forum, as our very special third born, as the part that now makes all of the other pieces greater than the sum, as a sacred space of thought and the exchange of ideas leading to action, and as a ship set to sail, it is ready to take us even further into the mysteries of life. It brings us visually, actually, and metaphorically closer to the water, to the ocean, which is the great symbol of the puzzle of existence. In this, we follow the train of humanity, as described by our fellow Manhattanite Herman Melville. Our goal, he famously wrote, is always to get closer and closer to the water, or “the watery part of the world,” which represents the source of all these mysteries and puzzles. All of us, he declared, “cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean….” Look at Manhattan, he said, and he might well have said Manhattanville, “Right and left, the streets take you waterward.”  Everyone heads towards it. “There is magic in it,” he said.  “Meditation and water are wedded forever.” In water, we see the “image of the ungraspable phantom of life, and this is the key to it all.” 

So, with The Forum, this building, we lean further towards the water, and the key to it all. 

Over the years and decades ahead, Manhattanville will have many days like this one, marks in the ongoing creation of a great university. From the declaration of the dream in 2002, to the finalizing of the rezoning process and agreements with our neighbors, to the opening of the Jerome L. Greene Science Center and the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute where the study of mind anchors our self-reflection, to the opening of the Lenfest Center for the Arts and our creative and irrepressible School of the Arts as the gateway to the new campus, to this moment and beyond. Yet, certainly none will exceed in degree the depth of poignancy or importance of this little, new building, as it accelerates the noble lives of scholars, teachers, and students, and our relations with our neighbors. 

Manhattanville, and The Forum, together with all of Columbia University, makes it possible for us to be part of something larger than ourselves, which is what we always say, in the end, we want.